Implementing the New English Translation of the Mass
The Missal with the New English Translation of the Mass has arrived and now we have the task of implementing it. The Missal, impressive in its presentation, will be the standard text for the whole English speaking world from Advent 2011. Since the implementation of the parts of the mass in 2009 there have been many who have asked serious questions about this translation – for the most part questions which seem to have been ignored. Some voices have claimed that it is a minority who are negative about this new translation; I would be hesitant to agree that it is a minority. To judge by the English-speaking Catholic media, it is very far from a minority.
Anyway, it’s now a fait accompli and we are left with the task of implementing it. I took some time to page through the new book and read some of the Collects (what was previously called “Opening Prayer” has been renamed “Collect”). We had seen copies of the Eucharistic Prayers before publication but not all the Collects were readily available. I was impressed with the missal and its presentation but could not help feeling downcast as I read some of the prayers we will soon hear publically proclaimed in all their awkwardness. I began to reflect on this whole saga again and it strikes me that the implementation does not mean that we should suddenly become uncritical of what we have been given. Most people will probably find this translation awkward to begin with, but will soon be able to say it off by rote, like the previous translation. No doubt, before long, a certain accommodation will set in with this new translation and it will be business as usual; people will automatically respond and some priests will continue to ad lib as they did before. Time will tell if this new translation does actually make a qualitative difference in our worship as some seem to suggest.
The difficulties, however, cannot and should not be swept aside simply because we are now implementing it. This translation has been discussed in the Catholic media for a while now; there has been robust debate on websites and blogs about a number of things including the poor quality of English syntax – inelegant constructions and compound sentences, archaic language and poor theology. The new translation is an attempt to translate the Latin literally into English – most linguists would argue that this is an impossible task and ends in a less than satisfactory result. It’s much easier for Romance languages to imitate Latin – yet even the French deviates significantly from the literal. There has also been considerable debate about the divisions this translation will cause in the wider Christian church; the new translation means we are now out of sync with other Christian Churches who use the Nicene Creed. On a practical level we might also question the immense expense of the introduction of the new translation, in a world (and a church) where money is tight. We seem to have strange priorities in the Church which suggest we are not in touch.
Like many other priests with unanswered questions and unacknowledged frustrations, I must now implement the new translation. We have been told unequivocally that we must implement this and we shall obey. Others, I know, will happily implement it. It would not be appropriate for any of us to use the liturgy on a Sunday as a means to an end or, at worst, a weapon and so we commit to implementing the translation as we have been told. It is also our duty and obligation as our first priority to care for the people we serve. I, like others, am well aware that a spirit of service means that we try to avoid confusing people or disadvantaging them. That, however, doesn’t make the task any easier or less frustrating given that this seems to be such a missed opportunity: we could have produced new texts that would really have captured what we are about in celebrating the Eucharist. ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) did, after all, produce beautiful texts, carefully crafted to root us in the Scriptures of the day. Some people claim that ICEL admitted “rushing” the 1973 translation and therefore saw the need for a new translation. They, therefore, set about doing this and produced the beautiful translation in 1998, which we were never allowed to use. It is hard for priests when it seems that the change in translation policy (dynamic equivalence to formal equivalence) was driven by those with political agenda, rather than the pastoral needs of the People of God. It’s also not easy when you read about other actions which are being taken – like the withdrawing of the chalice from the people in some Dioceses or ban on girl servers. I cannot help but think that we are entering into an era of liturgical rigidity which carries with it the myth that suddenly we are going to plunge to new depths of understanding and encounter with God. Some writers have suggested that it will recapture the sense and feeling of mystery they think has been lost in the liturgy. Is liturgy meant to be about mystery and feeling alone? Surely it should mould us into being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ above and before all else?
A number of “pastoral goods” have been spelt out for us in the process of implementation. We have been told that we must not only teach people to say new words but also lead them, as any good leader would do, to a new understanding of the gift of the Eucharist. It would be my hope that whether we had a new translation or not we would always strive to lead people to deeper understanding of the Eucharist and to live lives of deep faith and integrity. There is another important pastoral good which will also reveal the integrity of our leadership: the ability to evaluate the new translation critically and honestly as we use it. Long may the debate continue, and long may priests be willing to be open-minded in their evaluation of the real pastoral value of the revised translation.