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Last Word - July 2011

The New Roman Missal

By now, I suspect, most readers are aware that in a few months we will begin using a new English translation of the Mass. We have had the translation we are currently using for almost 40 years. The current translation was our first attempt to capture in English the beauty and meaning of the Latin prayers which had evolved over many, many centuries. Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about a new translation. Change is always hard and confusing. But let me tell you why I became convinced, more than 30 years ago, that we needed a new translation of the prayers of the Mass.

I was in Washington, D.C., from 1975-1976, working on a master’s degree in liturgical studies. I was writing a dissertation on the Church’s official spirituality of the Advent season, as that spirituality is unfolded in the opening prayers of the Masses of Advent. I know: it’s a little obscure. To accomplish this, I had to thoroughly study each of the 29 opening prayers of Advent, but I quickly realized that I could not do that from the existing English translation. As much as I respected the efforts of the translators of our first vernacular liturgy, the end result fell short of the original texts.

The original Latin texts were full of biblical images, for example, and many of these images had disappeared in translation. For example in one prayer the Latin prays that we might hasten with lamps lit to meet the Lord, an allusion to the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in the Gospel of Luke. But that reference is simply missing in the English. The Latin prayers had employed some wonderful ways of referring to Jesus: as the Word, as the heavenly doctor, as the splendor of the Father’s glory. But many of these were gone too. And it had concrete and expressive images that had been lost: for example, “running” to meet the Lord, “the comforting presence” of the heavenly doctor, and a repeated contrast between the newness that comes from the renewal Christ brings and the old and worn out ways of a sinful past. Compared to the Latin prayers, the English translation often seemed flat and uninspiring.

There is a story that Blessed John Paul II had prayed a particular prayer in the morning in Latin and then what was supposed to be the same prayer later in the day in a vernacular language. And he was struck by the fact that they hardly seemed to be praying for the same thing at all.

Will we like everything in the new translation? Probably not. I know I often find myself picking and choosing between Bible translations, depending on the situation, sometimes preferring the Jerusalem Bible, other times, the Revised Standard Version, then the New Revised Standard Version, another time the New American Bible. But the new task in the liturgical renewal mandated by the Second Vatican Council is to make the words on paper into spirit and life through careful and patient study, mediation and internalization of the prayer texts. It is my “joyful hope” (in the words of the liturgy) that this new translation will lead me into a deeper spirituality and a more profound relationship with God.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal