by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue
Translation is very much the center of liturgical news at the moment. Pope Francis’ recently released motu propio Magnum Principium and his letter of clarification to Cardinal Sarah have featured in many general Catholic news media.
Most liturgical scholars consider the 2011 English edition of the Roman Missal to be exhibit number one in the case for poor liturgical translation. This translation was produced under a very heavy Roman influence and it is generally understood to be very difficult to proclaim or understand as an aural text.
Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests commissioned a survey of the views of Irish clergy on the 2011 missal translation. The results of the survey showed that only 4.7% of priests were very satisfied with the new translation and 20% were satisfied, on the other end of the spectrum 27.4% were very dissatisfied and 33.7% were dissatisfied, showing a much greater percentage of Irish clergy (61.1%) being unhappy with the 2011 translation and a much smaller number liking it (24.7%). 80% of the Irish priests surveyed were in favor of replacing the Missal translation, either with a yet to be prepared revision (44.5%), or by simply abandoning it and reverting to the 1973 edition immediately (35.1%).
While the English-speaking bishops’ conferences (following strong encouragement from the Congregation of Divine Worship) applied the ill-fated translation norms of the 2001 CDW instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, and produced the current 2011 English missal translation, other bishops’ conferences had more difficulties in approving similar translations in their own languages. These bishops will now be able to work on a more acceptable translation in German, French, etc.
However initial commentary on the motu propio by English speaking bishops and liturgical experts seem to discount any further work on the missal and instead concentrate on other future translation projects that are in the pipeline such as the new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours. With most liturgical decision makers resigned to retaining to retaining the current 2011 translation, we face the prospect of retaining it for at least another decade! Thankfully the New Zealand Conference of Catholic bishops has taken the lead in this matter and expressed their desire “to explore prudently and patiently the possibility of an alternative translation of the Roman Missal.”
I personally believe that it is eminently possible, and indeed quite easy, to provide an alternative to the 2011 Roman Missal. The so called 1998 Sacramentary is basically ready to go and with a minimum of editing could be ready for liturgical use in a few weeks.
I have made the arguments for such a rehabilitation in a recent article that was published in the current issue of the Irish Theological Quarterly . Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, the whole article cannot be reproduced here. ICEL spent almost twenty years preparing the 1998 Sacramentary. The best English speaking liturgical experts were involved in the project, all eleven English speaking bishops’ conferences approved the whole translation. Despite the countless hours work by teams of experts, the translation was ultimately rejected by Rome. Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland was chair of ICEL 1997-2002. He has left us an account of the dealings with the Congregation for Divine Worship. PrayTell has also published Peter Nixon’s M.A. Thesis Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California detailing the events surrounding the rejection of the 1998 Sacramentary.
This blog post is not the place to go into the problems with the current 2011 translation of the Missal (a simple search in the search box in the top right corner of this page will reveal dozens of posts outlining various problems with that translation).
In my article (written before the new motu propio), I proposed that the Divine Worship – The Missal for the Ordinariates established by Anglicanorum Coetibus, promulgated in 2015, could provide the justification we need to also promulgate a version of the 1998 Sacramentary. The Divine Worship book provides a second approved liturgical translation of some prayer texts of the current Roman Missal rendering them into Tudorized English. These include both the Roman Canon and Eucharistic Prayer II.
Liturgiam Authenticam 87-88 expresses a preference for a single translation of liturgical books and in particular for the Order of Mass in any given language. I consider the second translation of the central texts of the Order of Mass in the Divine Worship edition to be a good example of permissiveness and pastoral sensitivity which, in this case, is shown to former Anglicans. I have no issue with those Christians who derive spiritual benefit by participating in liturgical celebrations celebrated in Tudorized English. The Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible are treasures of English Christianity and culture. To be honest, I am happy to see the Church making pastoral accommodations to better bring people to Christ. However, I would propose that a similar largesse be shown to those Catholics who feel more at home in contemporary English and who believe that they would derive spiritual benefit by participating in liturgical celebrations where the prayers are prayed in standard English that is more readily understandable than the linguistic style of the 2011 Roman Missal.
