Full and active participation?

R A HENDERSON looks at the vexed question of liturgical translation and calls for a revision of the current language of the Mass.

Commentators on liturgical matters rarely fail to mention that etymologically ‘liturgy’ goes back to Greek leitourgía – public service, work of the people. It was with this in mind that the cardinals and bishops of the Second Vatican Council introduced, in the Council’s first Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, the recommendation that vernacular languages be used more extensively than previously in the celebration of Mass, in order to encourage what the Council Fathers called partecipatio plena et actuosa: full, active participation. 

There was and is disagreement as to the meaning of the two adjectives, plena and actuosa, with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (as he then was) insisting that ‘active’ did not necessarily imply more than ‘perceive, receive and be inwardly moved’; but although his fear that the Mass would become ‘a show, a spectacle’ is understandable, the purely passive participation of the assembly risks transforming the celebrant into the star turn in the ‘show’ at the altar – precisely what Cardinal Ratzinger was anxious to avoid.

The unease he expressed has not altogether been dissolved in the 60 or so years since the Council. Successive translations of the liturgy of the Mass into English have been dismissed, often by churchmen whose own native language was not English, most memorably by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments and Divine Worship (CDW) from 1998 to 2002, who did not speak English at all; indeed, not one of his colleagues in the Congregation was a native English speaker. 

The International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL), composed of Anglophone clerics, produced a revision of the first translation of the Sacramentary (the Roman Missal in two volumes), which had appeared in 1973.  Their work, approved by all eleven of the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, was submitted in 1998 for Vatican approval, but the Commission’s fifteen years of work were summarily dismissed.   By the turn of the century Medina, refusing even to meet with a delegation headed by the then President of ICEL, Bishop Maurice Taylor of the Diocese of Galloway, went on to foster the preparation and publication in May 2001 of Liturgiam Authenticam, a highly conservative document with retroactive effect. 


The turn to Latin

In due course a new Commission was formed, prepared to work within the limitations proposed by Liturgiam Authenticam: translations were henceforth to be ‘as literal as possible’, following the lexis and – even more irrationally – the syntax of Latin.  This, despite the fact that English is not a neo-Latin language and has a different syntactical structure from languages such as Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The results have been akin to cooking with the wrong ingredients.

For some churchgoers, the obvious solution would be to return to the exclusive use of Latin as the universal liturgical language. The argument is that, in pre-Vatican II times, a Catholic could go to Mass anywhere in the world and understand what was going on. This begs two questions: How many of us are fluent in Latin and really understand the words of the old liturgy?  Since the Order of Mass is invariable, and is accompanied by gestures which are equally unchanging, can we not understand what is going on in Korean or Flemish or Maori as much as we understand it in Latin?

Those of us who had five or six years of Latin at secondary school can at least avoid the failure to respect case endings that is – unsurprisingly – common among those with no background in this stone-dead language.  How are they to know that the accusative form differs from the nominative, and as a result ‘Jesus’ is sometimes Jesum, for example? This kind of grammatical concordance is a mystery to the majority of worshippers.

The liturgy of the Mass is largely structured in the form of a dialogue between the celebrant and the congregation; at various points all participants address one another (e.g. in the Confiteor) or address God (Lord, I am not worthy…; Holy, holy, holy…; Lamb of God). It seems, at least to the present writer, unlikely that God has a marked preference for being addressed in Latin (or indeed in any other specific tongue), so the question of language concerns the priest and the assembly – chiefly the latter, since the priest has spent several years studying in preparation for his role, and may be supposed to understand the words he and the faithful speak. 

I am not convinced that this is true of all of us in the body of the church. We learn the words by heart, saying them week after week – for some, day after day – and as a result we repeat them, on occasion, without thinking, or while thinking about something that is not necessarily of immediate relevance to the Mass. If this experience is foreign to all my readers and I am alone in my distractions, ‘the credit of a wild imagination’, to quote Jane Austen, ‘will at least be all my own’.  In any case, we can understand most of the words, as they are spoken in the vernacular. A return to Latin would recreate the situation familiar prior to Vatican II: those who have no knowledge of Latin would take refuge in private prayer, and private prayer, desirable though it be, is not what the liturgy is about.


