QUAERITUR: Exultet in two languages

exultetFrom a reader:

Father and the deacons at my parish know that I study chant, and it has been suggested that I sing the Exultet this year. This is one of the first chants I started learning (in Latin of course) and I am very excited to do it. I have listened to your podcast and your recording (many times throughout the liturgical year), and am very familiar with it. Father mentioned he had heard of an Exultet in Latin and English, and I said I would look into it for him. I suppose he could mean the majority of the chant in one language and the exchange between deacon/priest and people in the other. Have you heard of such a thing? I pulling for it in Latin (whether I sing or not), with an English translation in a flyer/bulletin/program.


Exultet in two languages?  Awful idea, in my opinion.

If you are going to have some Latin, do the whole thing in Latin. 

People aren’t stupid.  They will follow in the book perfectly and pay more attention that way.

And I don’t see why the music director should be able to tell the priest what music they should use.  Who signs the paycheck?

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  1. FrCharles says:

    Having been both parts in variously kludged up English-Spanish Exsultets, I have to agree.

  2. Choirmaster says:

    Oh, no, Father, the Latin Exultet is way too haaaard for people to follow along.

    I was once deputized to sing the Exultet, and was shot down, out of hand, for the Latin rendition. However, I must say, the current English version is rather nice, as far as English goes.

    Am I correct in thinking that it was not translated by the same ICEL team that gave us the current, lame-duck translations?

  3. irishgirl says:

    Hey, ‘if it a’int broke, don’t fix it’!

    Latin all the way! Mongrelizing it with English won’t do!

  4. TNCath says:

    Fr. Z. wrote: “And I don’t see why the music director should be able to tell the priest what music they should use. Who signs the paycheck?”

    Unfortunately, Father, often it’s the only way to get any Latin into the liturgy. At the same time, unfortunately, Father, often the priest doesn’t care WHAT the music director does.

    While I certainly would prefer the Exultet in Latin, sometimes we have to take what we can get. Only in the last few years have we been permitted to even sing the Exultet. Before that, our pastor would say, “It just takes too long. The Mass is long enough without all that singing. I’ll just read it.” He would then read the abbreviated version, as fast as he could, and then announce, “Please turn to page 62,” which would bring us to the reading from Exodus. The next thing we knew, we were at the Gloria.

    I also agree with Choirmaster that, the English translation of the Exultet is actually much better than the Mass translations.

  5. ssoldie says:

    Why to go, all Latin.

  6. Dave N. says:

    In defense of priests, often seminary education about music is lacking or altogether absent. Thus pastors often feel they have to defer to those who “know more about it.” In my experience it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.

    Mixed language Exultet doesn’t sound at all promising to me. Though part of the difficulty with using Latin here is that many churches are nearly or completely dark during this portion of the Easter Vigil in order to focus full attention on the Lumen Christi. It may be difficult for those unfamiliar with Latin to follow along with a supplementary sheet or program–but of course this depends on the circumstances in any one parish. As others have noted, some of the English translations are good and in this particular case I think pastoral considerations should weigh heavily.

  7. TNCath says:

    Dave N: “In defense of priests, often seminary education about music is lacking or altogether absent. Thus pastors often feel they have to defer to those who ‘know more about it.’ In my experience it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.”

    This has definitely been my experience. A lot of the priests of a certain age were so preoccupied with just learning what they were supposed to do at Mass (after the changes that took place after Vaticasn II) that music was low on their priorities. One can only endure so many workshops, so many meetings, so many directives from the chancery office or office of liturgy that “interpreted” what Rome wanted for them. As a result, many pastors just went with whoever showed up to do the music and/or whatever “sounded good,” regardless of the quality or appropriateness of the music. Finally, some were just weary of the struggle of constant change, threw up their hands, and said, “Whatever!” A number of priests I knew were truly psychologically affected by the constant uproar that has taken place between 1965 and the present.

    As to the “mixed language” of the Exultet, in those parishes who are unfamiliar with Latin, a gradual introduction of Latin could be beneficial. For instance, the introductory dialogue in the Exultet (“Dominus vobiscum,” “Sursum corda,” etc.) could be a way to slowly introduce Latin into the Exultet. If parishes would begin implementing these “small steps,” word by word (brick by brick), much could be accomplished over time.

