Saturday, November 26, 2011

Yesterday's Language: The New Words of the Catholic Mass

By Gail Ramshaw

Editor's Note: This article was first published August 22, 2011 by The Christian Century.

Because I affirm the unity of the body of Christ, I consider that the health of one arm affects the entire body. Thus I am either strengthened or weakened by the worship style of other Christians. For decades I've worked as a lay Lutheran toward making the words of Christian worship communally approved, biblically inspired, theologically alive and masterfully crafted. Given these convictions, I say with sadness that the new English translation of the Roman Catholic Order of Mass, mandated by the Vatican to be inaugurated this Advent, wounds not only many of my Catholic friends but also me.

Let me apply these four goals not only to the forthcoming Roman Catholic rite but also to texts used by many Protestant churches.

Words communally approved: Communal approval, as I see it, is achieved by means of a decadelong process involving open questionnaires, diverse committees, scholarly input, theological scrutiny, trial rites, genuine review, prudent revision, a concluding convention vote and denominationally supported education. Yet the new Roman Order of Mass has been smashed down upon the heads of dozens of eminent and skilled wordsmiths who since 1966 have labored to translate the Latin rite into English. The promised communal process was replaced by hierarchical control. Nobody claims that the words of the newly authorized translation are communally approved.

In countless Protestant churches also one finds that the staff or a single minister will compose texts for Sunday. Worshipers are expected to speak with their whole heart words that they have never laid eyes on.

Any new worship text embodies some reform agenda. Was the agenda communally approved? The 2001 Vatican document "Liturgiam Authenticam" describes some of the Roman agenda—and far from being communally affirmed, the Vatican's literalist theory of translation has been criticized by many linguists. Furthermore, much of the Vatican agenda is an unspoken conservative rejection of some recent theological and liturgical developments, a counterreform that recalls the Council of Trent.

And then I wonder: have those ministers who construct their own liturgies clearly articulated their several agendas, and do at least their congregations approve these directions?

How wide is the envisioned Christian community? Much 20th-century liturgical renewal resulted from ecumenical cooperation in which different traditions learned from each other and collaborated on common projects. I am particularly saddened that the new Roman translation reflects a recent Vatican decision to heighten its denominational distinctiveness by rejecting use of ecumenical translations of shared texts such as the Lord's Prayer and the creeds.

Yet all Christians should be concerned when their narrow denominational identity or preferred personal piety outshouts an emerging ecumenical consensus. I think, for example, of those Protestants who, tediously repeating what the 16th-­century Reformers said about the medieval Roman canon, refuse to pray a biblically rich Great Thanksgiving at the eucharistic table, even though a century of ecumenical scholarship concurs that eucharistia, the "thanksgiving," is best served by a substantial prayer in which God is praised for the Earth, for centuries of the beloved stories of salvation, for the meal of Christ's body and for the continuous infusion of the Holy Spirit.

Words biblically inspired: That Christians assemble around the word of God as found in a perpetually retranslated Bible raises many issues. Which biblical terminology is necessary for the proclamation of the mystery of Christ? In each language, which words and images best express that biblical vocabulary? How much biblical literacy ought we expect of worshipers? When is a biblical reference inaccessible and thus merely mystifying?

The new Roman translation of the prayer before communion, "Lord, I am not worthy," now adds "that you should enter under my roof." The text assumes that worshipers know the story of the centurion in Luke 7. The intent is noble, the educational task enormous.

In the new Roman rite, the second option for the eucharistic prayer asks the Spirit to be sent down "like the dewfall." In the Hebrew scriptures, I count more than a dozen instances of dew as a metaphor for divine blessings (e.g., Hosea 14:5). Yet I doubt that most of the students I taught at a Catholic university know what "dewfall" is or, since their terrain does not rely on dew for fertility, would find it a powerful image of divine transformation.

And how do all of us cast, for example, the New Testament imagery of becoming slaves of Christ, beyond softening the noun to servants? And have we enriched our liturgy with the countless images for God and the sacraments that we can borrow from the Psalms?

