An Issue for Future Liturgical Translation (2): Grappling with Changed Cultural Conditions

Recently I raised an issue for future liturgical translation, namely, how territorial bishops conferences might identify and correct English translations of the present Roman Missal that are inaccurate. In this post I would like to address another issue: How should changed cultural conditions modify how ancient prayer texts are translated? Again I’d like to offer two examples.

The venerable Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) draws a central image from the culture in which it was created to speak of the relationship of God to the members of the church and to the rest of humanity. A careful reading of the text will disclose that two words are used to depict two fundamental categories of human beings. “Famulus” in its various formulations is used to indicate human beings who members of the Church, while “servus” in its various formulations is used to indicate human beings who are not members of the Church. The closest cultural translation of “famulus” would be “house-slave,” e.g., a paedagogos who, although (generally a Greek) slave, was charged with the education of a household’s (male) children. In contrast the closest cultural translation of “servus,” would be “field-slave,” one of lower rank and inferior living conditions. (Admittedly forms and conditions of slavery changed over the course of Roman history, but this distinction is enshrined in the language of the Roman Canon.) God is thus presented as a sovereign slave-owner; all human beings serve him by right, but some he has called as “family servants” (“household slaves”) while others are outside the family (“field slaves”).

The difficulty in translating segments of the prayer for contemporary English usage should be clear. The United States fought a civil war, at least partially over eradicating slavery in United States territories. The image of God as slave-holder with two classes of “house”-slaves and “field”-slaves is abhorrent. (One need only substitute the “n word” for “slaves” in the preceding sentence to see how problematic such a translation would be.)  And yet the official Latin text maintains this usage in phrases like “una cum famulo tuo Papa nostro N.” (Te igitur); “Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque…” (Commemoration of the Living); “Memento etiam, Domine famuloryum famularumque tuarum…” (Commemoration of the Dead); “Nobis tuis peccatoribus famulis tuis,…” (Invocation of the Saints). (Notice the phrase “nos servi tui , sed et plebs tua sancta” [Unde et memores], where a distinction is drawn between “we your slaves” and “your holy people.” I wonder if this is equivalent to the distinction between “servus” and “famulus”; if so, it raises some questions about those outside the church’s communion having a place in the Eucharistic prayer. I think it is more likely, however, that here “nos servi tui” refers to ordained bishops and priests in contrast to “plebs tua sancta” as the baptized laity.) In the present Roman Missal translation these class distinctions disappear: “together with your servant N. our Pope”; “Remember, Lord, your servants N. and N.” (without any differentiation of gender); “Remember also, Lord, your servants N. and N.” (again without any differentiation of gender); “To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners.” Earlier English translations designated male “famuli” as “your servants” with the female “famulae” being “your handmaids,” but this usage strikes me as somewhat precious as though the male and female “famuli / famulae” served from the basement of Downton Abbey. The most important issue remains whether or not it is proper in contemporary liturgical prayer to conceptualize God the Sovereign as slave-holder, no matter how venerable the language and how appropriate it might be to the culture that generated the Latin text.

A second example appears in Opening Collect of the First Sunday of Advent. The Latin text reads: “Da, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus, hanc tuis fidelibus voluntatem, ut, Christo tuo venienti iustis operibus occurentes, eius dexterae sociati, regnum mereantur possidere caeleste. Per Dominum.”

This is rendered in the present English Missal translation as: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ….”

This is a perfectly acceptable translation of the Latin text, but a close reading of the Latin reveals some difficulties. First, by referring to “God’s faithful” as “them,” the priest praying this text effectively separates himself from the gathering of the faithful; he prays on behalf of them to God, not as one of their members. This is complicated by the “quaesumus”; until it becomes clear that the priest is praying to God on behalf of the faithful, one would think that “we pray” indicates the priest speaking in the name of God’s faithful. Considering the prayer as a whole, however, it seems that “we pray” is a plural of majesty referring to the individual priest praying. There is some question about the imagery of God’s faithful already having been gathered at the right hand of Christ (who is presumably at the right hand of the Father). Finally, translating “mereo/mereor” is almost always problematic in English translation since its semantic range of “to deserve, merit, be entitled to, be worthy of, earn, gain, get, obtain, acquire, get by purchase, buy, to serve as a solder for pay” does not easily express the grace freely lavished upon God’s beloved.

Clearly, these examples are NOT mistranslations. Instead, they represent an attempt to render (or obscure) in the English used in the 21st-century images and concepts that arose in a different cultural context. I have great reverence for the heritage of liturgical prayer that has come to us down the centuries, but I wonder how authentically we can pray texts whose cultural assumptions may be so far from our own (or even, possibly, from the Gospel’s).


  1. I wonder if there other dimensions to this that ought also be borne in mind before they are considered entirely archaic. For example, the Roman paterfamilias also had responsibilities for his family*. And Social Gospel folks want to cultivate the sensibility of servanthood in a culture of atomized individual consumers, right? That’s just two toss-off examples.

