Here is an excerpt from a lengthy and very thoughtful address on the new translation of the Roman Missal given last month by Auxiliary Bishop James Conley of Denver at the Midwest Theological Forum in Valparaiso, Indiana:
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 favors 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.vi
Yet if in our worship we speak of God only in abstract terms, then effectively we are undermining our faith in the Incarnation.
As Archbishop Coleridge says: “The cumulative effect [of abandoning human metaphors for God] is that the sense of the Incarnation is diminished. God himself seems more abstract and less immediate than ever he does in Scripture or the Church Fathers.”
I want to say this again: I don’t believe there were bad motives involved in the translations we have now.
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 they have 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.vii
This is the authentic spirit of the liturgy.
As 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.
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the Eucharist bringing us into the heavenly Jerusalem to worship in the company of angels and saints.viii The Book of Revelation starts with St. John celebrating the Eucharist on a Sunday. In the midst of this, the Spirit lifts him up to show him the eternal liturgy going on in heaven.ix
The message is clear: The Church’s liturgy is caught up in the liturgy of the cosmos. And our Eucharistic rites have always retained this vision of the cosmic liturgy.
The Gloria and the Sanctus are two obvious points of contact. In the first, we sing the song that the angels sang at the Nativity. In the latter, we sing in unison with the angelic choirs in heaven; we sing the song that both St. John and the prophet Isaiah heard being sung in the heavenly liturgy.
The oldest of our Eucharistic Prayers, the Roman Canon, lists the names of the 12 apostles along with 12 early saints. This is meant to correspond to the 24 elders who John saw worshipping around the heavenly altar.x
The Roman Canon also includes a prayer for the holy angels to bring the sacrifices from our altar up to God’s altar in heaven.
And of course the Communion Rite includes the Vulgate’s translation of the invitation that St. John heard in the heavenly liturgy: Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.xi
Yet we need to recognize that this experience of the heavenly liturgy has been lost since Vatican II.
Read the entire piece, published today by ZENIT.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:
• The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
• Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
• Ideas Have Liturgical Consequences | Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J.
• How Should We Worship? | Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid, O.S.B. | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Learning the Liturgy From the Saints | An Interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of The Mass and the Saints
• Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
• Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
• The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
• Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• A Year of Crisis, Revisited | Hubert Jedin's 1968 Memorandum to the West German Episcopal Conference