The Roman Missal – a crisis?  
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William Slavick

The Roman Missal – a crisis?

Erasure of Vatican II extends to new Missal — affecting 400 Million! 

The three foremost developments in the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council committed it to engage the modern world are the largest exodus in 2000 years for lack of such engagement, the sex abuse scandal's betrayal of children, and the relentless Vatican campaign to erase the Council. By 1997 this infidelity to Vatican II had led dozens of European theologians to judge the Vatican in schism in its rejection of collegiality: the Holy Spirit speaks to only one person.

Emblematic of this rejection of the highest Church authority was the Congregation of Divine Worship's (CDW) presumption to delay approval of the English-speaking Bishops' Conferences' excellent new Missal translation (International Commission on English in the Liturgy), 15 years in the making (available at ), to replace the hurried 1973 post-Council translations, and then, in 2001, to reject it. These translations had been approved in 1998 by all eleven English-speaking conferences, exercising authority the Council granted solely to the bishops' conferences, by a 99.9 per cent Council vote. The CDW's role was to check adherence to procedures.

The Council's liturgical constitution calls for translations of "noble simplicity . . . short, clear (sentences) . . .within the people's powers of comprehension," that lead to "full conscious, and active participation in the liturgical celebrations" by "all the faithful." The norms had emerged from over 50 years of liturgical scholarship.

The CDW's Liturgiam Authenticam (LA) dumped Council norms and abandoned the universal use of dynamic equivalence in quality translation. For English prayers it required literal word for word translations from the New Latin Vulgate, even to grammar, syntax, punctuation, and capitalization, and through sacred vocabulary to evoke transcendence and mystery. One moment's Latin vernacular translation, falsely claimed to have been endorsed by the Council of Trent (which occurred before it), with its now archaic sexist language, should now be the sole basis for 21st century translations in all languages!

The CDW then claimed right of approval of an all-new team of translators to work in secrecy and called an end to decades of ecumenical collaboration to produce common texts. Notre Dame theologian-historian-chant scholar Peter Jeffery calls LA "the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation." 

The norms promised failure. Secrecy limited consultation; the substitute team lacked expertise. The result is a big step backward. The texts occasioned 10,000 proposed amendments and a new Vatican review group, Vox Clara, continued to make numerous changes even after bishops' conferences, if reluctantly and under pressure, had given approval. Glaring errors remain — sentence fragments, redundancies, a cue treated as a prayer. The first Eucharistic prayer ends with "we offer you firstly" without a "secondly." Profusis, meaning "overflowing," is translated as "overcome," beclouding a joyous scene.

Style failures abound. One Eucharistic prayer sentence has 82 words. One Easter Vigil prayer cannot be readily understood. "When supper was ended, he took the cup" becomes "He took the precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands," three needless adjectives too many. Is anything gained by saying "incarnate of the Virgin Mary" and "begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father" that warrants sacrifice of clarity and availability to all? Bishop Donald Trautmann, a former U.S. ICEL chair, views "consubstantial," "chalice," "born ineffably of the inviolate Virgin," etc., as reducing understanding rather than bringing Catholics closer to God. Apparently, no one remembered that these texts are to be heard, not read.
Ideology deep-sixed, this fine 1997 Collect for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time: "Almighty and eternal God, Whose bounty is greater than we deserve or desire, pour out upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive the things that weigh upon our consciences. And enrich us with blessings for which our prayers dare not hope." All new ICEL prayers were discarded.

Why a wooden loyalty to a single undistinguished Latin translation at the price of clarity and intelligibility? Liturgists see traditionalist resistance to clear, simple prose in liturgy; hostility to inclusive language, and an imperious rejection of Council collegiality. Forget prayability and those for whom English is a second language, accented speakers, and children.

Bishop Arthur Serratelli, current US Bishops' CDW chair, identifies dissatisfaction with these translations as rising from contemporary individualism which rejects institutional authority in favor of freedom-do-it-yourself liturgical originality, creativity. and diversity. But innovative excesses and efforts to curb them have not been associated with the 1997 translations nor these. Complaints have focused on the illicit imposition of translations at odds with spoken English prayer.

