An Issue for Future Liturgical Translation (I): Correcting Already-Approved Mistranslations

Pope Francis’ recent letter, Magnum Principium, has revived the debate about the quality and direction of vernacular liturgical translations, as well as the role of territorial bishops’ conferences in approving such translations for their dioceses. Presumably, the prescriptions of this motu proprio letter apply for the future and do not immediately call into question vernacular translations of liturgical texts that have already been promulgated. I would like to raise an issue for future work in the area of liturgical translation: how does a territorial bishops’ conference identify and correct mistranslations that appear in texts that have already been approved for use by the conference and confirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments? I am not here speaking of differences of opinion about how the underlying Latin might be translated, but of clear mistakes in the construal of the meaning of the text.

For example, the post-Communion prayer for the First Sunday of Advent reads in Latin:

Prosint nobis, quaesumus Domine, frequentata mysteria, quibus nos, inter praetereuntia ambulantes, iam nunc instituis amare caelestia et inhaerere mansuris. Per Christum.

The presently approved English translation reads:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.

My slavishly literal translation would be:

May the mysteries we have attended be to our advantage, we pray, O Lord, by which [mysteries] now already you instruct us, walking amidst passing things, to love heavenly things and to cling to enduring things. Through Christ.

According to standard English usage, the antecedent of a pronoun is normally that word or phrase that is nearest in the unfolding of the sentence. Thus the approved English translation holds that God teaches us “to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures” by means of “passing things.” In fact, the Latin states that God teaches us “to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures” by means of the “mysteries…in which we have participated.”

Another example occurs in the Collect for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The Latin text reads:

Deus Pater, qui, Verbum veritatis et Spiritum sanctificationis mittens in mundum, admirabile mysterium tuum hominibus declarasti, da nobis, in confessione verae fidei, aeternae gloriam Trinitatis agnoscere et Unitatem adorare in potentia maiestatis. Per Christum.

The presently approved English translation reads:

God our Father, who by sending into the world / the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification / made known to the human race your wondrous mystery, / grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith, / we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory / and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty.

I now quote Fr. Anscar Chupungco’s masterful treatment of this mistranslation in his The Prayers of the New Missal: A Homiletic and Catechetical Companion (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2013) 94-95:

“The following is a literal translation of the Latin Collect:

God the Father, who by sending into the world / the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification / revealed to the human race your wondrous mystery, / grant us, in the confession of the true faith, / to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and to adore the Unity in the power of majesty.

It should be pointed out that the Latin text does not say “acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory” but “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity.” The object of the verb agnoscere (to acknowledge) is the glory of the Trinity, [it is] the Trinity whom we adore, not merely acknowledge….

Somewhat more disturbing from a theological standpoint is the second petition “and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty.” How is the Latin text formulated? First of all it has no possessive pronoun (your). The insertion of “your” is what causes the problem in the English translation. The Latin text simply states, “adore the Unity in the power of majesty.”

It is useful to remember that the one addressed in this prayer is God the Father, not the holy Trinity…. As the English version stands, we are given the wrong impression that we adore the Unity of God the Father. This is certainly not an insignificant theological issue. The passage is inaccurate and should be rectified by deleting the possessive pronoun “your.”…

When we explain the Collect of the Holy Trinity, it might help to remember what these statements mean. We adore the Godhead in a Trinity of Persons; we adore the same Godhead in the Unity of the three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Fr. Chupungco’s helpful book lists and comments on a significant number of other mistranslations.

What process might be developed to correct these mistranslations when they are caught? At the very least we should acknowledge that there are mistranslations in the present English edition of the Roman Missal. Perhaps ICEL or Vox Clara could be asked to compile a list of such mistranslations with proposed corrections and a rationale. (Some might object that since the present mistranslations were created under ICEL’s and Vox Clara’s watch, they might not be in the best position to recognize and correct mistranslations.) Perhaps the Secretariat of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship might be directed to compile such a list; perhaps a Catholic university or monastery with a strong liturgical studies program (e.g., the Catholic University of America, Notre Dame, St. John’s, Collegeville, St. Meinrad, Conception Abbey, etc.) might convene a group of scholars to compile such a list. Our territorial bishop’s conference could then decide whether to simply insert the corrections they have approved into future printings of the Roman Missal in English (although there might be some concern about doing so without the participation of other English-speaking bishops’ conferences) or begin the process of a full-scale retranslation of the Roman Missal (perhaps re-visiting and updating the previously approved 1998 translation).

