April 30, 2010

Liturgical Reform in a Time of Crisis

Ecclesial reform has been on my mind lately. In search of some inspiration, I picked up Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book Catholic ≠ The Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism. At the outset of this book, Ruether outlines a vision of “authentic Christian community” that is multicultural, democratic, liberated from sexism, and committed to the poor and oppressed. This vision of community is one that lives by grace, where prayer and social action go hand in hand. In other words, one of the key elements of working for transformation is the cultivation of a mature spirituality. As Ruether suggests, we need to become people of prayer. In her words, this means overcoming the split between spirituality and social action, a split that has been enhanced by the mystification of the ritual prayer in Roman Catholic communities.

Last week a new English translation of the Roman Missal was completed and will be implemented in parishes as soon as it is approved by Pope Benedict XVI. [The Roman Missal contains prayers and instructions for the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass.] This translation is based on Pope John Paul II’s 2002 third revised edition of the Latin text. While this is certainly not the first time the Vatican has revised the language of the liturgy, what is unique about this edition is the criterion used for translation into English. According to Ratio Translationis, the English translation will be marked by a grammatical structure that closely follows the Latin text and reflects the noble tone of the Roman Rite. Consider the following examples, available on the USCCB’s website:
  • Any time the celebrant greets the congregation with the phrase: “The Lord be with you,” the congregation is to respond “And with your spirit.” The current response is “And also with you.”
  • The penitential rite will be expanded to include the words “greatly sinned” and “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The present version is simply “sinned through my own fault.”
  • The Nicene Creed also reflects a number of changes in translation. “We believe in one God” becomes “I believe in one God,” “consubstantial” replaces “one in being.
While these are just a few examples of the changes to come, they signal a significant shift in emphasis in spirituality: one that emphasizes divine transcendence over immanence, individual over community, spirit over body. As a native English speaker, professing “I believe” instead of “we believe,” conjures up the image a lone individual standing before God. Whereas, stating “we believe” foregrounds the communal dimensions of making an act of faith. Similarly, the addition of the words “and with your spirit”—to the average English speaker—connotes a distinction between “spirit” and “body.” [For instance, think of the difference it would make to respond “and with your body.”] For too long, Christian spirituality has operated out of a dualistic framework that has valued spirit over body, men over women, human beings over the natural world—a framework that has been used to justify the exclusion of women from positions of leadership in religious and political spheres.

As feminists have long argued, God-talk is far from value neutral. Liturgical language does more than point toward the reality that is God; it functions in the human community, shaping our commitments to one another and the earth. In a time in which the church is the midst of a crisis, our communal prayer needs to be that which empowers and nourishes the community to work to bring about justice and peace in the world.


The Rev. Regina Christianson said...

From your examples, it seems that the translators are employing obfuscation. This creates barriers between the liturgy and members of the congregation. This has been done before, for instance, in the Douay Bible passages were deliberately obscure and confusing in order to maintain a sense of "mystery." I believe that in worship there is enough true mystery in all its glory. While it is possible to educate parishioners, use of such language is not a welcoming stance.

tuhanka said...

I come from Poland and such translations have been present in my life since I remember. Sometimes it was confusing as the translators of the Missal to Polish language used the words that are very archaic and not used anymore in the Polish language. I knew quite well the Polish ancient literature so I understood, but I can imagine that the young people coming to the church now might have problems with understanding. I wonder what was the purpose, more mystery perhaps? If so, it was not reasonable.
Few years ago I left my country and moved abroad and for the first time could meet the liturgy in English. It was a kind of a revelation: more inclusive, more open, more modern vocabulary (apart from such ancient but beautiful words as Thou, Thy, Thine). I have learnt quickly the English texts of the Holy Mass and I have to admit that I pray with them even while attending a mass in my native language. When I read about the "new" ideas included in this newest translation, I feel like someone trying to take me out something really important, something that helps to create a spirit of community within the English-speaking catholics and something that I always missed in Poland (except my short period in an academic chaplancy for students). As we say in Polish, "a knife is opening in my pocket".