A pastoral deficit
The new English translation of the Missal being prepared by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy has caused grave concern. Here a leading liturgist argues that the translation falls short in one of its primary obligations
Whether the faith needs of the people are being met in the Eucharist; whether the liturgical rituals are understandable; and whether the liturgy touches the ordinary members of the congregation are all questions about the pastoral function of liturgy. The proposed new English translation of the Order of Mass, as presented by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, needs to be assessed in these terms. How truly pastoral is it?
In evaluating the translations we need to consider whether the texts are both understandable and proclaimable, and whether they use a word order, vocabulary and idiom of the mainstream of English-speaking people. If these texts are to be the prayers of the people, are they owned by them and expressed in their language? The texts include new words of the Creed, such as “consubstantial to the Father” and “incarnate of the Virgin Mary”, while words in the various new Collects include “sullied”, “unfeigned”, “ineffable”, “gibbet”, “wrought”, thwart”. Do these translated texts communicate in the living language of the worshipping assembly? Will God’s people understand the fourth paragraph of the proposed Blessing of Baptismal Water, which has 56 words or 11 lines in one sentence?Let me treat in particular the new demand for a sacred vocabulary in liturgical texts. The instruction Liturgiam Authenticam (norm 27) of 2001 advocates “a sacred style that will come to be recognised as proper to liturgical language”. But scholars have pointed out that the celebration of the Eucharist always followed the language of the people. There was no such thing in East or West as a sacred language.
Some would contend that this new approach by the Vatican derives from a decided loss of a sense of awe, mystery and transcendence in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council. Yet, while no one should be opposed to the transcendent dimension in liturgical translation, an exaggerated attention to the sacred distorts the balance between transcendence and immanence.
Scripture presents God under a twofold image: king and neighbour, transcendence and immanence. At times God shows himself as an awesome and powerful presence, a mighty monarch controlling the universe who prompts awe in his people. We see an example of this in the Old Testament when God appears to Moses at the burning bush. Moses takes off his sandals because he is on holy ground and he bows his head. In the New Testament, Christ is transfigured before his apostles. He appears radiant; his divinity shines through his humanity. In the Pauline Epistles, Jesus is the transcendent Lord, the Risen One, exalted on high, who knocks Paul to the ground on the road to Damascus. But at other times Scripture reveals God like a neighbour: friendly, close to his people, personal, human in appearance, and inspiring love, intimacy and fervour. This is the immanent image of God. Both transcendence and immanence are necessary for a proper understanding of the revealed God. Both are equal revelations of God. Balance is needed, and the delicate balance between transcendence and immanence must be maintained in our liturgy. I would suggest strongly that there is today an imbalance between transcendence and immanence in our liturgical language.
While people need an understanding of the transcendence of God, the use of expressions not prevalent in the speech of the assembly and the use of archaic words defeat that purpose and make God remote. The new formalism in liturgical translation will stifle authentic worship. For Christ’s message can only be heard in the culture of the hearer. Liturgy does not take place in a cultural vacuum. If the liturgy of the Church is not celebrated in terms that resonate with the assembly, it will not be heard.
Other changes have profound theological implications. The Pope announced recently that in the new Missal the words prayed over the cup will be changed. Now we pray: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant; it will be shed for you and for all”. These words will be changed to “for you and for many”. It is the clear, certain teaching of the Catholic Church that Christ died for all. So what is behind the change? The reason given is that “for many” represents a more accurate translation of the Latin phrase pro multis.
In support of the translation “for all”, on the other hand, scholars point to the Aramaic texts that underlie the biblical and liturgical texts of the Eucharistic Institution narrative. It can be demonstrated that the Aramaic texts are clearly inclusive and there are also many other Scripture passages documenting Jesus’ universal salvific will.
In Matthew 26: 28 and following, we read: “For this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” The reference to the “many” is certainly drawn from Isaiah 53: 11, where we read: “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many and their guilt he shall bear.”
In this passage the term “many” is a Hebrew word that means “for everyone”, since there was no Hebrew word “for all”. The term was originally inclusive and signified “everybody”. The Jesuit scholar Max Zerwick’s Philological Analysis of the Greek New Testament is still an unsurpassed authority. On Matthew 26: 28 Zerwick explains that polloi, the Greek for “the many”, translates a Semitic expression that can signify a multitude and at the same time a totality. It means “all (who are many)”.
This was strongly affirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1970 when the Congregation commissioned Zerwick to research and write an article on the meaning of pro multis. That article was published in the official organ of that Congregation (Notitiae) in May 1970 (pages 138-140). It states: “According to exegetes, the Aramaic word which in Latin is translated ‘pro multis’ means ‘pro omnibus’: the multitude for whom Christ died is unbounded, which is the same as saying: Christ died for all. St Augustine will help recall this: ‘You see what He hath given; find out then what He bought. The Blood of Christ was the price. What is equal to this? What, but the whole world? What, but all nations?’ “
In 1970 the Congregation for Divine Worship made a definitive judgement and published it in its official organ. What reasons now compel the Holy See to reverse itself? The English word “many” is normally taken to exclude some. The Pope’s decision to revert to this literal translation does not seem to express in English the true meaning of the phrase. “Many” does not mean everyone. On a pastoral level we must have from the Vatican a better rationale for this major change than what has been given. With full respect and love for the Holy See, we need a pastoral explanation for the people. Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, concedes that “for many” does not convey at face value the Lord’s universal salvific intent, but that this belongs to catechesis. Is not the liturgy the best form of catechesis? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The liturgy is the privileged place for catechising the people of God” (Paragraph 1074).
We need to be able to explain and defend this major liturgical change. We need biblical scholars to study this matter and give us a rationale that we can give our people. We need a pastoral approach. How many people in the pews will hear a universal inclusive meaning in “for many”?
We must hope that the work of liturgical pioneers and leaders of the liturgical movement will continue to develop and that their vision will not be in vain. Cardinal Suenens once remarked: “Happy are those who dream dreams of full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy and are ready to pay the price to make that come true.” These are brave and challenging words from a Father of the Second Vatican Council.