Letting Us Pray: A Symposium on Language in Liturgy

You may already know that issues surrounding language and its use in Roman Catholic liturgy has become something of a controversy in the past year (2 years, 5 years, decade?), prompted primarily by the recent release of the 3rd edition of the English translation of the Roman Missal. In an effort to get a handle on these issues, Fordham University hosted a symposium last night on the general topic of language in the liturgy and, more specifically, the language of the new translation. The keynote address was given by Julia Upton, RSM and responses were provided by Rev. Matthew Ernest, Rev. Thomas Scirghi, S.J., and Joel Hoffman. Judith Kubicki, CSSF moderated the discussion.

Julia Upton, who may already be known by readers of this blog for the ICEL promotional video Become One Bread One Spirit in Christ, focused her address on what one might call the pastoral opportunities of the new translation. For readers of this or any blog dealing with Catholic liturgy, these pastoral opportunities will be well known and echo the various promotional efforts by the Bishops’ conferences. According to Upton, the new translation offers for “some,” which may or may not include Upton herself, a more poetic, elevated language than the previous translation. Further, it is also more allusive with respect to Scripture, the Fathers, and the liturgical tradition than the previous translation and hence puts us in deeper touch with the rich theological content of the liturgical prayers. Interestingly, Upton also gave an example of greater gender inclusivity in the new translation than the old – rendering Deus as “God” and not “Father”. I have not yet confirmed whether this strength of the new translation is common or occasional.

While all of these details were important for her overall address, there were two components of her speech which recurred frequently. The first was a call to foster an attitude of openness toward the new translation. After sketching out her own biographical relation with the liturgy, she recounted the Cherokee legend of the two wolves. Two wolves – an evil one and a good one – battle inside of each of us, and whichever one we feed will win. The message, for Upton, seemed simple. We must approach our new liturgical situation with generosity, willing to see the new translation as a gift.

The way in which the new translation is a gift was the second recurrent component of Upton’s keynote. According to Upton, the new translation is a gift by providing an opportunity to experience what thinker Paul Ricoeur called the “second naiveté”. Ricoeur describes religious thought according to a dialectical structure whereby we pass from a “first naiveté” of uncritical belief, to a stage of critical distance and evaluation, to a “second naiveté” in which the objects of belief of the first stage are regained, though now with critical self-awareness. Granting the gross inadequacies of my own summary of Ricoeur, such is the general plot of Upton’s narrative about the new translation. By virtue of being unfamiliar, by causing a kind of linguistic tension, the new translation can prompt each of us praying with it to reexamine the content of the missal and the purposes of liturgy. In so doing, we can rediscover and re-learn a liturgical attitude apparently lost in modernity, but well known by our forebears in the faith. This rediscovery can be applied to more than just the verbal components of liturgy, and can in fact extend to the language of the liturgy in its broadest possible usage – the art, architecture, gestures, ritual objects, et cetera, et cetera. This rediscovery ought to extend also to the inner and outer person prompting inner-reform and engagement with social justice.

Upton concluded her address with four suggestions, presented as a “To Do” list.
1) Don’t focus exclusively on the verbal changes;
2) Do encourage mindfulness to the new texts, especially when we start to become familiar with them;
3) Do engage in mystagogy on the basis of the new texts; and
4) Do use the new translation to “connect to the world” through a pursuit of justice.

The three respondents to Upton each tackled the issue from a different angle. Dr. Joel Hoffman, who is a Hebrew scholar and deals with “theoretical linguistics”, spoke about general principles of translation. He began by noting two different activities which we commonly name “translation”. One is “scientific” and is judged according to accuracy. The other is “religious” and is judged according to the function of the words and word order. In this second case, under which he subsumes both formal and dynamic equivalency, inaccuracy is common and often preferred to accuracy. He concluded by noting that perhaps the basic problem facing liturgical translation is the question of when and why we prefer scientific or religious in one given instance versus another.

Rev. Matthew Ernest, who teaches at St. Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie, reiterated Upton’s comments on the mystagogical potential of the new translation. In addition, he brought up the topic of the “sacral vernacular,” mentioned twice in Liturgiam Authenticam, as a key to understanding the changes in the English translation. According to Fr. Ernest, LA and the missal translation produced on its principles aim at developing this beautiful and poetic vernacular which is distinct from everyday speech but also clear and understandable.

The final respondent, Rev Thomas Scirghi, S.J., a professor of liturgical theology at Fordham, focused on the “poetry of prayer” and the formative aspect of liturgical language. Liturgy is a place of self-formation and this formation occurs in part by speaking the prayers. The specific words, style, and content of those prayers rebound and affect the speaker. Further, he, too, picked up the theme of the sacral vernacular as discussed by Fr. Ernest and noted that in its scope, LA envisioned such a language to shape not just the liturgy but the broader English speaking world. Finally, Scirghi raised perhaps the most important question, namely, granting that the former translation was inadequate, and widely held to be in need of revision, is this translation the best we could do?

