New Mass Translation; Discerning Success – UPDATED

Pondering the (in my humble opinion unduly controversial) new English translations for the Holy Mass, Russell Shaw wonders how many people today are equipped to recognize success, even if it succeeds.

That’s a good question. In many ways, the “new” translations are a harkening back to the more-literal Latin-to-Vernacular translation that I and many in my pre/post-concillar-straddling generation first learned and then had to quickly relearn, once the “Spirit of Vatican II” came to the fore:

My memory of the Traditional Mass is cloudy and vague, and I suspect a bit romantic, but I recollect the first translations of the Novus Ordo very well; they were more exact, and more spiritually focused than what eventually followed. We easily learned our vernacular responses, which were pretty nice:

“The Lord be with you.”

“And with your spirit.”

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; speak but the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

And then we learned them again:

“The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

“Lord I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

Small differences brought significant changes in meaning…

I was recently talking to a priest friend who is unenthusiastic about the upcoming changes, and even he agreed that, since Italy, France, Spain and the rest of the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran world have managed to maintain “and with your spirit” all these decades without much drama, it might not be so awful for the American church to — for the sake of unity, at least — restore that more-accurate translation to the liturgy.

But Russell Shaw is talking about more than simply getting the translations right; he is wondering if we 21st-century humans — trained to an empty-busyness of only transient meaning — are losing our ability to appreciate words and ideas that are presented with layers, and depth:

On the stricken tree I saw the Christ
Leaning toward the current of the river;
Underneath the foolish soldiers diced
To win a spotless garment without seams—
They gambled with the little ivory flowers
That grew along the margin of the stream.

This is how poets see things. And it’s a way of seeing that is largely unappreciated now. Liturgy presents a similar case, a sacramental action requiring a knack for seeing in a certain way that few people today possess.

This may be why the liturgical reform envisaged by Vatican II hasn’t succeeded as well as hoped. Yes, liturgical abuses that cropped up here and there back in the 1970s did have something to do with it, but, offensive as the abuses were, the problem goes beyond a few clown Masses and readings from The Prophet.

At bottom, liturgical reform didn’t work so well because “active participation” in liturgy was widely taken to mean staying busy—reciting words, singing songs, shaking hands, doing this and that—instead of seeing with eyes of faith that which liturgy makes sacramentally present.

Shaw’s piece is brief and provocative; give it a read.

And if you’re curious about Shaw, Gayle Trotter interviews him here, in a very interesting discussion covering Opus Dei, Saint Josemaria Escriva, the Spanish Civil War and Shaw’s book, Writing the Way: The Story of a Spiritual Classic, which has just become available on Kindle

UPDATE: Deacon Greg Kandra (who does a lovely job plainchanting the Easter Exultet – I’ve heard him!) takes a look at what the new translation will mean for our Easter Vigil

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About Elizabeth Scalia