The spring meeting of the United States Bishops' Conference took place last week in Los Angeles. As is the case with most meetings, the bishops spent most of their time in a hotel, but we went one evening to celebrate Mass in the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a unique ensemble of buildings designed to place the Church and her ministry squarely at the center of Los Angeles' life.
At the center of the bishops' concerns during our meeting was the approval of a partial translation of the latest edition of the Roman Missal. The Roman Missal was revised after the Council and published under the authority of Pope Paul VI. That first edition of the Pauline Missal was translated into English and is still being used. Since the late 1960s, however, the Holy See has published a second edition of the post-Vatican II Missal and then, a couple of years ago, a third edition. The third edition has several more canons and prefaces and a number of new feast days to mark the celebrations of saints recently canonized. Because there is a new edition of the Missal in Latin, there has to be a new translation in the vernacular languages of the Catholic world. Some people have asked why we are bothering with new translations of the Mass. The reason is because we're still using the first edition of the revised Roman Missal when we should be using the third edition.
Among the vernacular languages, English has a particular importance, although many more Catholics speak Spanish rather than English around the world. But English is the predominant global language today, and the English-speaking countries have had, since the Council, a single translation for the whole English-speaking world. Eleven English-speaking bishops' conferences created the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) after the Council to help the bishops oversee the translation of the Roman Missal from Latin into English.
ICEL has been working on translating the third edition of the Pauline Roman Missal for several years and has recently asked the various conferences to approve the translation of the Missal's central section, the Order of Mass. This section contains the prayers we say at each Mass, as distinguished from the proper parts of the Mass for particular feasts. Australia, England and Wales and Scotland had already approved the new translations before the US bishops took up the question last week. In fact, it was the third time we had discussed the texts. Twice before, we had sent in suggestions for changes to ICEL, some of which were incorporated in the texts and some not. We continued the process of revising parts of the text before we voted on it and approved it last week.
The history of liturgical translations has been stormy in the last seven or eight years. Part of the controversy has centered on the rules for translating. The Holy See, which determines how the Roman rite of the Catholic Church is to be celebrated around the world, issued a document called Liturgiam Authenticam several years ago in order to help translators create texts both faithful to the original Latin and satisfactory for worship in the vernacular. A good translation is faithful not only to the meaning of the original language but also to the form. There are, for example, different ways to instruct someone to turn on a light. I could say, "Turn on the light," or I could say "Would you turn on the light?" The information is the same in both sentences, but the form is different. Liturgiam Authenticam instructs the translator to pay attention to both the content and the form of the original language.
The translation of the new Missal will consequently be somewhat more polite, more courteous in form than the texts we now use. The new translations will also restore parts of prayers currently not translated and pay special attention to the biblical context of many of the prayers of the Roman rite. A case in point is the much-discussed translation of "et cum spiritu tuo" as "and with your spirit" rather than the current "and also with you." Our current translation might seem more personal and friendly, but that's the problem. The spirit referred to in the Latin is the spirit of Christ that comes to a priest when he is ordained, as St. Paul explained to St. Timothy. In other words, the people are saying in their response that Christ as head of the Church is the head of the liturgical assembly, no matter who the particular priest celebrant might be. That is a statement of faith, a statement distorted by transforming it into an exchange of personal greetings.
The texts of the Order of Mass approved by the US bishops last week are both beautiful and interesting. It will take some time and personal investment to pray them well. The full Missal will not be in use for two or three years, and this will give us time to become more instructed in the matter. In the meantime, we will continue at Mass to worship God in spirit and truth, praying for one another, the Church and the world. God bless you.