A Defining Moment for the Sacred Liturgy

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.

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  • Cooky642

    I have to agree with Bishop Trautman that a lot of “sacred language”, particularly the 9 words “stipulated”, are as foreign as Greek to most modern Catholics. Whatever the cause of that dichotomy, there it is. Granted, proper catechisis could go a long way to bridging the gap, but what’s the point of speaking TO or FOR people who haven’t a clue what you’re saying? Is Latin God’s “native tongue”? Is Greek? Is English? Of course not, but we are “American English speakers”. If I speak Greek to you and you don’t know the language, how long and difficult do you think it’s going to be for us to develop a relationship? Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing with God: building a relationship?

    In point of fact, I came back to the Church because I was seeking a deeper relationship with God. I remembered the depth and beauty of the Latin Mass, and looked for that to bolster that relationship. But, I was seeking a FEELING–awe, inspriation, piety. Instead, I found a Novus Ordo Mass that, because I wasn’t distracted trying to translate in my head, gave me room to find HIM in the Mass! Now, I have that deeper relationship that I wanted–not only at Mass 2 or 3 times per week, but every morning from the time my eyes open until I “step off the curb” and fall asleep at night! Let’s not make the mistake of blaming language for a lack of spiritual depth.

  • Joe DeVet

    I’m not sure what any individual may mean by “American English” or the vernacular on any given day, month or year, but I will say that much of what passes for conversational English on the streets, in offices, blogs, and what have you does not belong in the liturgy.

    If the 9 specified “difficult” words scattered throughout a perfectly understandable English text mean that people in the pews “have no idea” what’s being said, then our language (and our brains) have deteriorated far more than I feared. In fact, what really happens is that if, for example, “ineffable” is used in a text expressing wonder at the mystery of God, the very mystery and rarity of that word helps to convey the sacred meaning that is intended. Over time, and with repetition, people absorb the meaning of such words from the context.

    There’s another critical point, and that is the question of doctrine. Some of the translations have changed the meaning of the text, and one must pause before criticizing the move to correct these errors. One which everyone will notice is the proposed change from “We believe…” to “I believe…” at the opening of the Credo. The prayer is called “the Credo” from the first Latin word of the official text, and in Latin “credo” means “I believe” and it does not mean “we believe” which would be, as I recall, “credimus.”

    Yes, it is true that “we” do believe all the points of the creed. However, to stand and say “I believe” takes it to a different point. It means that, not only do we believe, as a Church, but that I, myself, have appropriated the truths of the faith for myself. To say that I believe is at once more personal and challenging, and causes me to affirm that I am in communion with the universal Church on core matters of faith. Not a bad thing to remind people in the pews that this is their duty if they count themselves Catholics in good standing!

  • Christi Derr

    Great article! I was extremely disappointed by Bishop Trautman’s comments. The liturgy is the language of love between God almighty and His bride the Church. What we have now is so minimalistic in its language that it is almost insulting to Our Lord. Exulted language is appropriate for God. If you have ever looked at a side by side “slavish” translation from the latin to english as opposed to a “dynamic” one, the “slavish” descriptions and prayers to God are beautiful and lift the soul to the Almighty. All the adjectives are gone from the dynamic. It is similar to a husband giving his wife a aniversary card that reads, “you, my wife, are my lovely, loving, help and soul mate” as compared to “you are my wife.”

    If we can learn a whole new language for computers, I think we can manage a few new vocabularry words for Worshipping our Lord and Savior!

  • There’s nothing wrong with using unfamiliar sacred words in the Liturgy as people will learn them in short order. But what I don’t understand is the insistence on praying in a way that is unnatural, whether the prayer is in a foreign language (like Latin) or in a stilted English that is not the way we speak in everyday life. A perfect example from the proposed new Missal is the following exchange between priest and people: “The Lord be with you”; and the people respond “And with your spirit.” What does that mean? People don’t talk that way, and we shouldn’t be asked to pray that way.

    A prayer has to flow from the heart. People have to be able to participate in the Mass body (hence the kneeling, standing, and bowing), mind (in words we understand), and soul (through the self-gift of one’s life as we participate in Communion). If the prayer isn’t the people’s prayer, wholly, completely, and 100%, then there is something seriously deficient. The bishops owe us a Missal that will elevate our hearts and minds to God, and not something that is “elitist and remote from everyday speech and frequently not understandable,” in Bishop Trautman’s words.

