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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Lost in Translation

How the New Mass Translation Will Affect You

by John Burger

The old joke goes something like this: The pastor couldn't get his early Sunday morning congregation to respond when he noticed that the PA system was on the blink. "The Lord be with you," he said several times, only to be greeted with blank stares from the parishioners in the big suburban church. "There's something wrong with this microphone," he said, and his remark crackled through the speakers as a loose wire suddenly connected. "And also with you," came the dutiful if somewhat perfunctory reply.

The PA system isn't the only thing wrong with the way the Mass is coming across. The Holy See recognized this and, in response, published Liturgiam authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy), a new set of norms and principles for translating the liturgy into the vernacular. The instruction aims to fix less-than-inspiring Mass translations by requiring that they be more faithful to the Latin text promulgated by Rome.

Depending on how the bishops' conferences of the United States and other Anglophone countries implement Liturgiam authenticam, Catholics may be hearing some radical changes at Mass — changes that could wake up a Church that has in many ways been lulled to sleep by mundane language.

What We've Lost

Issued May 7, 2001, by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), the 35-page document was the cause of much joy among Catholics who are frustrated with the translations produced by the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the agency employed by the bishops' conferences of eleven English-speaking countries. Many of these critics have been dreaming of a day when "high Church" language would be restored to the liturgy, a language like that used in the translations found in pre-Vatican II missals.

But the new instruction has occasioned grousing from progressives who insist that the Mass be in a contemporary language and that any gender-related references not ignore the reality of women in the Church and the world.

Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, a member and former chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), the standing committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that oversees all matters relating to liturgy, told Catholic News Service that the new norms are "confining and not realistic in terms of present standards used by translators."

"The way we pray should be the way we speak to God in an ordinary way," he says. Nathan Mitchell, associate research director at the Center for Pastoral Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, complains, "Jesus did not say, 'I come to bring you authentic liturgy.' He said, 'I come to bring you life.' It's time for us to return to the things that matter — people and their lives."

Mitchell, addressing a conference in June 2001 at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, a center of the progressive liturgical movement for many years, said that wars over the liturgy and translations are "really a debate about aesthetics" and are "peripheral to the heart of the gospel."

But several experts have insisted that much more is at stake — namely, the faith itself. Lex orandi, lex credendi, they point out: The way we pray affects the way we believe.

The Roman rite is a "treasure" that "has to be translated correctly," says Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky, director of CREDO, a society of priests dedicated to faithful translation of the Mass. Father Pokorsky co-founded the group in 1992 in reaction to what he and others regarded as the poor translations being produced by the ICEL. CREDO limits membership to clergy, but the organization has a roster of 2,000 priests.

If the Mass is not translated correctly, essentials will be lost, and the liturgy will be used as a means to deliver "popular ideologies" such as feminism and "pop psychologisms," Father Pokorsky says.

Susan Reilly, the U.S. delegate to the International Center for Liturgical Studies (CIEL), agrees. She points to a recent survey the group conducted showing that only 30 percent of Catholic Americans believe in the real presence. What was frightening, she says, is the much lower percentage of belief for those under 40 — the generations who have grown up since the Second Vatican Council. The survey shows a corresponding drop in belief as age decreases. "Most people attend the Novus ordo Mass, so it's important" that the translation be accurate, she says.

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Part 2: A Change of Mood

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