The USCCB explains some grammar of the new translation, sort of.

I suppose we are now in such a state of affairs that we need to have grammar explained.  That was certainly the case when the Congregation for Divine Worship, in a response to a dubium, had to explain the Latin of GIRM 299.  And yet the USCCB’s writers still got the Latin wrong.

From the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship’s newsletter:

Understanding the Grammar of the Roman Missal, Third Edition

As English–speaking Catholics in the United States become more familiar— and more comfortable— with the Roman Missal, Third Edition, there are sometimes questions that arise, especially as we progress through the liturgical seasons and the Sanctoral cycle (the Proper of Saints), encountering new texts for the first time. Many have questioned particular elements that are commonly found in the Roman Missal but were not present in the earlier translation in the Sacramentary. [Such as… accuracy, doctrine, lack of Pelagian tendencies, the cessation of banality…] The Secretariat for Divine Worship offers commentary on two frequently-raised issues: [This is a little embarrassing…] the qui clauses (relative or dependent clauses beginning with the relative pronoun “who”), which are found not only in the proper orations of the Missal but also in the Order of Mass, and the expression quaesumus (usually translated as “we pray”).

The complex grammatical structure of the orations was one of the major changes in the style of English used in the new translation of the Missal. [As opposed to the parataxis imposed on the prayers, which made the internal logic of the original less than apparent.] The use of relative or dependent clauses, not commonly used in everyday spoken English, but certainly found in written communication, necessitates practice for effective proclamation. In these clauses, it is useful to point out that in direct address, “who” functions as “you.” [Ah the fruits of the destruction of actual education for the last few decades!] During the preparation of the original draft translations by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, it was determined that the grammatical construction of the qui clause was to be maintained in English, in order to avoid the awkwardness of a rendering that gave the appearance of telling God what God already knows. [“O God, you are so big!”] The rendering of the relative clause, however, allows oration to begin with a description of God’s power and action tied to the address, i.e., we can call on God by name because of what God has already revealed and accomplished. This is the case, for example, in the Collect for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Almighty ever–living God,
who govern all things, [qui caelestia simul et terrena moderaris]
both in heaven and on earth,
mercifully hear [exaudi (an imperative)] the pleading of your people
and bestow your peace on our times.

[Dear reader, we, clerics especially, should know this stuff already as part of the decent education denied to them from childhood.] The verb “govern” agrees with “who” (acting in the place of “you,” 2nd person, singular, in the relative clause). “[G]overns,” on the other hand, is 3rd person singular, and to use that form would transform the first part of the prayer to indirect address, i.e., speaking about God rather than speaking to God. As it is, the verb in the relative clause (“govern”) must agree with the verb in the main clause (“hear” and “bestow”). This grammatical form is found also in the Communion Rite in the Order of Mass, in the concluding formula of prayer before the Sign of Peace: “Who live and reign for ever and ever.” Because this prayer is addressed to Christ, the concluding formula takes on the form of direct address, and is therefore in the 2nd person singular. To do otherwise, i.e., “Who lives and reigns,” would shift the conclusion from direct to indirect address, 3rd person singular, and it would not agree with the rest of the prayer.  [Okay… I will admit that people fall into the trap with these qui clauses in the second person, turning them into the third.]

While some have observed that the use of the relative or dependent clause is not frequently heard in contemporary American English, it is not altogether foreign. [sigh] It is used, albeit in an archaic form of English, in the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” In this case, “art” is an archaic form of “are,” as though we were saying “Our Father, you who are in heaven…” [sigh]

Another commonly used expression in the orations of the Missal is the phrase “we pray” as a translation of quaesumus, sometimes rendered otherwise as “we ask” or “we beg.” [I like “beseech”.] It is found, for example, in the Prayer after Communion for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Grant, [an imperative in English] we pray, [praesta, quaesumus] O Lord,
that, having been replenished by such great gifts,
we may gain the prize of salvation
and never cease to praise you.

This expression helps communicate a sense of humility, or at least a sense of politeness, before God. [I would rather say a “courtly” attitude.  This is decorum.  Language that is apt for worship much involve decorum.] In the Lord’s Prayer our petitions are expressed boldly, in the imperative, because that is the way Jesus taught us to pray. The verb form in the orations, however, is not the imperative [EHEM… praesta is the main verb and it is, in this prayer, an imperative.  The prayer is, basically, “Grant X” while the “we ask you” is a parenthesis.] but a combination of the indicative and the subjunctive, [Is that so?] because when we pray of our own volition we are not always so bold. [I hope that the writer knows that the main verb is the imperative.  But I sense that the writer is trying to do a backflip to distract us from any notion that our prayers are bossy.  That is to focus on only one range of the meaning of an imperative.  On the contrary, an imperative verb need not be automatically “bossy”.  There is a “bossy” imperative” and a “trusting” imperative, as it were. It can have the force of a heartfelt wish, or as Messers Guildersleeve and Lodge say, “The Imperative is the mood of the will.  It wills that the predicate be made a reality.  The tone of the Imperative varies from stern command to piteous entreaty.  It may appear as a demand, an order, an exhortation, a permission, a concession, a prayer.”] We stand humbly before God and plead for his mercy and kindness. [Imperatives don’t make us less humble.] This expression and sentiment is not new to the Roman Missal, Third Edition. In the earlier translation found in the Sacramentary, the expression was included in every prayer, whether or not the Latin expression quaesumus was present, in the concluding formula, “We ask this through Christ our Lord.”

We might look more closely at the Post Communion of the 14th Sunday.  It has roots in the Gelasian Sacramentary. In the 1962 Missale Romanum it was the Postcommunio of 1st Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday) used during the weekdays that follow Trinity Sunday.

Tantis, Domine, repleti muneribus,
praesta, quaesumus, ut et salutaria dona capiamus,
et a tua numquam laude cessemus.

The astounding Lewis & Short Dictionary helps with cesso, which means “to stand back very much; hence, to be remiss in any thing, to delay, loiter, or, in general, to cease from, stop, give over”.   You might be familiar with the Latin proverbial saying “Ubi maior, minor cessat… Where the greater thing is, the lesser gives way”.  For example, when the sun shines during the daylight hours the stars, otherwise visible at night, give way and are no longer to be seen.  Capio ranges in meaning but is basically, “to take in hand, take hold of, lay hold of, take, seize, grasp”.

may we never fail to praise you
for the fullness of life and salvation
you give us in this eucharist.

Having been filled, O Lord, with such great gifts,
grant, we beg You, that we may both grasp the saving gifts
and also never cease from Your praise.

This is a tricky prayer to put into smooth English.  First, we run the risk of repetition by saying “gifts” (munera) and “gifts” (dona) in such close proximity.  Also, numquam cessare a laude tua clearly means “never cease/quit praising you” while “cease from your praise” is awkward.  Moreover, capio with its vast range of meanings is a deep enough word that a single English word hardly suffices to get at what it drives at.  I try to solve this by just taking capio as “grasp”, a physical concept.  We can simultaneously “grasp” on to it as meaning both an intellectual “grasping” of the mysterious moment of Communion as well as a more affective “grasping” after the sole source of our salvation, the Man God Christ Jesus, truly present in the Host we just consumed moments before this prayer is uttered.

Having been filled, O Lord, with gifts so great as these,
grant, we beseech You, that we may both grasp these salvation bringing gifts,
and never cease from rendering the praise which is Your due.

At this point in Mass, we have just been given a foretaste of the heavenly life offered us by God.  So great a gift, undeserved as it is, demands a response.  In heaven we will never cease praising God, whom we shall see face to face.  But we are not in heaven now.   Holy Communion demands a response of praise here and now.


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  1. uptoncp says:

    These constructions can easily sound wrong, even when you know they aren’t.

    Maybe it’s just because it’s what I’m used to, but I find them far more natural in that archaic form. Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth… or the ending who livest and reignest.

  2. fvhale says:

    There are times when one must really study the translation of the new Roman Missal in order to find the antecedent of the “qui” clause. Of course, looking at the Latin usually solves the puzzle instantly.

    One place where I have seen people suddenly look totally perplexed in the middle of Mass is the Super Oblata, or Prayer over the Offerings, for the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (March 25). The current English is:

    Be pleased, almighty God,
    to accept your church’s offering,
    so that she [who? just finished homily about the Bl. Virgin Mary, and this is the Annunciation], who is aware that her beginnings [Mary’s beginnings?]
    lie in the Incarnation of your Only Begotten Son,
    may rejoice [who is rejoicing?] to celebrate his mysteries on this Solemnity.

    In this translation, “church” is just introduced in the second line as a modifier of the “offering” to be accepted.


    Ecclesiae tuae munus, omnipotens Deus, dignare suscipere,
    ut, quae [points right back to Ecclesiae, the church] in Unigeniti tui incarnatione
    primordia sua constare congnoscit [again clear that the church is the subject of the verb],
    ipsius gaudeat [still clear that church is subject of verb] hac sollemnitate celebrare mysteria.

    In the Latin text, “Ecclesiae tuae” is where the prayer starts, and the gender/case markers in Latin, absent in English, tie it all together.

    My completely unscientific poll of having people read the current translation in English, and then ask them, “who is ‘she’ in the third line?,” gave almost 100% a result of “The Blessed Virgin Mary…this is for the Annunciation!”

    The older translation had an assortment of weaknesses, but the puzzling “she” was not one of them. Bearing with all the defects in order to see the one point of strength, here is the older translation:

    Almighty Father,
    as we recall the beginning of the Church
    when your son became man,
    may we celebrate with joy today
    this sacrament of your love.

    Generally icky, I admit, but at least you do not get lost in the English, even if the English has lost touch with the Latin, and there are no floating “she” and “her” (just lots of other problems).

