On the Revised Catholic Liturgy

Later this year, American Catholics will begin to celebrate the liturgy with a new translation. The translation currently in use dates to the early 1970s, and reflects the Zeitgeist of that era. The folks in charge of that translation were committed to “the Spirit of Vatican 2,” which they felt went beyond the actual texts of the Second Vatican Council. And they adopted a “dynamic equivalence” approach to translation–and the result was not really a translation, but a loose paraphrase. The new translation, following the principles outlined in Liturgiam authenticam (2001), assumes that the literal sense of the documents of Vatican 2 is important, and that texts are to be translated precisely, according to the method of “formal equivalence.”

Here are some samples of the old and new:

Old Gloria:

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father; receive our prayer. For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

New Gloria:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.

We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.

Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us; you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us. For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

You can read the whole thing here. Pay attention to the prayers, especially the texts of the Eucharistic Prayer.  The majesty of the Latin prayers comes out more clearly–as does the theology. One of the criticisms made time and time again of the old translation by conservative Catholics was that it watered down the Catholic belief in the mass as a sacrifice. That fuzziness is gone. The Catholic teaching that the mass is a sacrifice, offered by the priest, for the living and the dead, shines through with crystal clarity. Oh, it was never changed in the Latin, only in the mushy translation used in English speaking countries.

Some, within the Catholic church and without, imagined that Vatican 2 introduced theological changes that brought the Catholic church closer to Protestantism. The English translation of the mass seemed to support that idea. But the English translation was a false translation, covering up the fact that Catholic theology had never changed.

Vatican 2 didn’t do a lot of things that people imagined it did. It never said priests couldn’t celebrate the old mass. It never said the priest had to face the people and that altars had to be pulled out. It never said altar rails should be ripped out. It never said statues should be taken out of churches. It never said the rosary was passe, or Eucharistic adoration. But liberal liturgists and priests acted as if it did.

Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still the theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote often about a “hermeneutic of continuity.” By this he meant that Vatican 2 should not be interpreted as a break with what went before, but in continuity. And two landmarks of his pontificate demonstrate this: first, this new, faithful, translation, and second, his giving freedom to all priests to celebrate the pre-Vatican 2 mass whenever they wish. John Paul II had paved the way for both, of course (with Ratzinger playing a major role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), but John Paul didn’t go all the way. He had urged bishops to be generous in allowing celebration of the old form of mass, but they weren’t, and he didn’t push them. Ratzinger took it out of the bishops’ hands.

When I was a Catholic, I was never a huge fan of the old mass (the so-called “Tridentine mass”). Oh, yes, it has majesty and reverence, and is a beautiful rite–when sung. I found the “low mass” to be one of the most boring things I’ve ever attended–long minutes of silence as the priest says things silently at the altar. The emphasis in this rite is clearly on the priest as the one offering a sacrifice up there. The people are not necessary. This is shown by the fact that in the “high mass,” when the choir sings the “Gloria,” it is separate and distinct from the priest’s recitation of that same text. When he is done silently reciting it at the altar, he sits down, and the people sit down at the same time–even though the choir (and the people) continue to sing the “Gloria.” I did like reverent celebrations of the current rite, especially when done in Latin. I often went to masses celebrated by priests of Opus Dei because of this.

After frustrating experiences with parishes where liturgies were banal and folksy and characterized by trite innovations, I found a parish where liturgy was done well and reverently and in accord with the meaning of the rite. But I couldn’t get away from the struggles that the whole Catholic church was involved in. I was Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese, and had the task of trying to keep my campus ministry centers on target (one of the priorities given to me when I was hired). It wasn’t easy, as the spirit of innovation (liturgically and theologically) was alive in some of my staff. I was in a particularly difficult situation because I had been given a mandate by the bishop to rein in my staff, but my immediate supervisor (a fan of former Dominican Matthew Fox) had sympathies for the innovations. Were I still Catholic, I would be rejoicing in this new missal and eagerly awaiting its arrival.

As a Protestant, I am grateful for the new missal, but for another reason. Its precise translations show clearly the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. The old translation suggested the differences were resolved–highlighted by the fact that some Protestants used the same texts for the Gloria, Sanctus, Creed, etc., that were in the Roman Missal. But now it is clear–the Catholic Eucharist is rooted in a theology of sacrifice and merit that is not shared by Protestants.  Now that the line is drawn clearly, we are left to discuss why that is.