Is the Bible rendered so as to support denominational preferences? Maintaining a traditional translation can inhibit responsibly attending to biblical meaning. That the Catholic Church continues to cast the words of institution in the future tense—"which will be given up for you," "which will be poured out for you"—exemplifies this tendency.

For a Protestant example of this resistance, consider that seminaries have long taught that the Lord's Prayer is a plea for the coming of God's kingdom, and thus the translation "lead us not into temptation" misrepresents the eschatological intention of Matthew's and Luke's reference to the "time of trial" (NRSV), the "final test" (NAB). So why have so few Protestants adopted the more biblically faithful 1988 English Language Liturgical Consultation translation of the Lord's Prayer, which pleads "save us from the time of trial"?

Words theologically alive: In the new Roman text, the theology expressed in the original Latin is the approved belief, and its hierarchical depiction of the church and the Earth is maintained. In a reactionary move, the rubric "the sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds" is to become "if any are present who are to receive Holy Communion under both kinds. . . ." The response to "the Lord be with you" is now to be rendered "and with your spirit," a change that has been defended as appropriately referring to a higher "spirit" conferred on the clergy at ordination. But is it theologically helpful to be reminded of ecclesiastical status at the time when we greet one another in the Risen Christ?

All of us must inquire which century governs our worship. Have the theological gains of the 20th century entered our Sunday speech? Why do preachers who in a postmodern time accept scholarly proposals about the origin of the New Testament preach as if the Gospels are audiotapes of Jesus' ministry?

Words masterfully crafted: Most worship includes various levels of language: elevated, colloquial and somewhere between. With my national church, I maintain that each of these levels of contemporary speech can be shaped to convey the gospel. But in the new Roman translation, the rhetorical style of complex Latinate sentences suggests that masterful English cannot carry the mystery. Perhaps those who craft liturgical texts are often tempted to resurrect the archaic: I recall that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible decided to continue use of thou-thine-thee, even though it was passing out of colloquial use, because they judged that words which sounded laden with piety would lull users into acceptance.

The new Roman Order of Mass is a compendium of the antiquated. Important nouns (e.g., Priest, Order of Bishops, Martyrs) are capitalized, while unimportant nouns (e.g., deacon, people) are not. Common titles (e.g., opening prayer, censer) are re­placed with traditional sacral terms (e.g., collect prayer, thurible). The church is a she. The word soul shows up repeatedly. (I enjoyed asking my students whether they had a soul—most said yes—and if they had one, what it was—big blank.) Does not the choice of archaisms suggest that God is essentially old-fashioned? In the 21st century, what do we mean when we speak about "souls"? The incarnation says to me that our daily speech can carry the presence of God, but perhaps we prefer hiding in our grandmother's attic chest.

For me, the linguistic nadir in the Roman rite is the wording at the cup: Jesus "took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands." Of this, I ask, what is the referent? Of precious, I think of Gollum, or worse yet, Precious Mo­ments. Of chalice, I say that although it is a possible translation of the Latin calix, even Indiana Jones could distinguish the cup from a chalice. Of venerable, the dictionary agrees with me that the English word connotes age. I cannot fathom how this phrasing could have been proposed, let alone approved and required.

This lamentable new rite does not represent liturgical language that is communally acceptable, biblically accurate, theologically helpful or linguistically masterful, and it has impelled some Catholic liturgical scholars to conclude that, well, actually, words don't really matter all that much. This strikes me as a counsel of despair, the sad cry of faithful worshipers who feel themselves helpless. I hope that this sense of resignation is not contagious but that all of us, in our varied Christian assemblies, will tirelessly address these issues, toward the continuously renewed vibrancy of our liturgical language.

Gail Ramshaw has written widely on liturgical language. Her book Treasures Old and New discusses images in the lectionary readings.

