One profoundly important aspect of the Pope’s visit, one nevertheless hardly spoken of yet, is that for its central event, the beatification Mass, texts from the resonant and accurate new English translation of the Mass will be used for the first time.
It may be safely surmised that the impulse behind the decision to use these texts on this supremely important occasion came from Rome, not the English bishops. Ever since Pope John Paul II published Liturgiam Authenticam in 2001, Rome has been driving the new translation through against the resistance of far too many English-speaking bishops (who have, of course, been backed in this by the Tablet).
When Liturgiam Authenticam was issued, I was editor of The Catholic Herald; I knew that the question our readers were asking was simple: will the Pope’s clear intentions be allowed to prevail? I commissioned a piece from Fr Bruce Harbert, a well-known Catholic liturgist who was critical of the existing translations, and asked him to begin by answering the question: will Liturgiam Authenticam actually change our liturgy? His answer was simple. “The answer is yes; provided those responsible for our liturgy follow these useful guidelines, there will be changes.” But would they? That was the question. Well, Rome answered it unambiguously: about a year later, Fr Harbert himself was appointed as executive secretary of ICEL; he would have special responsibility for overseeing the new translations.
His Catholic Herald article of nearly nine years ago is worth returning to now. It wasn’t just, he explained, that the current texts were ugly and flat; it was that they “repeatedly overestimate the value of human effort and undervalue the role of divine grace in human life: that is, they tend towards the Pelagian heresy”.
“Liturgical texts revised with the guidance of Liturgiam Authenticam,” he wrote, “will sound less like everyday speech than those we are used to. They will contain expressions that require catechesis and repay reflection, leading us into the mysteries of the faith. Their smoother, connected syntax will sound more like carefully considered prose, less like improvised speech. The coherence of the thoughts they express will reflect the coherence of Catholic doctrine. Such a liturgical language will not only be shaped by our everyday speech but will shape it, enriching the English language from the sources of Catholic tradition.”
Now, we have his translation; and it is everything he predicted. The utter impoverishment of the old ICEL “translations” will become more and more evident the more we become accustomed to the new one. I looked at some of the examples Fr Harbert had cited in his Herald piece, to see if his ideas had indeed prevailed.
One of his most striking examples of how oversimplified paraphrase rather than faithful translation had reduced the transcendent to the crudely quotidian, was his criticism of a familiar passage from the fourth Eucharistic prayer: “…so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made …”. “A more faithful translation,” Fr Harbert had suggested, “might run ‘so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered’.”
The difference of meaning is vast: “from East to West” is merely geography: from sunrise to sunset contains also the element of time; the Harbert version is not just more memorable, it also implies God’s creative activity, universal and unceasing throughout time and space, a dimension clearly present in the Latin original: “et populum tibi congregare non desinis, ut a solis ortu usque ad occasum oblatio munda offeratur nomini tuo”.
And the Harbert Catholic Herald version of these words is there in the new text, word for word. This translation could not have been in better hands. The question is, why our bishops won’t let us have it now. The American bishops already have the new text on their website, as part of a process of preparing the faithful to use it. Our bishops have done nothing. Nothing. Why not?