Bp. Seratelli responds to critics of the new liturgical translations – this guy gets it!

WDTPRS has in the past given high kudos to His Excellency Bp. Arthur Seratelli of Paterson, NJ, and chairman of the USCCB’s liturgy committee has published something about liturgical translation on his diocese’s website.

During the USCCB meeting, as you can read here, some bishops – the usually suspects – raised objections to the new draft of the translation of prayers in the Missale Romanum

Bp. Seratelli responds.

Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.

The Language of the Liturgy: The Value of the New Translations

In Act III, Scene II of The Tragedy of Hamlet, the young prince gives this advice: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” [His Excellency must think people are smart enough to know who Shakespeare is!  It is interesting that the norms for liturgical translation mention that liturgical sacral language should make reference to the literary heritage of the language.] Ever since the publication of the third edition of the Missale Romanum in 2000, translators have been grappling with the challenge of suiting the word to the liturgy.  Translators working to provide a fresh translation of the liturgical texts face a number of challenges.

Words, like people’s dress, change from one generation to the next and from one group to another in the same society. What one individual calls a “swamp,” another more ecologically conscious individual calls “wetlands.” A politician waxes eloquently about “public participation.”  His audience understands him to say “self-denial.” The corporate world routinely uses the noun impact as a transitive verb. People follow happily along.

Today, politically correct as well as linguistically conscious individuals carefully circumvent the word “man” not to offend women. Past generations pronounced the word with never the slightest intention of excluding women. But times have changed.  We speak now about humankind.  Certainly, we have gained inclusivity.  Yet, we have sacrificed language that is not so abstract.

English always has been an open language, ready to welcome neologisms. [Oooo… the bishop used a hard word!  HURRAY!] The Internet has enriched our speech with new phrases and words.  Text messaging is altering our spelling and our syntax. Language is a human expression.  As people change, so does the way they speak.

In his popular  rhetorical guide, De duplici copia verborum ac rerum, Erasmus, [My heavens… can I believe what I am seeing?  He even quotes Erasmus, and gives a LATIN title!  O my!] the 16th century Dutch humanist and theologian, showed students 150 different styles they could use when phrasing the Latin sentence, Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt (Your letter has delighted me very much). Clearly, no single translation of any sentence or work will ever completely satisfy everyone. Even the best of all possible translations of the new Missal will have its critics.

But there is something more at stake than pleasing individual tastes and preferences in the new liturgical translations. The new translations aim at a “language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves … dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 25). The new translations now being prepared are a marked improvement over the translations with which we have become familiar. They are densely theological.  They respect the rich vocabulary of the Roman Rite.  They carefully avoid the overuse of certain phrases and words.

The new translations also have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite. [This is very important.  For example, the very concision of the prayers of the Roman Rite means something!] Certainly, some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not.  And with reason.  Latin orations, especially Post-Communions, tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point. [Yes… the structure of a Collect, for example, usually begins with a point about who God is and what God has done, much in the Hebrew way of praying in the psalms and then continues, in the same conceptual current with our petitions.] The new translations in English follow the sequence of these Latin prayers in order to end on a strong note. Many of our current translations of these prayers end weakly. Why should we strip the English translation of the distinctive theological emphases of the Latin text? A slightly non-colloquial word order can lead the listener to a greater attention to the point of the prayer.  [YES!  Like "gibbet" or "consubstantial".]

Our present liturgical texts are framed in simple syntax.  The new translations use more subordinate clauses. This, in and of itself, does not render them unproclaimable. By the very fact that, in some instances, the new translations require thoughtful and careful attention to pauses when speaking helps to foster and create a less rushed and more reverent way of praying. Not a small gain for a proper ars celebrandi

The new translation at times may use uncommon words like “ineffable.” The word is not unspeakable! For sure, this word does not come from the street language of the contemporary individual. But, then, why cannot the liturgy use words that elevate the language from the street to the altar?  People may not use certain words in their active vocabulary. This does not mean they will be baffled by their use in the liturgy. “If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 27).

Liturgical language should border on the poetic.  Prose bumps along the ground. Poetry soars to the heavens. And our Liturgy is already a sharing of the Liturgy in heaven.

The liturgical texts that we are now using are not perfect, but they are familiar. This familiarity makes celebrants at ease with the present texts. The new texts are better.  When the new texts are implemented, they will require more attention on the part of the celebrant.  But any initial uneasiness will yield to familiarity and to a language that is well suited to the Liturgy.

A language suited for the Liturgy: this is the one of great advantages of the work being done on the new translations.  There is more to the Liturgy than the human language of any age or any one country. In the new translations of the Roman Missal, a conscious effort is being made to suit the human word to the divine action that the Liturgy truly is. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, the “central actio of the Mass is fundamentally neither that of the priest as such nor of the laity as such, but of Christ the High Priest: This action of God, which takes place through human speech, is the real "action" for which all creation is in expectation… This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential” (The Spirit of the Liturgy p. 173).

In his early work Enchiridion militis christiani, Erasmus states the obvious about human speech and the divine. He argues that words always fall short of their task of miming the Logos. Reaching back to Exodus 16, he argues that the smallness of the manna rained down on the Israelites "signifies the lowliness of speech that conceals immense mysteries in almost crude language.”  Until the end of history, we must be content with imperfect language that will never fully unveil the divine mystery we celebrate.  But the new translations, imperfect as they are — as all human speech will be —are good translations that have passed through the hands of many scholars and bishops. The language of the new texts, while not dummied down to the most common denominator, remains readily accessible to anyone. Most assuredly, these new translations of liturgical texts will help us better approach God with greater reverence and awe. We gladly await their final approval from the Holy See and their use in the Liturgy!

Highest WDTPRS kudos to Bp. Seratelli!

He gets this exactly right.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. In discussing this, don’t get trapped in irrelevant rabbit holes.

  2. magdalen says:

    I have written to Bishop Serratelli several times on his excellent writings. I was so happy that he is now the head of the liturgy committee for that gives us some hope for truer translations.

    I recall when the former head of this committee came to be elected and I was watching on EWTN. First of all he was not on the original slate but a late addition. Then the electronic voting failed and if I recall then too many votes were cast and then something else happened and I wondered what powers were winning that day. I knew the answer then the person was named for it did not bode well. But now perhaps that day is (almost) past for the former person still wields power.

    Some of our episcopal prelates are not getting old enough fast enough!

  3. pedantic_prof says:

    Interesting letter that reads like an encyclical with all the sources it provides.

    Erasmus always remained a Catholic, despite some initial sympathies with some of the reformers.

  4. RichR says:

    Very nice response from the good Bishop.

    I was a member of an Anglican-Use parish in San Antonio for 3 years. The Elizabethan English was way more archaic-sounding that what I’ve read so far with regards to the NCCB debate. The interesting thing was, you got used to the Elizabethan English very quickly, and it became sweet-sounding each Sunday precisely because it was not vulgar, everyday, monotonous, slang English. It elevates your mind just hearing it.

    I suspect the new translations will be the same.

  5. John Paul says:

    His Excellency does indeed get it. But even as the head of the BCL,
    does he exert any more influence on the whole conference beyond his
    single vote?
    Does collegiality allow for these Bishops Conferences to “vote”
    on whether or not they will implement direction from Rome?

    I guess as long as the absentee votes are favorable, there is nothing
    to worry about. Except the actual implementation, of course.

  6. TerryC says:

    I pray that Bp. Serratelli has sent a copy to all of the U.S. bishops. I’ve no doubt that “Joe and Mary Catholic” will also read this letter with great understanding of why a new translation is necessary.

  7. Peggy says:

    Don’t get me started on the mis-use of language by businessmen. I freaked out by the constant use of “transition” as a verb! I thought these people had college educations. Sigh!

    Great letter regarding the translations as well. ;^D

    [I almost said, “business persons” but held back.]

  8. Le Renard says:

    I pray that Bp. Serratelli has sent a copy to all of the U.S. bishops.

    Are you serious?

    Even if such were to happen, U.S. bishops of the liberal variety would simply ignore it and, more likely, toss the copy of the letter and consider it more ‘traditional’ refuse!

  9. Le Renard says:


    I freaked out by the constant use of “transition” as a verb! I thought these people had college educations. Sigh!

    Main Entry: 2transition
    Function: intransitive verb
    Date: 1946
    : to make a transition

  10. Mary says:

    That’s my bishop!!! I had the pleasure and privilege of having him as a professor at Seton Hall and jumped for joy when it was announced that he was the new Bishop of Paterson a few years ago. He has blessed the Diocese of Paterson in many ways including visiting the FSSP chapel in our diocese and saying Mass there, and increasing vocations. Hopefully his fellow bishops listen to him. :)

  11. Carl says:

    Perhaps it is just me, but I sense an allusion to Voltaire amidst the rest of the Bishop’s rich literary layering: “Even the best of all possible translations of the new Missal will have its critics.”

  12. Humilitas says:

    The people of the Diocese of Patterson NJ are indeed fortunate to have such a wonderful bishop.

    We need more bishops and cardinals like him.

    Fr. Z; Can you give us an example of a prayer used today in the Mass and that same prayer in the new translation? Can anyone on the blog direct me to a site that contains the new translation?

    Thanks for any help.

  13. Fr. Z., THANK YOU for bringing Bishop Serratelli’s letter to light. The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy thoroughly endorses and supports his efforts to accurately translate the Roman Missal in its ordinary form using sacred language befitting divine worship and employing vocabulary that communicates orthodox doctrine while at the same time edifies the soul.

