Search This Blog

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Triaging the Translation Wars

(This article was originally written for Pastoral Music, written in November 2009. I forgot which issue, but let's say early 2010!)

Those who wish to meaningfully assist after a disaster apply a strategy defined during the Great War by French battlefield physicians called triage. As many know, especially fans of the 70s sitcom M*A*S*H, medics group the wounded into three categories: those who will die with or without treatment, those who will survive with or without treatment, and those for whom treatment will matter the most in creating a positive outcome for survival and health. It is these who are attended to immediately, and whom doctors and other medical personnel attempt to evaluate in expeditious ways.

For anyone who, like me, thinks that the all-but-approved new translation of the liturgy is a disaster, this analog offers a compass for the next steps we should take, if we want to be helpful. A disciplined silence under the rubric primum non nocere, energized by life-giving principle of kenosis will be a good first step, and clearly not an easy one as we deal with the indignation of the unconsulted millions of priestly people who make new translations financially possible by the irrevocable placement of an hour or two of their lives in the collection plate and appeal envelopes every week or so. Maybe the furor will end with a whimper, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Much ink has already been spilled both in defense of Vox Clara and ICEL and in repudiation of their work. If Comme le prevoit, Paul VI’s translation mandate that with cultural respect authorized dynamic equivalence with the Latin editio typica as the model for vernacular versions, was the document of entente that put flesh on the spirit of aggiornamento and global Catholicism, then LIturgiam Authenticam, demanding formal equivalence with the Latin edition, was the ecclesiastical equivalent of eminent domain, a taking back of land once ceded to and owned by the people, and a pious declaration of war on  our pathetically perceived ability to pray in our own language. The suggestion that the English translation had to be reined in because it is the de facto international language used to translate the Roman rite into other languages has been countered by the sane suggestion that a scholarly formal translation be used for such cases, and that a pastorally sensitive, poetic and musical, dynamic equivalent translation be used for Anglophone worship. The suggestion has fallen on the mitered deaf ears of the plenipotentiaries of the appropriate dicastery. The run-on sentence and embedded conditional clause are about to make a big comeback in American worship.

As I see it, the issue that remains to be resolved in the United States, however, is not whether the folks in the pews, us folks, will adapt to the elephantine lilt of the new old English, but whether bishops and priests will. Let’s just say “priests,” because, let’s face it, bishops can do whatever they want, for better or worse, in their own dioceses. But this submission to the rite, however ill-conceived the new transliteration is, by those specifically charged with its implementation, is an important issue of justice. Let me just make a few observations about the liturgical dialogues under the ancien régime of the 1973 version, the catechetical and therefore ecclesiological repercussions of those, and let you draw your own conclusions. Luckily, blessedly for us, there is also good news, because we’re neither the beginning nor the end of the story. I’ll finish up, briefly, with an appeal both to Sacrosanctum Concilium and the New Testament, which, again, luckily, blessedly, are not covered by any anathemas or those chilling words, “anything prior to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Among the functions of ritual, particularly those of important initiation rituals like the Eucharist, two important ones for this discussion are that ritual defines the boundaries of a group’s identity and that it establishes relationships among the group’s members. My last parish, St. Jerome’s in Phoenix, was among the top 5% of Boy Scout troops in the United States in producing Eagle Scouts, and during my years there, I attended dozens of courts of honor. Within those evening celebrations, one witnessed the core values of scouting made visible: love of the outdoors, good citizenship, respect for elders, what one might call civil virtue. At the same time, all the various rankings of scouts were present in the emblems of their rank and participation, including many adult Eagle Scouts who had long before added that status, and all that it represents, to their résumé. The ritual of becoming an Eagle Scout vividly and robustly demonstrates the values of scouting and the relationships among its leaders, members, and their families.

The Eucharist, and really, all the sacraments, being of the anthropological genus “rite,” have analogous dynamics of identity and relationship. Both in what we do and in how we do it, we express our nature as baptized children of God, resident aliens in another empire, incorporated by the gift of the Holy Spirit into the living Christ who, in pouring self out for the life of the world, offers a perfect sacrifice of agape that adoringly, mimetically, mirrors the nature of Abba, the One from whom he is sent. At the same time, the liturgy incarnates the diversity of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and the myriad ways we are sent into the world as its foot-washers and meal hosts. There are church orders within the liturgy: bishops, priests and deacons, the faithful, and catechumens. There are different ministries among the faithful. We interact with one another in the act of worship in which we are caught up with Jesus in offering praise and thanksgiving to God.

But among these orders and ministries, within the carrying out of our rites, certain aspects of our faith are never forgotten or misrepresented. Primarily, there is the faith that God is God and we are not; that Jesus, dead and risen, has handed his Spirit over to us from the cross so that the messianic mission might continue; that God is agape, “world-making love” that is at once the fullness of life and the complete giving-away of it, the paschal mystery. Also among these is the conviction that “poder es servir,” or as Scripture has it, “those who would be first among you must serve the rest.” Another is that, among the children of God, “there is no Greek nor Jew, servant or free, woman or man,” that there is a universal equality in the human race that is ontological, by virtue of creation, but explicitly embraced by the baptized.

