Occasions of Sin during Holy Week

As we approach Holy Week, shudders of apprehension accompany the realization that the central core of the Church’s Year will once again be sullied by infelicities, some of them rather hideous, and errors in the English translation of the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal. The following few examples are typical.

Beginning with the procession on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, and noting that the psalm translation used is the 2010 version of the Revised Grail Psalter (now superseded, though the updated version has not yet been made generally available), we find a missing line and incorrect pointing in the psalm (24/23) following the first antiphon.

Currently printed as:

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?*
The clean of hands and pure of heart,
whose soul is not set on vain things, †
who has not sworn deceitful words.*

Should be:

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?*
The clean of hands and pure of heart, †
whose soul is not set on vain things,
who has not sworn deceitful words.*

The psalm (47/46) following the 2nd antiphon is given, following the Latin, in four stanzas of 4, 6, 4 and 6 lines respectively, despite the fact that the translation used arranges this psalm in five stanzas of 4 lines each.

The translation of the hymn Gloria laus et honor tibi sit, as we will see with other hymns in the section of the Missal, has been designed to be sung with the neums of the Latin chant. This necessitates contorted syntax, padding, and other literary artifices in order to make the words fit syllabically with the music. In the present example, we find such phrases as:

Israel’s King are you, King David’s magnificent offspring;

where the word “magnificent” is used to translate the Latin inclita

you are the ruler who come blest in the name of the Lord.

and the prosaic

men and women on earth and all creation join in.

On Holy Thursday, the chant Ubi caritas est vera is subjected to the same treatment, matching words to the neums of the Latin chant. Here, the most noticeable feature is padding, especially in the final stanza:

V. May your face thus be our vision, bright in glory,

V. Christ our God, with all the blessed Saints in heaven:

            (“Saints in heaven” padding out beatis)

V. such delight is pure and faultless, joy unbounded,

            (“and faultless” = additional padding)

V. which endures through countless ages world without end. Amen.

            (“which endures” and “world without end” even more padding)

The same is even more true of the translation of the hymn Crux fidelis inter omnes on Good Friday. Here, the text is an extraordinarily free paraphrase of the Latin original, first produced for the doomed ICEL 1998 Sacramentary. The translator is alleged to have been Michael Hodgetts, an English hymn writer and translator who once served on ICEL’s Translation Subcommittee, but it has not been possible to verify this. The text has been lightly edited for the current Missal, and, just like the Gloria laus and Ubi caritas, is designed to fit the neums of the traditional Latin chant.

In addition to general padding and the incorporation of “explanatory” concepts that do not appear in the Latin original, another problem here is the introduction of vocabulary that will not be familiar to most people in the pews. The refrain sets this in motion with:

Faithful Cross the Saints rely on,
Noble tree beyond compare!
Never was there such a scion,
Never leaf or flower so rare.
Sweet the timber, sweet the iron,
Sweet the burden that they bear!

The phrase “the Saints rely on” appears nowhere in the Latin, and it is clear that its only function is to rhyme with “iron” in line 5, as is the case with “scion”, at the end of line 3.

The latter unfamiliar word is not the only one. The very first verse continues:

Sing, my tongue, in exultation
Of our banner and device!
Make a solemn proclamation
Of a triumph and its price:
How the Savior of creation
Conquered by his sacrifice!

The number of people who will understand “device” to be the word designating the heraldic insignia on a shield is rather limited, one feels. These days, devices are often to be found in basic computer technology to indicate a piece of hardware, gadget or machine that carries out a particular task, in warfare (an “incendiary device”) or to mean a trick, cunning ploy, gambit, etc.

A different problem arises in stanza 8:

Lofty timber, smooth your roughness,
Flex your boughs for blossoming;
Let your fibers lose their toughness,
Gently let your tendrils cling;
Lay aside your native gruffness,
Clasp the body of your King!

Here, the language used in line 4 and 5 will most likely induce sniggering rather than devotion — a lesson for those who pursue rhyme at all costs.

The vicissitudes of the translation of the Exsultet are too well-known to repeat here; but it is worth drawing attention to the priest/deacon-only paragraph at the end of the introduction of the praeconium paschale:

Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.

Yes, that’s one sentence, 52 words and 11 commas (as compared with the Latin original’s two sentences, 40 words and 8 commas), not to mention the reference to Levites, which will have some people remembering the parable of the Good Samaritan and others scratching their heads, and the adjective “awesome” which will risk being accused of being an Americanism by those from elsewhere.

Finally, one of the prime texts of the former translation, here comprehensively dismantled into prosaic nothingness, is the Blessing of the Baptismal Water. Who can forget the shivers that would run down the back of the neck on hearing the words:

Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs,
which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power.

vestiges of which can still be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1217ff : http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm

Instead, we now hear:

O God, who by invisible power
accomplish a wondrous effect
through sacramental signs
and who in many ways have prepared water, your creation,
to show forth the grace of Baptism;…..

continuing on for another 24 lines before reaching the first principal subjunctive verb of this massive sentence.

