The old ICEL translation weakened reverence for the Mass: the new one will help rebuild it

Pope Benedict XVI raises the Eucharist at Bellahouston Park, Scotland (Photo: CNS)

“Will the new English translation of the liturgy make our worship more reverent? I doubt it.” Those are the words of Fr Dwight Longenecker, an excellent American priest I have known for many years; he used to write for me when I was editor of this paper,  when he lived in England (before he was ordained). I have never knowingly disagreed with him before, but I do now. This is his argument:

“Catholic worship isn’t reverent or irreverent just because of the words you use. This should be obvious to anyone who has attended a reverently and carefully celebrated Novus Ordo Mass.
“What is more important than the words is how the Mass is celebrated by both the priest and the people. I am quite sure that when the new Mass is introduced that Fr Folkmass will still celebrate Mass in his usual game show host style while other priests will celebrate the Mass casually and carelessly.”

Now of course, we all know that there is some truth in this. If Mass is celebrated irreverently or sloppily, it may fulfil your Sunday obligation: but we have all been to Mass away from our usual church infuriated or depressed by the way the liturgy has been performed. And the Latin of the old Mass, or so I am told, was often gabbled without care or reverence [true or false?]. But to say that “Catholic worship isn’t reverent or irreverent just because of the words you use” is misleading. I am convinced that the grossly reductionist translation we use now has reflected, and has also been a partial cause of, a grossly reductionist liturgical culture which has caused untold harm to the whole spiritual life of the Catholic Church in English-speaking countries.
I wrote about the new translation some months ago and I won’t repeat it now; for what I said then go here. It was supervised by Mgr Bruce Harbert, who wrote about how the new translation should be carried out in the Herald some years ago and about a year later was, to my delight, himself appointed to be in charge of the whole operation, a sign that Rome was really serious about it.

Let me indicate one way in which, I believe, the old translation undermined reverence for God, and in which the new translation will over time help to restore and strengthen it. The then Fr Harbert pointed out in the Herald that in the old ICEL translation, any indication of humility in the Latin text, which might be indicated in translation by some such phrase as “we humbly beseech you”, was simply suppressed in the Mass we have: there are very many examples of this. This, together with a consistent reduction of devotional intensity and theological meaning gives at times an almost peremptory, even irreverent, tone to the text which over the years has surely had its effect on the whole spiritual life of the Church. The texts are, to begin with, considerably shorter than they need to be if all the meaning the Latin texts contain is to be conveyed. Consider the present translation of the opening sentences of Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon:

We come to you, Father,
with praise and thanksgiving,
through Jesus Christ  your Son.
Through him we ask you to accept and bless+
these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.
We offer them for your holy catholic Church,
watch over it Lord and guide it;
grant it peace and unity throughout the world.

It’s almost as though the translators want to get the whole thing over as soon as they can. Compare this, now, with the new, more faithful, translation:

To you, most merciful Father,
we therefore humbly pray
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.
We ask you to accept and bless + these gifts,
these offerings,
these holy and undefiled sacrifices,
which we offer you first of all
for your holy Catholic Church.
Be pleased to grant her peace,
to guard, unite and govern her
throughout the whole world…

Interesting, is it not, that in the old ICEL translation, the word Catholic is spelled with a lower-case initial “c”? That just about says it all: “If it has meaning, reduce it: and let’s not get too mawkish about this business, it’s just something we have to get through before we can all go home for lunch.” A little unjust perhaps? But only a little.
I was greatly tempted to compare the old and new translations of the most venerable part of the Mass, the blessing of bread and wine so that it may become His most precious body and blood. But there would have been a danger of making a polemic out of these sacred words; this is not, I think, permissible. But we know what we are used to; and I think it is decent and right to give thanks for what we will be hearing our priests say from September on:

In the same way, when supper was ended,
he took this precious chalice
into his holy and venerable hands,
and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing
and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the Cup of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal Covenant;
it will be poured out for you and for all
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in memory of me.

That “poured out” for “effundetur” (from effundo, effundere, to pour out, pour forth) is not merely more faithful, it is thereby more generous in its meaning, more powerful, simply more beautiful; these are words which will sink deep into the soul. The old ICEL translators’ mantra was always, “simplify, simplify”: as though they thought their people just weren’t up to the full meaning of the text, or in some cases should even be protected from it. It all did immense harm.
 Many Catholics are presently unaware that there is anything wrong with the translation they have. And I know, of course, that a reverent celebration of it can go far to supply its deficiencies (I have been present at a Mass celebrated by Fr Longenecker, so I know he knows what he is talking about). But Father, you surely must see that, over the years, a truly faithful – and also much more beautiful (I think you have failed to appreciate the quality of the new translation) – translation of the Mass will help to build up once more some, at least, of the reverence that was lost in the closing decades of the last century. Much more is needed, of course. But without this, we can’t even start. It all begins with the Mass and what it signifies: it always did.