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Sacred language for sacred acts

It was just about a year ago that U.S. parishes began using the new translations of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal—an implementation process that seems to have gone far more smoothly than some anticipated. Wrinkles remain to be ironed out: there are precious few decent musical settings for the revised Ordinary of the Mass; the occasional celebrant (not infrequently with “S.J.” after his name) feels compelled to share his winsome personality with the congregation by free-lancing the priestly greetings and prayers of Mass. Some of the new texts themselves could have used another editorial rinsing, in my judgment. But in the main, the new translations are an immense improvement and seem to have been received as such.

Why that’s the case is explained with clarity and scholarly insight in a new book by Oratorian Father Uwe Michael Lang, “The Voice of the Church at Prayer: Reflections on Liturgy and Language” (Ignatius Press).

From the days of Christian antiquity, Father Lang explains, liturgical language—the language of the Church at its formal public prayer—has always been understood to be different: different from the language of the marketplace or public square; different from the language of the home. Liturgical language, at its best, is multivalent; it does many things at once.

It is a language of instruction, teaching Christians to grasp the truths embodied in their prayers.

It is a language of delight, attracting us to those truths through the beauty, even charm, of the prayed words and their arrangement.

It is a language of persuasion and encouragement, urging us to conform our lives to the truths we lift up in prayer and spurring us to greater efforts to imitate Christ and the saints.

It is not, to illustrate the point along the via negativa, the kind of language found in the old Collect for the 21st Sunday of the Year (“Father, help us to seek the values that will bring us lasting joy in this changing world…”) or in the old Post-Communion prayer for the 30th Sunday of the Year (“May our celebration have an effect in our lives.”).

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The language of the liturgy is also a language meant to elevate us, to lift us out of the quotidian and the ordinary. We don’t “speak” at holy Mass the way we talk at the local mall, and for a good reason: the liturgy is our privileged participation in the liturgy of saints and angels around the Throne of Grace, and the way we address the Lord, and each other, in those circumstances ought to reflect the awesome character of our baptismal dignity. The Latin used in shaping the Canon, the Prefaces, and the Collects of the Roman Rite in the classic period of its formation was not, Father Lang writes, “the ordinary idiom of the people.” Rather, it was “a highly stylized language” consciously intended to give expression to a unique religious experience—an experience of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

In the post-Vatican II period, Polish translators followed the classic understanding of liturgical Latin and deliberately adopted a high, literary Polish for rendering the Missal of 1970 into their native language. English translators did exactly the opposite, stripping the Latin of its distinctive sacral vocabulary and images, and flattening out the rhythms of liturgical Latin. The results were not happy: Collects that informed God of what God presumably already knew (about God’s doings or our needs), and then made anodyne requisites of the Most High; eucharistic prayers that eliminated sacral words and biblical images; post-Communion prayers that, like the nonsense cited above, sounded like requests made to a therapist or dentist.

The Poles made the right choice, and whatever else can be said about post-conciliar Catholicism in Poland, it never slogged through the worst of the liturgical translation wars. The bad choices made by English translators decades ago, often for reasons of populist ideology and dumbed-down theology, have now been largely rectified by the new translations, which take seriously the modern scholarship about liturgy and rhetoric Father Lang so helpfully summarizes in his book.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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