These are only a few examples. There are literally hundreds more. I can’t help feeling that Holy Week, above all, should not be providing multiple occasions of sin in this way. Anyone who feels that this is an improvement on what went before surely needs to reconsider.

After the new Ordo Missae appeared in 1969, the first tranche of the Missal to be released was the Rites of Holy Week, enabling them to be used in the vernacular for Holy Week 1970 ahead of the publication of the complete English missal translation in 1973. It would be wonderful to think that a revised translation of these rites could once again be published as a separate fascicle, restoring some sense of the deep, powerful and joy-filled celebration that we once had.


  1. I seem to recall that St. Peter wasn’t all too happy with how the first Maundy Thursday was celebrated, either.

    I say this only part tongue-in-cheek. I also offer it as a reflection that has actually helped me pray Triduum at times when I’ve been tempted to become “line judge on the side” rather than “pray-er in the midst of the action.”

    1. Surely, these are only a few of the more inspired examples of the subtle strategy of rendering the English form so barbarous that we would go back to praying in Latin, like Jesus did.

  2. These infelicities will continue as long as the English-speaking bishops allow Italian and Spanish-speaking prelates in Rome to control our English liturgy.

    1. Robert, I think it’s worth laying that ghost to rest. The present translation was not produced by people whose native tongue was not English, but by a group of native-English-speaking priests and bishops with an ideological agenda. They were and are English-speakers, and that is the scandal behind the revised translations, which continue to appear even now.

      Now that that agenda has changed under Pope Francis, it is time that the works resulting from that agenda were also dispensed with and replaced.

      It has been said that at least one bishops’ conference has been instructed that the provisions of Magnum Principium were in no way retrospective, and that what already exists cannot now change. There is absolutely no evidence to support that view. It would be like saying that the provisions of the Dallas Charter did not apply to any offences committed prior to 2002, which is clearly not the case.

      I am not in any way equating the horrors of child sex abuse with inferior liturgical translations, but the fact is that offence has been caused, and continues to be caused, to millions of English-speaking Catholic laity and clergy around the world by the results of that agenda. Those ongoing offences now need to be remedied, and the current work in progress that persists in furthering the same agenda needs to be stopped, immediately. Particularly at a time when new scandals are being uncovered on an almost daily basis, we cannot afford to continue to damage the spirituality of our people.

      1. Well put, Paul. I agree!

        I’ve told my bishop to his face that the present translations are Latin disguised as English.

      2. Why do people only have an “ideological agenda” when they disagree with us?

        I guess the people who produced the 1974 Sacramentary had no “ideological agenda.”

      3. Lee, the people responsible for the 1973 Sacramentary had a pastoral agenda. They were Latinists, in some cases teachers of classics, but a number of them also worked in working-class parishes, and their objective was to produce a text which was accessible to those people and which conveyed the core meaning of the Latin without all the convolutions of Latin syntax. They also recognized that elements of early Middle Ages spirituality no longer speak to people today, and so paraphrased them or got round them in other ways. The primary aim was to draw people into the liturgy, not hold them at arm’s length.

        The 2010 Missal revisers, on the other hand, had a quite different, literalist agenda. The reason I describe it as ideological is because they deliberately set out to punish the Church, which they viewed as consisting primarily of left-wing liberal Catholics. They therefore opted for a ritual language which is not actually English as it is spoken and prayed by most people, and a retrogressive stance. It has to be said that their Latin skills ranged from moderate to non-existent. It is therefore not surprising that in their zeal their work was unfortunately riddled with hundreds of mistakes, most of which have never been corrected, and thousands of inconsistencies, also uncorrected to this day. Much of this has been extensively documented on this blog over the past decade and more.

        A not insignificant proportion of the bishops who approved this text were not only very tired because they had already approved a missal before in the 1980s but because they were shortly to retire and knew they would not have to handle the backwash. Some of them have now admitted publicly that this was a dereliction of duty, that they let down the faithful. They also let down their non-catholic sisters and brothers, putting back the cause of ecumenism by at least 40 years. It will take a long time to rebuild that trust and those relationships.

      4. Slavish literalism is less an ideological agenda than a means to avoid conflict.

        What is the middle ground between the nakedly ideological “faithless translation” of the 1998 Sacramentary and anything else? What’s the middle ground between salt cod and strawberries? Could the Father’s fatherhood be only half-obscured instead of fully obscured (as in the 1998 Gloria) in a way that would have been acceptable to modernists, moderates, and the ELLC?

        Tightly tying the text to the Latin restrains the options to the point where the difficult questions, even those that would remain were ELLC gone and the worldy agendas behind 1998 set aside, don’t have to be answered. But it makes for quite an awkward text. Maybe for reasons of division we couldn’t then produce a truly good English translation of the Latin. At least now we have a faithful one.

        With that out of the way: One of the original mistakes of the 1974 translation was to totally disregard the existing corpus. Hand missals, prayerbooks, the BCP and other sources were passed over in favor of totally new (and dumbed-down) compositions. One cannot translate into a langauge without respecting its literature. And here we have it again–translations of these chants go back centuries, but the traditional and culturally established translations have been passed over for (bad) new texts in order to conform to the neumes of the Latin chants from the Liber Usualis. The worst of 1974 (disregarding the corpus) combined with the worst of 2011 (anchoring to a foreign thing–here, the traditional melody–to the point of absurdity.) Probably not ideology, nor 2011-style conflict avoidance, but a translator’s exercise gone awry. A good hymnal editor would have sent a rejection notice; maybe prior publication and use by the Church should be a prerequisite for inclusion of hymn translations in the Missal.

      5. Ben, the existing translations in hand missals were not intended for proclamation – they were intended for reading along. They would not have been a good model to draw on in vernacularizing the liturgy.
        I wouldn’t affirm or necessarily defend the 1974 translation – it’s not where I’m at or where the church is at. But I would defend the good faith, the good intentions, and the expertise of those who created it. They had a theory and they followed it consistently. To judge it by a later theory that did not exist at the time, or was not the theory they used, is simply an injustice.
        I agree with you that we need a better translation in the future that has the right kind of accuracy in the right kind of English that works in the liturgy. We’re not there yet.

      6. Ben Kalafut – I understand that the 1998 Sacramentary drew fire for proposing original prayers, and for revising the rubrics of the opening phases of Mass, but what is this ‘faithless translation’ of which you speak? Can you point me to somewhere I can read more about that issue, particularly in relation to the orations.

      7. Ben, not sure exactly what points you’re making in the first part of your reply. The 1998 version could scarcely be described as “faithless”, and is undoubtedly an improvement on 1973 as everyone admits. Also not sure what you are referring to by the 1998 Gloria. There was no 1998 Gloria. The 1998 Sacramentary had the same Gloria (with one word changed) that had been in use all along (dating back to 1970/71).

        And I would not agree that we now have a faithful translation. Indeed, it breaks faith with the spirituality of the people it was intended to “serve”. More importantly, the myriad translation errors that it contains would certainly justify its condemnation as “unfaithful”.

        But I do agree with you about the hymn translations. I recommend to people that they not use what is in the Missal and instead substitute a better existing text. I don’t think there is any obligation actually to sing the 2010 texts.

      8. Their objective was to produce a text which was accessible to those people and which conveyed the core meaning of the Latin without all the convolutions of Latin syntax. They also recognized that elements of early Middle Ages spirituality no longer speak to people today, and so paraphrased them or got round them in other ways.

        It seems to me that combining these two goals drove a significant portion of the ongoing controversy. The first goal didn’t entail the second–and which elements of traditional Catholicism no longer spoke to the people varied a great deal between people and places.

        I would add a third goal, which I (a convert who spent some time in the Episcopal church) find a major component: that was the insistence on an explicitly modern-language, specifically Catholic translation of texts that already had long-established, faithful translations in English. For example, the appalling mess of a translation of “All glory laud and honor” could have been avoided by using the singable, familiar Neale translation that almost all English speaking non-Catholic groups use. The Psalter could have been the familiar-sounding, very natively English Anglican translation: (Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord). And so on.

      1. I am sure the feelin’ is mootch-ull, too.

        Besides, there is no one American English either – professional academic English department Englishes can least suited to a public communal ritual context.

  3. I have a simple choice. I either weep at the barbarity or I block my ears. Happily as a practising musician I can generally distract myself by getting ready the next piece of music and silently playing it through on the keyboard.
    It should not have to be this way after six decades of worship, most of them actively involved with the liturgy.
    If ever there was a glaring example of the abuse of clerical status, this is it.

  4. Re. Gloria, laus et honor for Palm Sunday.

    Would anyone like to try a modest reconstruction of the (awful) Missal translation not only to improve it but to allow it to be sung melodiously to R. Vaughan Williams’ Salve festa dies tune?


    1. In Canada we use the J.M. Neale translation, sung to the traditional tune ‘St Theodulph’.

  5. Perhaps a document that illustrates the “problem texts” in the new missal can be made available for research and discussion.
    I’d start with the Corpus Christi prayer which says O God, you have given us a memorial of your passion…
    Wasn’t it Jesus whose passion we remember, not “God’s”?
    And why do homeless people have to say “under my roof” when they don’t even have walls? “Not worthy to receive you” seems to work better.

  6. Monsignor Ronald Knox, whose translation of the New Testament enjoyed some popularity in England in the 1950s (though I believe it was never authorized for liturgical use), said that you can have a literal translation or a literate one but not both.

    1. The Knox translation was in fact one of four translations initially authorized for liturgical use in England and Wales, along with the Douay-Rheims version, JB and RSV, but only the latter two made it into published lectionaries. Other translations also received authorization later, but once again have not appeared in lectionaries.

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