I hope to address another issue for future liturgical translation in the near future.

Absolution Confusion

The Penitential Act at Mass, still often referred to under its previous title of “Penitential Rite”, continues to be the subject of confusion among both clergy and laity.

Nos. 4-6 in the current version of the Roman Missal lay out the principal options:
• Form I: the “I confess”
• Form II: “Have mercy on us, O Lord” ― “For we have sinned against you” etc.
• Form III: “You were sent to heal the contrite of heart” etc.

Each of these is preceded by an invitation from the priest, and followed by an absolution by the priest.

What is not immediately clear from a bullet-point list is that the three forms have different emphases. Form I is a personal expression of repentance and unworthiness. Form II is a communal expression of repentance and unworthiness. Form III is completely different, which is why the 1998 ICEL Sacramentary separated it out from the other two and entitled it a “Litany of Praise”: in this form, all the sample invocations without exception praise Christ for who he is or for the wonderful things he has done or continues to do.

How to decide which form to select on any given occasion? It seems to me that this is one of the lost opportunities in the Order of Mass today. In many places Form I is used merely because a sung Kyrie will follow, something which does not happen with Form III. In other places, the criterion for selection is the whim of the presiding priest. I maintain that a proper criterion should derive from the liturgy itself: we should be selecting the form in accordance with what we will find in the scripture readings that will follow shortly. Many times the underlying theme of those readings will not be about personal or communal repentance, and therefore Forms I or II will not be appropriate but Form III will be.

But here, too, there is a danger. The main thrust of Form III is all about Jesus, and not about us: “You are mighty God and Prince of peace.” “You raise the dead to life in the Spirit.” “You came to gather the nations into the peace of God’s kingdom.” Many presiders, however, turn this form into a Litany of Sorrow, rather than a Litany of Praise. Their introductions emphasise our shortcomings. Their invocations, frequently spontaneous, often begin “For the times when we….” This may be fine at a service of reconciliation, but at Mass it not only contradicts the meaning of this part of the rite but also leads to a perpetuation of misunderstanding about what is going on. In fact this form is not a Penitential Act at all. It is interesting to note that in the 1998 ICEL Sacramentary there is actually no absolution following after Form III.

I encounter many elementary school teachers who tell their children that “We always begin Mass with ‘Sorry Prayers’.” It may make life easier for them, but it’s inaccurate and misleads the children. It should be clear that, if Form III is used, these are not “sorry prayers” at all. In part, the confusion is caused by the “Lord/Christ, have mercy” responses. Those teachers don’t know that in the Middle Ages these were often used as acclamations, rather than for breast-beating. “You are wonderful ― have mercy!”

Additionally, there are many occasions in the Church Year when the Penitential Act simply doesn’t happen. A basic list would look like this:

Ash Wednesday
Palm Sunday
Easter Vigil
Presentation of the Lord (February 2)
Whenever a rite of blessing and sprinkling of water is used instead
Requiem Mass
Mass with Baptism
Nuptial Mass

Unpacking those, Ash Wednesday is an interesting case. For decades liturgists have been telling us that the best place for a penitential act is not in the introductory rites when the community is still coming together but at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, which will have established a proper context for expressing repentance. On Ash Wednesday this is precisely what happens: the penitential act, the blessing and imposition of ashes, takes place not at the beginning but after the Liturgy of the Word. Doing this also makes much more sense of moving the gesture of peace to this point, immediately before the presentation of the gifts, as Benedict XVI suggested in Sacramentum Caritatis, footnote 150. Our Anglican sisters and brothers have had the sign of peace at this point for centuries….

On Palm Sunday, Easter Vigil, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and a Mass with Baptism, the penitential act is simply replaced by the introductory rites on those occasions. At a Requiem Mass, it is replaced by the sprinkling of the casket with blessed water.

