Editor’s Note: On Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent, the new English translation of the Roman Missal will be implemented in all Catholic parishes in the United States. Here we present part 1 of a five-part series about the new translation–and the reasons behind it. Part 2 will appear next Thursday.
November 27, 2011 will be a historic day for the Roman Catholic Church across the English-speaking world. On that day the United States will join other English-speaking countries in implementing a new translation of the Third Typical Edition of the Missale Romanum (Roman Missal), the official liturgical text for the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. This implementation will mark a watershed in the reform of the Sacred Liturgy that was set in motion by the Second Vatican Council. At the same time, this latest edition of the Roman Missal is part of an organic liturgical development within the 2,000-year history of the universal Church.
In the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a motu proprio in which he announced a forthcoming Third Edition of the Missale Romanum. Once this became available in 2002, bishops all over the world began a rigorous and time-consuming process of translating it into the vernacular languages used in the liturgy. The task of translation into English was assigned to the International Committee on English in the Liturgy in coordination with the bishops’ conferences of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and other English-speaking countries. Once ICEL completed a draft English translation of the Roman Missal, it was submitted to the bishops’ conferences for review and approval. On June 15, 2006, after lengthy discussion and debate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved the draft ICEL text of the Roman Missal, while forwarding some minor suggested changes in this text to the Vox Clara Committee (which assists the Vatican with English liturgical translations) and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The Congregation and Vox Clara reviewed the bishops’ suggestions, made some slight changes to the new English text based on them, and then returned it to the bishops for their final approval. On November 20, 2009, the U.S. bishops approved the new English translation of the Missale Romanum, and their approval was confirmed by the Holy See on March 26, 2010. After undergoing a final review and edit by Vatican officials, the English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal was officially sanctioned by the Holy See in July 2010. Now the new missals for use at Mass could be printed, and catechesis efforts could be launched to prepare English-speaking Catholics for implementation of the new Roman Missal the following year.
Translating the Liturgy
Since Vatican II, the Church has issued certain norms for the translation of liturgical texts from Latin into the vernacular. In 1969, the Council issued an Instruction titled Comme le Prevoit, which set guidelines for liturgical translators. This document established a guiding principle called “dynamic equivalence,” which involved the translation of basic thoughts rather than words. Translators working on this principle tried to convey the meaning of the original Latin text of the Roman Missal rather than the text itself. The result was a Mass translation into the English vernacular that sounded very modern and was easily understood, but at the price of significantly deviating from the original Latin text. In several subsequent Instructions issued by the Vatican, translation guidelines were adjusted somewhat but the central principle of dynamic equivalence was retained. The 1974 and 1985 English translations of the First and Second Editions of the Missale Romanum, respectively, followed this principle. Scriptural translations for use in the liturgy, such as the 1970 English translation of the New American Bible from Hebrew, were also based on the principle of dynamic equivalence.
In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the Church’s fifth Instruction for liturgical translators since the Council. This document, entitled Liturgiam Authenticam, marked a paradigm shift in the translation of liturgical texts, as it replaced dynamic equivalence with a new guiding principle for translators called “formal equivalence.” Formal equivalence involves rendering the Latin text of the Roman Missal as faithfully as possible into the vernacular. Liturgiam Authenticam defines this principle as follows: “While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.” (LA, § 20) The result is an accurate and dignified translation of the Mass into English that allows the beauty and grandeur of the original Latin text to shine through. The new English translation of the Missale Romanum, Third Edition, follows this principle of formal equivalence. So do scriptural translations for use in the liturgy, such as the 1998 translation of the New Testament NAB from the traditional Latin Vulgate.
Why has the post-Vatican II Church shifted from one translation principle to another? To answer this question, we must clarify our understanding of the vision for authentic liturgical renewal set forth by the Second Vatican Council. The Third Edition of the Roman Missal, soon to be implemented in thousands of parishes, is more faithful than either of its predecessors to that vision for true renewal. It presents a golden opportunity for us English-speaking Catholics to review and reflect on the reality of what the Mass really is, as well as to deepen our appreciation for the rich liturgical heritage of the Catholic Church’s Latin Rite.
Worship and Liturgy
The sacred liturgy, which we call the Mass in the Latin Rite, is our formal public worship of God as Catholics. It’s “the great prayer of the Church” offered with Christ to God the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the Mass, Jesus offers Himself to the Father in atonement for our sins, and his Body and Blood become food for our souls. At the heart of the sacred liturgy is the Eucharist, which is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus physically present under the appearances of bread and wine. Thus the Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist and a re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our salvation two thousand years ago. The word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” and in its Eucharistic worship, the Church is always giving thanks to God the Father for our deliverance from sin and our reconciliation to Him through the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. The Eucharist is of paramount importance since it is the source, center and summit of the Church’s life according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Thus the matter of how the Mass should be celebrated, called “liturgy,” takes on great importance as well.
