The New Mass Translation: Invention, Music, Story
Along with being a priest and pastor, I also enjoy writing poetry. Some years ago, I gave a talk on poetry, which people listened to as if I had something to say. I was surprised! I tried to get across what I thought poetry was. I said it involved three things: Invention, Music and Story. A poet invents ways to say things in a way different from ordinary speech. A poem has a kind of music—even if not sung; there's rhythm, maybe it rhymes, and certainly it compels you to listen. And, poetry has to tell a story.
The texts which make up our prayers at Mass have these three qualities. There's a different style to the prayers of the liturgy. They are an invention of language that does not sound like everyday speech. Some of the difference comes from the fact that our prayers are translated from another language: Latin. Classical Latin, the language of our Roman Missal, has a unique style. It includes repetition, special word order and other unique linguistic devices.
The effort to translate the Latin text of the Roman Missal results in a special kind of English text. Our translators have used their creative powers of invention, with a goal of greater fidelity to the qualities of the original Latin text. At the same time, they wanted to produce a kind of "music"—not sung—with an elegance and rhythm all its own when the texts are spoken.
The third quality of poetry is also present in our Mass texts. They tell a story! They tell the story of Jesus! The source of that story is the Bible. Hidden beneath the surface of the prayers are many biblical passages. Here are just a few:
"Behold the Lamb of God"—John the Baptist's proclamation of Jesus;
"Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts"—the visions of Isaiah and of the Book of Revelation;
"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof"—the confession of the centurion in the Gospel.
Other "stories" are more deeply buried. They are the expressions of faith coined by the "Fathers of the Church," great teachers of the early Christian centuries. For example, St. John Chrysostom gave a Pentecost homily in which he declared, "If the Holy Spirit were not in our Bishop when he gave the peace to all shortly before ascending to his holy sanctuary, you would not have replied to him all together, 'And with your spirit.'" St. John wanted his people to know that the presider at the liturgy was not doing his own work, but that of the Holy Spirit, whose grace was present. That's something to think about as we now respond to "The Lord be with you" with the words "And with your spirit."
Other "stories" behind the words we pray at Mass are those of liturgies celebrated by the Church in ancient times. These have been preserved, dusted off and presented to us as Eucharistic Prayer II and many other texts we're now praying in the 21st century.
As we examine particular texts in the revised English translation of the Roman Missal, keep my threefold description of poetry in mind: invention, music and story. You may not "hear" each and every text as a kind of poetry. That's not really my point here. Rather, the labor of our translators has been to invent a language suitable for prayer and proclamation, with a "music" of its own, which captures the Christian story: that Jesus died and rose to save us.
There is now only one element missing: You and I must begin using these prayers. Week by week, season by season, year by year, we will be "reinvented" again and again as the People of God, the Church. We will be the music that the Spirit sings. We will be the story of the Body of Christ retold in the world.
Very often, in everyday speech, someone may stop in the middle of an explanation and ask, "What am I trying to say...?" He or she is searching for the right word. Such a search has been the work of the translators of our revised English texts. They have tried to go back to the command of Jesus himself, "Do this in memory of me." Fidelity to Christ's command is behind all of what we do in liturgy.
Over the centuries, the faith of believers, praying at Eucharist, has helped shaped the prayers of the Mass and its very structure. The work of theologians, presiders and pastors of the community has also influenced our liturgical texts. The reforming work of Church councils and the leadership of various popes, down to our present Holy Father, has also determined how we will pray the Mass.
All along, the question has been: "What are we trying to say? How best can we express our faith?"
Now, for those in the Western or Latin Church, that work has been completed—lots of translators, liturgists, pastors, bishops, all reviewing the texts and debating particular words and phrases! The Holy Father has directed that the new Roman Missal, and the English translation of its official Latin prayers, be implemented. Now it is up to us.
Father Greg Friedman, O.F.M.
American Catholic Radio: Upcoming Episodes (#11-47 , #11-48)
Use the links below to preview the shows or download them in MP3 format for broadcast.
Highlights from this episode include:
Judy Zarick interviews Amy Schneider from Lansing, Michigan. Amy's daughter, Sarah, has autism and needed special help to attend Mass with her family. Amy directs a group known as Our Lady of Grace Special Families Ministry. This ministry helps build awareness, improves understanding and responds to children with special needs and their families.
Ask a Franciscan
Franciscan Father Hilarion Kistner answers two Scripture questions: Why don't the Church-approved apocryphal writings appear in the Bible? Since the Bible has been translated so many times, how can we trust what we read in it?
Exploring Our Faith
John Feister's guest is Rev. Richard B. Hilgartner, a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He became executive director of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship in February 2011, after serving as associate director since 2007. He has served in parish ministry and campus ministry. Father Hilgartner has also taught undergraduate theology and seminary homiletics for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontificio Ateneo Sant'Anselmo, Rome. He spoke with John about the introduction this Advent of the Roman Missal, Third Edition in its English translation.
Highlights from this episode include:
Judy Zarick talks with Father Len Wenke, director of the department of pastoral services for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He recalls the meaning and impact of the celebration of the Eucharist he concelebrated for a death-row inmate.
Ask a Franciscan
Franciscan Father Dan Kroger answers three pastoral questions: Why do we say the Nicene Creed at Mass but the Apostles' Creed during the rosary? What is the RCIA process? Where did the Stations of the Cross devotion begin?
Exploring Our Faith
John Feister interviews ACR host, Franciscan Father Greg Friedman. In addition to his media work for St. Anthony Messenger Press, Father Greg is a working pastor of a small inner-city parish here in Cincinnati, Ohio. For the last few years, he's been interested in how a pastor might approach the changes in the translation of the Mass prayers, not as a liturgical expert, but in very down-to-earth terms. The result of Father Greg's interest is a DVD series of short videos called The Catholic Update Guide to the Changes in the Mass, published earlier this year by the U.S. bishops and St. Anthony Messenger Press. He spoke with John about his "pastor's take" on the new Roman Missal.