POPE’S STATEMENT ON LITURGY
OFFERS A CHANCE FOR BALANCE
Pope Francis seems to have one ongoing mission: to stir the pot, both politically and ecclesiastically. But amid all the change and controversy, his latest pronouncement on liturgical language presents the Church with an opportunity to pursue reasonableness and balance.
The September 3 apostolic letter titled Magnum Principium (“The Great Principle”), charges the world’s bishops with greater responsibility for vernacular translations of the words we use at Mass. This move revives a controversy over worship language that has gone on with greater or lesser intensity since the Second Vatican Council. And it’s another step in the decentralizing of authority which appears to be high on the agenda of this pontificate.
According to Magnum Principium, the Holy See still retains the power of final text approval, thus ensuring fidelity to meanings embodied in the universal Latin standard. But national episcopal conferences now have greater authority to make prayers and responses better fit the linguistic structures and usages of the world’s many tongues.
To those outside the Church, all this might sound like a So-what? proposition, a procedural adjustment at most. But those who understand Catholicism and its internal stresses recognize that what Francis has done — as with his much-debated words about receiving Holy Communion in Amoris Laetitia — stokes anxiety in some quarters about the future shape of our Church and power relationships within it.
Since Advent 2011, English-speaking parishes have been conducting Mass according to what’s called the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal. That volume sets out a translation that is closer to the Latin original than the text which had been in use during the years after Vatican II.
At the same time, this new language is less colloquial (which is to say less reflective of current common syntax and word understanding). Consequently, it creates false impressions, introducing elements of distortion into the meanings it attempts to convey.
A small example: In recounting Jesus’ Last Supper during the Eucharistic Prayer, the Words of Institution used since 2011 state that Christ “took the chalice” (from the Latin, calicem), drank wine, and instructed his disciples to do the same in remembrance. Prior to 2011, the prayer said He “took the cup.”
This might seem like a distinction without a difference — and believe me, I’m no Latin scholar. I don’t know if the word calicem served to designate all drinking vessels, of whatever type, back in ancient times. Today, however, chalice (the English word derived from it) has a very specific connotation.
It suggests a bowl-shaped container mounted atop a pillar-like base, a ceremonial object probably made of gold, decoratively engraved, and often set with precious stones.
In other words, like what we use at Mass.
Can you imagine Jesus in that upper room, seated at table with such an elaborate (and expensive) item set before Him? Doesn’t seem very plausible to me.
So the word chalice may be a more accurate translation of the Latin — and it may indeed describe what we see on the altar — but the meaning it conveys in Modern English is likely far from the historical reality.
Granted, Christianity does not stand or fall on the goblet from which Jesus drank. But as a writer, I know that words must mean what they say, or else information is not accurately conveyed.
This is especially true in religion. The words we hear from priest or congregation shape the mental images that constitute our faith understanding. That’s what they’re intended to do.
Some other word substitutions made in 2011 misrepresent other points of significance. The response to the priest’s invocation, “Behold the Lamb of God” (Ecce Agnus Dei), is perhaps the most egregious.
This recounts the exclamation uttered by a Roman centurion (in Matthew 8) when Jesus says he will come to the man’s home in response to a request for healing.
Formerly, the congregation had recited…
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
Currently, we say…
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
Now, it’s true that the roof and soul references are in the Latin (as paraphrased from the Bible). But this response is given right before we take Communion — to which the phrase “receive you” and the concept of worthiness have direct relevance.
Substituting that business about entering under the centurion’s roof takes a point that was once profoundly tangible and makes it abstract, and then requires that we infer its meaning to us as individual believers. I call that a triumph of literalism over communication.
In any event, the change can’t be defended on the grounds of scriptural accuracy. In Matthew 8, the request made of Jesus is to heal a sick servant, not the centurion’s own soul.
On top of that, the centurion wasn’t just being humble. He was acknowledging the compromise of ritual purity which Jesus, as a good Jew, would risk in entering the house of a pagan — a concern that’s rather off the point at Mass.
After the revised translations were introduced, I was honored to take part in a pro / con discussion of the changed language published in the Catholic journal, New Oxford Review. In my essay I observed…
“The laity can recognize and appreciate important differences in liturgical wording. For instance, to state that Christ’s sacrifice was salvific for many [which the new text does] as opposed to for all reflects a key theological point that calls out for clarity and justifies a change. On the other hand, what can be said for the response, ‘We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again,’ or either of the other two memorial acclamations? These changes are hardly justified by theological precision. Moreover, all three [new] acclamations are considerably less definitive than the familiar, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,’ which is a much clearer and confident assertion of our most elemental Christian belief.
“Likewise, the new rendering of the Nicene Creed actually blurs an important dimension of what Christ endured for the sake of our salvation. It states merely that ‘He suffered death and was buried’ — which is to say, He died. The old version, in contrast, spelled out that ‘He suffered, died, and was buried,’ thus emphasizing the pain Jesus endured before He died.”
I fully appreciate that Magnum Principium adds to the uncertainty that has dogged this Pope’s time on the throne of Saint Peter. Some people fear the possibility of individual bishops deciding to go their own ways, following their private tastes in worship style.
That would surely be liturgical chaos.
But the Pope has not issued a license for free improvisation. As I understand it, he’s calling upon the national episcopal conferences to act collectively in setting linguistic norms that will apply to entire nations.
What I see in this is an opportunity to achieve balance between historical continuity, which was at least part of what those who advocated the language changes wanted, and the clarity of understanding that was a key objective of the liturgical reform wrought by Vatican II.
Francis has given the episcopal conferences a chance — and I would argue, a mandate — to revisit these translations and to address the distortions and deficiencies with which believers have had to cope since 2011.
My cry to the bishops is…
Let reasonableness prevail! Honor our Catholic liturgical traditions, but do it in words that make sense to believers today.
This, it seems to me, is the great principle behind Pope Francis’ letter. And I think he’s onto something.
The New York Times delves into the power implications, calling this a “hugely important” reform measure that reflects the Pope’s sympathy for the liberal side of the liturgical debate…
…and if you’re not, you will find the piece reproduced, along with some additional reflection on my blog at…