First Sunday with new missalLater this month, Catholics around the country will have to deal with a revised English liturgy. As CNN’s Belief Blog reports, this new liturgy has been over a decade in the making (WebCite cached article):

The Roman Catholic Mass is undergoing a major overhaul. In an effort to unify how the global church prays, the English translation of the church’s worship service is being modified in order to more accurately reflect the Latin from which the Roman Missal is translated.

Supposedly this is being in order to have the Mass more accurately reflect the Latin text:

“There is an Italian proverb,” said the Rev. Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, a professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America, “that ‘every translator is a traitor.'”

“Every translation is less than the original,” he said.

What’s funny about this remark, of course, is that the Latin Missal is certainly not the “original” Mass of Christianity. The first Christians, living as they did in the eastern Roman Empire during the first century CE, for the most part didn’t speak Latin at all. Those in the Levant — including Jesus’ own putative homeland, Galilee — most likely spoke Aramaic. A minority there, and almost everyone in other parts of the Near East, spoke Greek. Some in Egypt would have spoken Coptic. Latin would have been even rarer than that, in the earliest Christian churches.

There’s a reason the vast majority of Christianity’s literary output in its first three centuries was in Greek … and that is, that Greek — not Latin — was the language the average Christian was most likely to understand. All of the New Testament books were originally in Greek. Nearly all the ante-Nicene Church Fathers wrote in Greek. (The first major Church Father who wrote mostly in Latin was Tertullian, and he lived near the end of the 2nd century.) As it turns out, the oldest complete and extant Christian liturgy is found in the Didache, which was written in Greek. Not Latin.

So the good monsignor is factually wrong to state that the Latin Missale Romanum is the “original” Mass. It’s demonstrably not true.

The other problem with this new English translation is that, while it may or may not be “closer” to the official Catholic Mass in Latin, it’s simply not the kind of English that most people speak. An example that the CNN story provides is this:

And in that same prayer [i.e. the Nicene Creed*], where Jesus was once “Begotten, not made, one in being with the Father,” He is now, “begotten, not made, con-substantial with the Father.”

No speaker of English talks that way! “Con-substantial” is not an English word. It’s actually an artificial construct conjured up solely to reinforce the Trinity doctrine. This term is otherwise unknown in English. It makes no sense to translate something into a language, if you aren’t going to actually use that language in a way that its speakers do naturally.

On the other hand, some of the changes are insubstantial and useless:

In the Nicene Creed*, where once Catholics said that God is the “Maker … of all that is seen and unseen,” they will now say God makes “all things visible and invisible.”

Call me crazy — and many do! — but I fail to see how “seen and unseen” is all that far off in meaning from “visible and invisible.” They’re parallel phrases in English. What’s the reason for changing it … except maybe to make a meaningless change just for the hell of it?

I wish American Catholics the best of luck dealing with this new wrinkle in their weekly services.

* Despite the moniker “Nicene Creed,” the creed in question was not composed or propounded at the Council of Nicaea (325). Rather, it was a product of the First Council of Constantinople (381) and later referred to as “Nicene” in order to make it seem as though it had been a product of the earlier Council.

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales).

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