Pray Brethren

Pray Brethren

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Liturgy and Language

As we all know, the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman famously said that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” The same should be said about some problems facing the modern liturgy. In what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “hermeneutics of rupture,” the post-Vatican II liturgy in many ways has broken with the historical development of the Mass and the tradition which has come down to us over the centuries.

This is not, however, a blanket condemnation of the novus ordo.

Sadly there are many Catholic who wish to forget the Second Vatican Council, like a man hung over awaking after a long night of partying. In many ways the last forty years have indeed been miserable for the Church. But we must remember that the decades following any council were far worse than those preceding them. The good fruits of Vatican II are sprouting and we should be thankful to God for each and every one of them. Dark days are always waiting around the corner, but we all know how the story ends: we win.

There is, however, a very good day coming and it is almost here. This day is, of course, the first Sunday of Advent when the new translation of the Mass is implemented in the United States. There will certainly be those who do not favor the new translation and we should be ready to respond to them when they raise their complaints – and since the Church is bound through Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Succession to Christ and the Apostles, let us first turn to history to be our guide on translation.

Michael Foley, a patristics scholar at Baylor University, wrote a wonderful piece called Five Myths About Worship in the Early Church. While there is no room here to discuss all five myths, his words on the myth of vernacular language is worth quoting at length:

Another widespread myth is that the early Church had Mass “in the vernacular.” But when Jesus worshipped in the synagogue, the language used was Hebrew, which had already been dead for 300 years. And for the first three centuries in Rome, the Mass was mostly celebrated in Greek, not Latin, which was only understood by a minority of the congregation.

When the Mass was eventually translated into Latin, it retained foreign elements such as the Hebrew amen and alleluia, and even added some, such as the Greek Kyrie eleison. Moreover, the Latin used in translating was deliberately different from what was being spoken at the time: It had curious grammatical usages and was peppered with archaisms. In other words, even when the Mass was celebrated in a language people could understand, it was never celebrated in the “vernacular” — if by that term we mean the common street language of the day.

The reason for this is simple: Every apostolic Church — to say nothing of every major world religion — has always had a sacred or hieratic language, a linguistic toolbox different from daily speech specially designed to communicate the transcendence and distinctiveness of the gospel.
In other words, because the liturgy is a sacred action with sacred words, our language should be indicative of the liturgy’s sacredness. Along these lines, Jimmy Akin posted a video this week regarding the new translation over on his blog. Akin describes the current translation as a “street language, 1970-ish translation” which simply fails to clearly indicate the sacredness of the liturgy.

But while Foley speaks of elevating the language, Akin says the other option is to lower the language. Now by lower Akin does not mean only using one-syllable words, but rather by using very “informal and intimate” language. Akin correctly rejects the use of informal and intimate language in the Mass for reasons of human nature (i.e. intimacy in large groups feels forced and hard to pull off with hundreds of people), but it would helpful for him (and others) to describe our sacred language in terms of masculinity and femininity. Indeed, this may be an argument against the use of some “praise and worship” music in Mass.

In conclusion, we can say that (1) there has never been a pure and simple “vernacular” translation of the Mass, and (2) this is because our language must be elevated out of the ordinary for us to know that the liturgy itself is a sacred act. Now if you’ve read all this and would like a nice review of the liturgy, check out the following articles from my co-worker Jared Ostermann on the matter (Jared is a convert to the Faith and is now wrapping up his doctorate in sacred music): What is the Liturgy?, What is the Mass?, How Does the Liturgy Work?

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