Symposium explores use of language in new Roman Missal
The language used in the new translation of the Mass has evoked a variety of responses, from highly enthusiastic to deeply distressed, and can be seen as both a gift and a challenge, according to speakers at a symposium April 16 at Jesuit-run Fordham University.
The program, "Letting Us Pray: A Symposium on Language in Liturgy," explored the intricacies of the new English translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal, in use in parishes since last November.
A thorough appreciation of the new translation requires a firm grounding "both in the Gospel and in the history and tradition of Catholic worship, not some nostalgic, colorized version of the past" according to keynote speaker Mercy Sister Julia Upton, provost and professor of theology at St. John's University.
Sister Julia said the new language could jolt people into a "second naivete," where old sacred symbols become newly accessible, without sacrificing either the symbol's integrity or the believer's modernity.
"What has been called the 'new' Roman Missal is not new! It is the same Mass, but it sounds different," Sister Julia said. "This third edition of the Roman Missal was published in Latin in 2002 and took almost 10 years to translate."
Announced by Pope John Paul II in 2000, the missal is the book of prayers used in the worship in the Latin-rite church. The English translation was a lengthy and rigorous process that took place through the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. It was approved in sections by the various bishops' conferences. It received final approval from the U.S. bishops in November 2009.
The tension associated with the implementation of the revised translation can lead to new thinking and dialogue if worshippers remain open and hopeful, Sister Julia said. "There is a lot for all of us to learn in this process."
She said the new language is more poetic, closer to the original Latin and includes more biblical allusions that "people will understand now in a way they never would have before the (Second Vatican) Council opened up the sacred Scriptures for us."
Joel Hoffman, a translator and liturgical language consultant, distinguished between scientific and liturgical translations. Scientific translations are more accurate, but liturgical translations better serve the needs of the worshippers, he said.
He characterized the new missal as a mediocre translation, "not written in the vernacular, despite what people think. People working deeply in this field tend to speak their own internal language," he said.
Hoffman said liturgical translations are used because people are familiar with the language, even if it is not in common use, such as "Hosanna in the Highest." Sometimes translation reflects "a preference for what we'd like it to say," such as the Fifth Commandment forbidding either killing or murder.
He said liturgical translation sometimes equates to "a blank slate of incoherence," where the words may not make literal sense to the worshipper, particularly if they are prayed in a different language, but the tone and cadence suggest that the supplicant's prayer is being heard.
Father Matthew Ernest, a member of the Roman Missal Committee of the Archdiocese of New York, said the goal of the new translation is "to encourage full, active participation in the liturgy." He said it uses "sacral vernacular", which is clear, dignified and doctrinally precise.
Jesuit Father Thomas Scirghi, associate professor of theology at Fordham University, said he is trying to be patient with the new missal. He acknowledged that the previous translation was a rushed version that posed problems and needed revision, but asked, "Is the current translation the improvement we need at this time?"
Father Scirghi said, "Liturgy is a school for the emotions. The language of liturgy is less about words than about shaping people as a community."
Ideally, a translation should be easy to understand and still preserve the beauty and dignity of the text, he said.
Father Scirghi said, "The new translation is a good catechetical tool, but I'm not ready to call it a gift." On a positive note, he said, "It forces us to think about liturgy and gets us out of the routine recitation of the prayers."
Sister Upton said response to the new translation mirrors a generational divide. People who experienced the Second Vatican Council are more apprehensive about it than students, who appreciate the opportunity to be "in on the ground floor" of something new, she said.
The symposium was moderated by Felician Sister Judith M. Kubicki, associate professor of theology at Fordham and held at the university's Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.