There is considerable confusion about the rite of blessing and sprinkling of water. Just because it replaces a penitential act does not mean that it is itself a penitential act. It is not. The sample introduction in the Roman Missal makes it clear that it is a reminder of our baptism ― surely a joyful and not a penitential occasion. On Easter Sunday morning, when the rite of sprinkling follows a renewal of baptismal promises after the Liturgy of the Word, it is scarcely a penitential act but rather a rite filled with the joy of the resurrection. The blessing prayers speak not of washing away our sins but of defence and protection, helping us seek forgiveness, and explicitly asking “that we may share in the gladness of our brothers and sisters who at Easter have received their Baptism.” Once again, confusion is caused by the antiphons, some of which talk about cleansing. As to when this rite might be used, once again a look at the scriptures can often provide a clue.

There has been no penitential act at Nuptial Masses since the first postconciliar edition of the Rite of Marriage in 1969. However, that has not prevented publishers of worship aids from including one erroneously, nor presiders from using one when they are on autopilot. A moment’s thought should show how out of place such a rite might feel on such a celebratory occasion.

The same is true of Midnight Mass, where having a penitential act after 30 or 40 minutes of an extended Liturgy of the Word of lessons and carols can also seem superfluous. A more natural progression would be adding the Dawn Gospel of the Shepherds to the Midnight Mass Gospel, leading immediately into the singing of the Gloria, followed by a procession to the crib and blessing of the crib, followed by the procession of gifts. Perhaps a future edition of the Missal will address this issue.

A sacrament where the Missal still includes a penitential act is Confirmation. On this occasion, how much more appropriate it would be to substitute the blessing and sprinkling of water as a reminder to the confirmandi of their baptism.

Just a brief word about the priest’s introduction. The 1969 Order of Mass and 1973 Missal used the phraseology “let us call to mind our sins”. It was the late Cuthbert Johnson, OSB, who first commented in 1983 that “calling to mind one’s sins can be a most pleasurable occupation”. Before you know where you are, it’s the Gospel and your mind has been on other things…. He used this as a way of showing why we needed a new translation of the Missal, and he was right. We are called to acknowledge our sinfulness before God — rather different from contemplating one’s peccadilloes!

All of this leads us to the major area of confusion that gives this article its title. Many people are under the impression that the absolution by the priest actually absolves them from their sins. After all, the words they hear imply this: “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us….” It was worse in the preconciliar rite, where the words, whether audible or silently read in a hand missal, began “Indulgentiam, absolutionem et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum…

Those people have not (and why should they have?) read para 51 of the current GIRM, which clarifies what was previously not made explicit: “The rite concludes with the Priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.” For them, it’s called “the Absolution”, so it absolves. (Perhaps we can change this name?) Many make the sign of the cross on themselves, strengthening the conviction that sacramental absolution is actually happening. (It’s a brave priest who will tell his people that this sign of the cross is not in the rite and they shouldn’t be doing it! Catholics often did this through devotion in the preconciliar rite, though it was not in that rite either.) Perhaps some have even read the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with the Fruits of Holy Communion (paras 1393-5), which explicitly states that the Eucharist forgives all except grave sin. They may think that this must take place at “the Absolution” rather than by sharing in Holy Communion, the greatest sacrament of reconciliation. If an incorrect, homemade version of Form III has preceded (“For our failure to love you and our neighbours as we should: Lord, have mercy”, etc.), the impression is further accentuated.

It is my hope that if Pope Francis’s recent Motu Proprio has the effect of providing us with a revised version of the Roman Missal in the not-too-distant future, this will also be used as an opportunity for catechesis on this and other basic topics on which many of our people are still sadly misinformed.

A dose of reality

I posted in another thread about the logistical problems involved in this year’s Easter Vigil. To anchor our feet firmly on the ground, here’s a verbatim report of a rather different Vigil that an American friend sent me:

No Service of Light, no blessing of fire or candle, nor Exsultet. The service started in the church with the Liturgy of the Word. The paschal candle was already lit and in place when I arrived.

