The grievous fault… imposing words

This coming Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season in which we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.

This First Sunday of Advent also marks ten years of the current English translation of the Mass. In 2011, on the First Sunday of Advent, English-speaking Catholics had a new, more literal and stultifying translation of the liturgy to contend with. A much more prayerful translation had been compiled by the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) in 1998. This was simply disregarded for a Latinised text when, after decades of work, the rules for translation of liturgical texts were changed in 2001, and a new oversight body called Vox Clara was established. Instead of a dynamic equivalent, a literal translation was produced. Questions were raised about the English, the unsatisfactory prayerfulness, the poor theology, and the pastoral effect the current text would have.

Some retorted, suggesting that this new translation would be an opportunity to evangelise and educate people on the Mass – the Church’s supreme act of worship. There is little evidence to suggest this happened. The opposite may also be true: many people are more alienated now than what they ever were before. Others said it was much more poetic – we can debate this, but it was never supposed to be a book of poetry. It is the prayer of the Church. The general response, ten years later, seems to be resignation and, at best, accommodation. Sadly, many important linguistic and theological questions were never entertained, and the text was bullied through.

In a study Lost in Translation: The English Language and the Catholic Mass, by world-renowned systematic theologian Fr Gerald O’Collins and former editor of The Tablet, John Wilkins, the authors show that the claim that it is a more authentic translation of the original is not true. They painstakingly point out that, in several places, the translation does not reflect the literal meaning of the original Latin. Words not necessarily found in the original text have been changed, added and adapted. This is compounded by the dubious theological sentiments the new text conveys. The overuse of the word “merit” could lead one to think that the English text has vindicated Pelagius! (Pelagius denied the need for divine help, he suggested that through our own efforts we can attain perfection)

There is little likelihood that the current text will be reviewed, as this would concede that the current text was misguided from the start. It would be to admit that this was never really about the prayer of the people or the authenticity of the text. It clearly was driven by an ideological agenda. It would take a good dose of courage and humility to admit that rushing it through was not impelled by the Spirit.

For the upcoming Synod on Synodality, every diocese and parish is being asked to put time aside for “listening circles” – spaces and places where people can be paid attention to and heard. If taken seriously and done well, this would be in stark contrast to what happened ten years ago. This is a sign of growth and hope: could we really become a Church that no longer makes the grievous fault of imposing words but, instead, listens to them in places and spaces we would not before? Our ability to listen, intentionally and attentively, is a sign that the Messiah is amongst us.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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