Monday, January 30, 2017

Re-assessing Liturgiam Authenticam and English at Mass

How I welcome the news that Pope Francis has formed a commission to re-assess Liturgiam Authenticam, the instruction issued in 2001 by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

It was this directive which caused translators to change from using the so-called “:dynamic equivalence” in translating to  the so-called “formal equivalence.”

In effect dynamic equivalence is the effort to translate into terms and expressions which convey the intent and meaning of the original language. Formal equivalence is translation of the words and grammatical structure of the original., even if the result be somewhat awkward.

To use a home-spun (some may say “extreme”) example, imagine how best to translate from English into German the expression, “The old man kicked the bucket.”  If I render it “Der alte Mann trat den Eimer,” will the German-speaking person understand what the English expression intends? It would be clearer, less likely to be misinterpreted, if I translate it simply as “Der alte Mann starb”--the old man died.

Liturgiam Authenticam instructed translators, “While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet.”

While the Vatican Congregation which issued the document included many wise instructions and appropriate cautions, and did insist on the responsibility of local Episcopal Conferences to oversee the translation work, the Congregation nevertheless insisted that the translation be submitted to the Vatican for approval before the translation could be printed and authorized for use.

In 2011 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the new translation of the Mass (labeled “the third typical edition”) as “The Roman Missal.” Most Catholics will recall some of the changes, such as,  “And with your spirit” instead of “And with you.” Or “…begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father” replacing “begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.”

Some (not all) priests have struggled with the new translation. Some of the presidential prayers (collect, prayer over the offerings, prayer after communion) are convoluted, awkward, tongue-twisting, and a challenge to interpretation.

The structure of the Latin language differs from that of English, especially to the ear of US citizens. The collect for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time challenges interpretation: “Almighty ever-living God, whom, taught by the Holy Spirit, we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection in our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters, that we may merit to enter into the inheritance which you have promised. Through our Lord…”

That modifying clause “taught by the Holy Spirit” logically (theologically) refers to “we,” but in this sentence construction sounds as if it is attached to “whom” who it turns out is "God.”

Another common complaint is the frequent and rather gratuitous use of the word “merit.” Good theology suggests that we can do nothing to “merit” God’s inheritance. The Letter to the Ephesians (2:8-9) clarifies, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”

Many priests who studied Latin and remember the days of the Latin Mass have confirmed that it was easier to understand the Latin than it is to understand the English as it is translated according to the mode of formal equivalence.

ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the committee set up in 1963 by English-speaking Episcopal conferences to translate liturgical texts of the Roman rite) prepared a new translation of the Roman Missal in 1998, but the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship rejected the new version, likely in part because they already had plans in progress for Liturgiam Authenticam, which was published in 2001.

Pope Francis’ call for a commission to re-assess Liturgiam Authenticam and the probability that responsibility for translations will be more fully restored to Episcopal Conferences provide hope that the Roman Missal as we know it will be revised and the translations of our prayers will come more from our culture and our hearts than from a slavish word-for-word rendering of a foreign text.

Little has been revealed about the new commission, but Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, is reported to be the commission president. Roche is an English-speaking prelate, a former president of ICEL,  and is thought by many to be more open to such a re-assessment of Liturgiam Authenticam than perhaps Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation.

The decision to re-visit the translation and Liturgiam Authenticam does not imply the document had no value. It does reflect, however, Pope Francis’ recognition of the need to respect the responsibility and authority of  Episcopal Conferences.

Of course, there will be backlash. Some have already warned that the words said over the chalice of Jesus’ blood “which will be poured out for you and for many” must not be rendered (as previously) “for you and for all.” They said that “for all” causes confusion. It might be said that “for many” is far more confusing. Did Jesus shed his blood for all or for a restricted many? A truly formal equivalent translation of the phrase should be “for the many,” an expression which means “for everyone.”

I welcome the news and the new commission. Now we must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Though it will be years before the work of the commission is implemented, we see some light at the end of an otherwise dark tunnel. If  lex orandi, lex credendi (“how we pray displays what we believe”) is a valid theological, liturgical, dogmatic principle, then we will have taken a decisive step in saying what we believe and believing what we say.