After the Genesis creation reading, the “responsorial psalm” from the choir: He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
2nd reading is Exodus. “Responsorial psalm”: When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land (Let My People Go) (soloist accompanied by choir)
3rd reading is Ezekiel, new heart and new spirit. “Responsorial psalm”: I’ve Got That Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart….

After the epistle the choir sang the song We Fall Down But We Get Up, a gospel song by contemporary Black Gospel artist Donnie McClurkin. No sung Alleluia.

Then came a “sprinkling rite”. Using the “stainless steel baptismal stock pot with spigot at the bottom”, folks were encouraged to come up and get some holy water from the tap and make the sign of the cross. Those unable to walk forward had a small glass finger bowl of water brought to them. With a towel. A deacon and a nun stood by the spigot to distribute the water. Sister held a little bowl to catch the drips. During this altar call to “come and get you some holy water” we sang This little light of mine.

There had been no blessing of water. Father said “Let us pray” and maybe the prayer was about the water but his accent was sufficiently thick so that I could not discern. He did everything from his chair and didn’t move from it. Gospel followed the water rite.

No baptisms or confirmations, no sung Gloria or Holy, etc., but still a two-hour liturgy.

I should mention that this is a very senior congregation. About 75 in attendance because no one wants to drive in the dark (start time was 8 pm when it was still daylight). Average age over 75: probably only two people in the church under 60. Choir numbered about eight — is also primarily older and included a few singers from the Eritrean Mass community that worships there. They all used their cell phones as lights because the church lights (hanging fluorescent ballasts) were really dim.

Very low ceiling (about 10 foot) and pot of incense being swung about unintentionally by a very “senior” altar server who held the thurible in one hand and his cane in the other. Carpeted, with padded chairs, only about 30 feet from the back of the church to the altar, about six pews deep, in a fan shape. So much incense that I had a coughing fit. The nun came across to me with a handful of cough drops….

Sad, because it used to be a very vibrant, multi-generational parish with a thriving school. Like many parishes, it is a clustered parish — made of three similarly ageing assemblies in nearby churches, now shuttered. So no candle tapers, possibly because they would have incinerated themselves, but lots of shaking (Parkinson’s, arthritis, etc.).

It was definitely a spectacle! But something made me think that maybe it’s the effort of the people, not the words or rites, that matter. Those older folks made an effort to be there. They sang, they greeted each other, and they weebled and wobbled but they did sit and stand.

How many hands does it take…?

This year’s Easter Vigil was a real logistical ordeal for presiders. Anyone baptising new Christians or receiving anyone into full communion will have experienced this.

We already know how confusing the current Roman Missal (3rd edition) is when it comes to what happens at the Baptismal Liturgy of the Vigil, depending on baptisms/no baptisms/no font…. Not only are the options unclear to many clergy, the page layout of the Missal itself is such as to make the whole exercise fraught with frustration, uncertainty and confusion.

Add to that the fact that presiders have to go back and forth from the Missal to the RCIA ritual (Jerry Galipeau has waxed lyrical about this on his blog) and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

This year, it was worse. Much worse. Presiders were faced with having to juggle with no less than three books. If you baptise, you also confirm, and of course we now have a revised Rite of Confirmation with different texts from those used previously. So: Missal, RCIA, Rite of Confirmation……

The ideal answer, of course, is to put everything in place in sequence in a beautiful binder; but many presiders didn’t realise what they would be facing until it was too late. At the Vigil that I was part of, the presider stopped dead in the middle and nothing happened for about 20 seconds. Then he said, with a smile in his voice: “I am hoping that the red book is going to magically appear….”, leading to altar servers scurrying off to find the Rite of Confirmation for him (it had fallen down behind a chair).

How was it for you? Smooth and well-oiled (excuse the pun!), or a juggling act?

A Mass lacking architectural integrity

Let me stipulate from the start that it is not a good idea to go to Sunday Mass and reflect on problems with the liturgy in which one is actively participating. Guilty as charged. In mitigation, I can only plead that it is a hazard of thinking and writing about liturgical worship. Mea maxima culpa.