Related Off-site Links:
Catholics Facing Changes in Liturgy – Rose French (Star Tribune, November 22, 2011).
Making Do With a Faulty TranslationNational Catholic Reporter (November 23, 2011).
Latin Whiz, 16, Finds New Liturgy Language Lacking – Robert McClory (National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2011).
The New Translation Makes a Mess of the Trinity – Joseph S. O'Leary (June 16, 2011).
Those Horrible New Translations Proceed on Their Merry Way – Joseph S. O'Leary (June 12, 2011)
The Coming American Schism – Phyllis Zagano (National Catholic Reporter, July 20, 2011).
Why Let Bishops Drive Us From the Church We Love? – Brian Cahill (National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2011).
Irish Priests Want New Missal Postponed – Sarah MacDonald (National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2011).
Liturgist Says He Has Had Enough – Thomas C. Fox (National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2011).


  1. "This lamentable new rite does not represent liturgical language that is communally acceptable, biblically accurate, theologically helpful or linguistically masterful, and it has impelled some Catholic liturgical scholars to conclude that, well, actually, words don't really matter all that much."

    This is not a "new rite." Are you sure she's a Catholic? If she believes it's a "new rite" she is pretty ignorant of Catholicism.

    Probably 60% of the priests ordained before 1990 thought the Novus Ordo translation's words didn't "really matter all that much." They made it up as they went along. Some still do. I fully expect some will make up the words prescribed by the new Roman Missal. But they are dying off, just like the members of the CCCR.

    It'll probably take another 20 years to get orthodoxy back on our altars.

  2. I guess she's not a Catholic, according to further research. But from her picture, it appears that she got her degrees long before 1990.

    Just why would the PCV post an article by a non-believer on the new Roman Missal? Are you getting ready to take wings and admit that you have little in common with orthodox Roman Catholic teaching?

  3. A "non-believer"? So, anyone who is not Roman Catholic is a non-believer? Incredible.

    It's attitudes and statements like that that are turning so many off the Catholic institution. Not the Catholic faith, but certainly the Catholic institution -- of which Ray appears to be an unquestioning devotee.

    I find your snide remarks, Ray, about certain priests and the members of CCCR to be quite repugnant. My sense is you're not a very happy camper. And I can't help but notice that such inhospitable and unkind ways of thinking and speaking about others seems to always go along with the demand for rigid orthodoxy -- that same fundamentalist mindset that crucified Jesus and continues to cause havoc in our world today.

    The author is a Lutheran, Ray, which makes her a Christian believer. She also clearly states at the very beginning of her piece why this issue is of importance to her. I for one appreciate her sharing her perspective.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Donna. (Our brother Ray from MN's comments are consistent each time he comments. It is like a chorus of lamentation and excoriation with a hit of hopeful triumph over those of us who will die soon.) I especially appreciated Gail's explanation of the standards for worship text changes and the insight into how one Christian denomination affects the others.
    Do you think there is a point to the observation that it doesn't matter what words the officials change because the whole ritual fails to communicate its meaning to those invited to participate? A person has to go into the ritual with a firm hold on what it is supposed to mean or what it does mean to the person her/himself. The meaning isn't communicated by the ritual. What do you think?

  5. Hi!... Of course it's easy for all English readers, even those like me with less experience, just I am a non native English reader, to understand that this post is written by a Lutheran women who is writting for non Lutheran readers. And It's obvious that PCV decided to hear what she has to say, agreeing or not, just to hear other perspectives, that is a thing that it seems that our Church current leaders aren't interested in... Congratulatiosn to PCV!

    Regarding the subject: Ok, I have a sigle personnal view. Polemic? Perharps... Thought provoking?... Surely!... I rather think that all of this situation with English Missals is somewhat... "Entertainment" in order to make people "forget"... Somewhat the sexual crisis and affirming their faith against "liberal Protestants"... Lets see: As I know, we haven't this problem, for example, in Portuguese language Missals...

    Said this, I wonder why there are some, say, "liberal Protestant" leaders speaking loudly about this subject, that should be seen for them as a "provocation" made after Pope JP2 sign of several agreements with their religious leaders of the time about such matters of language, music, prayer resources to not mention Eucharist meaning in 1982, with the Anglican Communion...

