I. The Problem
Let me say first of all that I love the Ordinary Form Mass in the vernacular. But let’s be clear about something else, as well: the English translation of the Latin Mass is abysmal. That is, regardless of its merits as prayers, it’s objectively bad as a translation. What it says in Latin often isn’t what it says in English, and at times, what it means in Latin isn’t what it means in English. There are times when there’s virtually no way to meet both of those prongs (I’ll get to one later), but to fail to meet either of them is a sign of a poor translation. As one commentator expressed, the current translations “are the liturgical expressions of the Good News Bible. In the name of dynamic equivalence, metaphor, elegance, and accuracy are sacrificed for simplistic comprehensibility. “
This is true regardless of how beautiful the translated work is. To give one example: one of my favourite parts of the Mass is the last public prayer before the Eucharist. The priest raises the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist before us, and says, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” We respond, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” It’s absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, it’s also a bad translation. What the Latin actually says is, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
The meaning is (roughly) the same, and “receive You” has a certain elegant simplicity: we receive Christ in the Eucharist in both the sense of taking something form someone, and inviting Him into our hearts. “Enter under my roof” works, sort of, if you think about the roof of the mouth, but it’s just not as elegant. But the Latin text has one enormous advantage: it’s Biblical, namely Matthew 8:8. It’s what the centurion says to Christ. The Latin Mass uses this Biblical image as a sort of symbol of what the Eucharist is like: we’re inviting Jesus into our hearts, our lives, even to the point (as the Fathers put it) of being metabolized by Him, just as we metabolize earthly bread and wine. And we do so aware of our unworthiness and sinfulness, just like the centurion. The English translation of the Mass severs this Scriptural tie, which renders it both a bad translation of the Latin and (in my opinion) inferior, even though the words might be prettier in English.
There are two reasons that this is important. First, because there are often important Scriptural or theological reasons for the precise language used in the Latin. The Nicene Creed was important in that the Church was defining with no ifs, ands, or buts, that Catholics had to believe that Jesus was homoousios (consubstantial, of the same Being) and not homoioúsios (of similar Being) with the Father. This is a precise theological point: is Jesus the same God as God the Father, or a similar God to God the Father? A wrong answer here is polygamy, or a denial of the full Divinity of Christ (the idea that He’s of similar, but lesser, Divine “stuff,” as a demigod). The current Nicene translation we use says Jesus is “one in Being with the Father,” which is technically correct, but deceptively simple. Someone reading those words is less likely to realize that there’s a once-controversial theological statement being made here than someone reading the term “consubstantial.” “One in Being” is also a bit over-simplified. There’s nothing wrong with making the English translation accessible to the masses, but let’s not assume that they’re idiots.
Second, because we’re all part of the Latin Rite. The idea behind having a single Rite throughout the entire West is that any of us can go anywhere where the Mass is celebrated and be able to pray along with it, even if we don’t speak the same language as those around us in the pews. This was originally accomplished through the use of Latin, but as the public understanding of Latin became worse and worse, it’s been accomplished through the vernacular (local) language. But this only works if it’s an actual translation. If you’re praying a Spanish Hail Mary while I’m praying an English Our Father, we’re not praying together. Those aren’t the same prayer, and they don’t have the same meaning. In contrast, if I’m praying an English Hail Mary and you’re praying a Latin Ave Maria, we are. Pope Benedict has been quick to point out how far from this goal we are in the West: that there’s hardly a “Latin Rite” to speak of anymore, just a bunch of semi-rites, where an English Mass here and in California will look vaguely the same, and will have similar prayers (although there, it’s likely to have hand-holding during the Our Father, totally different rules on the appropriate posture in which to receive the Eucharist, and so on).
II. The Solution
After lots and lots of hand-wringing (and lots of pressure from the Vatican, including the Pope declaring he wouldn’t accept the current English-language Mass as valid if they persisted), ICEL – the International Commission on English in the Liturgy – have produced a better, far more accurate translation, and are working on fixing the music, too. I’m not going to lie: it is, in some ways, less beautiful in English, at least to my ears so far. But then, I’ve grown up with the English translation described above, so as technically imperfect as it is, it’s familiar. I’m pretty sure most of the hesitations I have with it will pass once I get more used to the “feel” of it. And I’m hopeful that this will be a great tool of evangelization and catechesis: that priests can use the opportunity to inform their parish what “consubstantial” means, and why it’s important we believe this about Christ; why we will now say “and with your spirit” to the priest operating in persona Christi; and what Matthew 8:8 means for our Eucharistic celebrations.
In my next post, I want to discuss a related phenomenon which I’ve found fascinating: the push by “progressives” to thwarts the success of these restorations, and the surprising backlash it’s received.