Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B: Explaining the Roman Missal

November 26, 2011


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. Read the rest of this entry »

We believe. And so do I.

September 6, 2011

Among the sundry tasks with which my new assignment presents me is overseeing the transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in the parishes of the Rosebud Reservation.  The transition here promises to be rather smoother than in other places, at least in part because the people here do not seem to have as many ideological hang-ups as their sibling Christians in certain other locales.  And many, particularly elders, already have experience praying in another language—Lakota—which gives them intuition into the reasons behind the change.  As a lay cantor who participated in a workshop on the new translations explained to me a few weeks ago, “Lakota is a very spiritual language, and we understand that when we translate into English something gets lost.”  The new translations are simply an attempt—imperfect, like all human endeavors—to recover a bit of what has been lost.

Among the complaints I’ve heard about the new translations from other sources is the objection that changing the Creed’s “We believe” to “I believe” diminishes the communal nature of the Mass.  In some ways this is a strange objection, since the Creed’s first line is one instance in which the 1973 translation simply gets the Latin wrong, something obvious to anyone celebrating Mass in another of the major modern languages, which correctly translate “Credo” into the first person singular.  Given that the 1973 English version is the outlier in this instance, there’s something self-defeating in defending a supposedly more communal word that in fact puts a distance between English speakers and the rest of the international Church.

Read the rest of this entry »

Melville, Hemingway, and new Mass translations

May 31, 2010

Last month the Holy See gave final approval to a revised English translation of the Roman Missal, a long process not without its share of comedy, tragedy, and controversy.  I, for one, am enthusiastic about the change, even while recognizing that change often takes a bit of effort to get used to.

The new translations have come in for a bit of criticism on the web and elsewhere, including a rather odd online petition drive.  The criticism mostly stems from the fact that the new translations, which hew more closely to the Latin original than the translations now in use, employ a vocabulary and syntax that is likely to sound a bit foreign to most contemporary English-speakers.

The desire for the words used at Mass to be comprehensible to most people is straightforward and laudable, but simple comprehension is not the only quality we should expect in our worship language.  In fact, sometimes it’s desirable for language to sound unusual and, yes, even foreign.  To help me make this point, let me call on two old friends from my days as an undergraduate English major:  Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway. Read the rest of this entry »