What Does the Prayer Really Say? 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2006
Some indirect and somewhat dated feedback: In December there was an interesting conference in Rome sponsored by The Becket Fund. The events director, MD, told me that her grandfather is quite the fan of WDTPRS. So, to him I send kind greetings and thanks for his indirect kudos.
SUPER OBLATA (2002MR)
Altaribus tuis, Domine, munera nostrae servitutis inferimus,
quae, placatus assumens,
sacramentum nostrae redemptionis efficias.
Right away you will be struck by the alliterative ‘s’ sounds. Today’s so-called “Prayer over the gifts” is also in the ancient Veronese Sacramentary.
The densely printed pages of your very own copy of that paragon of Latin lemmas, the The Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary, divulge that servitus is (despite its us ending) a feminine noun. It means, “the condition of a servus; slavery, serfdom, service, servitude.” Infero is “to carry, bring, put, or throw into or to a place”. This verb also can mean “to conclude, infer, draw an inference.”
Latin, like all of us, has moods but not good moods or bad moods. Getting Latin moods into English can be a chore. Latin has the subjunctive mood, the bane of many a Latin student. In Latin, the subjunctive mood represents the predicate as an idea, as something conceived in the mind, abstracted from reality. Often people translate subjunctives into English with the auxiliary verbs “may, can, must, might, could, should, would” and indeed the subjunctive can be used to express views and wishes. However, the subjunctive is also applied to things that are in fact very concrete but in the sentence are somewhat logically remote from the subject and verb of the main sentence and are therefore considered to be abstract. This is the case in many relative sentences. In relative sentences the thing being treated can be very concrete and real but, because it is in a relative sentence, the subjunctive is used. It is very tempting for Latin students always to use those abovementioned auxiliary verbs automatically upon spotting any subjunctive. However, very often it is more accurate to make Latin subjunctives sound indicative when putting them into English. We must do that with our prayer today. Efficias is a subjunctive and some will be tempted to say something like “which you may make into the sacrament of our redemption.” It is actually more accurate to give efficias an indicative sound. So, let’s give this our best shot.
We are bringing in to place upon your altars, O Lord, the gifts of our service,
which, having been appeased as you take them up,
you make into the sacrament of our redemption.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
be pleased with the gifts we bring to your altar,
and make them the sacrament of our salvation.
What did the ICEL translator really do to the Latin prayer? Obvious he (she? they?) changed plural altaribus to a singular. Does this mean anything? Is there anything sinister here? Theologically spooky? Probably not, but we can use this as an opportunity to discuss Catholic things.
I try to give the ICEL versions the benefit of the doubt, but they obviously veer, sharply, nay rather careen away from the Latin original. Why? Anyone with a little Latin can see this. We are justifiably suspicious of anything offered by ICEL, even the present, ongoing project. In the past the translators had reasons for their choices to distort the originals. It is not possible to believe that the bishops purposely employed translators so fantastically incompetent that they botched the prayers out lack of skill. In those days bishops would have still had a little background in Latin. They must have picked people with at least a minimum competency in Latin. Let’s leave aside their agenda of composing prayers not in the Missale Romanum. The translators therefore must have seen that, in today’s prayer, the Latin had a plural. Therefore, they wanted to change the Latin into something else. As Sherlock Holmes observed, when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Now, all in all today’s ICEL version isn’t completely off base. But why would the translators change Latin “altars” into “altar”? Was there a theological reason for making the change?
We need a lens to view the question more closely. Consider a first point: Catholics (which word in its roots means “universal”) have never historically been interested in making things or people “smaller”, in the sense of placing unreasonable or unrealistic restrictions on them. Our Church, despite what the media say or some sour-grapes fringe progressives claim, is not into placing unreasonable limits. For example, there is a famous principle of interpretation of the Church’s law whereby the advantages people have as expressed in law are to be amplified while the things that place restrictions on them must be interpreted as strictly or narrowly as possible so as to favor the rights of the individual (odiosa restringenda sunt, favorabilia amplianda). Consider also a second point: as members of the Church we belong to something not only spread throughout the whole world but also transcending even the grave. No, Catholics are not into making people or things “small”.
Turn now to the ICEL prayer. The translator, by using a singular “altar” rather than the accurate “altars” repressed the fact that Catholics all over the world are this Sunday presenting their gifts on myriads of altars (altaribus), grand or small, simple or ornate, fixed to a wall or free-standing, marble with gilt reredos or on the hood of a sand-pocked armored humvee. People of many cultures focus on their hugely varying altars every day. Every day the one and same Sacrifice of the Mass is being offered for both the living and the dead of every age and in every place.
