Bishop Conley on the new Missal translation: 'The very words of God'

Bishop Conley on the new Missal translation: 'The very words of God'

Bishop James Conley

The following is the edited text of an address given on 25 April 2011 by Auxiliary Bishop James Conley of Denver at the Midwest Theological Forum in Valparaiso, Indiana. It is reprinted here with Bishop Conley's permission.

The "new Mass" is almost a half-century old now. A generation of Catholics has grown up knowing only the Novus Ordo. I would venture to bet that many younger Catholics have no idea that the prayers we say at Mass are translated from an authoritative Latin text.

In Advent, we are going to introduce a major new English translation of the Mass with the third typical edition of the Roman Missal.

What are Catholics in the pews going to make of the changes in the words they pray and the words they hear the priest praying? Will the changes make any difference in their experience of the Mass? In the way they worship? In the way they live their faith in the world?

Those of us who are priests, and those preparing to be ordained - we are the keys to the success of this next phase in the Church's ongoing liturgical renewal.

There is a banal, pedestrian quality to much of the language in our current liturgy. The weakness in the language gets in the way and prevents us from experiencing the sublime spiritual and doctrinal ideas woven into the fabric of the liturgy.

The translators had well-meaning pastoral intentions. They wanted to make the liturgy intelligible and relevant to modern Catholics. To that end, they employed a translation principle they called "dynamic equivalence."

In practice, this led them to produce an English translation that in many places is essentially a didactic paraphrase of the Latin. In the process, the language of our Eucharistic worship - so rich in scriptural allusion, poetic metaphor and rhythmic repetition - came to be flattened out and dumbed down.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra-Goulburn, Australia, has observed that our current translation "consistently bleaches out metaphor, which does scant justice to the highly metaphoric discourse" of the liturgy. He has pointed out serious theological difficulties with our current translations, including problems related to ecclesiology and the theology of grace.

The key point here is that the words we pray matter. What we pray makes a difference in what we believe. Our prayer has implications for how we grasp the saving truths that are communicated to us through the liturgy.

For instance, our current translation almost always favours abstract nouns to translate physical metaphors for God. If the Latin prayer refers to the "face" of God, "face" will be translated in abstract conceptual terms, such as "presence." References to God's "right hand" will be translated as God's "power." This word choice has deep theological implications.

The point of the Son of God becoming flesh is that God now has a human face - the face of Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Whoever sees him sees the Father. Yet if in our worship we speak of God only in abstract terms, then effectively we are undermining our faith in the Incarnation.


I think the root problem with the translations we have now is that the translators seriously misunderstood the nature of the divine liturgy. Our current translations treat the liturgy basically as a tool for doing catechesis. That's why our prayers so often sound utilitarian and didactic, often with a kind of lowest-common-denominator type of feel. That's because the translators were trying to make the "message" of the Mass accessible to the widest possible audience.

But Christ did not give us the liturgy to be a message-delivery system. Of course, we pray what we believe, and what we pray shapes what we believe: lex orandi, lex credendi. But the liturgy is not meant to "teach" in the same way that a catechism teaches, or even in the same way that a homily teaches.

On this point, the words of the great liturgical pioneer, Father Romano Guardini, are worth hearing again: "The liturgy wishes to teach, but not by means of an artificial system of aim-conscious educational influences. It simply creates an entire spiritual world in which the soul can live according to the requirements of its nature. ...

"The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there. ...

"The liturgy has no purpose, or at least, it cannot be considered from the standpoint of purpose. It is not a means which is adapted to attain a certain end - it is an end in itself."

As Fr Guardini says, the liturgy aims to create a new world for believers to dwell in. A sanctified world where the dividing lines between the human and the divine are erased. Guardini's vision is beautiful: "The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life."

The new translation of the Mass restores this sense of the liturgy as transcendent and transformative. It restores the sacramentality to our liturgical language. The new translation reflects the reality that our worship here joins in the worship of heaven.

The new edition of the Missal seeks to restore the ancient sense of our participation in the cosmic liturgy.

Yet we need to recognise that this experience of the heavenly liturgy has been lost since Vatican II. This loss is reflected - I'm tempted to say abetted - by our current translation. For the last 40 years we have erased this heavenly reference in the Communion Rite with our bland translation: "Happy are those who are called to his Supper."

For years now, Pope Benedict XVI has been urging the Church to reclaim this appreciation of the cosmic liturgy, to reclaim our great liturgical patrimony.

I want to underline these words of the Holy Father: "The essential matter of all Eucharistic liturgy is its participation in the heavenly liturgy. It is from thence that it necessarily derives its unity, its catholicity, and its universality."

The essential matter of our Eucharist is its participation in the liturgy of heaven. In other words: that's what the Eucharist is all about. The Eucharist we celebrate on earth has its source in the heavenly liturgy. And the heavenly liturgy is the summit to which our Eucharistic celebration looks.

Yet how many of our people in the pews - how many of our priests at the altar - feel that they are being lifted up to partake in the heavenly liturgy? This is why this new translation is so important.

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