A new English translation of the third Latin edition of the Roman Missal, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 2002, has been submitted for final approval to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Why a new translation? C.S. Lewis, whose mastery of the English language in our times can hardly be matched, let alone surpassed, wrote the following just before Vatican Council II began:
“If you have a vernacular liturgy, you must have a changing liturgy; otherwise, it will finally be vernacular only in name. The ideal of ‘timeless’ English is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.”
Lewis added a hope that we all share, all who are committed to a solid and meaningful liturgical idiom: specifically, that “necessary change should ... occur gradually ...” Novelty can be an obstacle to good liturgy, which is essentially worship, not entertainment. The Mass must be God-centered, not man-centered. If liturgical music must serve the liturgical action, and not vice versa: must not the very words we use do the same, a fortiori?
Translating Latin into English is really not always that easy. Latin grammar and rhetoric require a distinct manner of thinking; so does our magnificent English tongue, which has to be one of the most precious gifts that human beings have received from God.
To me, English expression is unquestionably a blessing; I love to pore over towering authors like C.S. Lewis, just to learn how sentences can be put together, how words can communicate thoughts, how the very spellings of words can convey nuances (e.g., the difference between gray and grey). How often have I hoped to be able to write pieces like those of Msgr. Ronald Knox, whose Stimuli, those brief sermons written during World War II for the London Times, probably reach the summit of English homiletic masterpieces in our century. And I am one of many who have read countless times T.S. Eliot’s homily, written for St. Thomas a Beckett in Murder in the Cathedral.
How could any of the above English writers or pieces be translated into Latin? How?
Yet, Latin is a treasure in itself, and Latin liturgy must be translated for worship, despite the unquestionable truth expressed in the Italian saying: Traduttore; traditore (“A translator is a traitor”).
Indeed, the original language of the Roman Mass was not Latin but Greek. And the Roman Rite was itself a relatively late entrant upon the liturgical scene. When Mass was first offered in Rome’s catacombs, Greek was still the preferred liturgical tongue. (Greek, the language of the New Testament Scriptures, was viewed as more respectable than Latin – until poets like Vergil and orators like Cicero gave it a new elegance.) Hence, the Latin Mass was itself a translation.
For a history of how this happened, Father Joseph Jungmann’s The Mass of the Roman Rite (Eng. ed.; N.Y., Benziger Bros. 1958) remains indispensable. (Just six years after priestly ordination I was able to budget my own copy, and have since spent an almost infinite number of hours studying and restudying this precious work, so integral to my daily celebration of Mass.) Father Jungmann was a Jesuit who taught at the great Austrian academic center of Innsbruck, which he once served as Rector.
In treating Rome’s early Greek Mass, to which St. Hippolytus attests (Eucharistic Prayer II reflects his Greek “Canon,” used as early as the end of the 200’s), Father Jungmann concluded that the transition took place gradually. However, “at least the core of the Roman canon must have existed by the end of the fourth century.”
Latin inscriptions appeared on Papal tombs, Father Jungmann points out, as early as the mid-second century. Yet Greek references in the Mass rite perdured as late as 300 A.D. The Kyrie is a later addition. (I once offered Mass in the Capella Graeca, located in the very ancient Priscilla Catacomb: the surrounding walls were largely inscribed in Greek.)
According to Father Jungmann, “someone in the fourth century must have worked out the basic text of the Roman Canon.” Yet, he admits, this “basic text,” mirrored “the lineaments of a greater antiquity.”
Be this as it may, the Latin Roman rite Missal happens to be a relatively late development when compared with the original rite of Jerusalem.
Furthermore, it appears that the Latin Roman Sacramentary has come down to us in three versions: the Leonine Sacramentary (c.540), the Gelasian Sacramentary (perhaps c.600), and the Gregorian Sacramentary (possibly seventh century, definitely the eighth).
There is so much to learn about the history of our beloved Roman Rite Mass; a lifetime of deep scholarship would not be adequate to cover the entire story. But at least we should all begin, even if 10 or 20 years of a chapter a week is all that we can master.
Besides, what about the histories of the great Catholic Rites cradled in the East? There are scores of them.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.