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One wished the parting question given by Scirghi could have been the leading question of the symposium as a whole. While I appreciate the irenic demeanor of all participants, this very demeanor may have undermined the possibilities for a more substantive discussion. Critical dimensions of the topic were largely overlooked. Despite efforts by some audience members, the panel declined to engage the controversial means of implementation of the new translation. Vox Clara was not mentioned at all. What little response was given to a question over why the Vatican more or less threw out the ICEL work that led to the 1998 translation, the response was simply that the standards of translation had changed and no offense was meant by it. No harm, no foul. It seemed not to occur to panel participants that the very decision to change the driving principles of translation reflected deeper changes (for good or ill) in the vision of liturgy coming out of the Vatican offices.

The avoidance of ecclesial politics would itself have been commendable if it had been accompanied by a corresponding commitment to speak directly about the positions on the table, so to speak. Here, both the partisans for and against our new translation, as well as those who find such bifurcation misleading, may have missed an opportunity to really defend their respective positions. Subjective and secondhand impressions were mustered to suggest the translation’s strengths and weaknesses. “Some people” were making evaluations about the new translation, but speakers never defended the principles of such evaluations.

In all fairness to the symposiums speakers, the need to speak on the topic in a non-polemical manner is a daunting task (just read the comboxes of this blog). The tendency to devolve into partisan positions which are entirely self-validating is strong in contemporary liturgical discussions and the panel should be commended for falling into such a trap. Perhaps the panel will contribute in tone to the future of these and similar debates.

Decrying partisanship is, of course, a common tactic of partisans, often used to shame opponents into silence rather than engaging their arguments. I do not intend this. Rather, as I would argue, the next stage of these discussions needs to take seriously the demands of crafting an argument that aims at persuading opponents to one’s own position. This entails, though, a thorough understanding of the values of your opponents as well as your own.  The insistence that the new translation can be an opportunity for renewed mystagogy is not false, but this position justifies neither its existence nor its vision of liturgical language – which is the major point of contention. The opponents of the new translation, for whom the issue of intelligibility is of central importance, must too consider the instances in the former (or a hypothetical, future) translation in which intelligibility is not desired. Is intelligibility the sole factor in determining the strength of a translation? Is everything in the liturgy to be translated into intelligible language? What would happen with “Hosanna in the highest”?

While the Fordham symposium did not directly delve into these important, and I would argue, essential questions, the participants did provide ground for further work in these areas. Most importantly, the participants gravitated toward the concept of the sacral vernacular. This concept seems at the heart of LA’s vision, but may also be shared by opponents of the new translation. As I see it, the terms of the debate need not be intelligibility vs. beauty, or two competing measures of evaluations. It seems to be the case that a sacral vernacular is presupposed by all those discussing these issues. No one to my knowledge arguing in favor of vernacular liturgy makes a case solely for beauty or for intelligibility. Likewise for arguments surrounding dynamic or formal equivalency. One sees a mix, which may indicate the presence of a deeper means of adjudication or an ideal striving to be met. This is, I think, the sacral vernacular. If that is the case, our difficulties would not be magically solved, but we would be a long way in asking whether our current translation meets or fails to meet this common goal. Does this translation embody the sacral vernacular? Or might it be manifested better in another?

Brendan McInerny is a 2007 graduate of Saint John’s University (BA) and 2010 graduate of Sain’t John’s School of Theology • Seminary (systematics, MA and ThM) in Collegeville. He is currently a doctoral student in systematic theology at Fordham University.


  1. New translation problems are not unique to Catholics.

    A Rabbi recalled that a new translation of one of the psalms used as a part of the funeral liturgy deeply upset a member of his congregation who liked the old translation. At this man’s funeral the Rabbi used the old translation after telling the story of the deceased preference for the older translation.

    Humility and respect for others would improve our discussions and our liturgies.

  2. Humility and respect for others might have been valuable additions to the principles used in translation. If we have any hope of finding a language to convey beauty, meaning, and the sacred, maybe what we need is less sacral vernacular and more sacred silence as we break bread in the name of Jesus. The arrogance of insisting that more and longer words will make everything more holy seems like a strange way to approach the mystery of the living God.

  3. Of course, no one, arrogantly or otherwise, is ‘insisting that more and longer words will make everything more holy’. And, it is unfortunate that there are some who seem to see in the new translation nothing but ‘more and longer words’. This, it seems to me, is a rather unobservant and baldly callous approach. It is a pity that we were asked for four decades to use the old translation with a straight face. It is also a pity that the new one isn’t much better than it is. But, there is so much more to it than more and longer words; and, so much more to it than what came before it. How can anyone be blind to or unappreciative of that? Perhaps he or she would be pleased (were it possible) at having even fewer and shorter words than what we had.

    I think that the addresses at the Fordham symposium quoted above are models of moderation and reason.

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