English at the Altar (Roman Missal VI)

Two points:

1. We recently discussed the Eucharistic Prayer. But of course the Roman Rite involves more.

The Rite involves all the sacred ceremonies and prayers used in church. The Missal directs the prayers and actions for the Mass.

2. I write to you, dear reader, because the third edition of the Roman Missal has been translated from Latin into English, and we will soon begin to use it (November 27).

The third edition of the Missal since Vatican Council II. As we know, the Council Fathers…

…ordered a thorough revision of the ceremonies of our Rite, in favor of simplicity.

…ordered that translations of the Missal be made into other languages, and that such translations be used not just for private spiritual reading, but indeed by the priest at the altar.

Forgive me, but I must point out: The idea, “We used to have Mass in Latin, and now we have it in English,” arises from an overly simplified version of history.

At one time, priests in Rome prayed at the altar in Greek, and people spoke Latin in the streets. Many centuries of Mass-saying passed in which the languages spoken in the streets did not have words for many of the ideas expressed in the celebration of a Mass.

And many good Catholics, even today, do not know how to speak English. Blessed Pope John Paul II was not exactly a whiz-kid with English. When I had the privilege of meeting him, along with a group of 14 other seminarians, he said to us, “Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ!” At least, that is what I thought he said. Some of the other guys thought he said, “Pray your rosaries!”

God may or may not speak Latin to His closest friends. But the language of the Roman Catholic Church, the language of our books, of our common heritage, the sacred repository of our ideas—which sometimes can be expressed in other languages and sometimes can’t—Latin.

For a very long time, Latin served to unify the Western world. Now the lingua franca of the world-wide web is English.

We Anglophones do indeed have an excellent language—acquisitive, devilishly subtle, frankly imperial. Our language has the ambition to comprehend our actions both outside and inside church. We, the English-speaking people of the Church of Christ, believe that we can approach the altar and speak our street language as we undertake to give God His due.

A cheeky aspiration. History bears witness to the unusualness of our lingual pride. The annals of religion abound with examples of nations and peoples who did not attempt to give God His due in their own street language; they used sacred languages from long-dead ancestors instead. The Lord Jesus Himself, when He was on earth, often prayed in a ‘dead’ sacred language.

But look: Our cheeky aspiration to speak at the altar with the language we learned at our mothers’ knees—we can pull it off. We English-speakers can distinguish ourselves as a people “extremely religious in every way,” as St. Paul called the Athenians (Acts 17:22). We can, and we will, do it.

But let us not naively expect it to be easy. Our aspiration to pray the Mass in English presents us with a tall mountain to climb. The translation we have known for a generation did not bring us to the summit. It brought us to the base-camp. A steep ascent rises in front of us. The rigors of the climb will be well-rewarded, once we reach the next plateau.

If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities. (Liturgiam authenticam 27)

3 thoughts on “English at the Altar (Roman Missal VI)

  1. Father Mark,

    The problem that I have with the English translation of the Bible is the number of times that I have had to learn, anew, what the English “really” means in light of Biblical research into the Dead Sea Scrolls, or simply into the Greek translation of the Bible.

    If interpretation of scripture is absolute, and if the meaning is other than that which the English words can speak succinctly, then more words are needed, or new words are needed (a specialty language). The best (or, at least, best known, from the Lectionary, not the Missal) example might be, “Peter, do you love me?” I’d suggest “lust, love, agape” for the three loves (of which the Biblical passage uses two); but any triad would do. Succinctness might preclude; but “unconditional love” might suffice as well for the third member of the triad.

    So, I eagerly await the new translation of the Missal; but I’d really appreciate a new translation of the Bible that removes the “acquisitive, devilishly subtle, frankly imperial” aspects, and allows meaning to come through, at least on a linguistic level. A companion with the settings, history, and cultural aspects might be a worthy addition (similar to the companion for the Catechism).



  2. I Corinthians 13:1
    If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

    No matter how closely we translate the Latin into English, it’s LOVE that gives meaning to what we are saying. God’s language is a matter of the heart.

  3. And…I don’t believe that if in October I respond, “and also with you” and in November I respond with “and with your spirit” – I will have gone from the base camp to another plateau closer to the summit. Are we not already seated with Christ in heavenly places? If I truly desire that the Lord be with my priest, then either phrase will do. But if I’m hoping that my priest contract some nasty disease because he’s such an SOB, then how close I get to the Latin really doesn’t matter, does it?

    I’m not against using a better translation, but I don’t think we should turn it into something it isn’t.

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