By FATHER THEODORE BOOK, SLL, Commentary | Published August 3, 2006
At a quiet meeting in California, the American bishops recently made what may be the most important decision of this generation—at least, in regard to the experience of Catholics “in the pews.” The bishops approved new translations for the ordinary of the Mass—the prayers heard in church every Sunday.
The Latin originals the bishops worked with have a history going back almost to the beginning of the church, when they emerged from the worship of the first Christians. The earliest Christian worship was conducted in Aramaic or Greek, and few details of this are included in the Bible.
The Didache, written about the year 100, contains some of the earliest Mass texts, and a beautiful description of the Mass was written by St. Justin Martyr before his death in 165. In Chapter 67 of his Apology, he wrote:
“On the day called Sunday, all those who dwell in the city or the country gather together in the assembly and the memorials of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. Then, when the lector has finished, the presider admonishes and exhorts those present to the imitation of these great teachings. We all rise and lift up prayers. Once these are finished, as we have already described, bread, wine and water are brought. The presider in the same way, and according to the power that he possesses, raises prayers, pronounces the thanksgiving, and the people acclaim, saying ‘Amen.’”
By the late third century, however, many Christians no longer spoke the Greek of the Didache and of St. Justin. First in North Africa, and then in Rome, the Scriptures were translated into Latin, and worship began to be conducted in Latin, as well. As Christianity became the common religion of the Roman world, these Latin texts of the Mass were copied and spread.
Eventually, definitive versions of these prayers were assembled in the seventh-century Gregorian Sacramentary (named after Pope Gregory the Great). While some additions and developments happened as the times changed, this text, which evolved during the third through the seventh centuries, came to be seen as an authoritative tradition received from the early Church.
Thus, even as Latin moved from being a universal language to a language understood only by the educated, the same classical prayers were used everywhere in the world.
The Latin prayers of the Mass were beautiful compositions and gave a wonderful example of continuity with the early Church and unity across the boundaries of nations and cultures, but as Latin became less and less understood, it became necessary to translate those prayers into the modern languages spoken today.
At the Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962, the need for this change was obvious. When all of the bishops of the world gathered in Rome, one of their first acts was to promote the reform of the liturgy. They gave directions that parts of the Mass should be made available in local languages, as well as in Latin, so that they would be more accessible to people everywhere.
The words that Catholics have been accustomed to hearing and speaking for some 35 years were the first complete translation of the Mass into English.
For the most part, those working on the first translation of the Mass relied on a theory that was popular at the time, known as “dynamic equivalence.” That method sought to isolate the idea or message of a text, and then write a text in the new language with the same idea, without being strictly bound to the wording or tone.
In time, however, some of the weaknesses of the translations began to be apparent. Translating with dynamic equivalence had resulted in prayers that were straightforward and direct but lacked much of the solemnity and beauty of the originals. The content had been translated, but the tone had not.
In the year 2001, the Vatican issued a call to reexamine the question of translation. The instruction Liturgiam Authenticam raised the question of what liturgical translations ought to do. Translating the prayers of the Mass is a much more difficult task than translating a business document or a novel because the new translation needs not only to convey all of the richness of the original but also needs to be a text that raises the mind and heart to God when prayed at Mass. The translation needs to be both faithful to the original and truly a prayer in English.
The Vatican document noted both of these needs, stressing that the new prayers should echo the rhythms and sounds of the Latin originals, together with their meaning, and at the same time use the sort of words and pace that have always been used to pray in English—the sort of speech used in the Our Father. Thus, these words can connect us with the long centuries when the Church raised her voice to God exclusively in Latin, and at the same time be fully a part of the English language spoken today.
The new translations are beautiful, and it will be a process to become as familiar with them as Catholics are with the current ones.
As an example of the changes, the familiar Latin phrase in the Confiteor at the beginning of Mass: “Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” which is currently translated as (I have sinned) “through my own fault,” will now be translated “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The new prayer is closer to the original, and better expresses the attitude of a repentant sinner before a merciful God.
The new texts will give Catholics a rare opportunity, as well. When we first take up the new language it will sound strange on our lips—the words will be unfamiliar. What better chance could there be to stop and really consider what we are saying, to think about what the prayers mean? If the only benefit we receive from the new prayers is the chance to consider in depth the words we say in the Mass and to raise them to God with greater sincerity, the new translation would be well worth it in itself.
The old Latin prayers of the Mass are an heirloom passed down carefully from mother to daughter and from father to son. With the new translations, we will have an English text that can be cherished and passed down in the same way.
Perhaps our descendants, centuries from now, will be able to take strength in knowing that the English prayers they use are the same ones that we received from the Church and have handed on to them.
Father Theodore Book, who holds a licentiate in sacred liturgy, is the director of the Office of Liturgy of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and chaplain for the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home.