    * Which also brings to mind, in a decidedly NON-theological way, one indelible scene in American cinema showing between the clash of American vs Roman sensibilities: the rightly famous opening scene of The Godfather (Part 1): the aggrieved undertaker who, having left Sicily in the hope and expectation of coming to the New World free of the patron-client relationships of the Old Word, finds those hopes and expectations curdled, and find himself with no recourse other than to get back in the older ways – the rest of the trilogy is, of course, a set of variations on this pattern of the curdled American dream (and so much great American literature may be said to touch on or be devoted to the curdling of the American dream – going back at least to Hawthorne if not to John Winthrop himself!).

  2. What a fascinating set of examples. I did not know the slavery connotations in EP1. I wonder if it sheds light on that famous canticle in Philippians, in which Jesus empties himself and takes the form of a slave. I’ve puzzled over that invocation of slavery for quite a few years now. Apart from whatever abhorrence arises in the minds of us Americans because of our peculiar history (and I can only imagine the difficulty for an African American), it’s not clear how to reconcile Christianity as slavery with our understanding of Christian freedom. Perhaps the paradox is right there in the canticle: like Jesus, we are called to voluntarily embrace slavery?

    1. But it sits not so badly with the instruction of Lk 17: 10 to say: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
      On another tack:
      There seems to be an inconsistency in Fr Joncas’ analysis. He says that “a careful reading of the text” will disclose that “famulus” = members of the Church and “servus” = persons outside the Church, but then says that “nos servi tui” probably refers to the ordained. Since this is the only occurrence of “servus” in the canon, how can “a close reading of the text” show that “servus” refers to those outside the Church? Or is he referring to some other text that he has forgotten to reference?
      I understand that the etymology of the words points in the direction Fr Joncas indicates, but etymology must be checked with the actual use of words.
      In the Latin of the Missal, St Joseph is “fidelis servus et prudens”, as are St Benedict and St Dominic, Simeon refers to himself as “servus” in the Nunc Dimittis, and the Collect of St Philip Neri refers to the faithful explicitly as “servos” … though Jesus does say, “I call you servants no longer.” (Jn 15:15)
      Of course, cognates (servire, servitutis etc) are scattered throughout the Missal, generally referring to the actions of the faithful.
      It’s complicated!
      The basic point about the difficulty of translating ancient texts in a way that is not only faithful to the original but also appropriate and useable in modern worship remains.

      1. There is also today’s first reading: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Rom 6:16).

  3. I believe that one of the references to the Roman Canon is grammatically unsound–and it all comes down to a comma. The phrase in Latin is “nos servi tui sed et plebs tua sancta.” Inserting the comma after “tui” creates the notion that there might be two groups of people being talked about: clergy and laity? But that is not the way that conjunctions like “sed et” are usually employed. The real feel of the phrase in Latin is “we, who are your servants but also your holy people.” From one perspective we are God’s field hands and from another his holy, royal, and priestly people.

    1. This is a creative thought, rather persuasive at first, but I am not convinced. Take for example, St Peter Damian, (Opusc. “Dominus vobiscum,” c. 8 (Migne, PL, 145, 237 f)): “quod a cunctis fidelibus, non solum viris, sed et mulieribus sacrificium illud laudis offertur…” Comma or not, “sed et” joins men and women here. I can think of other examples, but to list them would be tedious. The great liturgist Jungmann also thought that servi in the Canon referred to the sacred ministers at the altar. Referring to the parallel expression in the Hanc igitur before the consecration, Jungmann quotes Bernard Botte: “The expression presupposes the not infrequent use of servus for those invested with the priesthood.” (Jungmann, Missarum Sollemnia, (Eng. ed.) vol II, p. 184, n. 21.)

      1. We are in agreement about the grammar. In Peter Damian’s quote “sed et” is conjunctive and not disjunctive–just as in the Roman Canon. Men and women comprise one group of faithful people.

  4. The article is in error about the idea that ‘servus’ somehow refers to those outside the Church (indeed, as another commenter noted, there is also an internal contradiction in the article on this point).

    One wonders, though, what the real issue is here. The Roman Canon was retained as an option in the 1970 Missal, indeed as an option that is preferred on certain days. In reality, the option has in many places been virtually dropped. Is the next step (creeping incrementalism) to have it dropped officially? Is the next step to label those who favor it as racists who support the use of offensive language about slavery that is unacceptable in 2017?

    If the goal is to have the Church decide that the Roman Canon contains offensive language, it will take a better argument than this servus-famulus “close reading,” which holds no water either logically or linguistically.

    1. Lee,

      Your speculation about supposed motives and agendas is fear-mongering, fanciful and baseless. If you wish to comment at Pray Tell, come as a fellow learner, try to thank and affirm your interlocutor, and kindly offer your additional wisdom. Our discussion isn’t about putting others down to win – we’re all on the same side.

      If your only stance is to be combative and fight Pray Tell, then Pray Tell isn’t for you and your comments will be deleted. And this would be as a kindness to our readers, for as it is now your comments have little or no persuasive power because of your tone.


  5. Father, let’s look at this conclusion:

    “I have great reverence for the heritage of liturgical prayer that has come to us down the centuries, but I wonder how authentically we can pray texts whose cultural assumptions may be so far from our own (or even, possibly, from the Gospel’s).”

