By Gordon W. Lathrop

In 2000, as part of a festschrift for Fr. Anscar Chupungco, OSB, Liturgical Press invited and published an article from me titled, “The Revised Sacramentary in Ecumenical Affirmation and Admonition.” It was an article I was glad to write, honored to write, believing as I do that honest ecumenical relationships involve both strongly affirming the gifts one sees the other holding for us all and, at the same time, carefully and humbly admonishing what appear to be failings that may hurt us all. What I said then about the new missal translation of that time, the translation that had been developed by ICEL over the preceding seventeen years, was mostly affirmation. For example:

The Eucharist exists in the local church before a revised liturgical book reaches that assembly. But, in this case, the new liturgical book would come to that assembly representing the combined wisdom of persons who have arisen in a whole range of other local churches — scholars and teaching bishops, priests and praying poets — who pass on the ordo of the Eucharist in new clarity, accompanied with new insight into its tradition, new translation and adaptation of its editio typica texts, and new proposals for the lively combination of the ancient “genius of the Roman rite” with the genius of the contemporary English-speaking cultures (Mark R. Francis and Keith F. Pecklers, eds., Liturgy for the New Millennium, Collegeville; 2000, page 130).

The proposed new sacramentary seemed like a tangible manifestation of the church as a communion of churches. It seemed an international mutual gift-giving such as then only the Roman Catholic Church could accomplish.

Not now. Not with the current “new translation” that is waiting to be imposed upon Roman Catholic parishes a year from now. Combined wisdom, achieved in a gracious public process, seems now to be missing. So does the knowledge that the Eucharist exists already in the local assembly and a book comes only to help, to be one sign of the wider communion. Missing also is any new clarity about the mutual engagement of the genius (and the failings) of the Roman rite and the genius (and the failings) of the several contemporary English-speaking cultures. In regard to this new translation what I mostly want to do is look the other way, embarrassed that such a thing exists. But when I actually read it, when I force myself to face it, remembering that Roman Catholic sisters and brothers will really have to deal with this text, what I want to do is weep. What happens to you, happens to me, as both Tertullian and St. Paul would say. In Christ, it would be wrong to think that what you do in assembly and at Mass does not concern me.

But I must do more than weep. As I said ten years ago, in a far happier way, “whatever happens with the Roman liturgy is important to those of us who also share in the inheritance of the Western rite and in the work of that rite’s continual cultural contextualization” (op. cit., 132). Then I have a responsibility to state, carefully, I hope, but honestly, my admonitions, even if I have no chance of being heard.

My principal concern is this: the new missal translation has simply and unilaterally abandoned what had been our shared ecumenical texts. Amid all the other furor — about awkwardly Latinized English, for example, or about the re-introduction of yet more gendered language for the church and for humanity and God — I wonder if most people who have thought about this new translation have even noticed this loss. The now widely known English missal translation, the 1973 ICEL translation, made use of those texts of the “prayers we have in common” that had been hammered out earlier in the ecumenical International Consultation on English Texts and in ICEL itself, thus with widespread and significant participation in the hammering by Roman Catholic liturgists and linguists. The very same texts — of the Creeds, of the Gloria, of the Preface dialogue, of the Sanctus, of the Agnus Dei, of the Lord’s Prayer — were used in the book of my church: the Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978. They were also used in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, as also in many other liturgical books prepared throughout the churches of the English speaking world in the 70’s and 80’s. The list of those books is long. Then, in 1988, the English Language Liturgical Consultation, the successor to ICET, again with significant Roman Catholic leadership, published Praying Together, an important and helpful revision of all of these texts, based on years of common use and on further scholarship. The revised sacramentary on which I was commenting in 2000, the one that was still waiting for Roman approval, utilized these 1988 revisions. So did the the American Presbyterian Book of Common Worship of 1993. So did the recent revised book of my church, Evangelical Lutheran Worship of 2006. So did many, many other books throughout the English speaking Christian world.

Not this new book. The common Gloria, Sanctus and Creed translations are gone here. So is the common translation of both the full Preface dialogue and the briefer presidential “Lord be with you” exchange. The ecumenical Lord’s Prayer has never been given much of a chance among Roman Catholics, but this new missal does not even give it a nod by providing it as an alternative. No. None of them. We do still more or less share the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, albeit with differences even there. I will take those two shared texts nonetheless as signifying a plea for mercy amid this loss.