This was a large and beautiful church in a large and beautiful American city. The Mass was Novus Ordo, labelled by the parish as “solemn”; it followed what was apparently a more family-oriented celebration. There was a choir of men and boys and around a dozen altar servers, all pre- and teen-aged boys. There were readers (male and female, in their 50s I would guess) and, I think, six extraordinary ministers of Communion, also male and female, all at least 50 years old. The priest faced the people throughout. We had incense, torches (lots of them) and bells. We sang a psalm and three or four hymns, all in English. As far as I could tell, everything was done to the letter of the GIRM. There were kneelers and lots of kneeling.

Nothing problematic so far. The problem was that, somehow, the entire liturgy lacked architectural integrity. It didn’t add up.

First, there was a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing throughout the Mass. For example, at the presentation of the gifts, there was a procession of six altar servers who hadn’t formally participated until this point in the proceedings. They marched to the narthex, then turned and led the (lay) bearers of the gifts to the priest. The servers then snapped to face one another in a crisp military maneuver, allowing the gift bearers to walk forward between them.

There was an extra procession of torches and incense at the start of the Sanctus. The thurifer led the procession out of the sanctuary at the final hymn. Getting the extraordinary ministers into and out of the sanctuary was a complicated ballet; somewhat bizarrely, the male EMs stood on one side of the altar and the female on the other. A server stood on a raised platform as though he were conducting the congregational singing, but simply lifted a hand when we were to sing and lowered it when we were to wait for the choir. The choir marched in and out, to and from the loft and back. People in ordinary clothing came onto the sanctuary during the preparation of the altar, then left again. Many things happened. Nothing quite added up.

Second, there was no clear start to the liturgy. While the organ prelude was going on, various people, some in vestments, some in civilian clothes, wandered on and off the sanctuary. The choir started by chanting the introit for the day, quasimodo geniti, but the congregation didn’t seem to recognize this as part of the Mass; they continued to talk quietly, and despite printed admonitions not to make audio or video recordings, a number of people turned and lifted their phones to video the choir. Eventually there was a hymn and we shuffled to our feet. It was an odd mix of informality – inappropriate for a solemn Mass, I think – and excessive formality.

Finally, the language of the Mass was confusing. We veered from English to Latin and back again. This mélange was worst at the Our Father:

Priest (said): At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say …

Congregation and choir (sung): Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo.

Priest (said):  Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Congregation and choir (sung): … quia tuum est regnum, et potestas, et gloria, in saecula.

Yes, I know that “deliver us” is an “embolism”, something interpolated, not part of the Lord’s prayer. But to change languages midstream?

It didn’t help that the sermon also lacked architectural integrity; the priest seemed to be struggling to decide whether we had come through Easter Sunday or were still at Good Friday, contemplating the five wounds of Christ. It didn’t help that he took most of the Canon (EP1) at a rapid clip, then slowed dramatically at the words of institution: “This (long pause) is (long pause) my (long pause) body”, etc.  And of course the language of the current English translation is itself a muddle of formality and informality, with lots of word salad tossed into the mix.

To be sure, I have seen much worse: Masses so informal that they were almost unrecognizable as Catholic liturgy; or celebrations “tradded up” with maniples, Catholic knights with plumed hats and ceremonial swords and almost limitless nodding and bowing and genuflecting and donning and doffing of liturgical hats.

I can’t define architectural integrity in a Mass, but I’m betting that readers can help. For me, it has something to do with a clear beginning to the celebration – there’s nothing wrong with a good loud bell to say, “pay attention, Mass starts now.” There should be a consistent level of solemnity throughout. Perhaps most important, there shouldn’t be anything superfluous; ceremonial actions need to contribute to the whole. Beautiful ritual is good; frills and furbelows are not.

Finally: I don’t think this has anything to do with the Novus Ordo vs. the older form of Mass. I have seen old rite Masses lacking architectural integrity as much as this one did. Contributors to Pray Tell don’t delete comments, but I hope that the moderators will be draconian in cutting comments that call for a return of the old rite. That isn’t the question under debate here.

In your experience, what adds to or destroys architectural integrity in a liturgical celebration?