The Bishops’ Statement on Translation

By Chris McDonnell

Our Bishops have spoken. Following their November meeting in Leeds, the Bishops of England and Wales have issued a statement of no-change; the current translation of the Roman Missal will remain in use in spite of the recent statement of Francis restoring the responsibility for liturgical translation to local churches.

“My Oh My Oh My’, to quote a line from a Leonard Cohen lyric.

After their meeting, the Bishops are quoted as saying that they were “grateful” for the guidance they had received from the Congregation for Divine Worship advising that the ‘Motu Proprio’ “concerns future liturgical translations and cannot be applied retroactively”. Grateful? They should have expressed their dismay and disappointment that the 1998 text could be so easily dismissed. Caught between a rock and a hard place they have taken the ostrich option.

Just as they rolled over when the current text was foisted on a voiceless people in 2011, so they have done again.

Their voice hides behind legalistic phrases and the people are blamed for misunderstanding Rome. We are told that we must wait until there is a new standard Latin text, with the jocular comment from Archbishop Peter Smith -“I am not sure I will be around to see that”. Nor, I would suggest, will many others, given the level of frustration felt by so many of the diocesan communities that they pastor.

The Archbishop goes on to acknowledge that “a lot of people were very upset” with the current translation but then adds “I think that most of us have got used to it”. And just where are the evidential facts to support such a statement? Whose hand in Rome added historicity to an understanding and interpretation of this text?

Meanwhile, a much-praised translation from 1998 approved by all of the English-Speaking conferences lies gathering dust when it could be assisting in our Eucharistic prayer. Many whose theological background and personal writing is both recognized and respected have expressed their support for this text, anxious that the great creative effort which went into its production should not be wasted. But no. Ignore all that. Just wait for a new Latin Text and start again.

A door was opened and a beam of light crept in. At that point, there should have been a bishop’s foot firmly planted to prevent closure while the collective voice of our bishops was raised in welcome at this long-awaited initiative. A bishop cares for his people, recognizes the difficulties of their journey in a particular time and place and acts accordingly. A teacher who teaches without regard for the cultural background of those being taught should not be surprised if they stop listening.

With the exceptional leadership and caring example of the Bishop of Rome, recent years have returned credibility to the Church in spite of efforts within the Curia to inhibit change. When a power base is threatened there is always a response from those whose current position is called to question.

Now that a clear attempt has been made to redress the balance and return rightful responsibility to where it belongs, with the bishops, some are finding excuses to limit the outcome.

Words matter. In the Introduction to the re-printed Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez writes “…all language is to some extent a groping for clarity.”

Right on the mark, language is indeed a groping for clarity and we should make every effort not to get in the way and hinder understandable discourse.

There has to be poetry in our prayer, for it opens to us a whole new realm of experience, not just of our forming words with which we offer prayer, but of our being exposed to thought-provoking language that quietens us and makes us listen. Silence is the space between words.

Maybe this is why there has been so much concern expressed over the New Translation of the Roman Missal since its introduction on the first Sunday of Advent 2011. Literal translation doesn’t help with appreciation of expression for it can so easily miss the nuance of contemporary language. It can also disturb the historical root that feeds our linguistic exchange. Many priests I know express their concern that with use it is getting harder, not easier, for them to pray the Eucharist with the words we now have in the Roman Missal.

After Vox Clara, countless changes were imposed on us without consultation.

In an earlier statement from the US Association of Catholic Priests they assert that the translation has “caused disharmony, disruption and discord among many… frustrating rather than inspiring the Eucharistic prayer experience of the Christian faithful, thus leading to less piety and to less ‘full, active and conscious participation,” and that it “has created pastoral problems, in particular because of its cumbersome style, arcane vocabulary, grammatical anomalies, and confusing syntax.”

We have been let down again.

So where was the foot in the door?

Reprinted December 1, 2017, in the Catholic Times.

