Thursday, June 21, 2007

Learned liturgists can also learn a thing or two from faithful Catholic lay people

A critique of the English translation from the Spanish vernacular Mass.

Folks, as my better known colleague, Carl Olson of Ignatius' Press Insight Scoop reports, distinguished Catholic authors George Weigel and Amy Welborn have taken strong exception at remarks made by Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in an article published in America magazine, titled How Accessible Are the New Mass Translations?

Pope John Paul the Great elevates the Body of Christ at MassI wish to summarize the dispute as follows: Bishop Trautman believes that restoring majesty to the English translation of the Roman Missal should not be done at the expense of intelligibility for "John and Mary Catholic" in the pew. Weigel and Welborn, on the other hand, point out that "John and Mary Catholic" aren't "morons," that "John and Mary Catholic" are educated enough to understand these words.

The vernacular Mass in English hasn't been revised even once since its inception in the early 1970's. Other vernacular versions have seen various revisions and they've all have tended to restore an elevated, more majestic use of vernacular language in the Liturgy. The current English Mass lags behind all the others in this respect.

I grew up with the Spanish vernacular Mass. When I came to attend Mass exclusively in English, I began noticing the differences: et cum spiritu tuo, rendered in English as "and also with you" was kept at y con tu espíritu in Spanish. People understood that there's a deeper reality in each one of us where sanctifying grace dwells along with that Peace the Lord gives each of us. We are compound unities of soul and body. This is a truth we have forgotten and, what better time to do this than at Mass? The English translation made a spiritual greeting into a colloquial one where peace remains at a mere surface level.

Or, my other favorite objection: the Spanish translation of the Latin Mortem tua annuntiàmus, Dòmine, et tuam resurrectiònem confitèmur, donec vènias said after mysterium fidei ("let us proclaim the mystery of faith" said after Consecration) is closer in meaning to the Latin and more dynamic than the drab "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," which is merely declarative, lacking the aesthetics necessary to convey the fact that we proclaim this mystery of faith because we we believe it. In Spanish, mysterium fidei becomes este es el sacramento de nuestra fe ("this is the sacrament of our faith) which is indicative: what has transpired in the consecration is pointed out as the sacrament of our faith. In English, it becomes an invitation to proclaim the mystery; in Spanish we are invited to contemplate the mystery, in English the statement is turned into an invitation to say "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," effectively changing the focus from contemplation to a proclamation that is mistranslated to begin with.

I will be the first one to admit that I lack formal training in liturgics. But I do have formal theological studies and, praised be the Lord, I also can follow an argument. I also can compare and contrast and find myself at a loss to explain the divergence in meaning between the Spanish and the English translations of the Mass. I also can tell that with the drift in language and meaning in the English vernacular there has also been a drift in theological meaning and emphases from the original Latin.

I humbly suggest that it is high time to restore the connection between the Mass in the English vernacular and the Latin. I disagree with Bishop Trautman's main argument that elevating the vernacular language of the Mass will lead to a loss of meaning and therefore the new revision would not be "pastoral." Mass in the vernacular was never meant to be Mass in the vulgar tongue, even less in modern idiomatic English deemed as "correct" by academic technocrats.

The nature and object of the Mass would seem to preclude the shallow, chatty, 1970's English that has been forced into the Liturgy. Furthermore, I respectfully point out that it is the job of liturgists, catechists, and pastors to form and educate the faithful regarding the need for majesty in liturgical language, the connection and continuity with the Latin original, and to help the faithful elucidate the meaning of difficult words and terms. In other words, the faithful need to rise to the liturgical action in the vernacular; the liturgical language should not be dumbed-down for the faithful by a faux appeal to pastoral expediency.

I agree with Olson, Weigel, and Welborn. Bishop Trautman appears to think that most of us are "liturgical morons," as Olson well puts it. Bishop Trautman urges us to "Speak up, speak up!" I accept his invitation and venture to say this: the Church is not led by "learned" societies of liturgical and biblical technocrats—I don't want us to end like the Episcopal Church although, ironically, the English language of Anglican liturgies is superior to our own. Well, that's a subject for another post.

What I fear is that handing over the process to ivory-towered theologians and liturgists will result in a further decay in the quality of the language of the Mass in English and a continued semantic and theological drift from the original Latin. I think that when the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated that “Texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify. Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively and as it befits a community,” the Fathers didn't necessarily imply that liturgical and theological meanings were to be subordinated to easy understandings brought about by pedestrian word constructions whenever possible, for "pastoral reasons."

Clearly, ease of reading should serve original meaning and not the other way around. Those of us who seek a better, more majestic English vernacular Mass want to restore the primacy of meaning and of tradition over easy, happy-sappy, colloquial renderings of the Liturgy. So I want to speak up and add my voice and respond to Bishop Trautman's call, not to concurr, but to respectfully disagree with the good Bishop of Erie's liturgical agenda in form and in substance.

- Read also Universal Indult Blog: Not much to blog about...