  8. Choirmaster says:

    @ Dave N.: If I am not mistaken, the Exultet is begun (in the N.O.) only after all of the individual candles have been lit, and the people follow along by the light of those.

    In regards to Priests and the Director of Music:

    One time–while working for a mainstream parish–the priest opined that he felt that all music directors wanted to be priests because they boss him around so much. I replied, trying to be as charitable as possible, that I doubted that we [music directors] want to be priests, but the education they [the priests, my boss included] were getting in the seminary left them very ill-prepared to moderate a music program. As such, music directors, such as me, have long-since abandoned conciliatory attitudes and immediately employ heavy-handed tactics and arguments because we have been spurned and/or neutered by ignorant priests so many times in the past.

    I continued by giving him examples of little-known yet very important liturgical music guidelines and norms and he admitted that his seminary education not only left him ignorant of such things, but had positively indoctrinated an opposing viewpoint. I still didn’t get my way (fear of bishops outweighs adherence to norms every time), but I think we cleared the air a little and came to a better understanding of each others’ frustrations.

    The ignorance of mainstream diocesan priests about sacred music (and liturgical matters in general) has been a bane on the professional sacred musician for a long time now. That is probably why the music director was attempting to “instruct” the priest.

  9. pattif says:

    I have once experienced a Latin/English Exultet, on an occasion when we had a visiting deacon who wanted to, but was refused permission to, sing the Latin; his not-altogether-obedient solution was to sing this mixed version, which alternated languages almost phrase by phrase. It didn’t really work, but it was marginally less annoying than the full English version which we have had to endure for the past decade or so: at least we got the ‘Felix culpa’. The thing that annoys me about the English (apart from the fact that it isn’t Latin) is that it misses out the hymn to the bees who made the wax that made the candle (my pp says there is so little beeswax in modern candles that there isn’t much point).

    So – from experience, Latin is best, no question.

  10. Unfinished says:

    This is my completely subjective opinion with zero music training what so ever:

    There is something about chanting Latin that sounds pretty. There is something about chanting English that sounds silly. Also, bilingual songs, even Latin/English ones, annoy me to know end. Pick a language.

  11. Martin_B says:

    First: Because I’m german, I cannot comment on the quality of the english translation of the exsultet, but one language is always enough.

    Second: If you are studying chant, rather than singing the exsultet, your job should be to train the deacon to sing it properly. For it’s HIS job.

    Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts (1988):
    “84. The deacon makes the Easter proclamation, which tells by means of a great poetic text the whole Easter mystery, placed in the context of the economy of salvation. In case of necessity, where there is no deacon and the celebrating priest is unable to sing it, a cantor may do so. The bishops’ conferences may adapt this proclamation by inserting into it acclamations from the people.”

  12. Dave N. says:

    @ Choirmaster. Yes, sorry I wasn’t very clear at all about the lighting issue. What should be happening at this point in the service (lighting of individual candles prior) and what actually happens in practice varies quite widely in my experience–surprise, surprise. My clearer and more succinct point should have been: if you sing the Exultet in Latin, just make sure the people have sufficient light to follow something.

    Seminary education is an absolute travesty, IMO. It’s fair neither to the priests dedicating their lives to the Church, nor to the people they they will be serving and working with. Unfortunately, absolutely no one wants to talk about this–I think mostly out of fear people will discover the emperor has no clothes. And I think it’s really at the heart of so many problems….

    @ pattif. If I recall correctly, the Anglicans and Lutherans have kept the bees. Something in the back of my mind says there are at least two extant Latin versions of the Exultet and they are working off of a different text. I could be wrong here. Maybe the translations just differ widely–it’s happened before.

  13. I disagree. Bilingual songs are great for making jokes.

    For example, the notorious macaronic song where the English is a demure little ballad about an English soldier, but the alternating lines in Scottish Gaelic say all kinds of stuff contradicting the English lines….

    Also, it’s very nice to use words in another language for a chorus, or the endcap of a line. This was done very often in the Middle Ages.

  14. Choirmaster says:

    @ Dave N.: No apology necessary; the only reason I was so quick on the candlelight at the Exultet was that I had used that argument (when deputized to sing) to help my case for singing the Exultet in Latin.

    I agree wholeheartedly that good translations should indeed be provided to the congregation (especially in contemporary N.O. celebrations) when we are lucky enough to do real chant in Latin.