Because this equality shines through the rite in the important dialogues between the presider and the assembly, it matters that the priest sings, “The Lord be with you,” and we respond, “And with your spirit” (or “And also with you,” or “Back atcha,” or whatever ICEL concocts in the future.) While the language matters, it is more important that the dialogue be exchanged with ritual integrity. When we make that exchange of faith  which proclaims the Lord’s presence, we are acting as equals, as partners, all of us equally submitting to the discipline of the rite as a means of acknowledging our common bond as the children of God.  No one is free to fudge the syntax (for instance, for the priest to change the subjunctive verb in his greeting to an indicative one, “The Lord is with you.”) Nor are we free to improvise or riff on the text: “The Lord be with each and every one of you”. This is not because one or the other is truer to the Latin, however, which is verbless and of unknown origin. It is because the rite interprets us, and not the other way around. We submit to the rite’s discipline so that we learn its relentless incarnate message of equality. If Father can improvise, we can all improvise, and instead of a body, we have a mob. What is the right response to, “ The God of Jesus is with each one of you”? Those who have experienced this at Sunday worship, and we are legion, know the kind of ritual confusion this improvisation begets. Change the scene to a mixed congregation at a funeral or wedding of people from various communities unaccustomed to the personal quirks of the parish’s priest, and the simplest of responses (“Amen?” “Glory to you, O Lord?”) become anemic and inaudible. We don’t know, in fact, whether we should say Amen! It is quite possible, in the archdiocese in which I live, at least, to attend a mass where hardly a sentence of the rite is delivered integrally until well into the Eucharistic prayer. Everything is riffed. Prayers, even the Eucharistic prayers, are fudged to reflect the homiletic bons mots of the priest. If the priest can take these kinds of liberties, why shouldn’t everyone else? And the real question is, if priests don’t take the current translation and its connection to authentic ecclesial rite seriously, why on earth will they do so with a more arcane, Harry-Potteresque semantic field?

Only if everyone submits to the new rite will it demonstrate the ecclesial equality of the children of God. The ritual of the Eucharist is a roadmap and rehearsal script of service and gospel life, in which all receive the life of the Spirit as God's gift and, as the body of Christ, render back to God the "perfect sacrifice of praise" (or however the groovy new translations puts it.) But in order for the equality to be apparent in the ritual, everyone has to play by the rules. If one person (the presider) is improvising, riffing on the texts as so many are doing with the 1973 text, being less formal, and not more so, as one would expect from the structuralist rhetoric of the formalists, then we're not equal. If I'm stuck with, "and with your spirit", but the priest can say, "the Lord is with you" or "the Lord be with each and every one of you" or "good morning," and then says "thank you" when we reply, well, we don't have ritual equality. That very priest might imagine himself to be a champion of lay leadership and collegiality, but in fact every ritual word he speaks undermines the foundation of the ecclesia.

The new translation itself is a problem because it confuses archaism with reverence and  opacity with mystery. The Sacramentary and its General Instruction are overweighted toward maleness, toward the sanctifying (rather than diaconal) role of the priest, and emphasize courtly-imperial obeisance (rather than diakonia) as reverence. But it is the fact that priests aren't going to submit to it any more than they are to the current translation that is the greater problem.

My only entry point into this new translation, which goes against every instinct I have and my religious and catechetical experience of being a Catholic for nearly six decades, is that when all is said and done, it’s only liturgy. As important as liturgy is for keeping us together and focused on the truths mentioned above (God is God, we are not, the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church, &c),”the sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church.” (SC, 9). This salvific sentence at the very source of liturgical renewal hearkens back to the language of the prophets, serving to remind us that sacraments, even the Eucharist, even the meals of Jesus himself, are symbols of the rest of life, and for there to be truth in the symbols, life has to be lived well. As Sing to the Lord further explains, “The Paschal hymn, of course, does not cease when a liturgical celebration ends. Christ, whose praises we have sung, remains with us and leads us through church doors to the whole world, with its joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties...Charity, justice, and evangelization are thus the normal consequences of liturgical celebration.” (SttL, 8-9) It will thus continue to be true that the quality of the translation, as well as the efficacy of the liturgy itself, will be judged not on how well we sing it, say it, or abuse it, but how the neighborhoods are being changed, how we are voting, and whether or not the “poor are filled with good things.” Neither we, nor this new translation, are God’s last chance.

Here’s how the triage metaphor plays out, then: the old translation, and all the music and authentic worship it engendered, is going to die. For it to survive will take an act of God, so I’m out of that picture. The Church is going to survive no matter what, especially that vast majority of folks who don’t really care whose side wins the translation war, or even know that there was a battle on, or that there was anything at stake worth fighting about. God will see that that Church survives, thrives, in fact, so I’m out of that picture, except, fortunately, to be on the receiving end of grace. What I have some control over, what I can attend to, is the making explicit of this link between submitting to the rite and the ecclesiology that underlies it. “The word of God is not chained,” writes St. Paul to Timothy, and it is not chained even in the golden prison of the liturgy. The only true orthodoxy is unity; unity comes from understanding, dialogue, and finally the service of the other, especially the stranger, especially enemies, that flows from agape. Everything else is ideology.


Over the years, as I’ve reflected on my life as a human being, husband, father, and Catholic, I’ve come to the gradual conclusion that “being right”, that most prized of Catholic virtues, is overrated. I have learned this from Jesus Christ, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” You can’t be more “right” than being God, and yet Christ laid all that aside, and “became sin” for us (2 Cor. 5: 21). What matters most is not being right, but being one. When we get to the place where conscience conflicts with the prevailing wind, where “rights” begin to clash, the Christian must try to act in agape like the Master. Focus on the gospel. Change the neighborhood. When the Latinate syntax swirls in incomprehensible churchspeak, it will be of some comfort to know that our actions speak louder than words, more beautifully and convincingly than our music. At least, that is, until the parousia, when word and deed will be reconciled, and all will be one.