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9 comments

  1. This was from the solemn blessing yesterday:

    “May the almighty and merciful God, by whose grace
    you have placed your faith in the First Coming of his
    Only Begotten Son and yearn for his coming again,
    sanctify you by the radiance of Christ’s Advent and
    enrich you with his blessing. ”

    Sitting here at my desk and reading it over a few times at my leisure on a screen, I can make some sense of it. But in the moment yesterday, hearing it read aloud, I got lost in the thicket of subordinate phrases that separated the subject, “May the almighty and merciful God” from the predicate, “sanctify you”. As a proclaimed text, it didn’t succeed for me. It was read aloud by a priest whose first language is English, and who is a pretty learned person, but it sort of threw him, too. I was actually reading it silently over his shoulder as he tried to power through it, and wondered, “Do the subject and verb agree? If that sentence was diagrammed, how much paper would I need?”

    I just don’t think the translation should spur those sorts of questions. If for no other reason, it distracted me from actual prayer. Inasmuch as I didn’t understand the thought it was meant to express, it wasn’t actually a prayer at all.

    1. Repeating myself, but I agree. The orations/collects, which we are expected to absorb simply by hearing them once, need to be expressed in language that follows the normal flow of English. This is not such a priority in the majority of texts which we hear repeatedly (though it is desireable). I suggest therefor that we should have a slim volume containing the 1998 translations (not the alternatives) of the orations, as options at the discretion of the celebrant. Only one copy is needed, since the celebrant is the only person who can say these prayers, indeed, parishes should be free to not invest in a copy if they do not intend ever to use them. This should be no more burdensome than the supplements needed for feasts added to the calendar.

      1. Better still make them available on-;ine so that priests who want to use them can just print that days and insert it into the missal pro tem.

  2. Jim, the folks who imposed the 2011 translation believe that “the Mass is the Mass”. Just read or chant the black and follow the instructions in the red. Doesn’t matter whether you are using the 1962 Missal or the 2011. Those steeped in Liturgy led by a pope and bishops who understood the need for reform gave us the NO. The 1973 and 1998 (RIP) translations were also prepared by liturgists. 2011 comes from folks weary of the liturgy wars and have reverted to their Great Principal: The Mass is the Mass.

    1. The funny thing is how often chronic improvisers of text/rubric often share that same mentality without necessarily realizing it.

  3. I’m so pleased all this is back in the news. For the past 6 years (doesn’t time fly) I don’t think I’ve understood a word of what has been said in mass and I feel really sorry for my 8-year-old nephew who probably hasn’t got the faintest idea what is going on either. I just switch off and think back to those prayers where we used to remember those who had died in God’s friendship (cf EPIII). I was intrigued to read the Tablet article by Eamon Duffy last week – I’d spoken to Cardinal Nichols (Westminster Archdiocese, UK) back in 2011, whilst in Lourdes, asking him about ‘Plan B’ for the new translation. He’d replied that he felt ‘Plan A’ was fine. He told me Eamon Duffy liked the new translation! How wrong he was! A couple of years or so earlier I’d bumped into the cardinal, again in Lourdes, and asked him to sort out the reformation. He’d suggested I read the book The Stripping of the Altars. That year I’d also spoken to Bishop Kieran Conry (Arundel and Brighton, UK), who had told me the bishops had tried so hard to get Rome to listen. He said it was murky what had gone on. My own bishop (Shrewsbury Diocese, UK) had told me that as the translation had come from Rome it was to be welcomed and that there was no right of protest. Any problems I had with the content had to be down to a failure of my ‘catechesis’. My parents (mum was an RE teacher in a Catholic school) wrote to complain. I really consider our bishops to be guilty of perpetuating a theft. I thought I might have been alone in thinking this, but the book Lost in Translation uses similar language. The UK bishops seem oblivious to the damage they have caused by their intransigence. If they can’t care for their flock why not ask for help?

  4. Today’s Tablet has an apology from the Emeritus Bishop of Portsmouth over the 2011 translation. Incredible! Who’ll be next? I’ve put a couple of tweets out in recent days from @DrMarkColey if anyone wants to retweet…

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