One US bishop who "speaks the English"…

HT to Rocco Palmo for this one from the chair of the USCCB’s Committee for Divine Worship, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson:

Words, like people’s dress, change from one generation to the next and from one group to another in the same society. What one individual calls a “swamp,” another more ecologically conscious individual calls “wetlands.” A politician waxes eloquently about “public participation.” His audience understands him to say “self-denial.” The corporate world routinely uses the noun impact as a transitive verb. People follow happily along.

Today, politically correct as well as linguistically conscious individuals carefully circumvent the word “man” not to offend women. Past generations pronounced the word with never the slightest intention of excluding women. But times have changed. We speak now about humankind. Certainly, we have gained inclusivity. Yet, we have sacrificed language that is not so abstract.

English always has been an open language, ready to welcome neologisms. The Internet has enriched our speech with new phrases and words. Text messaging is altering our spelling and our syntax. Language is a human expression. As people change, so does the way they speak.

In his popular rhetorical guide, De duplici copia verborum ac rerum, Erasmus, the 16th century Dutch humanist and theologian, showed students 150 different styles they could use when phrasing the Latin sentence, Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt (Your letter has delighted me very much). Clearly, no single translation of any sentence or work will ever completely satisfy everyone. Even the best of all possible translations of the new Missal will have its critics.

But there is something more at stake than pleasing individual tastes and preferences in the new liturgical translations. The new translations aim at a “language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves … dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 25). The new translations now being prepared are a marked improvement over the translations with which we have become familiar. They are densely theological. They respect the rich vocabulary of the Roman Rite. They carefully avoid the overuse of certain phrases and words.

The new translations also have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite. Certainly, some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not. And with reason. Latin orations, especially Post-Communions, tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point. The new translations in English follow the sequence of these Latin prayers in order to end on a strong note. Many of our current translations of these prayers end weakly. Why should we strip the English translation of the distinctive theological emphases of the Latin text? A slightly non-colloquial word order can lead the listener to a greater attention to the point of the prayer.

Our present liturgical texts are framed in simple syntax. The new translations use more subordinate clauses. This, in and of itself, does not render them unproclaimable. By the very fact that, in some instances, the new translations require thoughtful and careful attention to pauses when speaking helps to foster and create a less rushed and more reverent way of praying. Not a small gain for a proper ars celebrandi.

The new translation at times may use uncommon words like “ineffable.” The word is not unspeakable! For sure, this word does not come from the street language of the contemporary individual. But, then, why cannot the liturgy use words that elevate the language from the street to the altar? People may not use certain words in their active vocabulary. This does not mean they will be baffled by their use in the liturgy. “If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 27).

Liturgical language should border on the poetic. Prose bumps along the ground. Poetry soars to the heavens. And our Liturgy is already a sharing of the Liturgy in heaven.

The liturgical texts that we are now using are not perfect, but they are familiar. This familiarity makes celebrants at ease with the present texts. The new texts are better. When the new texts are implemented, they will require more attention on the part of the celebrant. But any initial uneasiness will yield to familiarity and to a language that is well suited to the Liturgy.

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6 Responses to One US bishop who "speaks the English"…

  1. Mike says:

    Exactly. Stop patronising us.

    I still find it an interesting example that we in Australia have been content with the word “incarnate” in the creed for years, whereas Americans like Bishop Trautman find it scary just because they’re not used to it. He seems to think that ordinary Americans will never know what that means, and find it inaccessible – yet it’s never been a problem here. And that’s not because Americans are not as smart as us . . . (is it?)

  2. Peregrinus says:

    Well, I dunno. I think Trautman has a point.

    I consider myself to have, and use, a reasonably large vocabulary, but “ineffable” is not only a word I have never used; it’s one which I did not recognise. I had to look it up. Is it wise to adopt a liturgy that requires a dictionary? And, having looked it up, I had to ask myself why anybody would choose to use “ineffable” in preference to more easily understood synonyms like “inexpressible”? Is opacity, or an archaic flavour, considered a virtue in liturgy?

    Likewise, I find “deign” jarring. I know what it means, but I’m willing to bet that there’s a fair few who don’t. And it has a pejorative flavour; to say that somebody deigns to do something suggests arrogance or fastidiousness. What’s wrong with a less loaded, and more easily understood, construction involving something like “think fit”?

    It occurs to me that we had to coin words like “consecrate” and “transubstantiate” because neither Jesus nor the evangelists thought them necessary. Could I suggest that “this is my body” provides an excellent model of style and vocabulary for more than just the words of institution?

  3. Schütz says:

    “Transubstantiate” is not a liturgical word, Perry. I don’t know of any prayers that use it.

    And “consecrate” isn’t a word made up by us. It is, in fact, a biblical word (in so far as this can be said of a book written in Hebrew and Greek). Check out Leviticus!

    But, for that matter, many people can’t understand the bible any more because they don’t know what half the words mean.

    Take “justify”. Do you know what that means, Perry? It isn’t a word that the Church made up. It’s there in the bible. And it even takes theologians a bit to get the hang of it.

    All this “effable” nonsense over “ineffable”. It is one word, and it occurs once as far as I know in all the propers as a whole. Where it is used, it has a context, and the context gives some degree of meaning.

    This is how, in fact, most of us get the meaning of things. We don’t use a dictionary. We rely on familiarity and context. Strange words become familiar.

    Hey, the new liturgical translations may even do the English language as a whole a favour!

  4. Rob says:

    -Is it wise to adopt a liturgy that requires a dictionary?-

    Using this question as a guide will simply lead to further dumbing down of the language. People will learn the words. It certainly isn’t asking much to have the priest explain the words, either in homilies or in religious instruction. I mean, it’s a handful of words, folks. People really aren’t that stupid.

  5. Rob says:

    In John’s gosepl, Christ asks people, regular people, to think on EXTREMELY abstract levels and expects them to understand. I don’t think we are overburdening people when we ask them to understand words such as consubstantial and incarnate. Is this a literate age or not? Why should we simplify the language when our illiterate ancestors were able to get this stuff?

  6. Peregrinus says:

    Yes, the priest can explain the words in a homily, etc. It’s not impossible. I just don’t see why anybody would think it was a good idea that he should. The main purpose of the homily is not really to be the occasion for expanding the vocabulary of the faithful. Why start with a liturgy whose primary meaning has to be explained before we can proceed to any kind of reflection? What possible benefit results from this?

    And, yes, David, “transsubstantiate” is not a liturgical word. That’s my point. It has its place, but that place is not in the liturgy. Maybe there’s a lesson of wider application to be learned there.

    You can get too worked up about this. It is only a few words, and even the best translation will have the occasional infelicity. I’m wouldn’t be surprised to find that someone translated ineffabilis as “ineffable”, and dignare as “deign”, because it was late, he was tired, he had a deadline, or he just had a failure of imagination and it was easier to think about the etymology than the meaning.

    But, if that was the case, when the problem is pointed out the obvious response is “Oh, thanks, good point. We’ll fix that.” It’s the mindset that would defend this language, and seek to maintain it, that bothers me. If this translation is produced by people whose considered opinion is that “ineffable” and “deign” are good ideas, and to be preferred over idiomatic and intelligible English, then alarm bells should ring.

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