Whose English? Explaining the potential for new Mass translations

| Father John Paul Erickson | September 26, 2017 | 2 Comments
Holy Mass


Certainly one of the more obvious outcomes of the Second Vatican Council was the reform of the liturgy, that is, the public prayer of the Church. As enunciated in the first published document of the council, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” an explicit goal of these reforms was the “full, active and conscious participation” of the people of God in this public prayer, especially in the holy Mass.

To aid in this kind of participation, which is at its root a union of mind and heart with the mysteries being celebrated, the council paved the way for a greater use of the vernacular in the liturgy. Very quickly after the council’s conclusion, the revised rituals and liturgical texts of the Latin Church were translated from Latin, which remains the official language of the Latin Rite Catholic Church, into the many vernacular languages of the world. The vast majority of Latin Rite Catholics (including us Roman Catholics) throughout the world now worship in their own, native tongue.

The translation of official liturgical texts is no small thing. The law of prayer is the law of belief, and how we worship both proclaims and shapes how we understand our faith. Our Holy Father Pope Francis recently announced a change in canon law that puts much of the authority to translate liturgical texts into the hands of episcopal conferences, or groups of bishops organized around a geographic area or nation.

The move, announced by means of a papal document entitled “Magnum Principium” (“The Great Principle”), was a concrete and important sign that our Holy Father means it when he speaks of his desire and intention to bolster the authority of episcopal conferences, the result of his long publicized admiration for synods and his awareness of the conciliar call for a greater autonomy of local shepherds.

While the Apostolic See will still have the final say on whether or not a translation from Latin into the vernacular of a geographical area is acceptable for liturgical use, it is expected that the new rules and regulations will guide the Holy See toward a fairly predictable acceptance of the translations offered by local conferences and local shepherds.

What does all this mean for the weekly worship of Catholics? On its face, not much. Liturgical texts already translated will not be re-worked anytime soon. But over time, and by that I mean over years and decades, the recent change in law could be experienced by the faithful in increasingly dramatic ways.

The principles of translation embraced by one set of bishops in one area of the world may be quite different from the principles embraced elsewhere. Mass in English in the United States could someday sound rather different than Mass in Canada, Australia and the British Isles, and I don’t just mean which syllables will be emphasized. Of course, the structure of the Mass will almost certainly remain the same, but words and gestures and local adaptations could be increasingly distinct depending on the part of the world in which you are worshiping and the pastoral prudence of local shepherds.

While liturgical diversity can seem at times to represent a challenge to the unity of the Church, both locally and universally, it is of course essential to remember that the sacred liturgy has been celebrated in many, many different and legitimate ways throughout the millennia. Indeed, the Latin Rite of the Church itself is but one rite among many within the Church, and we need to be on guard against any fossilizing of the liturgy, or the romanticizing of a particular era or style of liturgical worship.

Time will tell how the changes effected by his holiness impact the daily worship of Christians. In the meantime, let us pray for the unity of the Church and for hearts that long to worship in spirit and in truth.

Father Erickson is the director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul.



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