    Unfortunatly, it is clear for me that Union of Christianity only can be reached by diversity. Even Jesus said it in the Gospel, mandating his disciples to not blame "others" who were speaking in his name... But, who cares on it?...

    And, at least for me: Who cares about an institutions where part of their leadership is composed by "guys" like Bernie Cardinophile Law, Bishophile Finn, Fatrophile Ratigan and their too much beloved allies and where, with rare excepcions, all their other colleages and top leaders, including the top one Popophile B16, think that the attitudes of these "good leaders" are simply minor sins, like venial sins of a Child?... Simply, at least for me, an institution, no matter if it's a Church but worse if it is, where these are the attitudes of the top rank, with no minimal Ethics in mind, has no great real value to the society as a whole... Why are we fearing Hell if we left the Church, if top hierarchy seems to no do the same?... What are their real creeds?... In what believe they really?...

    I give to much value to these questions, once here in my location we have no real alternative to have proper Eucharist and nonjudgmental communities... We only have the conservative RCC with one or another a bit more open parish ran by the missionaries, espetially Dominicans and Combonians...

    ...But there on the US you are plenty of Choices: Evangelical Lutherans... Or maybe, The Episcopal Church... Well, what are you fearing?... I'm not arguing they haven't their cases... They have, but they seem to have minimal Ethics and seem to try to "not judge ye not to be judge", as our lord mandate us to do...

    Unfortunatly the world is so big... Or so small... But you have alternatives to pray and receive the sacrements with dignity and justice... It's your choice...

    For me... I'm just "lucky" to have an more or less open minded Dominican Parish... And, I have to admit, Washington National Cathedral (TEC), Trinity Wall Street (TEC), or Brazilian St. Paul Cathedral (IEAB - Brazilian Episcopalian) webcasts and inspiring Youtube videos like this

    Excuse me to be sooo long!...

    Have a good journey!...

  6. a recently ordained priestNovember 27, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    I am a new priest ordained in the past couple of years still on my first assignment. Ray is correct. The progressive priests are dying off and not being replaced. All of you who are holding on to the dreams of returning to the liturgical wasteland that was the 70's-90's might as well accept that fact it is not going to happen. If you doubt me, make a visit to the St. Paul Seminary sometime. They celebrate daily Mass at 10:35 and I am sure the Rector would be happy to have you visit. Take a look around and notice how normal and orthodox the seminarians are. We are NOT going back....

    P.S. I have now celebrated three Masses with the New Missal and not a single complaint from anyone....

    1. No complaints doesn't mean that they like it. To 80% of mass attendees they don't care. They're just interested in getting their obligation over with.

  7. Thanks for joining in the conversation. Can you give us your name? I am curious to know why you think anyone wants to return to the 70's, 80's or 90's?
    I am sure that the seminarians are normal and orthodox. Is that the test of good liturgy in your estimation?

  8. a recently ordained priestNovember 29, 2011 at 8:34 PM

    I can not give my name for obvious reasons. If there is not a desire to go back than what exactly is this blog advocating for? The new translation is pretty much a technical correction but from the reaction on this blog and other progressive blogs you would think that we have gone the Middle Ages that is. I can tell you, the only way that liturgy should be celebrated is in strict accordance with the rubrics (i.e. say the black do the red). The liturgy that is/was celebrated at this Archdiocese notorious parishes (Pax Christi, Joan of Arc, Francis Cabrini and formerly St. Stephens was/is anything but faithful to the Magisterium. My perspective is that I do not have the authority to deviate but some priests feel they do (this is the test of good liturgy). But the pastors of these parishes are priests that are heralded in the progressive movement. Father "Just Call me Mike" Tedeger comes to mind....

    There seems to be a lot of grasping at straws on these blogs. But I can tell you, the days of illicit Masses are rapidly coming to a close. That is all I am trying to say.

    Thanks for listening. Blessed Advent.

  9. "I can tell you, the only way that liturgy should be celebrated is in strict accordance with the rubrics (i.e. say the black do the red)."

