More On Translations: The Progressive Solemnity Flaw

South African bishop Edward Risi takes a publicity campaign to the readers of The Southern Cross and explains some of the thought behind the new English translations. Whether or not the bishops there have to pull the translations now or not, there will need to be considerably more catechesis on it. This piece is a start.

My friend Father Paul Turner, whom I respect as a scholar and a liturgist, also touts the advanced connections with Scripture in the new translation. But the argument is an empty one. The laity of South Africa don’t object to the references to the Bible. They don’t like the exalted tone rendered into unintelligibility.

If there’s a concern about the connection of the Roman Missal to Scripture, it doesn’t require a close translation to Latin (which isn’t a Biblical language at all). ICEL produced a translation of Roman Missal II in the 80’s that harmonized the opening prayer with the three-year Lectionary cycle. That effort was vetoed by the curia, and eleven years later we’re still stuck with what nearly everyone concedes is a weaker translation.

Bishop Risi also makes a case for “saying ‘please.'” And this is a good point. The way of saying please and Latin construction transliterated into English changes a short text with two periods and four commas:

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

to one period and ten commas:

Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, sustained by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope, and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Let me tackle one significant comment from Bishop Risi:

The new text requires more effort to be attentive to the meaning of whole sentence and to what is being said prayerfully. But the effort may be well worth it! The same can be said for most of the new translations.

The bishop, others on ICEL, and most advocates of Liturgiam Authenticam (LA) have lost track of an important liturgical principle: progressive solemnity. While usually applied to the overarching celebration of the liturgical year and the implementation of singing and other features of solemnity, the principle has no less application within a single celebration of Mass.

The highlight texts of the celebration of Mass are the Scriptures and the Eucharistic Prayer. They deserve more attention, reverence, and effort by all celebrating the liturgy. The peripheral texts do not operate on the same level. While these texts cannot be omitted from the Mass, their mandated inclusion doesn’t mean they have equal importance to all other required texts.

The serious flaw in the new approach to translation is that, as Bishop Risi concedes, it takes effort. Scholars and contemplatives might well embrace the effort. But is a concentrated effort through the whole celebration of Mass really a desired quality? People should make the effort during the Eucharistic Prayer to understand what is happening and what is being prayed. Gesture and tone should always highlight the epiclesis as it does for the institution narrative. Acclamations should be well-introduced and vigorously sung by the assembly. The intercessions should be clear, and the Amen and Lord’s Prayer offer a certain closure here. A ten-comma sentence is not what the liturgy needs to follow this “effort.”

Put simply, within a thirty- or sixty- or two hundred-minute liturgy there are times when worshippers should be challenged. And there are times when people will simply tune out. It’s not a question of intelligence or perceptibility or education. It’s a matter of pacing. A marathon runner doesn’t sprint for twenty-six miles. Like a challenging run, good liturgy needs to provide a certain pace to ensure the really important moments are engaging the people, and the less important moments don’t call undue attention to themselves.

I believe the principles of LA are open to question and debate. That debate may be ineffective at present I’ll grant. But within the goal of making the liturgy more meaningful, I think applying LA will fall far short of the potential a thoughtful and crafted whole of the Missal would be.

If we want to say “please” to God more often, it can be done without LA. If we want more Scripture allusions, we need more prayers composed in the vernacular, and we can draw those Scriptures out with approved translations … without LA. I don’t feel any less loyal to the Church or to good liturgy by saying that these justifications are just a policy in search of a theology–any theology–that can back up a decision made in secret in the mid-90’s. This isn’t about prayerfulness or reverence. This is about the politics of control, and the addiction to power.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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9 Responses to More On Translations: The Progressive Solemnity Flaw

  1. Gavin says:

    “The serious flaw in the new approach to translation is that, as Bishop Risi concedes, it takes effort.”

    This is the answer to “define pragmatism in one sentence.”

    I think your substance is all wrong. All of the prayers of the Mass are important, not just the readings and canon. But this is a good, substantial criticism of the text, rather than “everyone who likes it is wrong.” I’d be very interested to see more of your reaction to it.

    As a plain point, I would say the portion of the Pater that you cite is indeed too wordy. Surely we can have fidelity to Latin without emulation of its grammatical oddities?

  2. Deacon Eric says:

    Recently I had an experience where I wanted to include a passage from John XXIII’s opening homily of the Second Vatican Council in a book. Oddly, the Vatican web site had the text only in Latin, and none of the many books on Vatican II I own had a translation that included the exact passage I wanted to quote.

    So we needed a translation. Well, this caused a flurry of concern at the publisher and in our diocese. Everyone was afraid that the Vatican would take offense at the translation. Finally the publisher enlisted a Latin grad student at Georgetown who produced a very literal translation, parts of which made absolutely no sense in English. But everyone was so afraid of what would happen if the translation were loosened up a bit that we are now saddled with a translation that, for example, translates “adversos humanos” as “human disasters,” which is totally meaningless. But it is exact, and that is all that matters.

    This is where we are in the Church today.

    • Jeff Pinyan says:

      Sorry for the extreme lateness of my reply. First, I’m sorry you couldn’t find an English translation of Bl. Pope John XXIII’s address at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Here is one.

      As for the phrase you needed translated, I assume it came from this sentence:

      In praesenti humanorum eventuum cursu, quo hominum societas novum rerum ordinem ingredi videtur, potius arcana Divinae Providentiae consilia agnoscenda sunt, quae per tempora succedentia, hominum opera, ac plerumque praeter eorum exspectationem, suum exitum consequuntur, atque omnia, adversos etiam humanos casus, in Ecclesiae bonum sapienter disponunt.

      I’m sorry the Georgetown student gave you such a bad translation. Here is my attempt at a translation of the latter portion of that sentence (beginning with “omnia, adversos…”):

      “[God’s hands] are wisely arranging all things, even human misfortunes, for the good of the Church.”

      That might be a bit loose, I admit. Adversos humanos casus could very literally be rendered as “adverse human fortunes” or “unfavorable human fates”. I think rendering adversos … casus as “misfortunes” is legitimate.

      I disagree with your assessment that the Church is at a point where “totally meaningless [but] exact [is] all that matters.”

  3. Malcolm Pickering says:

    I certainly agree, at least, that the Libera Nos is of no real consequence. The Church requires it, but really, it is meaningless. It isn’t as though my anxiety or whatever is going to be lessened by some incantation, no matter how complex or simple.

    its one of the most pointless parts of the ritual.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    “Between the Council of Trent and Vatican II, a distinguished mark of the Catholic Church was its continuing use of Latin in the liturgy. Before that, when literacy was largely restricted to the clergy and Religious, Latin made sense as a universal ecclesial language.

    Now few Catholics are proficient in Latin nor wish to see it reintroduced. The Church is united not be a common tongue but by a common spirit. Pentecost, not Latin, is the answer to the Tower of Babel. Latin was not the language of Our Lord, nor of St. Peter, nor of St. Paul, but that of Pontius Pilate, Nero and of the early persecutors of the Church.

    Until St. Jerome, Latin was not even the language of the Bible. It is no longer the language of scholarship, of science, of medicine, nor even of law. Few Catholic parishioners under 40 have heard a Latin Mass. Neither have the majority of those who became converts within the last 40 years.

    Every parish could institute Latin classes, but perhaps the cause of faith would be better served by teaching greater reverence for, and knowledge of, the Word, together with respect for the sacred in the liturgy. What really matters is that the liturgy should speak to the heart, and that requires not only good music but also communication in the vernacular.”

    The Tablet, July 8, 2006.

  5. Kevin in Texas says:

    Jimmy Mac, is this the same Tablet from England that has so viciously attacked priests in southern England who have added a Tridentine Mass to their other Mass offerings and called for them to be pulled from their parishes?

    If so, then the mish-mash of appeals to emotion and the lack of logic of the editorial (?) you quote makes more sense.

    For what it’s worth, the notion that the liturgy should speak to our hearts being the primary purpose of the Mass is utterly meaningless “emotion-speak”. The primary purpose of the Mass is to worship God through the sacrifice that Christ instituted for His Church at the Last Supper.

    And lest I be slammed as a Rad Trad, Tridentine-only Catholic, let it be known that I’ve never actually attended a Tridentine Mass in my life, although I’ve attended quite a few Novus Ordo Latin Masses.

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    Kevin: do you actually READ The Tablet? The idea that they “viciously attack” anyone or anything is ludicrous!

    I have attended more Tridentine masses in my life than was healthy for any believing Catholic. That’s what one did: attend. The idea of participation was restricted to watching and attempting to understand the priest on that altar.

  7. Kevin in Texas says:

    Yes, Jimmy, Elena Curti and a number of other writers on their staff regularly attack any and all UK priests or bishops who support and welcome the multo propio allowing the TLM to be said freely when faithful Catholics ask for it. They then brook no dissent or do not allow priests they attack to respond in their pages, even going so far as to threaten pressing legal cases against them for defending themselves elsewhere on the Internet.

    A brilliant and very sad example of this method of attack involves how the Tablet has written up and treated Father Tim Finigan in southern England. Fr. Z’s blog has been following the ongoing Tablet antics pretty closely, with links and all.

    Please be intellectually honest, Jimmy Mac, and acknowledge that the Tablet is a progressive Catholic newspaper that regularly disagrees with Pope BXVI and with people of more orthodox Catholic beliefs. If we are not going to be intellectually honest about biases (ours and those of others), then there is no sense in dialoguing with each other, is there?

    How about this: I promise not to represent orthodox Catholic news sources as anything other than being orthodox, and you can promise not to represent progressive, even openly heterodox Catholic news sources as being anything other than progressive and even heterodox. Make sense? At least we’ll then be on the same page.

  8. Jimmy Mac says:


    I’ll ask you again: do you READ The Tablet, or just parrot back what Fr. Z., TLM and other rightists have to say about it?

    I would like you to point me to specific issues and articles that support your claims.

    Yes, I read the Tablet weekly and acknowledge that it tends to be progressive … I have never declared otherwise.

    Intellectual honesty does not equate progressive ideas with heterodoxy and orthodoxy with restorationist untramontane positions.

    “Orthodoxy is most likely to become intolerant when it is insecure or uncertain of its views.” Harold O. J. Brown, In Addition To Which (article), The Religion & Society Report, March 1991.

    “Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.“ Reinhold Niebuhr.

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