Diagramming the New Missal

Diagramming the New Missal December 19, 2011

Maybe I am beating a dead horse, but the tongue-twisting nature of the new Missal is still proving to be an obstacle for me.  By habit, I do not use a missalette:  I have forced myself to listen to the lectors and the presider and make a real effort to understand what they are saying.  Part of this comes from the days when I helped train lectors, but part is a belief that liturgy is spoken and therefore should be an aural experience.

But I am still getting tied into knots listening to the new missal.  Part of it is priests stumbling over unfamiliar prayers—that will improve with time.  But some of it is the awkward structure of the language:  English is being forced to conform to Latin, even though the languages have distinct grammatical structures and very different standards for what constitutes euphonious writing.   A particularly striking example was the Collect for the Feast of the Immacuate Conception:

Graciously accept the saving sacrifice we offer you, O Lord, on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so, through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.  Through Christ our Lord.

I could not understand this at all when I heard it at mass, and only after reading it a couple times in the Missal could I begin to parse this welter of subordinate clauses.  For fun, I asked a colleague of mine in the English department to diagram it:sc02b7fea8

(personal image of author)

I guess this explains why I couldn’t figure out what the priest was saying!  Now to forestall some obvious objections:  I am not opposed to complex sentence structure, particularly in written texts.  But the spoken word must obey different rules if it is to be understandable, let alone be considered powerful:  compare a good translation of Homer, and any of Shakespeare’s best soliloquies with this prayer and you will see the difference. (Yes, Shakespeare has some turkeys:  no writer hits a home run every time.)

Could this have been said in a better way?  I think so but have not been able to work anything out to my satisfaction.  Any suggestions?  We can skip fighting over the word prevenient; I am more interested in the overall structure and flow of the text.

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  • I tend to be somewhat skeptical of reactions to the change; I converted to Catholicism from a tradition that doesn’t have any such responses and collects at all, and the adjustment to what seemed the tortured, stilted, vague rambling of prayer in the Mass was quite an adjustment. I am always amused when Catholics talk as if the previous translation had much to do with the way people talk in reality; it is merely long acquaintance that gives the illusion of it.

    But I entirely agree that a weakness in this new translation is that it fails to take into account properly the differences between Latin and English, one of the most important which is that the structure of Latin means that whole sentences have to be taken as the primary units of understanding, while the structure of English means that clauses are taken as the primary units of understanding. English is flexible enough to handle Latin-like sentences, but the result will start sounding like it’s a poem by e.e. cummings.

    My first rough-draft recommendation for a revision, without any major surgery, would be something like:

    O Lord,
    on this solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
    graciously accept the saving sacrifice we offer you.
    Grant [to us, Lord,]
    that [just] as we profess her untouched by any stain of sin
    through your prevenient grace,
    so we may be delivered from all our faults
    through her intercession.
    Through Christ our Lord.

    The bracketed are additions that could be left out, but that seem to me to mark out divisions more clearly.

    • In all fairness to cummings (for whom, oddly, I developed a liking after seeing Woody Allen’s movie Hannah and Her Sisters, in which he’s quoted), if you get past the weird capitalization, line breaks, and punctuation (or lack thereof), his poetry is surprisingly traditional (in the good sense of the word). He actually wrote many sonnets which I didn’t recognize as such until (after seeing the aforementioned movie) I got to reading him carefully and with attention. One could do worse than have a Mass that sounds like cummings! 🙂

      The major problem in this collect, I think, is “prevenient”. Those of us who are theology geeks or learned seminary professors will know exactly what it means; but there’s no way of getting it fully across in English without either bringing the word over more or less intact or giving a paragraph or more of paraphrase. With that said (and with no claims for poetic ability on my part), how about this attempt to balance brevity, meaning of the original, and more-or-less readable English that’s not too awful:

      “Graciously accept the saving sacrifice we offer you, O Lord, on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By your grace, which comes before all human merit, she was untouched by any stain of sin. As we profess this, so may we be delivered from all our faults by her intercession. Through Christ our Lord.”

  • The Pachyderminator

    I don’t know if this will help, but I think C.S. Lewis’s comments on syntax in Milton’s poetry might be apropos:

    It must also be noted that while Milton’s Latin constructions in one way tighten up our language, in another way they make it more fluid. A fixed order of words is the price – an all but ruinous price – which English pays for being uninflected. The Miltonic constructions enable the poet to depart, in some degree, from this fixed order and thus to drop the ideas into his sentence in any order he chooses. Thus, for example,

    soft oppression seis’d
    My droused sense, untroubled though I thought
    I then was passing to my former state
    Insensible, and forthwith to resolve.

