As of the first Sunday in Advent this year, virtually all the language English-speaking Catholics have been using to pray the ancient prayers of the Catholic Church has been sent to the trash bin. This includes the following Advent prayer:
When he humbled himself to come among us as a man,
he fulfilled the plan you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to salvation.
Now we watch for the day,
hoping the salvation promised us will be ours
when Christ our Lord will come again in glory.
Alas, the authorities in Rome judged this, and almost all the wording of our English prayers, to be seriously inadequate.
After ten years of effort by numerous experts (some claim, rather dubiously, 7,000 of them), and after the expenditure of untold sums of money, here is what they’ve given us to replace it:
He assumed at his first coming
the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,
so that when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise
in which we now dare to hope.
Better? I must admit that when I heard this prayed by my parish priest, I found it impossible to follow. And I am a native English speaker with a theological degree, who has studied the liturgy for thirty years.
Many of the new prayers, like this one, contain a pile-up of subordinate clauses reflecting Latin syntax rather than the natural rhythms of spoken English. The people in the pews have been told they are gaining access to the riches of the Latin liturgical tradition. But will Latin syntax slavishly reproduced in English really help them to pray in a more authentic manner? Somehow, I doubt it.
The new translation is filled with long-winded sentences, some of them 50-60 words long. Sentence fragments also abound. Pompous expressions, such as “profit our conversion,” “sacrifice of conciliation,” and “an oblation pleasing to your almighty power” are scattered throughout the text. In the old translation Jesus “was born.” Now, he “became incarnate.” He used to “die.” Now he “suffered death.” In the story of the Last Supper, retold at every Mass, it used to be that Jesus took “the cup.” Now, instead, he takes “the precious chalice.” Jesus himself hasn’t changed, of course. But, at the behest of Rome, the liturgical representation of his life, death, and resurrection has been subtly retouched. (In the case of “chalice,” the retouching is not so subtle!)
Who benefits from this new translation? Whose prayer will be enhanced by such complex and clunky prose? Catholics, on the whole, are neither pompous nor pretentious. Whose sensibilities are being flattered?
I can tell you. It’s the person who is persuaded that every dependent clause, every modifier--indeed, every jot of the Latin--must be reproduced in English in the most exact manner. It’s the person who is convinced that the closest possible conformity to Latin guarantees doctrine which is pure, and assures unity of faith across the various linguistic communities which form the Catholic Church. That such enthusiasts for literal translation are sadly mistaken does not change the fact that they have found favor in Rome.
The American bishops approved this new translation under pressure from Rome. Pastors of parishes were never consulted. The bishops had approved an earlier version, in 1998, which was much more readable. But Rome rejected the 1998 translation, and insisted on beginning the whole process over again, from scratch. What we have as a result is far more rigidly faithful to the Latin, and much less beautiful as English prose.
So far, most of the faithful are going along good naturedly. Priests have told them “It’s no big deal” and “You’ll get used to it.” But the fact is that many have reservations and misgivings, and some are angry. In private, many priests fume over the imposition of this translation and grieve the loss of prayers they’ve been praying all their lives. Their bishops have required them to use it. And they will, as an act of institutional loyalty. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the question is not what the hierarchy wants, nor what enthusiasts for literal translation want, but what the Catholic faithful actually need. In time, I think it will become clear that this is not what they need.