Pray Tell recently reported, and then the National Catholic Reporter picked up, that the German missal translation has been tabled. Questions then arose as to whether this report on the meeting of the German bishops’ conference was over-interpretation, or even wishful thinking, on our part. But now precisely this interpretation has been put forth by the respectable German publication Christ in der Gegenwart (“Today’s Christian,” or depending on your translation theory, “The Christian in the Present”).

Stephan U. Neumann writes in an editorial report that “the new translation of the missal, for the time being, has collapsed (“gescheitert”). He writes in the October 13th issue:

The bishops originally wanted to approve a new translation of the missal in German at their fall plenary meeting. But this did not come about – nor will it be coming about in the foreseeable future. One would seek in vain in the official press release of the German Bishops’ Conference for the sentence, “The new translation of the Roman Missal must be considered collapsed.” But the dry, convoluted sentences under the headline “Completion of the Translation of the Missale Romanum” could not mean anything else but this.

The Vatican set up the Ecclesia celebrans (“Celebrating Church”) commission, roughly the equivalent of Vox clara in the English-speaking world, but with a key difference. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) did the work of the 2011 English translation over many years, only to have it massively altered at the last minute by Vox clara, whose mandate was supposedly to advise the Vatican in its approval of the ICEL translation after approval by the English-speaking bishops. But the German-speaking commission Ecclesia celebrans itself did the translation work, consisting of several working subgroups. It is this translation that was not approved by the German-speaking bishops at their recent fall meeting. This means that the current German translation of 1975, slightly altered in 1988, will remain in use for the time being.

Two things led to the new translation being rejected as qualitatively worse than the current one: the election of a new Pope, and the “debacle” of the introduction of a new German translation of the funeral rites in 2009. In 2010 Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, president of the liturgy commission, termed the one-year-old translation as “a failure” after heavy criticism of its language by many pastoral ministers. One wished to avoid such a “disaster” again with the missal.

Priests and laity, with letter-writing campaigns and petitions, called on the bishops to keep the old translation. They found an open ear, for the bishops now announce that there is need of “further clarification” in the matter.

(The current German translation, it should be noted by English speakers, is not as simplistic and inelegant was the previous English translation from 1974 which was in use until 2011. The current German translation tends to be quite close to the Latin, with some stylistic freedoms taken for the sake of literary quality. Speaking very broadly, it is comparable to the more elevated English style of the 1998 English translation which English-speaking experts worked on for some 17 years and all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, only to be rejected by Rome.)

The German-speaking bishops in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland varied somewhat in their position on the new translation, Christ in der Gegenwart reports. Presumably the German bishops would have approved it if there hadn’t been a change in pope. The Swiss bishops were markedly more critical of it already under Pope Benedict XVI. They were fundamentally opposed to language in the liturgy which is not the language of people, and opposed to the literalism demanded by Rome. Instead of merely translating Latin words, they wanted the sense and meaning of the Latin to be expressed within the possibilities of the German language. It was felt that the new translation is stylistically inferior to the current one.

The Austrian bishops also did not want to lose the literary quality of the current translation. With a few exceptions, they have been speaking out for delaying the process. This was to prevent an unloved translation carried out according to Liturgam authenticam and to wait for better political times in the Church when it would be possible to improve vernacular translations. The bishops in Germany have now taken up this course.

According to Christ in der Gegenwart, the Ecclesia celebrans commission has pretty well lost its mandate, although officially it could only be dissolved by the Vatican. It is questionable what authority the commission still retains. Liturgiam authenticam bestows on the Vatican a new authority to force translations against the will of bishops, but it is unlikely this would happen with the change of pope. Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized that the Roman curia exists for service and that he wishes to strengthen local bishops in their decision-making authority.

Christ in der Gegenwart says that the future is open. Liturgist Albert Gerhards of Bonn hopes that a new, small, competent working group could be given the freedom to work from the 1975 translation, both the Latin translations and the prayers original to the German language. “These cannot simply be taken over, as they are products of their time,” he stated. He would consider it possible and desirable to formulate anew some of the collects and post-communion prayers every 30 years. For to pray means to express the faith ever new in the historical and cultural situation of the faithful.

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