    The syntax is so artificial that it is ambiguous…But then I don’t need to know. The sequence “drowsed – untroubled – my former state – insensible – dissolve” is exactly right; the very crumbling of consciousness is before us and the fringe of syntactical mystery helps rather than hinders the effect. Thus, in another passage, I read

    Heav’n op’nd wide
    Her ever-during gates, harmonious sound
    On golden hinges moving.

    “Moving” might be a transitive participle agreeing with “gates” and governing “sound”; or again the whole phrase from “harmonious” to “moving” might be an ablative absolute. The effect of the passage, however, is the same whichever we choose. An extreme modern might have attempted to reach it with

    Gates open wide. Glide
    On golden hinges…
    Harmonious sound.

    This melting down of the ordinary units of speech, this plunge back into something more like the indivisible, flowing quality of immediate experience, Milton also achieves. But by his appearance of an extremely carpentered structure he avoids the suggestion of fever, preserves the sense of dignity, and does not irritate the mind to ask questions.

    I think a similar principle applies to the prayers of the new Missal. Full syntactical comprehension may not be necessary. More important is that one simply hears the ideas listed in the correct order to suggest the point of the sentence.

  • Looking at your English-teacher friend’s diagram again, I think it shows one way in which the structure of the original is very misleading — your diagram has “on account of your prevenient grace” modifying “we profess her”, which is indeed what it would probably originally sound like to most people — “we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace”. But it seems clear that it’s really supposed to modify the following clause “on account of your prevenient grace, untouched by any stain of sin”, in which case the parallelism of the collect starts to come through a little bit more. But the positioning of the “on account of your prevenient grace” (especially with respect to the “to be”) doesn’t make this the most natural first reading.

  • WJ

    Lord, graciously accept the saving sacrifice we offer you on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Just as we profess her to be untouched by any stain of sin on account of your prevenient grace, so grant to us that through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults. Through Christ our Lord.

  • M.Z.

    alt version 1
    Graciously accept the saving sacrifice we offer you Lord on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and grant that we may be delivered from our sins as we seek her intercession and profess by your prevenient grace Mary was untouched by any stain of sin. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

    alt verison 2
    Lord, graciously accept the sacrifice we offer you on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. As we profess that Mary was untouched by the stain of sin, we ask for her intercession on our behalf and that you may deliver us from our sins, through Christ our Lord.

    • M.Z.

      One of the advantages of Latin – at least as far as my understanding goes – is the phonetic relationships between subject and object that aren’t present in English. I’m sure the sentence is crystal clear in Latin whereas it is ambiguous in parts in English. English is more of a grammatical language. Predictability is increased at the expense of freedom.

  • Kurt

    Let’s just go back to the spirituality of our grandparents. The altar servers say the responses for the people. We need not say anything or understand anything or even particularly follow along. We just spend the time saying our noveans and private prayers as those up on the altar do their thing.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I don’t find it too hard to follow if I read it as a string of ideas each separated by a pause at the comma.

    But I’m not at all sure I’d grasp the more detailed meaning if one idea is supposed to modify another.

    In general I think the earlier approach to translation, dynamic equivalence, would be a better translation method. Rewrite the prayers in clear English.

    God Bless

  • “O Lord, graciously accept the saving sacrifice we offer you on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Grant that, as we profess her to be untouched by any stain of sin on account of your prevenient grace, so through her intercession may we be delivered from all our faults. Through Christ our Lord.”

    I do think this clause structure would be more “natural” to English speakers. But is it more edifying?

  • Anne

    Why not fight over “prevenient”? It’s the elephant in the clause structure, just waiting to blow.;-)

    Seriously, I remember the Latin mass, which many of us followed in English in our missalettes. That may not have been the best way to participate in Mass, but at least we knew what was going on. (Not everybody said Rosaries or made up shopping lists in their heads.) I suppose somebody’s going to tell me “prevenient” was common usage back then, but I sure as heck don’t remember it. Those old translations seemed a lot more coherent than the liturgy on display here. I admit the previous English translation could sound pretty pedestrian at times, and I sympathized with the claim that a new translation was needed. But this stilted alternative is something else again. I mean, is anybody satisfied? It truly makes the case for dynamic equivalence.

  • I do think this clause structure would be more “natural” to English speakers. But is it more edifying?

    I think you are right that it is important to keep in mind that what is important is edification, which raises the question of the desiderata here.