Please understand: it is a good thing to help a congregation to recognize its particular identity as it is gathered at its particular altar in its particular parish. It is not a good thing to do this at the expense of the Church’s universality, its catholicity. Moreover, altars are a sign of the presence of Jesus Christ, who is not to be limited to one place and time alone. Christ is not to be made “small”, nor is the unity of the Catholic People of God through time, space and even the passage of the grave.
We can shift gears and come at this from another direction. Does the change to singular “altar” have anything to do with the attempt on the part of some to constrain all celebrations of Mass to be “facing the people”? This is a big jump. Consider the following points. In the ancient Church, churches had usually one altar. As the Church grew and her understanding of the Blessed Sacrament and efficacy of Mass and role of priests evolved, churches were built with more than one altar especially under the influence of Western monasticism. There was clearly a main altar, a principal altar, which was the architectural, the visible, logical focus of the whole building. That special place within the sanctuary, itself set apart from the rest of the sacred building – like the ancient Jewish Holy of Holies within the Temple – was where the sacred mysteries were celebrated. Other altars in the church might be used at different times, particularly when many priests were in residence near the church who all needed to say Mass each day. This was certainly the case at a monastery, seminary or, once upon a time, parish. This was also during the time before “concelebration” was revived in the West.
For a long time there has been a movement to emphasize, in an exaggerated way, the importance of one unique altar in the sacred space of the church. This principle of the unicity of the altar is a theological concern not to be trifled with. Much serious ink has been spilled over this issue. However, an otherwise good principle can be applied with so heavy a hand that damage is done. This was certainly the case with the use of the vernacular versus Latin. For decades a maniacal effort to tear “extra” altars out of churches, even historic churches, has resulted in destruction that might have shocked the Visigoths. At the very best some main altars at the wall were converted into shelves for plants. But once the one altar principle was coupled with the goofy idea that the priest must face the people for the Eucharistic Prayer, the door was opened to jack-hammer and crowbar toting reformers. As it happens, the historical foundation for Mass facing the people has been debunked with real scholarship, but the damage has been done far and wide in older churches. The “experts” have had their way in most places. The “high altars” of our churches have been torn out in favor of a table, sometimes not even placed in the center of the eye’s focus. In some places altar are absurdly juxtaposed to and counterbalancing the ambo where the Scriptures are read. My comments here are more than a mere laus temporis acti… a praise of times gone by. The orientation of an altar is truly significant. People glean something very important from the layout of a church and the way the altar is placed and treated. By turning altars around we have, in my opinion, lost as a Church far more than we imagine we have gained. By forcing priest and people to face each other, in closed circle, we have made ourselves “small”.
Here in Rome and elsewhere you find churches with the main altar intact. However, in nearly every case a table altar has been set up in front of it. When I see a huge and magnificent high altar with a silly little ironing board set up also, I shake my head in incredulous disbelief. Many people have been duped into thinking that saying Mass versus populum is of such overriding value that they justify what looks like a picnic table compared to what stands behind it. Many of the same people will then harp on liturgical “diversity” to the point where virtually any liturgical abuse is tolerated, while clamping down in draconian ferocity on anyone who suggests that it is okay to have Mass also… get this… also oriented so that priest and congregation together face the liturgical “East”, whence the Church traditionally believed the Lord would return.
The discussion above is not irrelevant to the issue of liturgical translations, which is what WDTPRS is about. For example, the document of the USCCB called Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship (BLS), when treating the position of altars, in footnote 73 (once note 75) in its online version mistranslates the Latin of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) par. 299. The English mistranslation in BLS of the Latin description of the placement of the altar is skewed so as to impose versus populum celebrations of Mass, which the Latin does not say. The mistranslation was published in November 2000 and remains online now despite the fact that the Latin of that very paragraph 299 in the GIRM had been specifically explained and clarified by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS – Prot. No. 2036/00/L – 25 September 2000) before the American bishops promulgated BLS. Those who wrote BLS and submitted it to the bishops for approval had to have known about that clarification by the CDWDS and so they must have submitted the mistranslation on purpose. Again, exclude the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It is not naïve to suppose that presuppositions drive translation choices. They sure do in these columns!
Dear reader, include our bishops in your prayers. Ask their angel guardians to guide them in their duty to develop an accurate new English translation according to the norms.