Since the new translations of the Mass are “official” today, I thought I might spend a little time explaining why the Church thought a fresh rendering was worth all the initial awkwardness.
There is a passage in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where one of the characters, Caroline Bingley, objects to formal dances because she finds them “irrational.” While at a Ball she remarks to her brother,
“I should like Balls infinitely better if they were carried on in a different manner … It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”
[Her brother]: “Much more rational, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a Ball.”
Caroline Bingley was, for once, at a loss for words.
The point of her brother’s answer, of course, is that it is rather irrational to limit ourselves strictly to our rational aspect. If we did, there would be no variety in human activities—no dancing, sports, poetry and feasting—just rows of people intently solving Sudoku puzzles. Caroline Bingley is correct that conversation would be more communicative, that is, better at getting across information; but she fails to note that the purpose of dances is to be expressive, to embody festivity, solemnity, courtesy. This is the true value of a Ball. Drawing a parallel to our present situation, we could say that the new Roman Missal attempts to strike a better balance between the values of communication and expressiveness–to make the Mass just a little more like a Ball.
When the first translations were produced, Mass in English was still very new and untested. What naturally excited people most was the idea that the Mass would finally be understandable. Consequently, the first attempts at translation tended to emphasize the aspect of communication above all else: the long Latin prayers were translated into shorter, easier-to-understand sentences, and images and constructions that sounded “clunky” or “foreign” to English ears were smoothed over. The result was a Mass that was more readily accessible, but less expressive and evocative.
What expressive qualities is the Church trying to recover? As I see it, there are three big ones:
- Universality: Part of the Mass’s expressive power is its universality—the fact that, in the back of our minds, we know that Catholics all around the world are praying the same way and with the same basic images. The new Roman Missal more literally renders the Latin, the base language of the Mass internationally, and thus strengthens the expression of universality.
- Biblical Transparency: Sometimes the “smoothing over” into everyday English obscured biblical allusions. The new translation tries to make these allusions plainer.
- Majesty and Sacredness: Many of the phrases that were originally thought to sound “foreign” to English ears emphasized God’s majesty and the sacredness of the liturgical actions. The new translations attempt to restore these emphases.
We can illustrate all three qualities—universality, biblical transparency, and majesty—with a single example: the change from “And also with you” to “And with your spirit.”
- The change makes the English way of praying the Mass more universal since it finally brings the English response into line with both Latin (Et cum spiritu tuo) and other modern languages (Y con tu espiritu; Und mit deinem Geiste; Et avec votre espirit).
- It makes the biblical basis of the greeting more transparent. When we say, “And with your spirit,” we echo the words St. Paul used in his letters to the Galatians, to the Philippians, to Timothy and to Philemon. When Paul prayed that the Lord be with their “spirit” (pneuma), he wasn’t simply using a casual idiom. This was a common expression in neither Greek nor Aramaic.
- This brings us to the question of majesty and sacredness. Why did Paul mean by this greeting? A well-known scholar (C. Spicq) observed that St. Paul uses “spirit” chiefly to designate the “spiritual part of man most closely united to God, the immediate object of actions and of divine influences…it is notably the receptacle of the Spirit of God.” By answering “And with your spirit” to the priest, we profess that the priest has been given a special spirit, that he has been opened up to become an instrument of the Holy Spirit in the Mass. When we respond “And with your spirit” at Mass, therefore, we affirm that, in order to offer the perfect prayer, we need the intervention of the Holy Spirit. This underscores our dependence of God (majesty) and the sacredness of the Mass.
The reason for most of the other changes falls into one of these three categories: Why have we restored “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”? Because the threefold repetition follows the Latin and other modern translations. Hence, t is more universal. Why do I now profess that I am unworthy that the Lord enter “under my roof”? Because it makes the biblical reference to the words of the faithful Centurion clear. Why do we (usually) say “chalice” now instead of “cup”? Because chalices are cups consecrated for worship. The word emphasizes the sacredness of the action. Other changes can be explained similarly.
The new translation will, of course, take a little getting used to. Using them now is a lot like learning the steps of a new dance. We have to be “on or toes” for a while, painfully deliberate about what we are doing. With time and practice, however, the steps become second nature. And then, God willing, it will be a little more like a Ball.