    There is a sophistic game at play here. First, the comment about “great reverence” for the Canon. This is meant to blunt the harshness of what follows.

    What follows is the raising of the question of “how authentically” one can use the Roman Canon, with the possibility raised (careful subjunctive ‘may’) that the text may be not only far from our own perspectives, but from that of the Gospel.

    It is not baseless to call this what it is. The thesis of the argument raised is that the Roman Canon may be antithetical in spirit not only to 2017 America, but also to the Gospel. Some would call this outrageous, and justly so.

    But the point remains: if the argument is raised about the meaning of servus in the article, the article is self-contradictory and wouldn’t pass the first stage of peer review for a scholarly journal.

  6. I thank all those who have responded to this blog-post. (I’m intrigued that the comments center on the Roman Canon, not on the Advent Collect.)
    I thank Martin Wallace, OP, and Michael Marshal for their insights on the use of “famulus”/”servus” in the Roman Canon. I think Michael Marshal’s insight makes much sense, that “nos servi tui sed et plebs too sancta” in this instance means “we, who are your servants but also your holy people.” I think my single sentence suggestion that “nos servi tui” might refer to the ordained and “plebs tua sancta” to the baptized draws from my memory of the “senatus populusque Romanus” categorizing of the Roman citizenship. Notice as well that this was simply speculation on my part and I’m glad to be corrected.
    I’m also grateful for Mr. Fratantuono’s parsing of my final paragraph; I’ve never been accused of a “sophistic game” before. (I do wonder if “some would call this outrageous, and justly so” is also a sophistic game.) Believe it or not, I do have great reverence for the heritage of liturgical prayer that has come done to us through the multiple Rites of the Church; the statement was not intended to “blunt the harshness of what follows.” And what follows was never intended to be “harsh” but to express a genuine concern I have for how to translate religious texts generated from an ancient culture for contemporary use. I struggle to understand these liturgical texts in their original language and cultural context and bring that understanding to articulation in my maternal language and present cultural context. Can I be wrong my understanding and my articulation? Of course. This was a blog-post, an esquisse or jalon, after all, not a dissertation or a journal article. I do, however, hold open the possibility that a venerable text may be deficient in some aspects of its articulation of the gospel.

  7. These are very interesting questions, the kind which make reading this ‘blog worthwhile.

    Looking beyond slavery, sacrifice itself is culturally alien to us so the entire Mass is a challenge to remove ourselves from our current time and place and put ourselves at the foot of the Cross. Language about spotless victims and the like is thus not readily intelligible at first. As you make clear there is no silver bullet, no change of words (as from house slave to servant) that fixes the problem.

    One of the widely noted flaws of the 1998 translation of the Mass was that it remove supplications such as “we beseech thee” which may not be understood (or, as for language concerning slavery, misunderstood) in the modern Anglophone cultural context. While a flaw that is also in some sense a kind of solution to a problem identical to that you discuss here. But unlike EP I for which another anaphora could be substituted, or collects which could be changed, we cannot simply remove sacrifice from our rites, not without wholly changing the religion or totally losing our ability to understand the Gospel! We are left with understanding another cultural context being an essential challenge of Christian life.

  8. This is not the first post to have faulted the Missal’s use of mereor as somehow expressing a deficient soteriology. Fr. Joncas claims that the word mereor is hard to translate because none of its English meanings seem to express the free gift of grace well enough, but this is not a translation issue; the Missal prays one thing, and Fr. Joncas and those who share his view simply think we would pray better by *saying something else*. Fair enough. I contend, however, that it is not the Missal that gives short shrift to grace, but rather the Missal’s detractors. Merit in God’s sight is only possible for finite humanity through a gift of grace that elevates our action, enabling it to attain proportion to God’s infinity (and even further grace is required to accomplish this after the Fall!). But more important than this tautological inclusion of grace in the concept of merit is that fact that Catholic soteriology, within which human beings truly merit eternal life, requires a more powerful grace than the sort which merely covers over sins and allows sinners entrance to heaven despite remaining thoroughly unclean. God is more generous than that. He doesn’t deign to let us plead a legal technicality. He grants his grace so lavishly that he turns filthy sinners into people who truly are clean, holy and just and who, solely by His unmerited gift, can do something as remarkable as have a claim on eternal beatitude. The Missal articulates this dynamic of merit-as-gift by, as its general rule, asking God to “grant that we may merit.” This does not err by falling into one extreme. It is a balanced expression of both sides of our salvation.

    1. I don’t think the critics of translating mereor simply as “merit” are siding with Luther against Trent; I think their point is rather that, given contemporary English usage, “merit” can give a misleading impression of what Trent teaches (and what the Missal intends). Think, for example, of what we mean when we describe a system as a “meritocracy.” Isn’t the implication that people receive their due based solely on their own accomplishments, without any aid or assistance? Surely this is not Trent’s teaching on “merit.” So I believe the claim is about how “merit” strikes contemporary ears, not about whether iustitia is infused or imputed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *