What Does the Prayer Really Say? Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN THE WANDERER in January of 2002
Before we begin, I have a some proof that there are indeed readers of WDTPRS west of the mighty Mississippi. JFW of UT writes by snail-mail: “Your column is really a shot in the arm, but it indirectly reinforces my opinion that the ICEL should have been fired years ago.” To be fair, JFW, we may not like what ICEL produced, but we are looking at this now with hindsight. When ICEL was working on translations, there were many new ideas and much confusion. We must have a critical eye and ear when examining what ICEL gave us, to be sure. Still, let us learn from the mistakes that were made (more than likely not maliciously) and, fortified by the CDW’s gift of Liturgiam authenticam, look forward to something better.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
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.
We are bringing in to place upon your altars, O Lord, the gifts of our service,
which, having been appeased and as you take them up,
you make into the sacrament of our redemption.
Flipping swiftly through the dense pages of the Lewis & Short Dictionary we find that servitus is (despite its usually masculine –us ending) a feminine noun meaning “the condition of a servus; slavery, serfdom, service, servitude.” Infero is “to carry, bring, put, or throw into or to a place” and it is constructed with the prepositions in and accusative, ad, or the dative case, which later we find in our prayer today in altaribus. This verb also can mean “to conclude, infer, draw an inference.”
Part of the problem of translating from Latin into English is the way the Latin “moods” are supposed to sound. Most of you who studied Latin remember that this most noble language has the subjunctive mood. In Latin, the subjunctive mood represents the predicate as an idea, as something merely conceived in the mind, something abstracted from reality. Often it is translated into English with the auxiliary verbs “may, can, must, might, could, should, would.” So, the subjunctive is often used for expressing views and wishes. However, the subjunctive can also be 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 thus logically abstract. This is the case in many relative sentences. In these 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 many who have had some Latin always to use those auxiliary verbs listed above whenever they see a subjunctive. However, in many cases it is really more accurate to make some Latin subjunctive sound indicative when putting them into English. This is what I do today with our prayer. That efficias is clearly a subjunctive. The temptation is to say something like “which you may make into the sacrament of our redemption.” But in this case it is more accurate to give that efficias an indicative sound.
be pleased with the gifts we bring to your altar,
and make them the sacrament of our salvation.
Let us look for a moment at what the ICEL translator did to the Latin prayer. The most obvious change how the Latin altaribus, which is clearly plural, is made a singular English “altar.” This bears some examination and, I will admit, some speculation.
When I put these WDTPRS articles together I do my very best to give the ICEL version the benefit of the doubt: when I see something that clearly strays from the Latin original I strive to make sense of it if at all possible. Still, I have learned over the last year of writing these offerings to be a bit suspicious. I suspect the translators had underlying reasons for their choices. To put it bluntly, it is too incredible to believe that the bishops purposely employed translators so fantastically incompetent that they utterly botched the prayers out lack of skill. They must have picked people with at least a minimum competency in Latin. 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.
Let us make this concrete. Why might they have wanted to change Latin “altars” into “altar” in their final version? It occurs to me that, dum aliquid sciam…. for all I know, that there could be a theological reason for making the change. This is a big assumption, of course. But let’s run with it for a while and see what happens.
First, consider that Catholics (which word in its roots means “universal”) have never been about making things or people smaller, in the sense of unreasonable restriction. Our Church is not really into placing unreasonable limits. As a matter of fact, it is a guiding principle of interpretation of law that the advantages people have should be amplified while the things that place restrictions on them are interpreted as strictly or narrowly as possible so as to favor the rights of the individual. That said, consider also that as members of a Church we belong to something not only spread through the world but that also transcends the passage of death. Yet, when I read the ICEL prayer, I get the feeling that the translator neglects the fact that people all over the world are presenting their gifts on myriads of altars (altaribus), grand and small, simple and ornate, fixed to a wall and also free-standing, marble with gilt reredos as well as on the camouflaged hood of a jeep. Countless altars and people of many cultures may be involved, but still the one and same Sacrifice of the Mass is being raised to God the Father for the sake of the living and the dead of every age and place. It is a good thing to help a congregation to recognize its particular identity as it is gathered to its particular altar. I do not think that should be done at the expense of the universality of the Church. Altars are, after all, a sign of the presence of Jesus Christ, who cannot be limited to one place and time alone.
Second, it occurs to me that the change to singular might have something to do with the whole business of requiring that Mass be said facing the congregation. This might be a jump, but consider the fact that a long tradition of the Roman Church’s architecture, churches were built with more than one altar. There was clearly a main altar, a principle altar, which was the focus of the whole building. That was the main place of celebration of the sacred mysteries at those special times when the people were gathered there for Mass. Other altars in the church might be used at different times, particularly when the church was entrusted to a religious order and many priests (yes, O younger reader, there was a time when many priests might staff a parish) needed to say Mass each day. This was certainly the case at a monastery or seminary. This was also during the time before “concelebration”.
However, there has been a movement for a long while amongst so-called “liturgical experts” to emphasize, even in an exaggerated way, the importance of one sole altar in the sacred space of the church. Understand: this principle of the unicity of the altar is not to be trifled with. It is very important and a legitimate theological concern. Much serious ink has been spilled over this issue. However, as with anything good and worthy, the otherwise good principle can be applied with so heavy a hand that damage is done. Thus, for decades there has been nearly a maniacal effort to tear “extra” altars out of churches, even historic churches. When this was coupled with the goofy idea that the priest must face the people over a table-like altar, the result was that the main altars of churches, often placed in the back of the apse contiguous to the wall, were liturgically reformed with crowbars and jackhammers. At best they were turned into shelves for potted plants. Now, as it turns out, the whole cobbled-together historical foundation for mass facing the people has been debunked with real scholarship. Still, the damage has been done in countless older churches. The “experts” have got their one altar in most places. The high altars or main altars of our churches are gone in favor of a table-style structure, sometimes not even in the center of the eye’s focus. In some places the altar is 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. Anyone who reads good liturgical theology today knows that the orientation of an altar is truly significant and that perhaps by turning altars around we have lost as a Church far more than we imagine we have gained.
About the main or “high” altar, where it has remained intact…. In some places, as in cathedrals or historically important and beautiful churches, where the high altars remain (perhaps those in charge were simply too afraid of the laity’s reaction to eliminate… thank God for the laity…) a table altar is nevertheless erected. I don’t know about you, but when I go into some large church and see a huge and magnificent high altar and then see that some other altar has been set up in front of it, I simply shake my head in incredulous disbelief. It is so sad how so many people have been so duped into thinking that it is so important to say Mass facing the people that they can so callously and so pointlessly set up in front of the church’s main altar something that looks like an ironing board or a picnic table compared to what stands behind it. The same people who so such a thing also will harp on “diversity” to the point where virtually any liturgical abuse is tolerated. However, they will also clamp down in draconian ferocity on anyone who might suggest that it really is okay to have Mass also… get this… also oriented so that the priest and congregation are together facing the liturgically symbolic East, the direction from whence the Church traditionally believed the Lord would return. So much for openness and flexibility.
The discussion above is not irrelevant to the issue of liturgical translations, which is what WDTPRS is about. The document of the Conference of Bishops in the USA called “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship“, when treating the position of altars, uses an incorrect translation of the new GIRM’s paragraph 299. This paragraph and its meaning and mistranslations by others had been specifically explained and clarified by the Congregation for Divine Worship long before the American bishops promulgated their own document.
Please, dear reader, include our bishops in your prayers and ask their angel guardians to guide them when they are called upon to fulfill their duty in overseeing the development of new liturgical translations. We must approach this as positively as we can.