    At the job I discussed above, I experimented with the Graduale Simplex “proper” chants. Every week I would be scurrying around the pews making sure there were enough little sheets of paper with the Latin/English words. It was a bear trying to translate the Latin texts on my own as the Simplex doesn’t have an edition with rubrics and translations for Anglophones, and the translations in the all-English By Flowing Waters embodied the anti-sacral ideals of old-time ICEL.

  15. Ioannes Andreades says:

    “I suppose he could mean the majority of the chant in one language and the exchange between deacon/priest and people in the other.”

    Am I wrong in thinking that the exchange (Dominus vobiscum, etc.) is done only if a priest or deacon is singing the Exsultet?

  16. edwardo3 says:

    I was once pressured by the ultra liberal pastor of my parish to sing the Exultet and the Ite Missa Est at the Easter Vigil (the pressure was that the pastor told me that if I didn’t sing them he would have a woman sing them). I relented and agreed after the threat from the pastor, but he neglected to tell me what language to use, and I neglected to ask which language to use, so I sang it all in Latin. The reaction was interesting: the ultra liberal pastor and those he brought into the parish with him suffered from Latin Induced Appoplexia while I received a lot of personal thank you’s from the old guard in the parish. There were also a lot of people responding in Latin. As I was taught by a priest friend, “It is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is permission”.

  17. TNCath says:

    Ioannes Andreades wrote: “Am I wrong in thinking that the exchange (Dominus vobiscum, etc.) is done only if a priest or deacon is singing the Exsultet?”

    If a cantor (and not a priest or deacon) chants the Exsultet, he omits the greeting “Dominus vobiscum,” but does sing the “Sursum corda” and “Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro” parts. I know, it’s strange, but that is what the rubrics dictate.

  18. Dave N. says:

    @ Choirmaster

    the translations in the all-English By Flowing Waters embodied the anti-sacral ideals of old-time ICEL…

    Aaah, By Flowing Waters….

    NOW we have reached a sort of ground zero of both problematic liturgical thought and problematic seminary education:


    And I will argue that the two are not unrelated.

    It sounds like you are working very very hard in your parish. God’s endless blessings and peace to you.

  19. Choirmaster says:

    @ TNCath: I think that the Sursum Corda is only for the priest too. I know in the Sacramentary the brackets close after the Dominus Vobiscum but, after careful deliberation, my pastor and I concluded that it was a typographical error (i.e. a layman is not to sing the sursum corda either).

    @ Dave N.: No, sir, I quit a year ago today, actually. We reached an irreconcilable difference of “opinion” and, rather than fight him and make his life miserable, I resigned. His seminary training taught him to think and act one way, and it was not my competence or responsibility to try and change that, because it was deeper than simply music. We left on good personal terms (no animosity) and I wish him all the best! It’s been a blessing as I have spent the last year singing in a choir for an outstanding TLM community!

    I should change my online handle from “Choirmaster” to “Chorister” but I have been posting like this for so long that it doesn’t seem worth it to change.

  20. I say pick a language and stick to it. We’re supposed to be at Mass, not the Tower of Babel. That’s why it was always a dumb idea to stamp Latin out of the Mass. Replacing Latin with vernacular tongues has led to the Balkanization of Catholic worship.

    And if we’re going to pick a language, I vote for Latin. English really does not lend itself well to chant. Plus, the English translations are frequently not translations at all, but travesties.

  21. Several years ago my pastor asked me to sing the Exsultet. I said I would like to do it in Latin. He replied that if I did that, the people would not know what I was singing. Knowing the pastor to be a hard line all-vernacular man, I sang in English.

    The next year he asked me again to sing it, and this time, knowing the pastor to be a very flexible man when he needed something, I said, “Well, if I’m gonna do it, I prefer to do it in Latin.” He said, “That will be fine. I will get the pages copied and in your hands this week.”

    Well, I did sing in Latin, and the people had no cheat sheets, no warning, no nothing. And they sang their responses very well. Pastor notwithstanding, the sixty per cent or so old enough to remember the Latin remembered quite adequately.

    So much for the people-cannot-handle-it objection.

  22. Father S. says:

    I cannot help but look forward (almost with a certain giddiness) to the English translation of the Exsultet that will be with us in the new missal. It is one of my favorite priestly moments to chant it at the vigil.

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