Friday, January 6, 2012

Why the new translation of the Mass? part 11 Final thoughts

So there you have it, Verne, a blow by blow attempt at explaining the meanings behind the changes of the congregational responses in the Mass. There is not time to go through all the changes, but the change in the parts the priest says are everywhere. It feels like I am saying a different Mass than I have said since I was ordained getting nigh unto forty years ago. It is maddening. I am an old dog expected to learn new tricks. I have to keep my eyes glued to the Missal. 

The words aren’t even the hardest part of the whole exercise.  It is the grammatical structure that makes one crazy. It is a Latin structure not an American-English structure.  Latin uses periodic sentences which have a dependent clause after a dependent clause that make no sense until you get to the final clause or phrase. An example: “When the barbarians stormed the gates, the gates being tightly locked, the king, who being at table, which was set for a feast, told them to make an appointment with his secretary.”  Dis ain’t duh way we talk on duh sout’ side of Chicahhhgo. I am very partial to the Chicago version of American English, especially the evocative and poetic way it is spoken on the south side. 

The Latinized periodic sentences of the new translation seem foreign and removed from everyday life. At times, they even seem like the bad translations handed to me over twenty five years of giving Latin exams, and still worse, they remind me of the horrible translation I handed into to my professors in a past century. 

"So then Rev. Know-it-all, you are opposed to the change?"

On the contrary! I think the whole thing is long overdue, but Heaven has its timing.

First of all, the language used in the newest Missal is the common language, not the local language. According to Wikipedia, there are 375 million people in the world who speak English as their native language. There are almost two billion who speak English, to some degree as a second language, making English the most widely spoken language in the world. The vast majority of these people are clueless when they hear Americans speaking English. 

I will never forget meeting some American cousins in the kitchen of the ancestral tavern in lower, upper-Hessia. (There actually is such a place.) We were coincidentally visiting the old country at the same time and were feasting on Germanic microwave pizza. Yum. We lapsed into American, and the German cousins, who had learned Oxford English, were completely dumbfounded when I asked a fellow American to hit me with a piece of pizza. The Germans present had no idea why I would want to be struck with a wedge of hot, gooey cheese and tomato sauce. Of course I was requesting a piece of pizza, using the colorful, Las Vegas idiom, “to hit” as in to give me another card at the blackjack table -- not that the Rev. Know-it-all is an aficionado of games of chance.

We, Americans seem to think that we are at the cutting edge of everything. During the halcyon days of the Second Vatican Council, we believed that America was the land created by God to enlighten all those backward countries in Europe. We had stormed in to save them in the Second World War, as every good American boy knows, never mind the sacrifices of the English (almost 400,000 military deaths) the Poles (250,000) and even the Russians( 7-8 million), so we would storm in to save them theologically, and liturgically in the Council. Guess what? Things have changed. There are about 70 million Catholics in the Untied States. Perhaps 30 or 40, million of them speak Spanish. That means the English only speaking Catholics of the United states are a tiny group of perhaps 30 or 40 million, who tend to participate in Mass and the life of the Church when they feel like it. About half of them, 15 to 20 million, attend Mass regularly.

In Africa there are 140,000,000 (One hundred and forty million) Catholic. There are between 4 and 15 million Catholic in China. The Catholics of Africa talk to one another in English, not in American. The same is true in large measure of the Philippines. In the Philippines, there about 170 different languages spoken. Tagalog is spoken by only  22 million as a native language. English is the language preferred for professions and for many textbooks. My point is this: Spanish, French, Portuguese and English are the languages of the vast majority of Catholics and the English used is not necessarily American English. We Americans have no idea how odd our English is.  Sometimes, it is so informal as to be incomprehensible. 

English-speaking America which prided itself on being the Catholic vanguard, is fast becoming a backwater of graying, irritated progressives who think the high point of Catholic culture was the age of Aquarius back in the glorious sixties. The “new translation” is a reminder to the young liberals now that they are seventy and eighty years old, that the there is no such thing as an American Church. There is a Catholic Church in America. The English speaking Catholic clergy of this country must decide; will they be part of a Universal Church or will they continue to pretend that they are the arbiters of all things truly Catholic? 

The Mass has never been said in the local language. It has always been said in a sacred language, a common language, not a local language. Aramaic, the first language of the Mass was the common speech of people from the Jordan Valley to India and beyond. Koine Greek was not the classical Greek of the schools of Athens, nor the patois of Alexandria of up-country Turkey. Koine Greek was the common Greek of the Mediterranean world.  The Latin of the Mass was not the Latin of Iberia that was evolving into Spanish, nor the Latin of Tuscany that was evolving into Italian. It was the Latin of the empire that was spoken in law courts, not kitchens. So it is with the English of the Mass it is a common English, not the English that we butcher in our everyday lives. It is a lingua sacra, a lashon kodesh as different from our daily speech as the Hebrew of the synagogue is different from the Israeli shouted on the streets of Tel Aviv. It is understandable, though that may take a little effort, but it isn’t quite the way we talk.

There is one more interesting aspect of the change. It is a matter of justice. “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matt 7:2)  The law of measuring is an incontrovertible principle of the Kingdom of God. It would be easier to break the laws of physics than the principles of the Kingdom. What goes around comes around. I will probably never be able to say Mass without working at it a little bit, with having a book in front of me, without having to think about it. I will never be able to “wing it” again and to think about what I am going to do after Mass or what I need to get done today. As a celebrant, I will have to pay close attention to what I am saying and doing. Offering the Holy sacrifice of the Mass will never again be as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. It will always be a bit foreign to me and to the all of us older priests. What goes around comes around.

I think back on my old pastor, Monsignor O’Brien. When he was up in years, everything changed. He obeyed, I suspect grudgingly, but he obeyed. The liturgy that he had learned in his childhood, for which he served as an altar boy which he had studied in Rome during the First World War by the light of an oil lamp, the liturgy that he had celebrated for almost fifty years of priesthood was gone over night. It was strictly forbidden to continue to say the Mass of a thousand years without specific permission. It is a matter of great wonder and even humor to me that apparently there are some aging liberals who are planning to ask the Holy Father for an indult, permission that is, to continue to say the Mass as it was until a month ago. These same progressives who fought the indult to say the Tridentine Mass now want an indult for themselves. The mind boggles!  

Remember, what goes around comes around, whether you call yourself a liberal or a conservative. Both are bound by the principles of the kingdom of God.  If this whole thing proves anything, it proves that the word of the Lord endures forever.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”


  1. When I was young, instead of "I am going to," we said "I'm gonna." Now (based on song lyrics I am forced to endure while shopping) all you have to say is "Ima" (as in "Ima buy me a beer.") Pretty soon Americans will just be speaking in acronyms. Oh wait...we already do, LOL.

  2. Eyes glued to the book: I can relate to that. For about 40 years I was saying the people's part of the Mass the same way, and I could say the Creed by heart. That came in handy when I was asked what Catholics believe: I could recite the Creed. Now I can't say the old one or the new one by heart. I can't even remember that funny new word.