With the Fall Meeting of the USCCB less a month away, it was widely reported last week that Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, PA had taken his campaign against the proposed changes to the Roman Missal public.
Speaking at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the former chair of the USCCB Liturgy Committee harshly criticized what he called “slavishly literal” English translations of the Latin text found in the typical edition (the authoritative version upon which all translations are based.)
The "sacred language" proposed by translators "tends to be elitist and remote from everyday speech and frequently not understandable," Bishop Trautman said ultimately concluding that moving forward could invite a "pastoral disaster."
Of particular concern is what Bishop Trautman called “vocabulary that is not readily understandable by the average Catholic,” and he pointed specifically to the following words as examples: “ineffable, consubstantial, incarnate, inviolate, oblation, ignominy, precursor, suffused and unvanquished.”
Getting to the heart of the matter, Bishop Trautman rightly suggested that the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium , is the compass that can point us in the right direction.
“The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy stipulated vernacular language, not sacred language," Bishop Trautman said.
Before taking a closer look at what the Council Fathers actually suggested, I would second Bishop Trautman’s concern for clearly defining the words that we use.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, “stipulate” means “to specify as a condition or requirement.”
With this in mind, let’s take a look at whether or not the Council actually requires vernacular language in the liturgy, and even more importantly if, as His Excellency implies, the Constitution sets up a dichotomy between the liturgical language it suggests and that which is sacred.
First, let’s consider what the Council Fathers have to say about Latin:
Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites (cf SC 36).
Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them (cf SC 54).
As for the liturgical use of the vernacular, the Council Fathers state:
The limits of its [the vernacular language] employment may be extended (ibid ).
It is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used (ibid ).
In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue (SC 54).
The vernacular language may be used in administering the sacraments and sacramentals, according to the norm of Art. 36 (SC 63).
More examples exist, but it is very clear from the above alone that the Council in no way “stipulated” the vernacular; they simply suggested that its use “may” be useful, “to what extent” is yet to be determined.
The only real stipulation with regard to language concerns the use of Latin which the Council Fathers say rather directly “is to be preserved.”
Now let’s consider Bishop Trautman’s suggestion that the Council impresses a certain opposition between “sacred language” and the language that he supposes it “stipulated.”
With all due respect to His Excellency, this notion is more than just perplexing; it is deeply troubling that anyone in ecclesial authority could so grossly misunderstand the Council’s teachings on a matter as important as the Sacred Liturgy. Let me be clear; I am absolutely certain that Bishop Trautman is sincere, i.e. I take him at his word that he truly believes that his ideas about Sacrosanctum Concilium are correct. That said, let me also be clear about this; he is woefully incorrect.
The Council employs the word “sacred” more often in Sacrosanctum Concilium than any other document that it produced; more than sixty times in reference to the Liturgy and to those things associated with it, e.g. “sacred music, sacred art, sacred buildings, sacred vestments, sacred ministers, sacred images,” etc.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that the Council Fathers tell us that “every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.”
Read that again. It is absolutely crucial.
The Sacred Liturgy is an action of Jesus Christ! Get that? This being the case, it is truly disturbing when the primary teacher and defender of the faith in his diocese insists that the Council “stipulated” the use of anything in the Liturgy that is less than sacred. Even a brisk reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium leaves one with the impression that the Council expects everything associated with the Liturgy to be sacred, including of course the language.
Troubling though Bishop Trautman’s ideas are they are not out of step with the earthbound liturgies that many of us have experienced over the last four decades. The problem is that we have largely lost our sense of the sacred.
As the future Pope Benedict XVI said, “We can explain the fundamental change that has come about in the understanding of ritual and liturgy: the primary subject is neither God nor Christ, but the ‘we’ of the ones celebrating.” (cf A New Song for the Lord , by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger)
Maybe a strict retranslation isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is whether or not the vernacular can also be sacred? The answer is of course it can. Let’s turn to the dictionary once again.
Sacred: dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity, of or relating to religion, not secular or profane.
Bearing this in mind it is laughable to imagine anyone being troubled that the words proposed for the new translation of the Roman Missal are “remote from everyday speech.” Things sacred necessarily go beyond the “everyday” precisely so they can elevate hearts and minds into the realm of the Divine.
His Excellency does make a good point when he states that the sacred language proposed “is not readily understandable by the average Catholic.”
If he is rightly concerned that this may make active participation on the part of the faithful more difficult, the Council Fathers have an answer for this as well, and they give it to us in the very title to Sacrosanctum Concilium Chapter II, “The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation.”
You see, the reason words like “ineffable, incarnate, and oblation” are not readily understood by many Catholics is simple; those charged with teaching the faith have largely failed to heed the Council’s directive to instruct.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work (SC 14).
Bishop Trautman offered many more ideas that deserve closer scrutiny, but presumably the point has been made.
I’ve no doubt that the new translation once it comes into use will cause some of the “people in the pews” and others to echo Bishop Trautman’s sentiments. Those who are willing to embrace what the Council Fathers truly taught, however, won’t be among them.
This article was previously published by Catholic News Agency and is used by permission of the author.