Why we have a revised translation for the Mass

For more than 10 years now experts have been working on revising the words we use at Mass and those texts will be changed at the start of Advent in 2011. As with any change, I think it is helpful to first investigate why.

The translation that we currently use is a paraphrase of the original language in which these prayers and responses were written. Anytime we translate from one language to another something is always lost.

I used to laugh when I was in Italy because the Italians ask “cosa” when they hear something they do not comprehend. Literally, cosa means “thing.” In English, we would translate it to “what.”

 Here, a depth of meaning is lost in translation. Let’s examine the opening prayer for Mass on the second Sunday of Advent. We currently pray: “God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share His wisdom and become one with Him when He comes in glory.”

While it is a beautiful prayer, it misses something fundamental to the original Latin version and fails to translate important words.

For this reason, the new prayer, to be heard first on Dec. 4, 2011, will say something such as: “Almighty and merciful God, let no earthly endeavor hinder those who hasten to meet your Son, but let our learning of heavenly wisdom make us His companions.”

It isn’t that radically different, but it adds important distinctions, such as between earthly and heavenly concerns, while highlighting our journey, or companionship, with God in this life through His Son.

Since the new texts are more faithful to the originals, they will help countries that translate Liturgical texts into their respective languages using the English versions.

It was first noted in the mid 1980s that our friends in Asia and other parts of the world have a poor comprehension of Latin. They translated their Mass texts from the English versions. Given that our translation paraphrases and omits important meanings found in the original, it was determined that a more faithful English translation that reflected the nuances and theological depth of the original texts was needed.

Even though most of the prayers we use were originally composed in the first millennium, the realities they express and the petitions they make are not foreign to Catholics in the 21st century.

The new texts are far more biblical in nature. One criticism levied at Catholics is that we do not know the Bible. Investigation shows, however, that the Mass is entirely Scriptural. The prayers and responses of the Mass are verbatim repetitions of Biblical passages.

The prayer that we say before Holy Communion, “Lord I am not worthy to receive,” for instance, is currently paraphrase of Matthew 8:8 when the centurion tells Jesus that he isn’t worthy to have the Lord in his home to heal his servant.

Historically, some of this connection was lost on the people since the Mass was celebrated in a language largely unknown to an illiterate society. When authorization was given to celebrate Mass in vernacular languages it was hoped that this connection to the Scriptures would be maintained, but the hurried need for English translations made that difficult.

The new translations will bring us into closer contact with the language of the Bible. Just as the prayer cited above is venerable and still relevant, the Scriptural language is still vital.

The current introduction before receiving Communion that says “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world …” loses the biblical citation meant to be reflected. The priest will begin echoing the words of John the Baptist from John’s Gospel (1:29) and the testimony of John in the Book of Revelation (19:19) saying “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.”

Change is never easy. Doing so will deepen the meaning and tone of the Mass; it will bring us into deeper communion with our friends throughout the world who join us in the same responses via their own languages. Most importantly, it will put onto our lips the very words spoken to, of, about, and by Jesus Himself.

Father Bryan P. Babick, SL.L., is the diocesan vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.