Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Liturgy: What is sacred language, and why have it?

First, a bit of background. The Ordinary Form of Mass is currently in its third edition, published in Latin in 2002. The English Missal is from the 1975 Latin Missal, the translation of which is from 1985. Its translation is not a great one, because in overusing dynamic translation from Latin to English, a lot of rich theological content was lost. (Not to mention there's some outright failure to translate properly at all.) Others have written about this problem before and it's not my intent to go over this matter right now. What I am defending in this post is the use of a "sacral" language (whether Latin or vernacular) in the liturgy.

There are complaints being raised about the proposed new translation because it contains words and phrases that are not in the common parlance -- "ineffable", "wrought", "the gibbet of the Cross", and "ancient bondage" (instead of "old way of life") -- and because the sentence structure is modeled after Latin (rather than English) structures. This means a prayer that was once translated as three distinct sentences would be a single sentence with three clauses. One bishop argued that the translation used "should be the prayer of the people", that there should be an "elevated tone" (as opposed to "street language") without being "beyond the common comprehension". He called parts of the translation "archaic" (what does that mean... like an ark?). A parishioner in his diocese said that words like "ineffable" are "not in my daily language", and that the translation used should be "something we feel comfortable with".

Now, contrary to this is the belief that a sacred language helps us participate in the Mass better, and that a vulgar (that is, common) language detracts from our participation in the Mass. The idea that Mass should "feel comfortable" to us worries me, because we are constantly called to conversion, to repentance, to strive to be holy as He is holy... not to be comfortable with where we are. Mass should feel different from the rest of our lives in the world.

I will argue my case as a series of counter-points to a list of points derived from comments to the John Allen NCR article about the translation voting.

"Dynamic Equivalent" for translation of liturgical texts is a better option.

"Dynamic equivalence" is a method of translating a text concept-for-concept, rather than word-for-word (as much as reasonable). A prime example is the Domine, non sum dignus that is said before the reception of Holy Communion. The Latin text comes from Matthew 8:8, and a literal translation is "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." Compare this to the dynamic translation the ICEL has provided us with: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word and I shall be healed." Biblical language was sacrificed, to what benefit? The replacement of "my soul" with "I" is also suspicious -- indeed, the word "soul" is scarce to be found in the English translation of the Missal, missing entirely from the Mass for All Souls.

Dynamic equivalence was encouraged by Comme le prévoit, a 1969 Instruction on creating vernacular translations of the impending 1969 Latin Missal. However, a more literal translation is now called for by the Church, thanks to Liturgiam Authenticam from 2001, which replaces Comme le prévoit. Why is a literal translation preferred to a dynamic one? I'll give two simple reasons, although there are many more (that are better than these).

First, it ensures that, despite praying in different languages, the people of the Church are praying the same thing. One thing that I value about the Catholic Church is its catholicity -- its universality. Theoretically speaking, Catholics in China, India, France, Brazil, and the USA are all praying the same thing. However, if you take dynamic translation too far, you can come up with completely new prayers. The English Missal has that problem right now, because in addition to translating the Latin Collect (the "opening prayer", but that's also a mistranslation) the English Missal provides an alternative prayer which is thematically based on the Latin, but a complete innovation. Thus, a priest in Kansas can be praying something that a priest in China will never pray.

Second, a "dynamic" translation is sometimes more static and rigid in interpretation than a literal one. What I mean is, dynamic translations are sometimes interpretations of the original and not just translations.

As an example, let's use the "ancient bondage" vs. "old way of life" example. Both are referring to our captivity to sin, but "ancient bondage" is a Scriptural reference not only to our bondage to sin but of Israel's bondage to Egypt, so it connects our salvation with the saving of the Israelites that God worked many millennia ago. Captivity to sin is not a "way of life" at all! On the contrary, it is an old way -- the oldest way, for sure -- of death. Using "old way of life" makes salvation sound like a career change; using "ancient bondage" impresses upon us the gravity of sin.