New difficulties

Even in the vernacular, however, some difficulties subsist. What the CDW likes to call the ‘sacral vernacular’ has created a new set of difficulties. In part, this is a matter of single words: confess (in two senses: admit to a sin; acknowledge a belief), oblation, sanctify, consubstantial all come to mind. As to word order:  ‘To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition’ is patently straight from the Latin; no native English speaker says ‘To you, therefore, X, we ask…’; nor ‘Make holy, O Lord, we pray, these gifts’ (‘Close, O Richard, please, the window’??). When has either of these been a probable utterance? To sweep English word order aside is irrational.

At some points the current translation makes little sense. ‘Command that we be delivered from eternal damnation’ (Eucharistic Prayer I): is it not God who will deliver us? So is the suggestion that God command himself? There are also sentences of such contorted structure that they are barely comprehensible even to the reader reflecting on them in solitude: for example, in the already quoted Eucharistic Prayer, ‘To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition’, where the assembly’s mental participation is compromised by the (frankly) outrageous word order, and the celebrant is sorely tried by the hiccoughing rhythm. Occasionally the sense is obscure: ‘Graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs’ – some share in what? The justification offered for all this is that it adheres closely to the Latin original (hence ‘Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray’: Latin sanctificare is one word, so ‘make holy’ is treated as a unit, although it would be much more natural to say ‘therefore make these gifts holy’). 


Inclusive language

An area which remains controversial is, of course, inclusive language. In both Catholic and Protestant circles, this issue has excited lively debate. Extremists would demand that inclusive language be applied vertically (i.e. to God) as well as horizontally (to human beings): not King, Lord, Father but (presumably) Queen, Lady, Mother – which, in Catholic circles, would result in confusion with the figure of the Virgin Mary. It is entirely reasonable, however, for women – and some men – to protest at being expected to say, in the Creed, ‘For us men and for our salvation’. Those who defend this and other instances of the use of masculine forms to refer to human beings in general argue that ‘men’ is inclusive of women, although even 2000 years ago this was not necessarily the case: Matthew, 14:21 and 15:38, relating the two miracles of the loaves and fishes, tells us that there were 5000 men present on the first occasion and 4000 on the second, in both cases specifying ‘not including women and children’. 

There are contexts, e.g. the Creed, in which the intention of inclusiveness is clear; but to say that a word – any word – is sometimes inclusive and so must sometimes be understood as such is simply to connive at a failure of communication. One American Jesuit argued – admittedly some 25 years ago; perhaps he has changed his mind – that ‘There is no such thing as exclusive language’, defending his assertion with the following example:

‘[…] in the sentence ‘I bought three goats and six pigs’ we cannot know how many adults and how many piglets made up the purchase. [This] is not an instance of ‘exclusive language’; no potential piglet is left out of the discourse; ‘pig’ is simply unmarked for size’.

On this basis, he contends that women should not be offended by generic men; but it makes no sense to argue a linguistic case by making reference to categories as different (I must insist) as women and pigs. Moreover, if we accept Fr Mankowski’s argument, the statement ‘All Catholic priests must be men’ would open the priesthood to women.

Pope Francis’s motu proprio Magnum Principium (3 September 2017) raised hopes that a better translation of the Missal would be forthcoming – indeed, the 1998 version would be fairly generally welcomed. As Bishop Maurice Taylor has said, it needs some updating, mainly to include Masses for those made saints in the last twenty years, but the bulk of the work was done long ago, and it is fluid, dignified and doctrinally correct. The Church’s reverence for Latin remains something of a mystery, since neither the Old nor the New Testament was written in Latin, which entered the picture at a later date.

 George Steiner said: ‘No man [and no woman!] must be kept from salvation by mere barriers of language’. It is with this in mind that many of us continue to maintain that there is an urgent need for revision of the current English translation of the Sacramentary, the financial cost of which would admittedly be considerable; but it would be amply compensated by the renewed possibility of full, active participation.  


Ruth Anne Henderson taught in universities in Bangor and Turin.  She is a lay Dominican and this article is a slightly abridged version of one originally published on the website www.gd800.it


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.