How should we worship God? This fundamental human question has rung through the ages. When Adam and Eve sinned and disobeyed God at the beginning of human history, God promised to send a Savior to free human beings from sin and reconcile them to Himself. His grand plan of salvation began in the Old Testament when God chose a people for Himself—the Jewish people. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt; brought them into the Promised Land; and revealed to them how He wanted to be worshiped. He gave Moses careful, detailed instructions for the building and furnishing of the Temple, the vestments to be worn by the priests, the prayers to be recited, and the offering of various animal sacrifices for sin. This instruction manual for Jewish worship comprised a large portion of the latter four Books of Moses (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The practice of Jewish liturgy according to the Mosaic Law not only gave due honor and glory to God, but it also united the Israelite community and formed the core of their identity as a people. The summit of the Jewish religion was the annual celebration of Passover, when the Israelites converged on Jerusalem to sacrifice and eat the Paschal lamb in joyful remembrance of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
God established the worship rituals of the Old Testament not as permanent and complete in themselves, but as a preparation for the perfect New Testament worship to be offered by His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, the Temple priests would offer animal sacrifices to God in atonement for sin, but these sacrifices were imperfect because they could not take away sin. Jesus, the mediator of the New Testament, is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by His sacrifice on the Cross. His obedience repairs the damage done by Adam’s sin of disobedience. The summit of our Catholic religion is the celebration of Mass, which is the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. When we attend Mass, we participate in this perfect sacrifice of Christ. Thus our Catholic worship is a natural and logical descendant of Jewish worship.
The early Church spontaneously developed its own basic form of Eucharistic worship based on the Jewish Sabbath liturgy. Over the course of centuries, in the varied soils of the Middle East and Europe, this same liturgical seed grew into slightly different rites watered by theological reflection and increasing awareness of the riches contained in the mystery of the Eucharist. Today there are 21 approved rites for the celebration of the sacred liturgy within the universal Church, of which the Latin Rite (also called the Roman Rite because the Vatican uses it) is the largest. Although slightly different in their external rituals and ceremonies, all these rites share the same basic form of Eucharistic worship that has remained unchanged through the ages. Saint Justin’s description of the Eucharistic liturgy written in 155 A.D. is remarkably similar to our modern Latin Rite Mass.
In his classic work The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) makes the point that we’re supposed to worship God the way He wants to be worshiped, not the way we want to worship Him. This is because liturgy is not our work but our participation in God’s work of redemption. In the Old Testament, God promised the Israelites that if they obeyed the Ten Commandments, kept the Law of Moses and worshiped Him faithfully according to the divinely prescribed rubrics, He would remain with them and bless them and they would prosper. On the other hand, if they disobeyed the Commandments, disregarded the Law and substituted their own liturgical ideas for the divine ordinances, God would punish them. God kept His promises, and the Jewish people flourished as long as they remained obedient to God. But when they rebelled against God, they incurred His wrath and dreadful punishments.
These same principles apply to Catholics, who are the New Testament people of God. With authority given by Christ Himself, the Church teaches the truth, makes certain laws and sets the rules for New Testament worship. If we believe everything the Church teaches, obey her laws and participate faithfully in the proper celebration of the Eucharist, we will glorify God and be the holy people God is calling us to be. However, if we pick and choose which Church doctrines to believe, ignore Church laws and elevate our personal ideas for worship above the Church’s established liturgical rules, we insult God and risk His just punishment.
Evidently, humility and obedience are essential components of true worship. In fact, the interior dispositions of the heart are even more important than external liturgical practice. In the Old Testament, God made clear that the sacrifice of animals was meaningless without the sacrifice of obedience in the human heart: “More precious than sacrifice is obedience, submission better than the fat of rams!” (RSV, 1 Sam. 15:22) “Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me…Behold, I come to do your will, O God!” (NAB, Psalm 40:7, 9) Obedience, the humble sacrifice of our preferences to God’s Will, is the most perfect form of worship.
When it comes to Catholic worship today, there are those who think they know better than God and the Church. Their concept of liturgy has more in common with the feel-good pop psychology of the sixties than with ancient Jewish and Catholic worship traditions. “Authority” and “tradition” are bad words to them. They treat the Church’s regulations for worship as suggestions and reject its rich 2,000-year liturgical history out of hand in favor of their own innovative worship preferences. Such privately determined “worship” has no place in the Church. It is built on disobedience, the prideful exaltation of human ideas and preferences above God’s Will. In fact, it is the ultimate form of idolatry: the worship of ourselves.