July 28, 2006


Liturgy speaks a language of love

Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Amen.

On June 15, during their national meeting in Los Angeles, the Catholic bishops of the United States approved a new English translation of the Order of Mass.

This new translation involves the most basic and familiar parts of the Mass—the penitential rite, Gloria, creed, eucharistic prayers and acclamations, Our Father and other prayers and responses used daily. The changes are expected to take effect in the next year or two—following Vatican approval.

The new translation is bound to be controversial. For one thing, it changes expressions that have become a familiar part of the prayer of English-speaking Catholics since the early 1970s.

Secondly, it uses a stricter (more literal) interpretation of the original Latin, which is bound to be somewhat clumsy given the differences in grammar and syntax between these two very different languages.

Finally, the new translation takes what might be called the blunt character (or directness) of “plain English” and attempts to provide the Mass with a richer and more expansive symbolic vocabulary.

So, for example, where we now pray in Eucharistic Prayer III “so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made,” the new translation proposes “so that from the rising of the sun to its setting.” And when the celebrant says, “The Lord be with you,” the new response (which many older Catholics remember from pre-Vatican II translations of “et cum spiritu tuo”) is “And with your spirit.”

Those who argue against the new translation say that it introduces arcane, unfamiliar language into the prayer of ordinary people. Those who support the new approach say that it is richer, more evocative and more faithful to sacred Scripture.

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” is a clear and straightforward English translation of “Domine, non sum dignus.” But “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” is reminiscent of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant (Mt. 8:8; Lk 7:6). Which is better as an expression of heartfelt, fervent prayer? Time will tell.

One thing is clear. The liturgy speaks a language that is (and should be) very different from everyday speech. Liturgy exists for the sake of worship—to praise, thank and implore God. Its language is not primarily intended to inform, educate or direct us.

Rather, the language of liturgy is supposed to inspire, evoke and form us—raising our minds and hearts to God, and reminding us that we are sisters and brothers of Christ called to participate in the great mystery of faith, our creation-redemption-sanctification as the chosen people of God.

Liturgy speaks the language of love, not the language of commerce or politics or daily life. It may be clumsy in plain American English to say “And with your spirit,” but if it helps to remind us that we are one in the Spirit, that we are more than material or pragmatic beings, or that we are loved by God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) precisely because we are spiritual beings made in God’s image and likeness, then perhaps we do well to translate “et cum spiritu tuo” in a more vivid way.

New translations of familiar prayers are bound to be uncomfortable at first. So when the time comes to implement the new language of the Mass, we would all do well to remember St. Paul’s words to Timothy: “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:14-15).

The right-handling of the word of truth is no easy task. May the Lord make us good stewards of the words we speak in the Sacred Liturgy. May we truly praise God for the gift of love that is poured out for us in every Eucharist, so that in every faithful gathering of the one family of God, from the rising of the sun to its setting, we may know that we are called and gifted as people who can speak eloquently the divine language of love.

— Daniel Conway


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