June 22, 2006
By a significant vote of 173 to 29, the bishops of the United States, meeting last week in Los Angeles, approved a fresh translation of the Order of the Mass from the Latin. Many had been expecting a heated debate and even division among the bishops on the proposed changes for prayers at Mass. And not without reason. When it comes to a question about the liturgy, the bishops are always passionately engaged.
There were differences. Some preferred one particular translation of a word or phrase. Others, another. But the bishops were completely united in dealing with this issue. They recognized the importance of translation. They accepted the need for a revision of our present liturgical texts. They all know that the liturgy is the very center of the Church’s life. It deserves great concern and attention.
When the Church gathers together in liturgy, she offers to us a share in the very paschal mystery of Christ. Liturgy manifests the mystery of the Church, and, at the same time, builds up the Church in love. Through the liturgy, especially in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, “the work of our redemption is accomplished" (
Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2). The liturgy is the source of the divine life given through the Church as the sacrament of salvation. It is also “the first school of the spiritual life, the first gift which we can give to the Christian people who believe and pray with us…” (Pope Paul VI,
Address at the Closing of the Second Session of the Council, 4 December 1963).
In liturgy, the words addressed to God and the words spoken to the people come from the faith of the Church. They are not expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history. The words used in liturgy also pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next. This is why the bishops take seriously their responsibility to provide for the faithful the translations of liturgical texts that are accurate and inspiring. This is also why these words are not left to the theology or pastoral sensitivity of any individual celebrant. The words used in the prayers of the liturgy, and most especially the Eucharistic prayer, cannot be casual or improvised. They are not to be changed by the priest. They are freighted with too much meaning and tradition.
When the Second Vatican Council took up the question of liturgy, the bishops in attendance did something unprecedented in the history of the Church. For the first time ever, an ecumenical council examined this essential part of Church’s life in all its aspects: biblical and theological as well as pastoral. The Council gave great importance to liturgy by making the document on the liturgy,
Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first document it promulgated. Again and again the document speaks of full, active participation of the people. The change from Latin to the vernacular was meant to facilitate this.
In the enthusiasm of the
aggiornmento, translators set to work to produce translations that expressed the Latin in modes of expression appropriate to the various vernacular languages. From 1969 until 2001, the document
Comme le Prévoit granted translators wide latitude in translations for the liturgy. Rather quickly in the English-speaking world, translators adopted dynamic equivalency as their approach to the texts. Simply stated, dynamic equivalency translates the concepts and ideas of a text, but not necessarily the literal words or expressions. The principle of making the text accessible to the listener outweighs other considerations. As a result, the theological richness of the original texts can be lost and our liturgical prayer impoverished.
In light of the experience in the last 36 years, the Church has revisited the uestion of translation. Many people had noticed the deficiency of dynamic equivalency. In fact, the man who originally proposed this theory himself abandoned it. In 2001, the Holy See issued
Liturgiam Authenticam, a new document to guide all new translations, both of the Scriptures and of liturgical texts.
This new document espouses the theory of formal equivalency. Not just concepts, but words and expression are to be translated faithfully. This approach respects the wealth contained in the original text. In fact, the new instruction has as its stated purpose something wider than translation. It “envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal, which is consonant with the qualities and the traditions of the particular Churches, but which safeguards also the faith and the unity of the whole Church of God” (
Liturgiam Authenticam, 7). The changes that the bishops approved in Los Angeles are a step toward this renewed understanding of the liturgy.
This is the first of a two-part series on the recently approved changes in the liturgy.