We are not morons

Writing in the May 21 issue of America, Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, called the lay people of the Church to the barricades, urging us to “speak up!” in response to the new translations of Mass texts being developed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. I’d like to take the bishop on his generous invitation, even if my remarks may not be precisely the kind he intended to provoke.

Bishop Trautman worries that the new translations are just, well, too darn much for “John and Mary Catholic,” whose participation in Sunday Mass will, he suggests, be impaired by a translation of the Creed that describes the Son as “consubstantial with the Father” and “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” But that’s hardly the end of it. Will “John and Mary Catholic,” Bishop Trautman asks, “understand these words from the various new Collects: ‘sullied,’ ‘unfeigned,’ ‘ineffable,’ ‘gibbet,’ ‘wrought,’ ‘thwart’?” What will “John and Mary Catholic” make of the Collect for June 27, which hails St. Cyril of Alexandria as “an unvanquished champion of the divine motherhood”? Can they grasp the depiction of St. John of God on March 8 as “suffused…with the spirit of mercy”?

My hunch is that they’ll do just fine. “John and Mary Catholic,” in these United States, are among the best-educated Catholics in history. In my rather typical parish, “John and Mary” can understand legal contracts, Russian novels, architectural plans, IRS forms, the Atlantic Monthly, columns by George F. Will, the calculations necessary to compute an Earned Run Average, their children’s math homework, the Federal Register, New England Journal of Medicine articles on osteoporosis therapies, the fine print of their pension plans, and Sports Illustrated stories on the Cover-2 Defense; they’re not going to come unglued over “unfeigned” or “consubstantial” or “thwart.” In a word, they’re not morons.

John and Mary are also smart enough to have figured out that the present translation of the first Collect for Trinity Sunday is heresy (it’s addressed to the Father, who’s informed later in the prayer that he is “one God in three Persons”). Having read Paul’s letter to Titus, John and Mary may wonder why, at each Mass, the translators Bishop Trautman evidently prefers have transformed a theological fact (“our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” [Titus 2.13]) into an emotional condition (“…as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior…”). And no matter what Latin John and Mary may have forgotten — or never learned — they’ve been scratching their heads for forty years over how “Et cum spiritu tuo” became the supremely clunky “And also with you.” The list could be multiplied ad infinitum and ad nauseam — phrases John and Mary Catholic readily understand.

A witty, post-Vatican II Anglican convert to Catholicism was once asked what he missed most about his former ecclesiastical home. “The Mass in English,” he immediately replied. Bishop Trautman is clearly a man of intelligence and learning, so it’s all the more puzzling why he seems to defend the indefensible. For how can anyone with a sense of the majesty of the English language defend the See-Spot/See-Spot-Run vocabulary and syntax the new ICEL translations are intended to replace?

Are there clunkers in the new translations? Undoubtedly. But will ICEL’s attempt to restore the sacral vocabulary and linguistic rhythms of the Roman Rite to Catholic worship within the Anglosphere destroy our ability to pray as a community? Please; we’re not morons. I’d even venture the guess that prayers translated with far more fidelity to the Latin originals will be a step toward a deeper, more prayerful encounter with what Bishop Trautman rightly calls “the greatest gift of God, the Eucharist.”

Bishop Trautman would likely agree that, as a general principle, “pastoral” doesn’t mean “dumbed-down.” Yet that’s precisely the strategy many professional liturgists have advocated in the post-Vatican II translation wars. I, for one, am grateful that they’ve lost the argument.

Because we’re not morons, and we shouldn’t be treated as such.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.