For this absence is a huge loss. The sense of common prayer, the sense that our commonly recognized baptism has incorporated us into a common confession of faith and common acts of praise, the belief that these foundations do give us a ground on which to stand as we continue in dialogue toward fuller communion and more manifest unity — all of this is significantly eroded. The sense will be, rather, that what happens in Roman Catholic worship is qualitatively other than what happens in the worship of other communities. If this is what you think, then this missal will serve and reinforce your conviction. If it is not what you think — if the Creeds we share really are shared confessions, for example, and if the ordo of the Mass is recognizable to you in the patterns of the service in many other places — I hope you will lament with me.

Words matter.

Among these texts is the much discussed “and also with you/and with your spirit.” I think that the former response is the better one, more in accord with biblical anthropology, with pastoral truth, with the nature of presiding, and with contemporary ways of beautiful English speech. Besides, after decades of the use of such an important phrase in liturgy — a phrase readily and deeply in the mouths and hearts of the assembly — it is surely wrong to make such a change without very, very good reasons. And the argument from Chrysostom seems to me to be forced, unhelpful, arcane. Do we always follow Chrysostom’s etymologies? Is he always right? And what about the charism that is given in baptism? I am willing to talk about the question, however, to hear the arguments for another translation. I am quite aware that many other modern languages, including the Swedish and Norwegian and German used elsewhere in Lutheran liturgies, translate with their own versions of “and with your spirit.” It is simply that I long for the use in English to be what it has been: a common use arising out of mutual study and conversation. Now it will not be so. There has been no conversation.

And that leads to my second major concern: the process toward this missal translation has been imperious and even abusive. I know this mostly by watching the deep sadness of some of the best liturgists in the world, gracious and holy Roman Catholic men and women, with whom there has also been no conversation. I know it by having observed the remarkable work of the second ICEL translation simply be swept aside, the scholarship and informed opinions of its many drafters from many nations simply ignored. Peter Jeffrey has elegantly taught us that this was not the ancient way of the Roman rite (see his Translating Tradition), but now the process itself seems to represent the worst Protestant nightmare about the Roman church imagining itself to be a monarchical empire, rather than a communion. Such was not the case with the process toward the translation I was praising in 2000. And process does matter. The fruits of imperial coercion will never be love. As the first letter attributed to Peter says, “As a presbyter myself . . . I exhort the presbyters among you to tend the flock of God . . . not under compulsion but willingly . . . Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3).

There are yet other matters of content that deeply concern me. For one thing, “for many” may literally represent the Latin of the Institution Narrative, but it is simply wrong as a translation into English of what we find first in the Markan and Matthean forms of Jesus’ words. Polloi there points to the crowd, the hoi polloi, the great unwashed mass of humanity, the whole needy world, indeed, to all. Then, of course, I still wonder about the overwhelmingly sacrificial character of the texts in and around the various canons of the Mass. That is, I know, an old Lutheran/Roman Catholic disagreement and one that I would not expect to see solved simply by English translation. But when the more understandable and theologically defensible plural (“our sacrifice”) of the orate fratres prayer falls back to the literally correct but liturgically appalling “my sacrifice,” I would think that Roman Catholic pastors and liturgists themselves would object. Then there is that matter of gendered language. Does it work in the ears of current hearers to heighten the masculine references for God, to ask the brothers to pray for the male priest, and then continually to make references to the passive church as to a “she?” No matter how literally correct these translations, are they not the result of a kind of linguistic archaism, reinforcing a older and unjust view of social roles, and are they not a contradiction to the baptismal dignity of the assembly? As Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). Should not our language reflect that baptismal truth?

But is there anything I can affirm about this translation as an observer from afar who nonetheless must pay attention to what is happening? Well, the missal translation does follow the classic western shape of the rite. That is not nothing. And it does offer the possibility (which was there before) of using the Kyrie unencumbered with the penitential rite. Coming in together, singing an extended litany, probably provided the origin of the Kyrie in the West, an origin borrowed from the East. It is an origin worth recovering and the translation makes this possible. Furthermore, the translation does provide some good dismissal texts. But, I am sorry to say, that is about it.

I do not mean to offend. But I do mean to say that the loss of the ecumenically shared texts matters profoundly and that the process I observe being used is not an innocent one. I also mean to encourage Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to resist, to join those who say “wait,” to appeal for review and conversation, and even to refuse to use this translation, maintaining thereby an older, more diverse and more faithful Roman tradition.
But, if this translation actually comes into use, I do also mean to weep.

Gordon W. Lathrop is Professor of Liturgy Emeritus, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and Visiting Professor of Liturgical Studies, Yale Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music

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