    In short, I think Bishop Trautman is 100% correct. When the new Missal is promulgated, I’ll be there, praying it exactly as written, however it is written; but I really hope I and everyone else in the pews will be able to take its prayer to heart.

  • Loretta

    Good grief. 9 words.
    People act as if the priest is incapable…nor ought to have the responsibility…to inform, teach, and help his faithful.

    We have so many people that use perfectly common English in their weekly (daily) prayers and don’t bother to listen to it. I cannot tell you how many weekly Mass attenders that do not realize their bodies will be resurrected on the Last Day. (this is only one of many examples). What are they thinking when they recite: “We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, Amen.”

    The issue isn’t the words themselves, but the lack of people applying their brains to what they are saying and putting true meaning behind it….and a lack of catechesis for kids and adults alike.

  • JoeLukowski

    If the problem is 9 words, I think that catechesis would eliminate that problem really quickly. I have been reading the pamphlets that LTP has put out about the translation and they are excellent in explaning what is going on.
    Maybe the fear is that they are challenged with the catechetical process.

    I, for one, have no problem saying “and with your spirit”. I find it more a spiritual wish than ” yo’ right back atcha'”.

  • papist

    I think Bishop Trautman is 100% INcorrect. We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if the Sacred Liturgy was translated correctly in the first place! The original translation was very poorly done and has needed revision since day one. The only reason people are calling the new translation “unnatural” is because it’s not what they learned in the first place, and therefore more difficult to grasp. If you use the “unnatural” argument then you might as well say the “Our Father” is unnatural…after all, who talks like “Our Father, who ART in heaven, HALLOWED be THY name?” The mass is a prayer, and should be said correctly.

    Catholics should know many of those “9 words” that everyone is commenting on. Words that should be commonplace in Church communities have fallen into disuse. Bad thing. This corrected translation of the Sacred Liturgy is going to give the Church in America the chance to Catechize and hopefully draw many of the lukewarm Catholics into full communion with the Church. We are perfecting the prayer of the Mass by revisiting and correcting the translation of the Mass.

    Everyone here knows that precision is key in the mass. For example, if the priest says the wrong words during the consecration, then the consecration is illicit (notice I said illicit, not invalid – that’s an entirely different topic). This new translation is a large step forward for the Church in the US.

  • luke1twentyeight

    Wow. Are they failing to see the reason we attend Mass in the first place? The focal point is the Altar and what takes place there. Not the guitars, sound systems, or the homilies even. The focal point is the Altar. Anything done to clean up the Mass to promote a more sacred celebration is most welcome by this particular Catholic. It should be evident in the world around us that the reason the world is in such bad shape is because the True Liturgical Worship of God is in bad shape. The reverence shown towards the Holy Eucharist by not only people but in some churches the priests themselves is left to be desired.

    For instance this past weekend, we had a sub priest. Our pastor was on vacation and I think the Diocese provided us with an auctioneer. It was almost like a race against the clock to git ‘r’ done. In this race against the clock the consecration of the bread was done so quickly – the bells rung thrice were only on the second ring and he already completed the raising of the Body of our Lord, knelt, and was standing again….as the second ring was occurring. Also, because I am particularly aware at the points of consecration – I noticed one more heinous act. He consecrated the bread, but not the wine. So we got the Body of Christ with a side of wine. Sickening.

    My heart hurt for Christ. And how much of this lack of reverence for the most beautiful act of intimacy the world has ever known occurs everyday? Christ, being good enough to be our Sacrifice, our Food in this desert, is treated like this!?!?!?

    Get it cleaned up not for my amusement…..but only for the Love of God!!!!

    I wonder if this Mass was valid or not. If it was done unintentionally – which I am sure it was unintentional – what constitutes the validity of a Mass if the wine isn’t consecrated? But you know what else is bad? I am the only one I think that caught it out of the whole Church I attend. I humbly submit that to point out how aware people are of what is occurring….and I promise it isn’t to boast. Everyone I asked – didn’t even notice it.

    Why Catholics oh WHY have we let this happen…to HIM? I offer that the reason we don’t win more of the clean up battles in this war that’s already been won is because of how we prepare, serve, offer ourselves, and receive Christ at Mass in the Most Holy Eucharist – which is our ONE chance at experiencing heaven on earth! Shouldn’t we be more enthusiastic about experiencing heaven than that? Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.

