Praying the new English translation, The Anchor, November 25, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
November 25, 2011

Since the celebration of the Eucharist is not only the “source and summit of the Christian life,” as the Second Vatican Council taught, but also the main point of weekly contact for most Catholics with the Church, the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which parishes throughout the diocese will begin to use at Masses this Sunday, will undoubtedly have a major impact on the life of Catholics and the Church in the English-speaking world.

It’s hard to overemphasize the power of words in the life of the Church. We believe that God Himself inspired the words of prophets, Apostles and other sacred writers. We marvel that in Jesus Christ the word of God became flesh, dwelled among us, spoke to us with a human voice, and gave us the words of eternal life. We strive to model our discipleship on Mary’s faithful response to God’s initiative: “let it be done to me according to Your Word.” We rejoice that in the psalms, the Our Father, the angelic salutation, and in so many of the great prayers of Sacred Scripture, God Himself has given us words to speak to Him. We are enriched by the great vocal and liturgical prayers composed by the saints, contemplatives and so many who have used their divinely-endowed gifts to praise, adore, love, thank, bless, and petition God and ask Him for mercy. Because sacred words are so important in the practice of the Catholic faith, the changes happening this weekend to the Church’s central and most important prayer constitute one of most significant developments in ecclesial life and worship in the English-speaking world since the time when the Mass began to be celebrated in the vernacular.

As we prepare to pray with these new words for the first time, it would be helpful to keep a few things in mind.

First, it is important that we not approach the new translation seeking to determine whether we “like it” or “don’t like it.” We live in a highly subjectivist age in which we are constantly making quick judgments and evaluations about whether things conform or not to our preferences. This subjectivism has often invaded our worship: many, on account of their personal inclinations, readily determine and pronounce their likes and dislikes on everything from musical styles, settings and accompaniment, to priest celebrants, to the length of Masses and homilies, to the presence of crying infants,  to the use of incense, to Eucharistic Prayers employed and more. It has led some even to say — superficially and, frankly, blasphemously —that they “like” one Mass but “dislike” another based on their personal tastes, which is something akin to complaining about the menu and the setting of the Last Supper.  Our personal tastes are not irrelevant, but they are secondary, and unless we keep them in check, they can spiritually derail us.

There’s a scene in the Gospel when Jesus asks to what He should compare the people of His time. He responded by saying that they were like children sitting in the market places who call to each other, “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not mourn” (Mt 11:16-19). He used the image to illustrate the fact that when John the Baptist came, that generation called him possessed because he didn’t drink and wasn’t fun to be around; when Jesus Himself came, however, the same crowds criticized Him calling Him a drunkard, glutton and friend of sinners. In both circumstances Jesus’ contemporaries missed out on what God wanted to do for them through His precursor and His Son. They missed precisely because they wanted to be in charge of the music, they subjectively wanted to play the tune and have others dance, rather than objectively being open to John’s and Jesus’ changing their tune and their lives for the better. In every generation, Jesus asks for something more mature than a game of children in the marketplaces in which one’s personal proclivities are treated as the central criterion. There are, after all, many spiritual practices — like embracing our cross each day, putting to death the life of the flesh, forgiving 77 times, and fasting — that most of us would never embrace if we are dominated by following our personal predilections.

With regard to the new translation of the Mass, the question of whether we like it or not is far less important that what the performative language is actually enabling: it is the prayer that will bring the God-man to our altar and unite us, with Him, in a total self-gift to the Father. When one grasps this central reality, then even if the language used were the most ineloquent and grating ever, it would still be worth it. Thanks be to God, we don’t have to settle for the banal and grating; the new translation tries to restore not only fidelity to the original — so that the whole Mystical Body of Christ throughout the world can truly pray the Mass in unison from the rising to the setting of the sun — but also a reverential and sacral language that helps us to remember Whom we’re addressing. It’s natural that there are going to be certain things that we like about the new translation and certain things that we don’t, but the key is that we don’t let these natural reactions impede our supernatural recognition of what’s really happening in the Mass: what God is doing, what we should be doing, and the joy with which we should be celebrating both.

The second counsel is to ask for God’s grace to get beyond the words. For priests and faithful learning the new translation, there will be a temptation to concentrate so much on saying the new words that we may forget truly to pray them. Pope Benedict has often cited an ancient instruction of St. Benedict to his monks in order to describe how priests and faithful are to pray the Liturgy: mens concordet voci or “the mind and heart should accord with the words that are said.” We need to mean the words and seek, with God’s grace, to conform our intellect and will to what we are saying. This process will take time, but we should start right away to strive to align our whole being to what we will be saying so that we will become the prayer we say. In order to do this, we must seek to learn why we’re saying what we’re saying. For example, when we pray, “And with your spirit,” our mind should begin to grasp that we’re saying something far more than “likewise” to the priest who prays that the Lord be with us; rather our mind and heart should recognize that we’re praying that the Lord be with the priest as he puts the priestly gifts infused into his spirit at ordination to the service of our sanctification. One of the positive side effects of a new translation is that it will break both priests and faithful of saying the words at Mass routinely, by forcing us to think anew of what we’re saying and why.

Finally, it’s important to state clearly that this translation is more challenging than the one we’ve been using for the past four decades. For many, there will be some unfamiliar words. The syntax of the prayers is more complicated, in some places more akin to poetry than American business prose. Some have mentioned this as a defect, but it really is a great strength. The language in which we speak to God should raise us up. It should challenge us. Our liturgical language should be richer than the dumbed-down, limited lexicon of USA Today.  It’s a manifestation of the great esteem that the bishops of the English-speaking world have for the intelligence of the Catholic faithful that in the new translation they’re using a richer and more theologically precise vocabulary and more complex and eloquent sentence structures. The English-speaking bishops believe that the faithful are up to the challenge of this richer language.

The ancient Christian principle of lex orandilex credendi — that the way we pray impacts and expresses what we believe — remains ever valid. We rejoice that, starting tomorrow, the language of our prayers at Mass will be a deeper, fuller, more exalted and more precise expression of our Catholic faith and we pray that our heart and mind will accord to this richer expression!