  14. Fr. Z., THANK YOU for bringing Bishop Serratelli\’s letter to light. The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy thoroughly endorses and supports his efforts to accurately translate the Roman Missal in its ordinary form using sacred language befitting divine worship and employing vocabulary that communicates orthodox doctrine while at the same time edifies the soul.

  15. Royce says:

    I think his ‘swamp’ comment was aimed directly at the Archbishop of Cincinnati.

  16. Carol says:

    I am certain that I have run across the word “gibbet” since 1949. I have not done anything at all before 1949.

  17. Mitch S. says:

    Thank God! A bishop that doesn’t assume I’m stupid because I didn’t go to seminary and had kids.

    I was so offended by the tone and implications of the bishops remarks, that I posted a quite blunt open letter to the USCCB on my website. I hope one or more of them read it.

    But I doubt they will, or that they would pay atention, after all, the arrogance of our bishops is ineffable.

  18. kaneohe says:

    Are any of the translations available on-line? If so, could someone provide a link?

    Another quick question. Once the translations are finally approved and put into use, will it be mandatory when singing the Gloria and other parts of the Mass, that the actual texts of the new translation will have to be used? Please say yes, otherwise we’ll never get rid of that terrible music we presently have to suffer through.

    Grace and peace.

  19. I have a list of favourite English words I’d like to see returned to the liturgical texts. Many of them were long used to translate comparable terms from the Latin and have no other common equivalents in English. Others should be used for their sheer sonority:

    handmaidens (as in oblationes famulorum famularumque tuarum…)
    Sabaoth (okay, it’s Hebrew)
    bring forth
    foretell, and especially, foretold
    -soever, as in whatsoever, who[m]soever, and the like
    etc., etc.

    I could go on for quite a while. The point is that English has such a wealthy lexicon and such propensity for subtlety of meaning that we, blessed with such linguistic richness, should show our thanks to God by using these simply beautiful words. That God is the Word is not simply a metaphor. As such, we, to whom He gave words and language, are bound to return it to Him in the most truthful and beautiful way possible.

  20. Robin Lennon says:

    I just want the infant John to leap in Elizabeth’s womb again. I couldn’t believe my ears when it was proclaimed that the child moved in her womb.

    Every child moves, but only one leaped as David leapt before the Ark of the Covenant.

  21. Robin Lennon says:

    I just want the infant John to leap in Elizabeth\’s womb again. I couldn\’t believe my ears when it was proclaimed that the child moved in her womb.

    Every child moves, but only one leaped as David leapt before the Ark of the Covenant.

  22. Tom S. says:

    Every time I read one of Father Z’s posts about Bishop Seratelli, the same thought comes to mind – that man should get a a red hat – the sooner the better.

  23. Philip-Michael says:

    Bishop Serratelli is truly a great man and wonderful spiritual father. It is my prayer that more men rise up from amongst the “coterie” and instead of being the silent orthodox they use their voice for the proclamation of Truth and Justice, whether it be liturgical or doctrinally oriented. Bishop Serratelli has been a great champion of the Church.

  24. pdt says:

    It’s funny how the change of a single word can have a long-lasting impact. Each year when we renew our baptismal vows I find myself yearning for the right word. We are, these days, called on to renounce Satan and all his empty promises. But years ago we renounced Satan and all his allurements. Even as a child I was taken by that word; its own flowing pronunciation proclaimed its meaning.

    Are some words obscure and rarely used in common speech? Wow. Perhaps their rightful place is in something more sacred. And for every new word incorporated, there’s a new sermon of catechesis for the priests. Or do we worry about words – and concepts – like ‘catechesis’ no more?

  25. Ioannes Andreades says:

    “Interesting letter that reads like an encyclical with all the sources it provides.”

    You should check out his pastoral letter on evangeliization, which can be found on the Paterson diocese website. He certainly is the sort of prelate that our Holy Father has been elevating to higher office. Am not sure how long Paterson will be able to hold onto him.

  26. Mary says:

    This letter just appeared as his Bishop’s column in the Beacon,our diocesan paper, and I have heard wonderfulthoughts and comments on his letter on evangeliziation, cut and paste the link for the letter in English. http://www.patersondiocese.org/pdf/en_pastoral_evangelization.pdf It is also available in Spanish on the Diocesan webpage where you can find Bishop Serratelli’s columns from his tenure as Bishop of Paterson.

  27. Fr W says:

    Liturgy was supposed to emphasize singing – chanting – this was my impression at least. Then should not the ‘singability’ of the prayers be a central consideration? I suspect that the new translation is more singable, but of course how many voting on this themselves, chant the Sacred Liturgy?

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