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A Striking Contrast

Three additional thoughts in what is already a rich, although very depressing, discussion about the new English translation of the Roman missal.First, I have read, very carefully, the many examples quoted in MWO'Reilly's post below, of prayers from the new translation. I have declaimed them in my mind, extending the pauses as necessary and emphasizing words to make the meaning clear and even give some power and beauty to overall Latinate construction.I think it can be done. I think Bob Imbelli will be able to do it. So will any other presider with a very good voice, unusual reading and speaking talent, and perhaps a Shakespearean sense of rhythm. And how many of these are there in most of our parishes for most of our Masses? I am old enough to remember the way most priests handled the Latin of yore. It was atrocious.Second, I have read the Anthony Esolen's article about the new translation at the First Things website, which someone who likes the translation recommended in an earlier thread on this topic. Esolen's article is based on a simple premise: If the first post-Vatican II translation was bad, the new one must be good. But decades ago there was a very broad consensus that the first translation was seriously wanting. The bishops and ICEL were hard at work on a new translation that captured much of what the first one had lost and was motivated by at least many of the concerns Esolen reflects. The effort was suddenly ripped out of their hands. Any fair comparison has to compare examples of their effort to those of the new translation.Finally, what is very striking about Esolens article is the contrast between his own genuinely English prose and the Latinized English of the prayers. His prose: short sentences, varied rhythms, colorful and vernacular vocabulary. His explanations of the prayers are forcefull and accessible. The prayers themselves are at best ok; they certainly need those explanations. I am not proposing Esolens prose as a model for the Mass. But the contrast is telling.

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David Smith:I studied Latin for four years in high school and am old enough to have attended thousands of Latin masses (including every school day for eight years in grade school). I would not claim to have "learned Latin," and I'm not being modest. Unless someone is truly extraordinary, learning Latin to the extent that one would get as much or more from the Latin in the Roman Missal than from a good translation is not something that can be done in a few months. Its your church, your religion, your community, perhaps the most important thing in your life. Its the language that ties you to a billion other Catholics throughout the world. Why should a Jewish child learn some Hebrew? Latin is not to a Catholic what Hebrew is to a Jew. I consider the time I spent on Latin to have been largely wasted. (Also, although I went to a Catholic high school, the Latin courses I took there were not religiously oriented.) If I could swap what little knowledge of Latin is in my head for Biblical Greek (or Hebrew), I would do it in a second. I would much rather be able to read the Gospels in their original language than to read the Roman Missal.

Apples and oranges, David. Fluency wouldn't be the goal - just familiarity. Then, you would have a link that's been lost in the past half century, both to the reference language and to the community of Catholics throughout the world. I doubt there are classes now geared toward this, but they'd be easy to put together.

David Smith,What you are proposing sounds very much like what was the norm when I was in school. You memorized a fair amount of Latin, you knew what the Latin in the mass meant, but you really didn't learn the language. It's similar to the kind of thing I do now as a fan of Italian opera who doesn't speak Italian.

"Teneste la promessa la disfida Ebbe luogo! il barone fu ferito,Pero' migliora Alfredo E' in stranio suolo;il vostro sacrifizioIo stesso gli ho svelato;Egli a voi tornera' pel suo perdono;Io pur verro' Curatevi meritateUn avvenir migliore. -Giorgio Germont".E' tardi!

I can tell you what that means, but would never claim to have learned Italian. I certainly couldn't paraphrase it in Italian. You learn to associate the English you know with key words in the language you don't know. You could say, "Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sancta." But if you "translated" it, you would just be saying what you had been taught it meant. It's fine for following along, but it doesn't give you any insight into the text.

@David Smith (11/26, 1:02 pm) To pick up on your "apples and oranges" comment, one way to separate "apples" from "oranges", religiously speaking, is to distinguish between those religions which consider the originating language to be of some central importance, and those religions that do not.In that method of sorting, Judaism (Hebrew), Greek Orthodox Christianity (Greek) and Islam (Arabic) would all be "apples". Roman Catholic Christianity would, it seems to me, be an "orange", as would Protestant and Pentecostal Christianity, and Buddhism. (Comparative religion scholars, please feel free to correct me.)There are lots of lovely things about Latin, but it is no more a sacred language than English, Spanish, Igbo, or any number of other languages.