    This is a description of a magic ritual, not a sacred spiritual celebration. If this is an example of thinking and approach of an orthodox seminarian, Harry Potter would surely qualify for seminary training. He would certainly be right at home with this kind of magical thinking.

  10. a recently ordained priestDecember 1, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    Colkoch......right. So anything goes? Any priest any person has the privilege or right to change any aspect of the Mass as they feel? No thank you. I prefer to celebrate valid and licit Masses as promulgated by the Magisterium. My parishioners are entitled and deserve this. And we wonder why we have a problem??? Again, the days of anything goes are rapidly coming to a close. Grasp all you want.

  11. I don't hear anyone advocating an "anything goes" approach. Such an approach has certainly not been my experience of those "notorious" parishes identified by the previous commentator.

    Also, Gail Ramshaw is far from an "anything goes" person. Her critique of the new translation certainly shows that. She outlines a very thorough and thoughtful criteria for a "good" (i.e., meaningful liturgy).

    I can, however, understand how it might appear like an "anything goes" approach to those mired in a rigid world of rubrics and thus shut off from the Spirit. It's actually these poor folks, desperately clinging to their rubrics and thus unable to meaningfully respond to the Spirit in our contemporary world, who come across as the ones who are grasping.

  12. A priest simply cannot read a text he sees to be bad and spiritually deleterious. It is even forbidden by Canon Law, of which the first principle is Salus animarum suprema lex. The bishops have dropped the ball on this, failing to examine the texts with due rigor. Celebrants and congregations can be relied on to find practical solutions to the artificially created dilemma.e.g.:

  13. a recently ordained priestDecember 2, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    Joe- so it is simply a matter of conscience on the part of the priest? A priest, may I remind you, who has taken a promise of obedience? To imply that the current Roman Missal is "spiritually deleterious" is a pretty serious action and I would ask that you specifically tell me how this is. I can tell you that at my suburban parish, which certainly has a progressive element, there has not been a SINGLE complaint or even negative connotation. In fact, they (the faithful), see it for what it is, a relatively minor change in language.

  14. You're right, I agree whole-heartedly, I don't think this new Missal is that helpful - I say we just dispel with the English language altogether in the liturgy. Latin is and has always been, the way to go! The Novus Ordo in latin with Gregorian chant is one way we can recapture the glory of the Mass, but I would recommend celebrating the Extraordinary Form: the reverence, the majesty and the active prayerful participation of the people is unmatched in an English Novus Ordo Mass.

  15. Dear Recently Ordained Priest: The change in the consecration from the words "for all" to the words "for many" doesn't seem like a minor change to me. But the lamentation over the language is only a small part of the dismay within the Church about the direction the leadership is choosing to go. Vatican II for many of us heralded an openness to the world that we can now see negated. Your parishioners may not be complaining about the changes in language, but do you hear what concerns they do have? You say you cannot give your name "for obvious reasons." Is it that you are afraid? Fear about speaking freely is widespread in our Archdiocese. That is a demoralizing situation. It is also not edifying that you scoff at other parishes and even at another priest by name in your previous post. If you cannot hear people's questioning with compassion maybe you should think about that as an ordained priest. It would be great if we could have respect for each other and hear each other's deepest concerns.

  16. Dear Anonymous: I loved the Latin Mass and Gregorian Chant too when I was celebrating with a community that was participating wholeheartedly in it. But because we appreciated praying in that form, can we say that everyone should? If the community is not prepared to participate with understanding in a particular form, why would we insist on it for all? Why isn't it possible to have many different forms of liturgy?

  17. You say you haven't heard any complaints. What would you do or say to the person who did complain? If I were in your congregation, I wouldn't want to risk learning the answer to that question, so I'd keep my thoughts to myself. I wouldn't even ask you if you liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream. I'd avoid you. That would be my loss, I'm sure, but it would be your loss, too. Why don't you approach a few of those strange "progressive Catholics" in your congregation and ask them what they think of the New Translation?