    The main danger in translating something like this is that one can easily miss a key structural component of meaning. This is especially true of a collect: all well-written collects have a structure relating different theological truths or ideas — usually either a parallel or a progression or both. You see this over and over again if you look at groups that put a lot of effort into the composition of collects and similar prayers– the older Latin tradition, or certain groups of High Church Anglicans, or Maronite Catholics (the prayers in the Maronite liturgy that correspond to collects — I forget their names offhand — are often sheer brilliance). The parallel or progression is part of the point of the prayer; the structure is half the theology. It’s absolutely essential in translating a collect, then, to capture the parallelism or progression (and capture the right one); otherwise you’re dropping much of the meaning of the collect. And it’s also important to make that parallel or progression as clear as possible. In the collect above we have a collect with parallel structure, between

    Mary untouched by stain of sin through prevenient grace
    us delivered from sins through Mary’s intercession

    The mere fact that our delivery from sins through Mary’s intercession is at least a rough parallel to Mary’s preservation from stain of sin through God’s grace is extremely important here. It tells you a way to begin to understand the Immaculate Conception; it tells you something about how to understand Marian intercession; and it tells you something about the role of Mary in our lives. We need to keep the parallel or we have radically changed the meaning — because the collect itself is a parallelism. (English is very good at parallelism, but as MZ notes above, Latin, because it uses ending-agreement so much, can have the parallel without worrying too much about strict order — it can change the order to make it sound better without breaking or obscuring the parallel, while changing the order in English that much often will do just that.)

    Thus whether a translation is edifying will depend on (1) whether it keeps essentially the same parallelism; and (2) whether it is well-suited to conveying it. So far I think WJ’s suggestion comes closest to what one would want in this regard, although I would change some of the order around slightly to bring out the parallel even more clearly.

  • Joseph C. Owens

    I have waited for years for this faithful translation, instead of the weak garbage language we have been forced to endure for 40+ years. This translation is what it is: accurate and faithful to the original. I also am an English buff, by the way. My advice to carping linguistic critics is just shut up and study! At last, Mass is something sacred again.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thanks for ignoring all the interesting points the other commentators made. Please come by again if you have anything to contribute.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Thanks to everyone for their suggestions on revising this prayer. I think it is clear that with a little effort the original can be much improved. Overall, it is clear that breaking with the order of clauses as they (presumably) appear in the original Latin makes the prayer better English. So a blow against formal equivalence and a nod to dynamic equivalence. There is probably a happy medium, but my sense is that the translators of the new missal were too wedded to formal equivalence ideologically to deviate from it.

    I was particularly struck by Brandon’s comments about grammatical parallelism and theological parallels. This gives me a great deal to think about as I listen to and digest the new prayers. Like him, I also liked WJ’s version for bringing this to the fore.

    With regards to the word “prevenient”: when I wrote that I did not want to fight over this, I was coming off of a long discussion with Thales on another post about “cup” versus “chalice” in the Eucharistic Prayer. He made a lot of good points, but in the end I saw no compelling reason to prefer the Latin based chalice over the Anglo-Saxon cup. (Clearly, he and I saw things differently.) However, this word represents a different problem, as there is no good synonym for it in English. The OED suggests “prior,” “preceding,” or “antecedent,” but only for the generic uses of the word. For the theological phrase “prevenient grace” it only offers the full definition: “the grace of God which precedes repentance and faith, predisposing a person to seek God in advance of any desire or motion on their part.” This is too much to stick into a short collect.

    So the question becomes: would it be more appropriate to simply omit this word (as MZ does in one of his versions) or replace it with a defining phrase, as Turmarion does: “By your grace, which comes before all human merit, she was untouched by any stain of sin…” This version has a couple of advantages. First, it makes clear what is meant; second, it re-emphasizes the humanity of the Virgin Mary and her dependence on God’s grace. (I think this is important around Marian feasts, as there is a bad tendency in some popular Marian piety to elevate her to a status resembling the fourth person of the Holy Trinity.)

    However, I think A Sinner’s idea of edification is worth exploring on this point. We want our prayers to be edifying, but what do we mean by this? Do we want them to serve as teaching vehicles in and of themselves, or do we want them to be meaningful after external mystagogy? In other words, should this collect teach the listener (or at least summarize for the listener) what is meant by “prevenient grace” and its role in the Immaculate Conception, or should the Collect simply remind the listener of this idea which was taught elsewhere? My natural inclination is the former: our prayers should teach, or more precisely, continually reteach the listener what we believe. One weakness of this approach is that it can make liturgy pedantic and thereby obscure or weaken its transcendent dimensions. (Many of the prayers I get from related to social justice issues suffer from this problem.) On the other hand, one problem with the other approach is pastoral: it may presume too much about the education of the listeners. I had to look the word up after I heard it, but I will probably remember it next year. Is this true of most listeners? In your own parishes, how many people do you think a) understood the word on hearing it, b) looked it up or asked the priest to explain it to them? How many priests defined this term in their homily for the feast? (I am not criticizing: one can say many deep things about this feast and never utter the word prevenient.)