Writing in the July 15 Commonweal, Rita Ferrone sees the thrust of the CDW and Liturgiam Authenticam as the basis for disapproval. Vatican II reforms "that invited aggiornamento and engagement with the world" are sacrificed for a "liturgy reimagined as an event taking place in some sacral space outside of our world, rather than the beating heart of a world made new." The shadows of John Paul II, who extended the old Latin rite over near-unanimous episcopal objection, and Prof Joseph Ratzinger, who faulted lack of doctrinal precision in the first vernacular translations, figure in answering why. When Anthony Ruff, a conservative Benedictine liturgy scholar realized that an unsatisfactory translation was being imposed in violation of the English-speaking bishops' authority and tempered his promotion, he was dismissed. He now observes that when he thinks of that process and "then of Our Lord's teachings on service and love and unity. ... I weep."

The Irish Association of Catholic Priests reject the translation as "archaic, elitist, and obscure, and not in keeping with the natural rhythm, cadence, and syntax of the English language," a style so convoluted "that it will be difficult to read the prayers in public." LA actually declares linguistic norms detrimental to the Church's mission!

Others fault abandonment of the first principle of effective translation into English, to use Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words whenever possible and the straitjacket of literal translation in obscuring meaning. The most criticized literal Vatican translation, "Christ died for many," illustrates; the Latin "the many" is a nuanced way to say "all"!

Prof. Jeffery faults the apparently unqualified translators as "not familiar with the treatment of Greek and Semitic words in the Latin scriptures and liturgies," "unacquainted with the history of the Credo and the Kyrie," "use Aquinas as a source of proof texts without regard for what he was actually saying," "do not understand the relationship between the New Vulgate and the traditional Vulgate," "seem unaware of the other Latin Bible texts used in the Roman tradition," and "show no sign of ever having read any patristic exegesis" etc. "The tradition is bursting with vitality," he observes, "LA is rigid with prohibitions." "Why would anyone choose the thorns over the roses?" he asks.

New First Sunday of Advent Collect

1997 Opening Prayer

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
Through the Lord Jesus Christ your Son . . .

Almighty God,
strengthen the resolve of your faithful people
to prepare for the coming of your Christ
by works of justice and mercy,
so that when we go forth to meet him
he may call us to sit at his right hand
And possess the kingdom of heaven.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ.

New Postcommunion

1997 Postcommunion

May those mysteries, O Lord,
in which we have participated,
profit us, we pray
for even now, as we walk amid passing things,
you teach us by them to love the things of heaven
And hold fast to what endures.
Through Christ our Lord

Grant that in our journey through this passing world
we may learn from these mysteries
to cherish even now the things of heaven
and cling to the treasures that never pass away.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, the Lord

The new translation offers some felicities. Ferrone notes the response, "It is right and just," at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is crisp, easily understood, and avoids the present sexist pronoun. "From the rising of the sun to its setting" is restored in Eucharistic Prayer 3. The prayer before Communion harks again to the Latin "I am not worthy to have you under my roof" but using the Latin subjunctive — "that you should enter under my roof" strips meaning and poetry.

The Vatican-directed translations will be introduced on the first Sunday of Advent following promotion as a "precious gift" that "delves more deeply into the mystery of Christ" and better reflects the faith (without explaining how). Extensive promotions, from the USCCB to parish bulletins ignore the excellent 1997 translations scuttled by the Vatican and hijacking of translations authority. They compare only the hurried 1973 and present translations; ignore serious inadequacies and wide disapproval, and some lob off these translations as if the licit 1997 ones or claim them they further Council objectives they reject. Neither do they mention near uniform reports from the premature South Africa use of the translations that reveal "opposition bordering on outrage," leading to calls to reconsider use elsewhere and pleas for letters to bishops.

When Cardinal Francis George bullied ICEL to change its norms "or be finished" (Archbishop Denis Hurley chided him for being uncollegial), the fix was in, the bishops' powers soon taken. Now, Rome claims a right to make its own translations.

Fortunately, the heavy Vatican hand has, so far, fallen only on some 400 million English-speaking Catholics.

William H. Slavick

A retired English professor, Bill Slavick studied liturgy under scholars who contributed to the Second Vatican Council liturgical constitution and at St. Bernard Abbey. He recently attended a seminar with Anthony Ruff, OSB, on the Missal translations.

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