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What is wrong – and right – with the new translation of the Mass

2011 September 16
by Paul Vallely

They’ve made it worse, said my 11-year-old, of the new translation of the Mass when we left church on Sunday. The Vatican will doubtless be unimpressed by the verdict of a child. But it is instructive, for the Eucharist is there for the theologically unformed as much, if not more, than for the obscurantist powerbrokers of the Curia.

The new translation set out to deepen understanding of the liturgy and elevate its tone. The demotic trendiness of the Sixties had rendered the language of the Mass banal, uninspiring and lacking dignity, the argument went.

Undoubtedly some bits of the new version are better. Flow has been restored to the language of Collects previously filled with snappy short sentences. “From east to west” lacks the poetry of the new “from the rising of the sun to its setting”. Behold is better than “this is”. The language of the living room is not always apt for exalted subjects. The Book of Common Prayer shows that.

But other parts are clumsy, wooden, sexist and archaic – in a rather arch cod-Hollywood way. The “cup” elevated by the carpenter from Nazareth has been gilded into a “chalice”.  The simple eloquence of “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the Word and I shall be healed” has been replaced with a clunky reference to the centurion’s phrase “under my roof” which used to make us think of hosts cleaving to the top of our mouths as schoolboys.

“One with the Father” has been replaced with “consubstantial” which enthusiasts justify by insisting it offers clarity to any would-be Arians (not many of those in my parish). If they wanted to be really clear on that – or aimed to up the hocus-pocus factor – they should have gone back to the original Greek homoousios. But “one with” did perfectly well for my 11-year-old.

There is much talk of echoing the original Latin. Original? So far as we know Jesus never spoke a word of Latin. His tongue was Aramaic. The Old Testament is in Hebrew, and the new in Greek. The much-vaunted Tridentine Latin Mass came only after the Reformation.

But there are more problems than mere style. In the Creed “we believe” has been replaced by “I believe” which summons up a fractured Post-Enlightenment individualism which Pope Benedict elsewhere reminds us is a key problem in modern secular relativism. At the consecration Christ’s blood is no longer shed “for all” but “for many”. Christ died for all, but not everyone chooses to be saved, is the theological gloss. But the semiotics suggest exclusivity.

“And also with you” has reverted to the transliteration from the original Latin “and with your spirit”. Cynics have suggested this is because, in a Church so dogged with sex scandals, separating a cleric’s bodily and spiritual functions may rebuff tarnished reputations. It certainly separates priest from the people and elevates ordination above baptism. So does the priest saying “my sacrifice and yours” where previously he said “our”.

Apologists talk of recapturing the mysterium tremendum. But it also reasserts the authoritarian clericalism which was the cause of so many of the old problems. The behind the scenes power-plays during the translation process only underscore the idea that Pope Benedict is intent on rowing back on the Second Vatican Council’s vision of a collegial Church – and of a liturgy in which the people fully participate.

There was no sermon on Sunday, only a letter from the bishop announcing the restoration of the ban on eating meat on Fridays as a “weekly witness to our Catholic life and identity”.  It all smacks of the identity politics of tribalism, greater exclusivity and the preference of a smaller purer holy remnant of a church which once looked out to universality. They have made it worse. They have indeed.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. judith permalink
    September 24, 2011

    Thank you Paul for succinctly summing up exactly how I feel.
    I feel a huge sense of loss and sadness with what has been imposed on us by men who are out of touch with the realities of living the messiness of authentic life and who seem to have lost sight of the humanity of Jesus.
    I’m torn between leaving for the sake of my sanity or staying in solidarity with the so many good, holy and life giving people who I have encountered since joining the church nearly 30 years ago. I really don’t know what to do.

  2. October 2, 2011

    If in doubt, stay! It’s your church as much as theirs. PV

  3. October 3, 2011

    There is much talk of echoing the original Latin. Original? So far as we know Jesus never spoke a word of Latin. His tongue was Aramaic. The Old Testament is in Hebrew, and the new in Greek. The much-vaunted Tridentine Latin Mass came only after the Reformation.

    1) Yes, the “original Latin”, referring at least to the Collects, the Prayers over the Offerings, the Prefaces, the Eucharistic Prayers, and the Post-Communion Prayers.

    2) Jesus may very well have spoken Latin to Pontius Pilate, and Latin was one of the languages used in the inscription on the cross. But the Mass does not purport to be comprised simply of the words of Jesus recorded in Scripture. (And as for things Jesus said, He is reported to have said “for many” at the Last Supper.)

    3) The Latin Mass at least a millennium older than the Council of Trent.

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