Thursday, January 28, 2010

Words to live by

Words matter:

Language of liturgy meant to remake us in God's image
By Bishop Robert Vasa

In recent weeks an article in America Magazine titled, “Why Not Wait?” has received a bit of national attention.

The article expresses reasons to resist accepting the new translations of the Roman Missal that have been completed and are awaiting final approval by the Holy See. That article and its posited reasons will not be commented upon in this article but I mention it because it provides the occasion to comment on a couple of much older America articles.

An article in the December issue of the Adoremus Bulletin titled, “Translating the Liturgy: Finding Words to Express the Ineffable” caught my attention and it is in this article that excerpts of older America articles are found. The era was the 1960s and it was an era when new translations were likewise being discussed. In an Oct. 22, 1966 issue of America we find this suggestion: “If the Church wants to sweep the world like the Beatles, it must use language as contemporary as theirs.” This was a mindset, perhaps not different from that posited by a very recent America article. Fortunately, the answer now is the same as the answer provided then by Jesuit Father Walter Ong, then professor of English at St. Louis University. He is cited as saying: “Let us not think that we have made revelation available to contemporary man by making it sound like something else he hears — a schoolboy’s idiom, the Beatles, Huntley and Brinkley, or even Senator Dirksen — The liturgy is related to our ordinary lives, but it is always also different from them and it is the expression of God’s judgment on them just as well as His love for them. No viable liturgical usage can merely ape secular practice: it must both assimilate secular practice and judge it.” (“Let Us Pray — But How?” America, Dec. 3, 1966).

The new translation includes changes to the preface dialogue between the priest and the people. We are familiar with it:

The Lord be with you. And also with you. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give Him thanks and praise.

The future dialogue is a little different.

The Lord be with you. And with your spirit. Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just.

The changes are small. Almost subtle. Yet, important. Our present colloquial language may be easy but it is lacking. Recently at a confirmation the exchange of peace between the bishop and a student immediately after having been confirmed went like this: Bishop: Peace be with you. Student: Ya, you too. The “schoolboy idiom” was common, homey, maybe even well suited to the candidate but it could be questioned whether it was well suited as a formal liturgical response to a bishop in the context of the administration of the sacrament of confirmation. I do not for a moment suppose that this candidate’s response would have been different if the formal liturgical response had been “And with your spirit” instead of “And also with you” but I do know that “Ya, you too” is closer to “And also with you” than it is to “And with your spirit.” Perhaps, just perhaps, our previous desire and attempt to bring liturgical language down to a much more common form of expression has allowed something even more common to invade the realm of the sacred.

Because “And with your spirit” is both a more accurate translation and a less common form of expression, it has the capacity to be seen as something a bit set apart. It is set apart, unusual, uncommon, unique, reserved for the sacred. At the same time, these characteristics make this revised translation of the expression thought provoking and even challenging. After having received the response from the people, the next expression by the priest flows more readily and beautifully. The priest, because the language is of a different nature, can now more readily say, “Lift up your hearts.” Uncommon language, unique, unusual, reserved for the sacred, set apart. Language matters. The priest continues: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” This is ordinary enough but the revised people’s response again gives us additional reason for reflection. “It is right and just.” Remember the current response: “It is right to give Him thanks and praise?” In our most common and routine form we might be tempted to simply say, “Right.” But when we say “It is right and just,” we acknowledge not only what is proper, what is right, but also that which is owed to God in justice. The change is small. Almost subtle. Yet, important. The dialogue lifts us out of the common (i.e. “Hi, how are ya? Fine.”) into a liturgical, formal, spiritual realm.

Father Ong, in 1966, continued: “Our efforts to accommodate modern English to God’s word, to put the meaning of the Scriptures and the Church’s teachings into our own language, thus entails an interior reorganization of our own lives. In the process we have to let God’s grace do its work on our own modes of expression and thought processes in their native English-speaking habitat. All this means that in finding how to use 20th century English liturgically and doctrinally in the way the teachings of the Church and the economy of language both demand, we shall have to remake our very selves and the culture around us. But this is only what the Gospel has always called on us to do. We want to make the liturgy meaningful to us not to have it fit our ways of thinking but in order to change our thinking and our lives. Change in us is both the pre-condition and the measure of success.”

How we understand the meaning and purpose of our liturgical celebrations is of critical importance. On one hand the desire to bring the Liturgy down to the people has some merit provided this attempt does not diminish the sacredness or solemnity of the Liturgy. On the other hand the desire to lift people up in the context of the Liturgy is more consistent with what Jesus came to do. He did not come to us so that we could remake Him. Jesus came to us so that we could be remade more perfectly into His image. This requires that we be stretched. Thus, stretching our common use of language seems most appropriate. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Lift them up to the Lord.

© 2010, Catholic Sentinel

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for making this article accessible for us poor Aussies, Mark. Very helpful.