    I do not see any way to solve the English ambiguity of the current translation without, perhaps, introducing some words not in the Latin (…so that she, your Church, who is aware…), repeating the antecedent explicitly.

    So, if you cannot change the words, perhaps the only alternative is to educate those who read, speak and listen to them. What a revolutionary idea.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The problem with the Annunciation prayer is that they got overly apostrophe-happy. Just change
    “Be pleased, almighty God, to accept your church’s offering, so that she….”
    to “Be pleased, almighty God, to accept the offering of your Church, so that She….”

    And obviously they could have made the point more obvious by calling her “your Church, the Bride” or some other suitable feminine title. It’s another symbol of our impoverishment of mind that people don’t think of the Church as a she.

  4. acricketchirps says:

    Oh, but She aren’t Church. “WE are church.”

  5. BobP says:

    They who say Christ didn’t know Latin have no problem with His understanding Modern English?

  6. The Cobbler says:

    May I just point out that the talk of cases and persons and singularity is a lot harder for some of us to understand than, well, some good examples?

    And good examples are up there, but I would’ve put them first and then used them to explain the grammar precisely for people who aren’t already comfortable navigating grammatical terms (since the article is meant to explain points of grammar in the new translation, I imagine newbies — er, novices, if not the uninitiate, are the target audience). Why? Quite simple: I can’t count the number of grammatical principles (of which the relative clause and person matching and whatnot are some) that I have figured out by picking apart the proper English I’ve read in good old books to figure out what the patterns are behind said books’ more complex and unusual-sounding tidbits without at the time knowing the first thing about the grammatical terminology the definitions of which I’d have had to grasp in order to be taught the same principles in theory. Granted, my learning style in most things is, “Give me an example so I can see how it works, then let me toy with it hands on.” But often I suspect teachers or at least textbooks and other written explanations of grammar suffer from the same problem (if to a lesser degree) as math articles on wikipedia: they’re written for people who already understand most if not all of the stuff involved, not for people who understand maybe the basic building blocks two or three layers of complexity below or who could follow a proof if it weren’t in abstract terms they don’t associate with the things they’re dealing with (just for an example of what I’m talking about, I can have discussions of Things I Find Interesting in Math with a math teacher I know, but she usually has to remind me what’s what when it comes to the names for everything — and once in a while I even already know a name for a thing, but not the same name, which I don’t even have an explanation for).

    Now… all that said, nobody use me for an example of parenthetical statements. I abuse what’s technically possible in grammar in a manner that’s nigh incomprehensible in style, creating great, grand Godzking Frankongenillastein sentences, and then throw it out there because if I took the trouble to try to rewrite it more comprehensibly I’d be caught in the Bottomless Whirlpool of Revision that has swallowed so many college students whole (yes, whole students, not just their papers). Plus on the side of actually invalid grammar I tend not to do as good a job avoiding hanging prepositions as I should (if you ever see me using a lot of “of which” types of phrases instead of hanging prepositions, you know I’ve been listening to something in one of the very few foreign languages I can actually follow fairly consistently — and let’s not go there).

  7. OrthodoxChick says:

    OOPS! last reply was @acardnal – sorry ’bout that!

  8. frjim4321 says:

    If they are already tripping all overthemselves trying to explain their convoluted logic they must know there is something wrong with it.

    I couldn’t make any sense of the prayer over the gifts this past week.

  9. Sissy says:

    “they must know there is something wrong with it.”

    I don’t think the problem is so much that there is “something wrong” with the new translation as that there is something terribly wrong with our educational system. But the solution isn’t to dumb-down our language to the lowest common denominator. As The Cobbler notes above, the surest way to internalize the rules of grammar is to read extensively, especially books written before the 20th C.

  10. frjim4321 says:

    I don’t think the problem is so much that there is “something wrong” with the new translation as that there is something terribly wrong with our educational system. But the solution isn’t to dumb-down our language to the lowest common denominator. – Sissy

    I would grant you that the typical 12th grader can’t write a grammatically correct sentence as compared to fifty years ago. But I don’t know if it’s helpful to address that reality by forcing courtly language upon those for whom it is foreign. It seems the equivalent of saying, “Let them eat cake.” [C’mon. You have to do better than that!]

  11. catholicmidwest says:

    Maybe we should just do what a lot of people want to do now, and say, “Yeah, dude.

    I have no problem with the new translations. They sound a whole lot better than the old ones, which were frankly, somewhat incomprehensible in their bland nothingness. I don’t like liturgical hand-waving.

  12. Some of the difficulty with person in the “qui” clauses could have been avoided if we’d stuck with the more formal language (e.g., “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world . . .”). If we can learn that sort of language for the Lord’s Prayer, why can’t we learn it for the others?

    And where are our English teachers? New York State requires Shakespeare to be taught all four years in high school. Are our educators reading them Shakespeare, or teaching them how to read him? Perhaps our formation today needs to go beyond catechetics and supply those vital deficiencies in the Liberal Arts which the world no longer gives.

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