Dear Donagh,
Have you any comment to make on the resurgence of Latin in the liturgy, and the new translation of the Mass?  How do you honestly feel about it?  T.S.


Dear T.S.,

I was with a group of people last year when one of them asked me if I intended to say Mass for them in Latin.  “No,” I replied.  “May I ask why not?” she said, “are you unable?”  I replied that I was old enough to have said Mass in Latin many times.  “Why not, then?” she persisted, “It’s a sacred language.”  That was an interesting point.  I said, “No.  It was the language of the four soldiers who crucified Jesus.  As they hammered metal spikes into his wrists and feet they were chatting in Latin.”  Chatting about their pay, probably, and their holidays, and their girlfriends…. No, Latin was never a sacred language.  

I failed to tell her that I have loved Latin since childhood - for a succession of reasons, beginning with a good teacher.  It is a great language for clarity and precision.  It was the language of western mediaeval Christendom, and it is very useful to be able to read mediaeval texts in the original; strange to say, it is easier to read them in Latin than in translation.  Latin is one of the languages of tradition, but this does not make it a sacred language.  It was once the vernacular.  The Nicene Creed, which we say at Mass on Sundays, was originally written in Greek.  It is named after the city of Nicaea where it was formulated at the first ecumenical council in 325 AD.  Only later was it translated into the language of the people: Latin.  Incidentally, the earliest Greek version had ‘We believe’ (pisteuomen), not ‘I believe’ as in Latin (credo).  The present translation of the missal has ‘We’, but the new ‘translation’, due to come into force on the first Sunday of Advent, reverts to ‘I’. 

People who want Mass in Latin will have it.  My difficulty is with a language that is neither Latin nor English.  Translating a text is like shipping goods from one country to another.  They should be brought the full distance, not dumped half-way, in the middle of the sea.  Unlike Anglicans, Catholics are fairly new to English in the Liturgy.  The translation we have is good, but needed repairs in a few places.  It is proper English, even if the collects are sometimes a bit flat.  I'm afraid the new translation has more in common with the language of popular piety that we knew in the distant past: words and phrases half-translated from Latin or Italian.  “Compassionate your Saviour thus sorely afflicted.” 

It was not only popular piety that was afflicted with this hybrid language.  The naming of the feast of the Assumption, for example, showed complete disregard for English.  The word ‘translation’ itself was lost in translation; it meant the reburial of a saint’s remains in a different place.  It is hard to see what was gained by such obscurantism. 

I confess that I am not looking forward to the new translation of the missal.  The danger is that it will only increase the feeling of vertigo that many Catholics experience at present.  When we are being swept into a hurricane of change by events in the Church and in the world around us, we would have liked the Liturgy to remain as it has been for several decades.  We are now taking such a great risk, and for so little – for less than nothing.  “Only Son of the Father” is English; how is “Only Begotten Son” an improvement on that?  How can you have a sentence that has no verb? – a sentence that begins with ‘And’?  What is the word ‘therefore’ doing in the Liturgy? (it has a different weight from ‘ergo’ in Latin)… and hundreds of similar mistakes.  We can only hope and pray that this new ‘translation’ will not be too great a distraction or an irritant.  One thing is guaranteed: every day will be a field-day for liturgical spies.

In the end, the Liturgy is an action, not a lecture.  What makes a real difference is the way it is celebrated, not just the words used.  We all have our wish-lists.  Mine would be for a liturgical speed-limit, and mandatory pauses – a more prayerful and contemplative experience.  Now that this new translation is a done deed, let’s pray that nothing will hurt the Eucharist, this supersensitive nerve-centre of our faith.


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