About "sacred languages" --ISTM that there is one sense of the term which is quite valuable. If a language, including gestures, are reserved for worship only, then this very fact reflects belief in a deity which is believed to be the most special reality there is. For instance, if I kneel when addressing the deity and *only* when addressing the deity, then that gesture has a much more powerful meaning than if I also kneel when addressing the king or other high muck-a-mucks. So, if I use a special language which is reserved for the deity, then that speech has a value that ordinary speech does not..I'm not in favor the of Latin Mass, but I think we should recognize that those who want such a "sacred language", one which is reserved for the Mass (i.e., Latin), do have a point. And when Latin was eliminated we did lose something of value -- speaking that special language for that special purpose. If nothing else, just using the language reminded us of where we were and what we were there for. Did the use of the vernacular compensate for that loss? I think it did, easily. That can be argued, but I don't think there is any good reason to deny that a sacred language can have a certain value.

@Ann Olivier (11/26, 3:03 pm) Good point. Thank-you.

Thanks, Luke.Let me add that for the reason given above, when the new English Mass eliminated some of the kneeling it thereby lost the very special significance of that gesture. When I hear folks say that *standing* is a mark of greatest respect all I can think is, Oh no it isn't! Because in our culture kneeling is reserved for God kneeling is THE mark of greatest respect because we kneel only before God. It is the most special gesture towards the most special reality.So kneeling should be returned to the vocabulary of the Mass at least at all three of its essential moments -- Offertory, Consecration and after Communion.

"Its the language that ties you to a billion other Catholics throughout the world. "Dumb me. All along I thought I was tied to umpteen Catholics (and other Christians) throughout the world by my faith in Jesus Christ Who, to my knowledge, didn't pray in Latin.Somehow, being tied to billions of live people via a dead language doesn't quite get me up in the morning and out of bed. And I doubt that it would with this group of people (you know, that age demographic that we seem to have lost these days): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/25/us/ikon-christian-community-in-san-fra..., then, ife is full of surprises and the essentiality of the Latin linkage is just one more.

One of the limpest and lamest moments in the new Eucharistic Prayers is where "stand in your presence" becomes "are in your presence", flatly mistranslating the Latin in response to Cardinal Pell's monition that "stand" would send the wrong message to a congregation who are supposed to be kneeling.

I don't recall that the laity ever received any instruction in liturgical Latin. The idea that they have lost some precious link to Latin is a bit odd. The analogy with La Traviata is about right -- like most opera-goers in pre-surtitle days they only had a very generic idea of what was being said at the altar. A few tried to follow with the English translation in their massbooks, but most said the rosary or other prayers, as far as I recollect. Even altar boys were not taught the meaning of the responses they memorized. All of this is part of the hermeticism with which clerical Catholicism surrounded sacred things. Few Catholics had ever held an English Bible in their hands until after Vatican II. For many centuries the Church even forbad vernacular translations of the Bible.

Ann,The problem is that Latin and kneeling were not Church-only until about 100 years ago. Latin was commonly used in academia, or at least learned as part of higher education. Kneeling was a feudal gesture used by vassals and slaves that no longer carries the same significance in egalitarian societies. While there may be some truth to your point, it is an utterly novel position, more modern than the modernists.