Additionally, Pope Francis’ October 15 letter to Cardinal Sarah clarified that “individual numbers of Liturgiam authenticam must be carefully reconceived.” With this in mind, I suggest the publication of an edited version of the 1998 Sacramentary to be used side by side with the current 2011 Roman Missal.
In the original 1998 Sacramentary, ICEL decided not to change the assembly’s responses in the prayers (unless a major problem was perceived in a particular response), so it retained the responses as found in the 1973 Roman Missal translation. However, the 2011 version retranslated most of these parts. Despite the linguistic and theological issues with the 2011 translation of the assembly’s responses, I think that, on a pastoral level, it would be unwise to change them again after such a short period of time. I would likewise consider the adoption of the 2011 translation of the institution narrative within the 1998 translation of the Eucharistic Prayers.
The 1998 Sacramentary contained some newly composed texts, most notably an optional three-year cycle of opening prayers for Sunday Mass, matching the Lectionary readings. I would suggest that, at least initially, they be removed from the newly published version. The new edition of the missal would be prepared in a similar way to the newest versions of the Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children. Both of these were recently republished in new editions which basically conserve the original translation but incorporate the revised assembly’s parts.
In this way parishes would be free to use either translation. Obviously, the use of two translations simultaneously is not an ideal situation. I would propose that once the adapted 1998 Sacramentary translation was introduced this would be followed by a period of stability. Then a new translation could be prepared that could take the best of both the 2011 and 1998 versions. In the meantime, both translations would be legitimate options and time would tell which version was found to be more prayerful for the general Catholic population. Given that the assembly’s parts would be the same, people would not encounter too much difficulty in attending liturgies using the different translations.
I fully realize that this is not the most practical suggestion. Whatever one might think of it, the 2011 translation is a fact. Virtually every parish in the English-speaking world has already adopted it and thousands of worship aids and prayer books already use that translation. The introduction of a second translation would ruffle some feathers and would entail a certain amount of catechesis and faith formation. Practically speaking it is definitely easier to simply stick our heads in the sand and do nothing. But that is precisely what I am afraid of. The Eucharist is too important to allow the Church’s celebration of it to be ruled simply by apathy or inertia. I believe that all Catholics must fight to make our celebration of the Eucharist as fruitful as possible. In one of my favorite quotations of Alexander Schmemann, he warns of the danger of domesticating the Eucharist:
It suddenly became clear to me that ultimately, deeply, deeply, there is a demonic fight in our Church with the Eucharist—and it is not by chance! Without putting the Eucharist at the very center, the church is a ‘religious phenomenon,’ but not the Church of Christ, the pillar and bulwark of the Truth (1 Timothy 3:15). The whole history of the Church has been marked by pious attempts to reduce the Eucharist, to make it ‘safe,’ to dilute it in piety, to reduce it to fasting and preparation, to tear it away from the church (ecclesiology), from the world (cosmology, history), from the Kingdom (eschatology). And it became clear to me that if I had a vocation, it is here, in the fight for the Eucharist, against this reduction, against the de-churching of the Church—which happened through clericalization on one hand, and through worldliness on the other.
– Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, trans. Juliana Schmemann (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2000), 310.
We cannot allow our liturgical future to be decided by what is the path of least resistance. It is incumbent upon the Church to make every effort to find the lost sheep and to reach out to the men and women of today’s generation. I hope everyone agrees that translation is not everything; no matter how good a translation we might have, fidelity to Christ is still vital. Good liturgy must go hand in hand with holiness of life, or, as David Fagerberg has termed it, liturgical asceticism. Perhaps I will be proven mistaken and the majority of Catholics will prefer the current 2011 translation to the 1998 effort, but I believe that we ought to find out.
I am not alone in my opinion, the famous Australian Jesuit Gerald O’Collins has also expressed his hope for a rehabilitation of the 1998 Sacramentary in his recent book Lost in Translation. In the Preface he writes: “Before I die, I would be delighted to celebrate once again the Eucharist in my native language.” I endorse his desire and hope that other pastors, liturgists and concerned Catholics will agree with me.
Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. He currently ministers in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Ireland, where he serves as vice rector at Redemptoris Mater Seminary. He has studied at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame, and St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctorate in Theology from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.