Fellow patristicists UNITE: Opinion Journal (WSJ) on ICEL

Opinion Journal arrives in my inbox everyday and I look forward to it.  Imagine my delight that a fellow patristicist wrote a piece on the recent vote of the USCCB to approve the English translation!  Here it is.  (Emphasis and comments mine)

The Language of Prayer
New changes to the Mass will make it closer to the original.

Friday, June 23, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Last week the U.S. Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved changes to the wording of the Mass that will significantly affect how Roman Catholics pray. Instead of an expected split vote, the bishops deliberated for only 20 minutes before deciding 173-23 in favor of a new English translation of the Latin Order of the Mass.

The bishops’ decision follows decades of displeasure with the current English translation. Drafted in 1970 by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy and in use ever since, the translation has been criticized as banal, uninspiring and inaccurate (one fastidious Latinist counted over 400 errors in the ordinary parts of the Mass alone). A rather straightforward response such as "and with your spirit" (et cum spiritu tuo) was rendered, "and also with you," while entire phrases were omitted or even inserted. In the Roman canon, for example, "a pure Victim . . . a spotless Victim" was ignored and "We come to you Father with praise and thanksgiving" added, the effect being that even the holiest part of the Mass seems more focused on us than on the Sacrifice. (TELL IT BROTHER!!)

It is difficult to believe that these errors were not intentional (no other translation–Spanish, German, Italian–has had such extensive problems), and indeed, according to some insiders, the committee’s decisions were ideologically driven. The Rev. Stephen Somerville, one of the original members of ICEL’s Advisory Board, apologized in 2002 for "the bold mistranslations" that "weaken[ed] the Latin Catholic liturgy."  (QUAERITUR: What should the penance be for that?)

Other former ICEL members have been less contrite. After the Vatican began to address the problem in 2001 with Liturgiam authenticam, its document on the principles of sound translation, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk direly prognosticated a "liturgical winter." John Page, a former executive secretary of ICEL, criticized the new procedures for not bringing "the wider Church into the conversation," a curious remark given ICEL’s own notoriety for ignoring decades of complaints from pleb and prelate alike.  (Sound familar to you?  Remembe the whine in The Floridian about people in the pew not being asked for input?  Does this sound like talking points?)

Today opponents of the new translation cite concern over the effects the changes will have on congregations, which have grown accustomed to ICEL’s old renderings. While change can certainly be destabilizing, there is a difference between changing in order to move away from tradition and changing in order to return to it. And it is odd for those who pushed for a radical shift in 1970 to be now making the same arguments about continuity their detractors once did.  (Again, perfect.  As Card. George said to Bp. Trautman concerning his argument that 30 years of use means we shouldn’t change – this constitutes a Lefevbrism of the LEFT!)

The current controversy is also interesting because it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding over the nature of liturgical language. The Rev. Lawrence J. Madden, director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy, dislikes the new and more accurate translation because "It isn’t the English we speak. It’s becoming more sacred English, rather than vernacular English."  (This is precisely what Liturgiam authenticam called for, nay rather, mandated.)

Yet that is precisely the point. When Vatican II permitted translations of the Mass in 1963, it spoke of translating into the "mother tongue," not into everyday speech. (YES! YES!) Contrary to widespread belief, there has never been a tradition of the vernacular in Christian liturgy, if by "vernacular" you mean the language we speak on the street. Many of the earliest Masses were offered in a language the congregation could understand, but not in the language that could be heard in the marketplace. Before a native language was used in divine worship, it was first "sacralized"–its syntax and diction were gingerly modified, archaisms were deliberately re-introduced and even new rhythmic meters and cadences were invented. All of this was done in order to produce a distinctive mode of communication, one that was separate from garden-variety vernacular speech and capable of relaying the unique mysteries of the Gospel.

Thus, if English is to convey sacred mysteries, there should be a "sacred English." The very word we use for everyday speech, "profane," comes from pro-fano, "outside the temple." If Catholics wish to make the world Christ’s temple, as Pope Benedict recently put it, they must first be careful not to make Christ’s temple the world.

While the bishops made important progress last week, their improvements fell short of the ideal. Approximately 60 of the proposed changes were rejected, we are told, including the recommendation to replace the nebulous line in the Nicene Creed "one in being with the Father" with the more precise "consubstantial with the Father." According to one report the bishops kept the former version because "’consubstantial’ is a theological expression requiring explanation." Quite so, but isn’t explaining theological expressions one of the reasons we have priests and bishops?  (Okay… I just got shivers.  Take THAT *smack*)

Since the process is far from over (it could take years before final implementation), Rome may yet prevail in convincing the American liturgical establishment to leave more of its street talk at the temple door. In the meantime, Catholics jaded with all this tinkering to the Mass can be grateful that at least some changes are for the better.

Mr. Foley is a professor of patristics at Baylor University and the author of "Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

This was a great article, to be sure.  I think Mr. Foley has been reading WDTPRS.  Hopefully we can get him involved in NAPALM!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Patristiblogging, SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. animadversor says:

    QUAERITUR: What should the penance be for that?

    RESPONDEO DICENDUM optimam pænitentiam reparationem esse.

  2. Andrew says:

    Perhaps this is a dumb question but I’ll ask it any way.
    Exactly what does “And with your spirit.” really mean?
    What definition should we use? Does spirit in this sense mean soul? The vital principle or animating force within living things? Intoxicating beverage? The mood or emotional state?
    I don’t mean to be flippant, but the dictionary gives so many definitions that it is hard to know what does the prayer really mean?

  3. It refers to the priestly character of the priest, the ontological difference in his soul as alter Christus, whose mode of participating in Christ’s priesthood is qualitatively different from that of the baptized.

  4. Andrew says:

    So does the Latin word for Spirit used here carry the meaning of “The essential nature of a person or group”, thus indicating that the priest is different from the congregation?

  5. amywelborn says:

    No, it’s to focus us on Christ rather than the individual person of the priest. See a brief post from my husband’s blog here:


  6. Good link, Amy! Thanks! This quote is especially relevant: “Yet another footnote [by Jungmann] alludes to the fact that this reply in the usage of the Church’s liturgy was given only to a priest or bishop and that the implication was that the greeting was to the Holy Spirit that the ordained minister had received upon their ordination.”

  7. Andrew says:

    What would be a good reference to study this further?

  8. Andrew says:

    Sacred Scripture?

  9. All I can say is thank God for you. I am 79 and have been reading your
    columns. I really appreciate your care and concern about the liturgy.
    Please keep it up. God Bless

Comments are closed.