    I am not sure there is a single, universal answer that resolves this tension. But restricting ourselves to this specific instance, which approach do you prefer, and why?

    • Thales

      I like the approach that uses “prevenient” and teaches the listener, even if that presents some difficulty to the listener. I think humans (especially males like me!) tend to settle to the lowest common denominator. If not much is expected, then not much effort will be expended; we’ll only do as much as we need to in order to get by. However, if greater responsibility is given, or a challenge is made, or something more difficult is expected of us, or something is put just out of reach, I think humans tend to rise to that challenge, improve themselves, and work up to what was previously out of reach. (I think this argument against “dumbing things down” can apply to pretty much every area of life, not just the liturgy.)

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I see your point, but I don’t agree with the characterization of the approach that avoids using the word “prevenient” is dumbing down the liturgy. As I tried to explain, it takes a different approach and can be as intellectually challenging as the other approach. Big words alone do not make something more difficult in a productive sense.

  • Melody

    My husband (a deacon) gave the homily for the grade school Mass and explained what “prevenient grace” meant. I guessed from the context what it meant, but I have to admit that I didn’t know the word existed before. If we have to be a little bit pedantic for awhile, I’m okay with it.
    But I’m missing being able to say the responses without a cheat card. I suppose it will come in time, but my tongue is still tripping over, “And with your spirit”, and “…I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.”
    I found Pachydermator’s comments on Milton’s syntax the most helpful, “Full syntactical comprehension may not be necessary. More important is that one simply hears the ideas listed in the correct order to suggest the point of the sentence.”
    If absolute faithfulness to the Latin was that important, maybe we should have just reverted to the Latin, I can still remember those responses and get them right. But that wouldn’t be true of younger people. To my children the Mass of Paul VI is the “traditional” Mass, and I empathize with those who are feeling disoriented, been there and done that a couple times.

  • Joe

    Have you ever diagramed a Latin sentence ? A sentence froom Shakespear ? Its time we start concentrating again what we hear and listen to what is being said.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Go back and read my original post. My comments and concerns are grounded in the fact that I do try to listen to what is being said.

  • Pinky

    I don’t know if I’d heard the word “prevenient” before, but the context of the word is practically a dictionary definition.

    As for the prayer itself, I like the way its structure mirrors the prayer commonly used at the end of the Rosary (the “grant we beseech thee” prayer). It kind of unites the Rosary and the liturgy.

    Someone asked earlier, “is anybody happy?”. I am. I might just be in a honeymoon period with the new translation, but I’m getting such a kick out of it. I love the “it is right and just”, the new “Domine non sum dignus”, “consubstantial”, pretty much the whole thing. I still get tripped up, but the original Latin prayers are so great, and it’s so satisfying to hear them more clearly represented in English.

  • Thales


    Do you know what the old translation was for this exact same prayer? Anybody have an old missal? It would be interesting to compare the two. In our bulletin recently, there was a commentary comparing an old translation to a particular Collect prayer to the new translation, and they were vastly different, not just in style but in substance — almost as if the old translation had completely scrapped the Latin meaning and come up with its own meaning instead.

    I don’t disagree with you about the fact that the new translation might be weak in certain ways. I don’t doubt that there are mistakes and ways that it could be improved. But I wonder whether all of us would agree that the prayer translation we’re considering is better than the old version (though not perfect).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I could not find the old collect on line, and I don’t have access to the old Sacramentary. Anybody able to help with this? Until I see the text I won’t be able to meaningfully compare them. What were the two prayers being compared in your bulletin?

      • Thales

        I don’t remember exactly. I think it was something like the opening prayer from one of the past weekday masses. I’ll have to look to see if I’ve still got the bulletin lying around somewhere…

      • Pinky

        If I looked it up correctly, this is it:

        you prepared the Virgin Mary
        to be the worthy mother of your Son.
        You let her share beforehand
        in the salvation Christ would bring by his death,
        and kept her sinless from the first moment of her conception.
        Help us by her prayers
        to live in your presence without sin.

  • Pachyderm

    Well, it seems to me that the Mass should not be done in colloquial language at all (why make Mass less mysterious?). Maybe it should not be done in understandable language at all (Latin, Syriac, Slavic?). The language of the Mass does not really matter; isn’t that why the Mass was in Latin until ’69?