Another example is the translation of oblata ("offerings") as "gifts". The Oratio super oblata ("prayer over the offerings"), said by the priest at the very start of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is called the "prayer over the gifts" in the English translation. This is another failure to convey the whole meaning of the word oblata. To say "gift" makes it sound like a present we are giving God (or perhaps simply that they are gifts from God to us, end of story); to say "offering" provides both the sense of giving and the truly offertory purpose those gifts have: they are being offered to God that He, through His Spirit and the priesthood of His Son Jesus Christ, may deign to make them the Body and Blood of our Lord, and when He has done that, they are offered yet again to Him, as a holy and living sacrifice. Only then are they offered back to us as Holy Communion.

The ponderous style of language used in a previous age belongs in museums or ancient texts, not in living worship of our Loving Father.

What is wrong with "ponderous" language? Is there nothing to ponder anymore? Have all the mysteries been resolved and laid bare for us? Or could it be that our modern language fails to accurately convey the true majesty and glory and awe of the divine mysteries? The prayers of the Mass are also somewhat "ancient texts" (excluding those which were written expressly for the 1969 Missal), and the Bible is certainly an "ancient text", so why shouldn't they be prayed with the language proper to them?

And to say that the manner of expression of a previous age -- simply because it is older and not modern -- is unfit for the "living worship" God is to break a tie of communion with the Church throughout history; it is to sever ourselves from our heritage and to denigrate our fathers in faith.

The language used in the celebration of the Mass became discernible and allowed the laity to fully participate for the first time. Now, it appears that the American Church may well take a major step backward.

To claim that the vernacular was what "allowed the laity to fully participate for the first time" is utter balderdash. There was full, conscious, and active participation by the faithful throughout the centuries when Mass was said ad orientem in Latin. It is true that the Church sought to make achieving that participation easier by introducing the vernacular, although Vatican II did not imagine the removal of Latin from the Mass at all; in fact, She expressly desires that the faithful be able to chant much of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, as part of our full, conscious, and active participation. The revised translation will not be inaccessible; and if it does challenge some of us, we should meet that challenge with growth.

Rather than have people pray in their authentic language, the church would have them pray in a foreign highfalutin language that would be more "sacral." First, what's more sacral than real prayers in real language?

This dismisses sacral language as something not "authentic" and not "real" and even goes so far as to say that higher English is "foreign"! But a sacral language, one which addresses God in a manner not used for others, stresses the majesty and sovereignty of our Heavenly Father and reminds us how real His glory is: God is worthy of more than the ordinary. Re-reading the second part of this comment then as "what's more sacral than real prayers in ordinary language", my answer is: real prayers in extraordinary language. Language that is used specifically for the purpose of communing with God. Language that is not profane (profanus, "outside the temple") or vulgar (vulgatus, "common; conventional"), but is instead directed to the singular purpose of raising God above all else.

Mass is more than talking to God while wearing funny costumes (i.e. liturgical attire). The postures, attires, and words used at Mass need to be other. They need to draw us out of our everyday ordinary secular world and ensnare us in the glory of heaven as we hear angels singing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts!" (Which, I might add, we don't hear in the English Missal.)

Two-thirds of church-going Catholics don't endorse the Church's articulation of the Real Presence (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity). Estranging the people from the language of the Mass will not change this. Good, effective catechesis will.

Perhaps the language currently being used by the Church to articulate the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is lacking. When traditional hymns like Panis angelicus and Ave verum corpus are supplanted by "Christ has no body now but ours" and "You and I are the bread of life", is it any wonder that Catholics don't see the Eucharist as Jesus Christ present under the forms of bread and wine? Good catechesis on the Real Presence requires sensitive language, sacred language. If we use secular terminology like "plate" instead of "paten" and "cup" instead of "chalice", eventually we'll use the word "picnic" instead of "banquet".


Adrienne said...


japhy said...

Come on, adrienne. Tell us how you really feel!

Tim A. Troutman said...

Another excellent commentary. I posted on a similar topic a little while ago examining Latin as a veil in liturgy in the same way as the Temple curtain.