Jim McK --True, some Catholics were educated to know Latin in previous generations, but the vast majority of Catholics didn't know it. As to kneeling, in feudal times it had a very specific meaning, a sign of acquiescence/acceptance of the vassal's relationship to his lord, though in other cultures it also signified lord-servant/slave relationships. As for my generation, we were taught that kneeling at Mass is a sign that we accept the fact of God's infinite superiority and goodness and our dependence on HIm, but unlike the feudal meaning it was an act of gratitude. I'm quite surprised that you think this is a strange notion. I'm sure this meaning goes back at least a goodly number of generations. We knelt before God to freely recognize and acknowledge that He is our infinitely perfect God and we are His creatures. And it is my understanding that this meaning, at least approximately, has been retained by the Protestants too. No, of course, kneeling before God is not an egalitarian gesture. It is meant to be exactly the opposite of egalitarian. If you have lost that old meaning, then all I can say is, what a pity, to put it mildly.Here's a story that was a favorite of the nuns. There was an atheist who said to his Catholic friend, "If I truly believed there was an infinite God present on that altar, I would crawl to it on my hands and knees". I wouldn't be surprised if others here were told it.

I recall as Fr. O'Leary does. While the priest was occupied with Latin on the altar, people said rosaries, read pamphlets, prayed privately, meditated with eyes open or closed, and tended little ones. Some could go from "Introibo ad altare Dei" to "Ite missa est" without knowing the meaning of a sentence in between; early computers could do the same. One veteran of the change recalled that, for the first time, she felt like a participant but not because of the language change; she faced the priest through Mass instead of staring at his back. She remained in favor even after watching one priest come down from the altar to correct a youngster's behavior. The celebrant was evidently unaware of what went on behind him normally every week. That raises the question of how many clergy who warmly recall the days before Vatican II actually know what commonly went on in the pews.) Neither the missal nor its language had much unifying effect beyond symbolism in my recollection. Although fluent in Latin at the time, I chose the language in my bones when it was time for serious prayer.

I met a serious life-long Catholic at a diocesan formation event a few weeks ago and in the course of small group sharing, she told me this rather stunning story of Catholic liturgical practice in New Jersey before the Council.The parish tradition was that the 8th grade girls led the congregation in the Rosary during Mass.Me: Wait. Out loud? You prayed the Rosary out loud as a group during Mass? I always thought that people prayed the Rosary by themselves and quietly.Her: Oh yes. The priest did his thing. Since no one understood what he was saying, we all prayed the Rosary together out loud. Since I was the only 8th grade girl who attended Mass on a daily basis, I ended up leading it.Me, incredulous: The congregation prayed the Rosary OUT LOUD while the priest was celebrating Mass in Latin? Really? Yup. By the way, this woman was very happy as a Catholic before the Council but also said she would never want to go back. I have to admit that this was a first, even for me, and Ive listened to hundreds of people talk about their experience of being Catholic before the Council.

I am not looking forward to tomorrow morning. I think Alan Mitchell is right to see the imposition of this new text as a powerplay by the Pope's men in Rome. And it has been painful in the weeks leading up to the debut of the new translation to see so many clergy who should (and one suspects, do) know better, doing hard a sell on this ill-crafted and unfairly imposed text. Over in Verdicts Rita Ferrone comments on a new book on "Clerical Culture" that notes the unfortunate phenomenon of clerical-- and lay-- "winking" at their fellows' willingness to put "forward false reasons for decisions that are made, even when they are known to be false." That such behavior is so common as to seem almost "normal" in the Church these days, is an appalling state of affairs.

Claire Mathieu has a brilliant comment at praytellblog.com, and it has the ring of sickening truth: "The ultimate goal of Liturgiam Authenticam is not to promote good translations but to curb the power of bishops conferences."

The backlash has begun in the new postings at Fr Ryan's website: http://www.whatifwejustsaidwait.org/readcomments.htm

Fr. O'Leary, did Pell really say that? How insulting.

Susan Gannon -- Much of the "winking" becomes less surprising if you think of "mental reservation" embedded in the state of culture noted in Rita Ferrone's review. It is a concept through which one can speak and obtain the benefits of lying, deceiving the listener, without technically committing a Catholic sin of lying. Skillfully used, it can elevate ambiguity to a virtue. The ordinary notion of telling the truth, or expecting Cardinals, etc. to do so, becomes more complicated. The truth will free you, but only if you can find it. It was brought up in the Irish Murphy Report on abuse and widely noted in Ireland. Cathleen Kaveny addressed it in Commonweal, Jan 15, 2010: "Truth or Consequences". The Catholic Encyclopedia (www.newadvent.com) describes it with a 1911 Nihil Obstat. Wikipedia gives a 2011 view. A CNS report in NCR describes the issue as raised by Cardinal Connell and the Murphy Report: http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/dublin-abuse-report-asks-when-l...

