Friday, August 20, 2010

New Mass Texts begin Advent, 2011

I read on Father Zuhlsdorf's enjoyable "What does the prayer really say?" blog that Cardinal George has made it official--the newly translated English texts of the Mass will begin being used with Advent, 2011.

As you may recall, some time back I began preparing a question-and-answer sheet on this subject; but it has been awhile since I posted anything. So, in honor of this good news, I'll post some more of what I worked up.

I'd be especially grateful for comments that help me improve these; and if you have a question you would like to have an answer for, I'll see what I can do.

3. Why did Pope John Paul II think it better to stay closer to the Latin texts?

We might see three values at work: “transparency,” “humility” and “dignity.”

A. Transparency. To translate is to interpret; what we hope for is that the one translating—when s/he chooses words and phrases—won’t overdo it. But this is the key problem; the looser the translation, the more subjective judgment the translator is applying. While you can’t eliminate it entirely, a stricter translation tends to minimize it.

Here’s an example: the newly translated Creed will use “consubstantial” to describe the unique—and hard to express—relationship between the Father and the Son. What we currently say is, “one in being.”

While the ideas seem similar, and “one in being” seems easier, that’s deceptive. This is a very subtle point about who God is, as a Trinity. The very fact that “one in being” uses such common words can “fool” us into misunderstanding the teaching its meant to convey. On the other hand, a less familiar term, consubstantial, by its very nature forces us to stop and ask, what does that mean? It’s unique word used to describe a unique reality. In a sense, you could say it’s better to admit we don’t understand it fully, than it is to think we do, and actually misunderstand.

Here’s part of a Vatican explanation of this: “The Instruction repeats the call of earlier papal documents for an approach to the translation of liturgical texts that sees it not so much a work of creative inventiveness as one of fidelity and exactness…” (Accessed online at:

Another example, again from old and new translations of the Creed:

“We believe in one God…” (how we currently begin the Creed) vs. “I believe in one God…” (what we will be saying in the new translation).

The Latin text is completely clear: it begins “Credo”—which is “I believe.” So why was it ever translated as “we believe”?

Maybe the translators were thinking more of how people are professing these words together—“we”; or they may have looked at the parallel Greek text (also adopted at the Council of Nicea, AD 325), which did say “we.” Whatever their reason, changing “I” to “we” makes a judgment—that “we” is “better”; but in fact, the actual text says “credo”: “I.”

Instead of changing it to something we think is “better,” shouldn’t we take the text as it is, and learn from that? I.e., however many people are saying this Creed, it’s my profession of faith—I have to make it my own: credo.

By translating the text more in line with the original, that keeps the questions or puzzles more “on the surface”—so we can wrestle with them ourselves, rather than their being “solved” for us. That is a more transparent way to do it, allowing the original texts and ideas to “shine through” more.

B. Humility. The full richness and meaning contained in the Mass is not merely its words or ideas; the Mass as a whole is like a work of art; like a painting, or a composition, it forms a unity and we are very careful about picking it apart. In all humility, we truly understand the liturgy less than we realize; that includes priests and bishops, even the pope has said the same.

The Mass isn’t the product of some committee somewhere; it’s ultimately the work of Christ himself, working through his Church; its comes to us as a collective result of thousands of years of use as our highest prayer. So—while it’s not utterly untouchable or unchangeable, the words, “handle with care” apply here!

So when we hear expressions in the Mass—now translated with greater clarity—and we wonder, why did they do that? Before we say, “I don’t like it,” we might want to ponder, why did they say that? How did this become part of the Mass?

Related to this is something many miss—respect for the reforms of Vatican II.

The Latin texts, being translated, while ancient, have already been subject to revision and “updating” by the Second Vatican Council and those individuals Pope Paul VI authorized, just after the Council, to implement the Council’s vision. It was their task to revise the texts and wording of the prayers. The text they produced was translated in 1970, and has now been translated anew.

Now, folks both “left” and “right” have raised concerns about the texts of the Mass that emerged from the Council. Like it or not, the Council chose not to “fix” those “problems” as critics would have wanted them to.

For example: many are troubled that the words for consecrating the wine at Mass will be translated “for many” rather than “for all.” But their issues isn’t with the translation, but with the Latin text that emerged after the Council, approved by Pope Paul VI. The Council could have changed the words, pro multis—“for many” to pro omnes—“for all”—but they did not. They had excellent reason not to—because that reflects what Scripture says. But in any case, that was their job—not the job of a translator. Once again, should our English translation “protect” us from wrestling with the questions raised by this decision? (This will be addressed further, below.)

C. Dignity. Again, here’s what the Vatican said, explaining its approach to translating texts:

The vocabulary chosen for liturgical translation must be at one and the same time easily comprehensible to ordinary people and also expressive of the dignity and oratorical rhythm of the original: a language of praise and worship which fosters reverence and gratitude in the face of God’s glory.

The language of these texts is, therefore, not intended primarily as an expression of the inner dispositions of the faithful but rather of God's revealed word and his continual dialogue with his people in history.

Again, some are saying they like a really plain style of English. Certainly that has value. But stop and consider that we all know times when we use very informal English, and other times we expect to have more formal or stylized language. When we celebrate ritual or special occasions, we tend to expect—and benefit from—more formal gestures and language. It serves to highlight the dignity and specialness of what we are doing.


Anonymous said...

I am confused, and I guess from your explanation I am supposed to be. I am not supposed to understand the relationship of the trinity so I will now refer to it with a word that I don't understand? I'm not sure that's what you meant to say, Father, but that is what I am reading. So what does consubstantial mean?
A parishioner

Anonymous said...

Dear Father Fox

Thank you for posting about the new translation. I hope you will continue to update us with the more accurate changes. I think previews help people get ready for the big day. Perhaps you might consider posting some of the prayers with the changes in full.

As they say: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi.

Please remember me in your prayers I will remember you in mine.
God bless you!

Fr Martin Fox said...

A parishioner:

Great question! This was one section I was working on, and I intended to write another section just on "consubstantial."

This item at wikipedia isn't bad:

Also, the Catholic Encyclopedia at this address:

Although that will be a much longer article. (For some reason, I can't access it just now, but I think it's a good address.)

Now, the best way I can explain "consubstantial" is to say that it is meant to express a profound, complete unity between the Father and the Son, having the same nature or reality. This was translated "one in being" in the outgoing translation, and that's not bad, but it's subject to misunderstanding, because it doesn't necessarily convey the idea of the fullest unity. At least, that is how those who carried out the translation saw the matter.

Finally, the point I was trying to make about "understanding" is that the mystery of God's inner life is way beyond us. How can anyone say s/he understands God's inner life? I'm not saying we can't know anything about God; I'm saying that who he is, and what he is--and particularly the relationship of the Three Persons, who are nonetheless one God--is beyond our comprehension.

So I don't think it's such a terrible thing to have a word in the Creed that expresses some of that.