Issues arising from the revised English of the Roman Missal

The Issues Arising from the Revised English of the Roman Missal are the subject of issue 77 of JOINT LITURGICAL STUDIES (MAY 2013), edited by Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology, University of Nottingham. ( Some of the reaction to the new texts, whether from ordinary worshippers, journalists, theologians or English scholars, has been adverse. So at an early stage Fr. Thomas O’Loughlin, (a Dubliner) convened a study day organised by the Catholic Theological Society of Great Britain, with invited speakers, including both Roman Catholics and Anglicans, in Spring 2012. JLS 77 addresses the issues through the publication of a series of papers delivered on that day. ‘The Pastoral Review’ published them serially in late 2012 and early 2013.
There follows a flavour in the form of very brief extracts from most of the papers delivered on that study day.
Thomas Whelan, Associate Professor of Theology in the Milltown Institute talking of Liturgical Translation and Participation says:
“The capacity to speak English does not always imply the capacity to write good literary text, even less, to translate for public proclamation. The oral and aural qualities of language, which are intrinsic to liturgical prayer and its proclamation, were all but ignored. Probably one of the more serious lacunae in the new translation is that inner sense of language is not always respected.”
“Later on”, he says, “fidelity in translation to the words and syntactical structure of Latin . . . . does not respect the translation process. The inner sense of language is sometimes neither conveyed nor respected in the process.”
The translation needed to be done. The English language Roman Missal of 2011 is far from representing our best effort. It does have some wonderful moments, and its attempts at a new syntactic style are to be welcomed, but it also has a large number of awkward English constructions not native to the language, some bad grammar and not a few horrendous texts that make it challenging, to say the least, to speak publicly.”
In another paper Juliette Day, a lecturer in Theology in Helsinki University, says,
“Often in recent debates one discerns confusion between the complexity of language and the complexity of meaning which the language conveys. If the language is not immediately accessible, then worshippers, of whatever level of education and linguistic skill, will be required to unpack the sentence before unpacking the meaning, that is, they have to translate it just as if it were in a foreign language. This is not just a pastoral issue but also a theological one. Christ conveyed complex ideas, the meaning of which appears to be difficult to unravel as the mountain of New Testament scholarship attests, but did so using the images and language of everyday.”
Fr. Tom O’Loughlin writes:
“Christianity – alone among the new religions sweeping through the Roman Empire – did not develop an elaborate esoteric cult nor did it require an elaborate ceremonial apparatus – a fact that struck Pliny the Younger, c. 113, when he said that the gathering was simply a meal with some hymns. The sacrality of the Christian gathering was not in a special other worldly language, their liturgy took place at a table with ordinary food and ordinary language, and the sacrality was based in the understanding that all creation had been made holy through the incarnation.“
“Many religions have employed cultic languages because these conveyed the difference between the human world and that of the gods. The use of hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone, of Sanskrit in Indian religious texts, of Old Church Slavonic, classical Armenian and Latin in Christianity are all instances of this phenomenon.”
“If liturgy is not incarnational in its intrinsic logic, it’s grounding in human nature, and in the world it creates, it will be unworthy.”
In a lively and challenging paper by Patricia Rumsey, a Poor Clare nun and lecturer in Liturgy at Sarum College, Wiltshire, the focus is on the absence of women in the liturgy in the vocabulary and theology of liturgical prayer. It is a thought filled and positively provoking paper. The issue of inclusive language is just one of the many issues rightly provoking the justifiable criticism and righteous anger of many woman and men.
So much of her paper merits inclusion here were space to permit. Here follows one paragraph:
“Throughout the Christian centuries nearly all theologians have been men, also all confessors, spiritual writers and directors. The result of this overwhelmingly masculine influence on the spiritual lives of women has been to inculcate a masculine approach to and way of living out the life of the Spirit that has all but negated the experience of the women themselves. The result has been for male spiritual guides to inculcate in women the need to avoid specifically male failings such as aggressiveness, pride, homosexuality, disregard for hierarchical authority and similar vices. But they have not helped women to identify the failings to which their own natures make them more prone: pettiness, lack of self-esteem, envy, manipulation, fear and timidity.”
This is by Janet Rutherford, a liturgist from the Diocese of Meath and an honorary lecturer in the University of Nottingham.
Did Christ die for all humankind? This now altered phrase in the words of Consecration has upset me and many others.
I am no theologian; you read it and say/write what you feel and think.
John Ball, a Mill Hill Missionary (author of The New Translation and Mission) currently teaching sixth formers Philosophy of Religion in a North London Secondary school – has another perspective – especially in the area of language as a sign of conveyance of meaning.
“How do I, a chaplain in a twenty-first century, Catholic, London, secondary school, proclaim the gospel in such a manner that the pupils will find its relevance to their present day experience? Tracy points out that such a proclamation must be both adequate to the understanding and acceptance of the listener and at the same time appropriate to the Christian tradition.”
“Latin is given to subordinate clauses, English isn’t; and to use a multiplicity of clauses in English is simply to cloud the meaning.”
JLS 77 – Liturgical Language and Translation appears to me to be an honest critique and sincere evaluation of the new translation of the Missale Romanum.
In the above context I must finish with Tom O’Loughlin’s story and his subsequent comment on it. It could only be in the ‘Seen and Heard’ category of Dublin stories!
“During last year’s miserable spring, a friend teaching English as a foreign language in Dublin – note the location – told me this story. Seeking to encourage her students to converse with native speakers, she suggested they use the bad weather as an opening gambit to engage those sitting with them on the bus in conversation. The following day she enquired how they had got on. One student burst into tears saying that the Irish are too unfriendly, indeed too rude, to talk! The teacher asked what happened. The student had said to the man next to her on the bus “Aren’t we having awful weather?” He replied: “Don’t talk to me!” Here the conversation ended, and the student was so offended that she got off the bus and cried. Why are Dubliners so rude?
“In this story, in print, you have no guide to the tone used, where the emphasis fell, nor any hint about facial or bodily expression as the man said: ”Don’t talk to me!” But perhaps it is even more complex. If this learner of English had said what she did in London, the reply would have been,: “Tell me about it!” (to which the response is not ‘and which aspect should I tell you about?’). In fact, if for some reason one wished to record such a conversation in Latin, the response would be rendered by a single word: ‘etiam!’ (that is, if Latin still had a colloquial register). But the story illustrates a fundamental aspect of language: it belongs to the world in which we live, it belongs to our communication with one another in a community, it is rich in meanings quite apart from what can be conveyed in writing, and it is personal. The fact that the Dubliner said what he did shows that he was at ease in the conversation and (however bizarre it might seem to someone not from the banks of the Liffey) that he actually was willing to talk to the student. Language is, after all, our language: it belongs to those who use it and is as peculiar to them as any other aspect of their culture. In a world with global technology for communication, it is easy to forget that language has is origin in conversation and communication face to face.”
Fr. Eugene Kennedy, retired Parish Priest at Thomas the Apostle Parish Laurel Lodge, Dublin 15.

