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New English translation of the Mass

November 15, 2011
By Bishop Terry R. LaValley , Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg

For several months, the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg have been invited to participate in workshops, retreats and parish adult faith formation programs in anticipation of the first Sunday of Advent (Nov. 26-27). They have heard homilies and read articles in the North Country Catholic and their parish bulletins preparing everyone for some changes at Mass. I am grateful to Father Garry Giroux, Father Albert Hauser and Father Douglas Lucia (vicar for worship) for their insightful contributions, some included here, and time spent in educating us all on the new changes.

We've all heard the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." (Cambridge Idioms Dictionary) The current English translation of the Mass has been in place for almost 40 years and seems to have worked well. So why is the Catholic Church introducing a new English translation of the Mass on Nov. 26-27 of this year?

In its desire to promote full, active and conscious participation in the Mass, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) authorized the translation of the Mass and sacraments from Latin into modern languages. Translators were asked to make available an English text of the Mass as quickly as possible. Forty years ago, the strategy for translating the Mass from Latin into English was to provide the basic meaning of the Latin rather than a word-for-word translation of the text. While this approach to translation provided a simple and understandable English text of the Mass, unfortunately many of the scriptural and theological allusions present in the Latin text did not make it into the English translation. Years of praying and living with the English text of the liturgy, as well as advances in a number of areas of scholarship, led the Church to recognize the need for a new English translation of the Mass.

We should not be surprised that, after 40 years, a revision of the English translation of the Mass was judged necessary. Revisions, renewals and renovations occur with regularity most everywhere. Textbooks are edited and revised, scientific theories are revisited and amended, and people renovate their homes in an effort to reclaim the original features and beauty of the structure. The new translation of the Mass has the goal of renewing and deepening the worship life of English-speaking Catholics.

It will be noticeable that the basic and conversational style of English found in the 1973 translation of the Mass is not used in the 2010 English translation. Why? The style of language people use is determined by the situation in which they find themselves. For example, the language persons use when speaking to their friends around the kitchen table or campfire is different from the style of language a person would use if they were speaking to a judge in a courtroom. A person's choice of vocabulary and their use of grammar are governed by the formality or informality of the situation in which they find themselves. A conversational style of language is most often used in personal, individual prayer. But public prayer, like the Mass and the sacraments, calls for a more formal and elevated style of language. We will find the style of language in the new English translation of the Mass possessing a richer vocabulary, a stronger sense of the poetic and full of allusions to the scriptures.

Some may object to certain words in the new English translation of the Mass, saying, "We don't use these words at work, or in school or on the street. Why use them in church?" People who share a vocabulary and special phrases which are particular to them fashion what is called a speech community. There are many examples of people forming speech communities: the health care profession, computer techs, economists, the building trades, military and law enforcement personnel, musicians, etc. Their specific use of language bonds them together; they experience community through their shared vocabulary and speech. The Catholic Church is a speech community. We share particular words and special phrases that are specific to us Catholics. So it should not be surprising that words and phrases that have been part of our Catholic speech community for centuries will be found in the new English translation of the Mass.

Change is never easy. It is said that the only humans who like change are wet babies! Change interrupts the rhythm in our lives. Everyone likes predictability. English-speaking Catholics have been accustomed to the vocabulary, phrasing and style of the current translation of Mass for some 40 years. It is important to remember that while there will be some significant changes in the wording of the Mass, the STRUCTURE of the Mass REMAINS UNCHANGED. The new English translation of the Mass is going to take some time to get used to for both the laity and the priests. Catholics will need to be patient during the upcoming time of change, remembering that the goal of these changes is a deeper experience of praise and worship of God and a greater spiritual nourishment of the Church. May that be our experience.

 
 

 

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