Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why the "New" Missal Excels

Since 2006, I have been directing the Mark Seven Bible Institute at Camp Mark Seven in Old Forge, New York.  It is, to my knowledge, the only Bible study camp for Deaf adults; our mission to meet a need that seems to be omnipresent:  To expose Deaf Catholics to the beautiful landscape that is the Scriptures.  This year our topic will be "Introduction to Biblical Doctrine," in which we will flesh out the venerable axiom "Scripture is the soul of sacred theology."
     One of my enduring frustrations, as a Bible catechist, is dealing with participants who do not 'get' my repeated admonition to not use certain Bible translations--such as the Living Bible, the Everyday Bible, or (God forbid) the English Version for the Deaf.  It is only with ambivalence that I will tolerate Today's English Version or the Contemporary English Version.
     The reason?  Let's compare a Biblical text between the Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation that is paradigmatic of the problem--
God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them (Rom 1:5, NLT).
On the other hand, the Revised Standard Version has--
...through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.
Not only is "grace" substituted with "privilege" but that crucial description, "obedience of faith," is over-simplified (I'm trying to be charitable) to merely "to tell...what God has done for them."  Grace, in the mind of St Paul, is the free and unmerited favour of God, a notion that is completely lost by substituting it with the world "privilege," which, against grace, implies 'special treatment.'  But grace is anything but special treatment.
     The "obedience of faith" which St Paul wrote of here is repeated at the end of his epistle, at Romans  1:26; the NLT has "believe and obey him," which is slightly better than what was found at 1:5.  But the expression "obedience of faith" is to be understood such that "obedience" is possessed by the act of faith (which is why we find a similar expression in Acts 6:7, "...and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."
     I could multiply examples here, but I will not.  Suffice it to say, though, that as someone trained in exegesis, such loose translations--however well-intentioned--serves to do more harm than good.  At the level of sacred theology, moreover, it would seem to be heedless of St Paul's command that we "f]ollow the pattern of sound words."
     As a catechist, my job is to echo the Church's Tradition--as that is what we mean by catechesis--it comes from the Greek noun κατήχησις; it is derived from κατά and ἦχος, which suggests a kind of passing down an echo.  The implication here is that, in the ministry of catechesis, the Church's Tradition is echoed across generations, which in turn suggests, of course, a preservation of what was already heard.  Hence St Paul's expression "pattern of sound words," as an echo repeated must imitate an echo heard, otherwise we risk losing the original message.
     This is why I find, for catechetical purposes, a formal-equivalency translation of the Bible serves the handing-on of the Church's Tradition better than a dynamic-equivalency one.  Words such as "grace" are too important to be substituted with another.
     Where am I going with this?
     As a catechist, I was overjoyed to have received the first news that the English translation of the Roman Missal was being worked on, because we know that the sacred liturgy is, according to Pope Pius XI, "the most important organ of the ordinary magisterium of the Church."  In other words, as the ancient axiom goes, as we pray, so we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi).  With the new Mass translation, which came out roughly a year before my priestly ordination, I found a resource far, far more excellent for the ministry of not merely catechesis but liturgical catechesis.  Previously, I had been embarrassed by many of the Eucharistic Prefaces' bland translation of the editio typica of the Latin texts and, on many occasions, had to re-translate the texts myself or peruse another's.  For how was I supposed to undertake liturgical catechesis when liturgical translations failed to echo the Church's teaching clearly?  More than that, what was I supposed to tell those who attended catechesis but "the translation you see here will not be heard at Mass"?  (Cf.  Defending the New Missal, by Revd Dr Peter Stravinskas.)
     In other words, the previous "Sacramentary" was in fact an obstacle to liturgical catechesis on account of its bland rendering of rich doctrine in Latin into something resembling Good News for Modern Man.  The new translation of the Roman Missal, I have happily discovered, by reason of its many unusual sentence-structures and word-patterns, lend themselves to a better impression on the minds of hearers.  For example, in combating a de facto Pelagianism among the laity, the wonderful expression from Preface I of the Saints, "in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts" has been useful.  The older translation had "for their glory is the crowning of your gifts"--no mention of "merit" at all, which in turn is a key feature in Catholic soteriology.
     I would suggest, furthermore, that the dismal state of the laity's knowledge of the Catholic faith English-speaking countries owes, in part, to the previous translation of the Missal (to say nothing of the common complaint of the laity that religious instruction was a tiny feature of priestly ministry in the 1980s and 1990s, but I digress).  The new translation has remedied this considerably.
     Of course the collecta of the Mass are often difficult to follow, but that is the fault of two things:  First, modern English does not appropriate well subordinating clauses.  Second, as someone once observed, "In 100 years we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to remedial English in college."  It is no secret that the prospect of contemporary education is a dismal one, and it is for no reason that many private schools have been established according to a 'classical' curriculum precisely in reaction an "educational philosophy" (pardon my misuse of the word "philosophy") that seeks to assuage the ignorant rather than to challenge them.
     The complaint that the Roman collecta are difficult to follow and therefore need to be re-translated is tantamount to the English-speaking Church succumbing to poor education by allowing poorer translations of the prayers.  Rather, as the champion of authentic education (which the Church needs to reclaim), by setting the standard higher than the banal English of our finest newspapers, the liturgy can have the happy side-effect of demanding a more involved listening to higher diction (after all, we are speaking to God, not sending an email).
     Admittedly, translating the collecta into American Sign Language is difficult, as ASL rarely makes use of subordinating clauses.  I, more than others, might have greater reason to complain about the structure of the collecta in English, but instead of looking for something easier, I have decided to do something more difficult:  To go to Ealing Abbey in London where I'll study a bit of Latin with the express purpose of translating portions of the Roman Missal directly from Latin into ASL--not for greater ease, but for greater accuracy.
     I have, of course, read of other complaints about the "New" Mass translations and, frankly, have found them wanting.  The concerns found therein, to my mind, are only quaternary to the liturgy's fundamental purpose of  authentic worship and catechizing soundly.  We must measure up to the sacred liturgy, not the other way around as if the liturgy should accommodate us.  The sabbath was made for man, yes, but the temple was made for God.
     That being said, I have been very happy with the work of the Vox Clara committee, and I hope that we not only retain this translation, but that priests would also live up to their primary task of the munera docendi, which includes both preaching and teaching (cf Presbyterorum ordinis, no. 4; CIC c. 528).  We priests are not sacramental functionaries or Eucharistic vending-machines; we are ordained especially to preach and to teach, and nothing precludes teaching the more difficult translational texts of the Roman Missal from the priest's broader ministry of the Word.

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