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  1. To all this one can add what looks like the pompous and dictatorial manner in which this new translation was introduced, indeed imposed. It seems it was imposed because it wasn’t declared to be optional or even recommended. Rather it was declared to be essential and not for discussion. It had exposed the head in the cloud attitude of bishops and other authorities. It has caused much heart searching on the part of those who think and automatic compliance by some who don’t. And indifference I expect on the part of many. The language of the text isn’t the only issue. The way it was introduced speaks volumes. That too is a message.

  2. John M, recall how the old Latin Mass was done away with, with zero consultation with laity after VII. That was a dreadful imposition, one we are still reeling from, not to mention the persecution of those whose only crime was an attachment to the Mass.

  3. This matter has wide spread implications. At the Colloquium “Remembering Vatican II- Some Anglican Perspectives” held in April 2013 the words of an Anglican theologian are worth noting. He stated “Regarding the revised Roman Mass, the decision to use more literal translations of the Latin rather than to continue to use ecumenically approved texts strikes many Anglican liturgical theologians as an expression of retrenchment rather than either ressourcement or rapprochement”. So,the process of cooperation between Christian Churches could be adversely affected. He then went on to say “It is also worth noting that one cannot easily separate the concerns of Anglican liturgists from those of the ecumenical community generally, including many Roman Catholic liturgists”.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    I attended a 1962 Mass recently and was dismayed to realize how impoverished the Mass of my childhood was. The celebrant mumbled inaudibly and gesticulated invisibly while the congregation remained plunged in silent rumination. I think what draws people to this is simply the silence — a time for meditation, not bothered by liturgical actions and words. The sermon dealt with the Jews, and stressed that the destruction of the Temple was a just punishment for their rejection of the Messiah. I realized the impossibility of referring to Vatican II’s teaching on Judaism in this context — the entire implicit message of the 1962 Mass is that Vatican II can and should be blotted from consciousness.

  5. Joe, comment 5, that’s scary. I hope it is not the future church we are sleep-walking into.
    Sometimes I am tempted to believe I should just keep quiet and accept things in the church just as they are, like everybody else seems to be doing, and then I read something like this and realise I have to try and say something, anything, even if it feels like an exercise in futility. And yeah, I think you are right about the silence thing. We have to find healthier ways of providing it.

  6. I grew up in the pre-VII era and was comfortable with the latin mass although not happy struggling to learn (memorize) the responses as an altar boy — no girls then. When it was made accessible to the congregations again very few wanted the return. However it was a compassionate use of the old liturgy for those who wanted it. We still have the use of the old latin liturgy in some places. That is wonderful, if sometimes difficult to provide, and often restricted to a single place.
    It should also be compassionate to provide the older version of the english, and the generous privilege of using varied language in many places.
    I find the new rite difficult. I would be wiling to have a vote by the congregation on which masses should be celebrated on sunday. Most places could accommodate both in some way.
    The imposition of the new missal with the attendant costs (certainly in the hundreds of millions of euros and dollars around the globe) was a disaster. Although the original VII translation was given out for study and for slow introduction, this new one was held back until the very time it was to be used. I remember seeing the new books, without any print inside. There was neither study nor education available for the laity and precious little for the clergy. The sheer weight of the books is a problem for most of today’s altar servers (especially the very young ones who weigh less that the book.) I fear that one of them will topple over and be killed by the book!

  7. Joe@5, thank you for sharing that with us. It puzzles me how some — well, I suppose, a few — yearn for the Mass of their childhood as if it was some glorious thing while the reality was that that model of Mass was quite impoverished, as you rightly say. I am also curious to know where you had experienced the 1962 Mass recently.
    Billob@, I agree with what you say. A very senior priest here in Scotland with whom I was discussing the imposition of the new liturgy a couple of years ago predicted that common sense would eventually prevail and the new flawed translation would get dumped, and the result would be that millions of pounds — and euros and dollars too — would have been squandered.

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