    No one knew Latin, but anyone could look at the Mass and see what was going on. The entire litany of complaints that everyone projects at the new translation is ridiculous and comes from a belief that words are in-and-of-themselves important. Bishops decided to change the words; they have done it to make the Mass more archaic, more oriented towards the past, towards the Latin. Why complain? My Mass in English is not that beautiful anyway.

    To me the principle problem of celebrating Mass in the vernacular, is we make more room to ruin it with words. When everyone said it in Latin, it was basically the same beautiful act everywhere, an act, not a bunch of words. The words are prayers and that is all that matters. The words only have value insofar as they express the Truth, but we don’t need the words all the time.

    Take for example, either zoning out at Mass or being extremely present at Mass. The words just float past you and either think your own thoughts or you pray your own prayers in your heart. There is no regard or inherent importance in the words of the Mass at this moment. You are praying one thing, the priest is praying another. You are both all the holier and God’s grace not the words made it so.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    The text from Pinky is interesting. It will be criticized for not being an accurate translation, but I must say that it does do a good job pastoraly, of conveying the meaning of the feast.

    • Pinky

      Well, so does the word “prevenient”. But the big difference I see between the two texts is that the new one highlights that we aren’t sinless. In the new one, Mary prays that we may be fixed. In the old one, she prays that we live without sin. I don’t know which one is more or less pastoral, or even what “pastoral” means in that context, but the new one is much more visceral. She’s free from sin, we’re not.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Sorry, I mis-typed. I meant to write pedagogically: it does a better job of teaching. See my discussion above for why the word “prevenient” does not do the that in this context. And I am not sure what you mean by visceral in this context. I really am not gripped in my guts by the new translation.

  • The Pachyderminator

    “Pachyderm’s” handle makes me suspect his comment is intended as a caricature of me (though not one that reveals great attention on the artist’s part), so I’ll clarify my position, if I may.

    The words we pray at Mass are extremely important, and I don’t think anyone who disagreed would have a strong opinion about either the Latin Mass or the new translation one way or the other. The words were carefully chosen, and they are there to be listened to and joined in. All of the prayers, including the ones the priest says on behalf of the congregation, are offered by the whole assembly.

    What I said about “full syntactical comprehension” not being necessary means simply this: we don’t need to be able to diagram the sentence in our heads to take home the gist of what’s being said. David has a fair point that the intricate sentence structure of the new translation makes it hard to take in at one hearing, and many people will have trouble fitting together the subordinate clauses and such. That doesn’t bother me because the phrases convey the right progression:
    1. “Graciously accept the saving sacrifice we offer you, O Lord, on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary…” Simple enough as far as it goes. Begins with a general petition suitable for any mass, and then moves to the particular observation of the feast day.
    2. “…and grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin…” The first reference to Mary, which followed immediately on a mention of the holy sacrifice, is in turn immediately followed by a profession of faith in her sinless state and in God’s grace that caused it. The ubiquitous idea of the Mass, which is always present to the congregation, is thus seamlessly connected to the specific mystery being celebrated today; the transitory is linked to the permanent.
    3. “…so, through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.” But the best part is that the theological parallelism in the prayer, expressed grammatically in the Latin, is expressed by simple word proximity in the English even for those who are grammatically at sea by now. Just as the previous clause was arranged so that “God’s grace” – “untouched by any stain of sin” were together, now the same is done for “Mary’s intercession” – “delivered from our faults.” This conveys Mary’s role as Mediatrix of All Grace, the channel through which God’s grace flows to us. The parallel but secondary position her intercession has to God’s grace in its placement among the other words of the sentence (i.e., independent of the actual grammar or syntax) mirrors its parallel but secondary position in our salvation.

    If this seems farfetched, try noting just certain snatches of words: Saving sacrifice, Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, your prevenient grace, untouched by any stain of sin, her intercession, delivered from all our faults. The sequence is perfect. The old translation (using Pinky’s text), by comparison, is a poor thing, easily understandable at the expense of being utterly forgettable.

  • WJ

    I agree (obviously) with Brandon on the importance of parallelism being stressed in collects; my own attempt could be made better, but I think it is clearer than the existing new translation–if only because I’ve separated the sentence into two sentences, the second of which makes as clear as possible the parallel being developed in the prayer.

    I think the old translation is just awful on this score, though, as it fails completely to emphasize the parallelism that has long been central to these prayers. It is just two sentences.

    What’s the matter with “prevenient”? Suppose somebody doesn’t understand and asks about it. They are told. Now they have a richer theological understanding. I agree that it does sound a bit hoity-toity. But we are all hopeless democrats, being Americans…