A thematic in today';s NYt is the problem of loss of honesty in discourse.I thought that Frank Bruni's last paragraph sent out the clation warning on this, though the issue was the political sphere.But the issue is applicable in matters Church too,Siusan hit the nail on the head!.While BXVi can be telling the Americam Bishops how wonderful they implement the new liturgical changes and how the new evangelization will help our youth see the beauty of faith with great clarity, we are moving toward more dvide and drift.

Ann,Do you really think vassals did not feel gratitude? You were taught in an egalitarian society, where the kneeling had already lost some of its significance, so the nuns were trying to put it back. That effort failed, and the gesture has lost much of its significance.What is novel is treating the gesture as unused anywhere other than in Church, not kneeling as expressing inferiority. If Cathloics valued sacral language and gestures, we would never have used kneeling or Latin. Sacral language is not our tradition, universality is.

I went to a Roman Liturgy today. I think the thing which shocked me the most, the things which hit me the most, was the Nicene Creed. While some of it is like the Byzantine translation, it really just didn't flow.. the Byzantine new translation works much, much better:http://www.metropolitancantorinstitute.org/recordings/DivineLiturgies/04...

Jim McK --No doubt some did feel gratitude for the protection the lord provided or was supposed to provide. And no doubt there were some good lords who earned respect, noblesse oblige and all that. But I can't see how that even approaches what kneeling before God signifies, namely recognition of God's infinite goodness which transcends the things of this Earth. Yes, it's the idea that God's transcendence is unique and so it occasions a unique sign. You and some others seem to get so worked up about this gesture I can't help but ask: why? Is it simply that you never learned its meaning so it has no value for you? Or what?The gesture *used to be* used in other contexts. In the West it has been restricted to its religious significance, unless you want to count kneeling when you're knighted by Queen Elizabeth, but I daresay most people aren't aware of that fact.You assume that sacral language and universality are antithetical. They are not necessarily. Just look at the fact that many of my generation combined them.

After mass today, we were discussing the changes and someone summed up what it meant to her:"With your many spirits - but not all!"

Ann,When something is described as reserved for worship only I feel comfortable treating it as the antithesis of universal. I do not know what you mean when you claim you combine universality and being reserved for worship only.I have no problems with kneeling. I have a problem with presenting it as "reserved for worship only", when it once was used for other purposes. It is because the gesture has become obsolete outside of religious contexts that it appears to be reserved for worship. Latin came into the liturgy because Christians used vernaculars. Kneeling came into the liturgy because kneeling was used in contemporary secular situations. This is the Catholic tradition of embracing whatever is good from the world around us. "Sacral language" is the opposite of that tradition. And it is not that there is anything wrong with that, just that it is a modern development, a rupture from our tradition.

JIm -- How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?Answer: Change? Change??

I find it absolutely incredible that people are talking about leaving the Church over this translation, as in some of the comments linked to above. The pendulum swung over to dynamic equivalence, and it has swung back to perhaps an overemphasis on word-by-word correspondence. Perhaps. How does that become a reason to leave the Church??

It seems to me one's attitude towards the Latin really depends on what one thinks of history and the liturgy. Latin was the language of liturgy for a good chunk of the history of a good chunk of Catholicism, to say the least. Should that matter? I would think so. Should it make Latin the be-all and end-all? Certainly not. But liturgy does have a history, and even in civic ceremony we see that the English language has a history, in which the relationship to Latin is important. So one need not be anti-Vatican II or anti-vernacular to see it as legitimate to have the Roman rite take its cue from the Latin, as a common focal point for the many vernaculars in which the liturgy is celebrated. If you think the point of Vatican II was to eliminate the evil curse of the Latin language, I suppose your perspective will be different.

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.