The first Sunday of Advent, November 27, marks the advent of the new Catholic Missal translation into English. The Missal is the operator’s manual for church services and, unlike more profane instruction manuals usually tossed out with cardboard box, the ritual text containing prayers and instructions for the celebration of the Mass is engraved, through weekly repetition, on the very soul of worshippers. And now it’s going to change.
Laurie Goodstein describes the translation change in the NYT. “The changes are included in a new English-language translation of the Roman Missal, a translation produced after almost 30 years of labor, intrigue and infighting. The new missal, the book of texts and prayers used in the Mass, is intended to be closer to the liturgical Latin that was used for centuries than the current version. The church officials promoting it say it will bring an elevated reverence and authenticity to the Mass. Many Catholics who prefer a more traditional liturgy are eagerly anticipating the change.”
That’s traditional as in traditional Tridentine Mass, adopted at the Council of Trent in 1563 and celebrated almost exclusively in Latin. For English-language traditionalists, the New Mass (Novus Ordo Missae) has been the official translation since 1970, and many Latin lovers have never gotten over the descent to the vernacular. But for those who attend English-language mass, the familiar cadence of the liturgy is the translation they prefer, accuracy to Latin be darned.
Critics call the translation archaic and inaccessible. “What we are asking of the bishops is to scrap this text,” said Father Sean McDonagh, a leader of an Irish group, the Association of Catholic Priests, which represents 450 priests—about 1 out of 10—in that country. “I know people are not going to use it. I wouldn’t use it, because everything I know in terms of theology and anthropology and linguistics, it breaches every one of those.” In the U.S., Father Richard Hilgartner, charged with overseeing the introduction of the new Missal, was shocked the first time he saw the new translation. “But the more time I’ve spent with it, the more comfortable I became with it. The new translation tries to be more faithful to the Scriptures, and a little more poetic and evocative in terms of imagery and metaphor.”
That’s where consubstantial comes in. In the Nicene Creed, the part of the mass that is essentially the Mission Statement of the Catholic Church, English-speaking Catholics say that Jesus Christ is “one in Being with the Father.” In November, that will be replaced by consubstantial, of the same substance, from the original Latin consubstantialus. (This is a nice feature when translating from Latin to English… when in doubt, don’t translate, just pass it right on through.)
The old English translation aspired to become a “dynamic equivalent” translation as part of an effort to make Mass more accessible to Catholics. “Those efforts were upended in 2001, when the Vatican issued ‘Liturgiam authenticam’ (Authentic Liturgy), an instruction requiring that translations of the Mass adhere literally to the Latin vocabulary, syntax, punctuation and even capitalization.” As a universal language, Latin is just the language for a universal Church. By having translators hew closely to the Latin line, vernacular translations into English will be more similar to Latin translations into other languages, too.
So by next year, English-speaking Catholics will be putting the “literal” in their liturgy, at least when it comes to translation from the Latin.