    Why do we even have to ask such questions in the first place!?!?!? Because Bishops like this are tip toeing around the flock – afraid to upset the sheep – they don’t want to be uncomfortable by making others uncomfortable.

    The more sacred the better I say. I need Christ as my food….and I adore Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament…and I love God so much that He would love me so much to be my Sacrifice and my Food…..I wouldn’t care if Mass took 3 hours…..and I am not ashamed to admit it.

    Do away with the Novus Ordo if that’s what it takes to get people to realize this is more than feelings and emotions and comfort. This is Holy Communion which SHOULD be sacred! I am all for finding the value in the Novus Ordo and improving on it rather than the alternative….so then weak knee Bishops need to find the courage to make sacred what has been profaned all too often. Otherwise – if it can’t be done right in the Novus Ordo – then do it right in the Latin Mass. I’ve been to both…and one is amazing and the other is just OK….IF you appreciate what the Holy Mass is truly about.

    God bless all us Catholics – and those priests who bring Christ to the Altar.


  • ralph

    When the angel Gabriel appeared to mary, He did not say: The Lord be with you and she did not respond: And with your Spirit. The angel said:

  • ralph

    The Bishop is correct. Furthermore, trouble began in the church when Rome demanded that everyone be like them. While it is good to have a unified church, union is not necessarily derived from a language that is strange to those who are supposed to be using it in their celebration of the sacraments. Why is it that the church can allow a diversity of rites, admit Anglican married priests and establish an anglican rite which will not be like the “Roman Rite” and then demand that Americans use really what amounts to stupid words in the liturgy–like ineffable. Now ineffable is turly a word that is in daily use? Give me a break! We need more Bishops who realize that they also are successors to the Apostles and not regional flunkies.

  • The sacred liturgy as commonly celebrated since Vatican II has led to confusion regarding the nature of liturgy and its purposes. The fact that there is disagreement in the Church on such an important matter tells me that the liturgy is currently in need of reform. Until the Church catechizes well regarding the liturgy, there will be division.

  • goral

    What we need are bishops who wear sweaters and sneakers, that’s the American way.
    We understand that. We respond positively to the casual mode. We’re already a ways there with deacons and alter servers sporting nikes and crumpled jeans under what used to be the cassock.
    Leisurely language is the way to go, feel the warmth.

  • peregrinuslaetus

    Nine terms not used in everyday speech: touchdown, quarterback, goalpost, roughing, wide receiver, touchback, linebacker, offensive coordinator, running back. Odd, but in spite of their “unfamiliarity” even my pre-teen sons can understand and thoroughly enjoy a football broadcast on t.v. No objective observer really believes that adult Christians are incapable of learning what “ineffable” means: for the last few decades, however, many have been blinded by an ideological drive to desacralize the liturgy and devotional life of the Church. The clear testimony of the last forty years that a banalized liturgy contributes to the erosion of the Church, faith and morality seems to have no impact on them. As someone once said, lex orandi, lex credendi (it’s okay to look it up if you have to).

  • jeanteresemarie

    Unfortunately, Bishop Trautman has no faith in the catholic schools and universities to teach young people vocabulary used in the catholic church, let alone the seminaries that are to teach and train new priests. Very sad… How could anybody squabble over nine words let alone read the classic writers of our faith? How does one read the Holy Bible, especially those genealogies in the Old Testament?
    I am one educated in a catholic university of the Diocese of Erie, PA. I am very grateful for my teachers and friends let alone my education… pre- Bishop Trautman. I was taught that if there was something I did not understand, ask someone who should know! A good priest can and should catechize the people in his care! Why confuse the good and faithful people?
    Maybe the good bishop needs to go back to school to learn how to bring The Word= Jesus Christ to the streets as opposed to bringing the language of the streets to Jesus Christ.
    I digress…

  • jeanteresemarie

    Dear People of God-
    I almost forgot about what St. Paul wrote in I Corinthians, Chapter 14, especially verse 19. Here goes: “But in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may instruct others also; than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
    Better yet, if we go back to verse 11, Paul tells us “If then I know not the power of voice, I shall be to whom I speak a barbarian; and he that speaks, a barbarian to me.” What good is it?
    This is The Year of The Priest and I pray that The Holy Spirit works some good in all of this!