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Active Participation and
Liturgical Translations

by Bishop Donald Trautman

The June vote of the United States Bishops addressed only part of the proposed new English translation of the Roman Missal. With more translation work yet to be done, this article, reprinted with permission from the July/August 2006 issue of Emmanuel magazine, is still relevant to the translation conversation.

I have chosen to treat the relationship of the active participation of the assembly to liturgical translations primarily because translating the Sacramentary and Lectionary are major contemporary issues, pivotal problems facing the church in the United States in a significant way. The outcome of these translations will affect the worship life of every Catholic in the United States and even beyond.

A translated text is intended for prayer, worship, lifting up the heart and mind to God. If a translation, noBishop Donald Trautman matter how exact, does not communicate in the living language of the worshiping assembly, it fails as a translation; it fails to lead to full, conscious, and active participation. This is the essential criterion and ultimate goal for all translations of the Sacramentary and Lectionary. This is the thesis which I advance in this lecture. A translated text must be more than exact and faithful to the original; it must become the authentic prayer of the liturgical assembly. That means the worshiping community must own the prayer, its contents, its vocabulary, its style, its idiom, its cadence, its rhythm. The believer must be able to make the prayer his or her own. Only in this way can a translated prayer fulfill the definition of prayer, “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.”

To develop this thesis I ask three questions which will serve as the outline of this presentation:
1. What are the supporting arguments for this thesis?
2. To what extent does the sacred vernacular as advocated by the Roman document Liturgiam Authenticam meet the standard of full, conscious, and active participation for the liturgical assembly?
3. Do our translated liturgical texts reflect the cultural context of the assembly, thereby enabling active participation?

Arguments in favor of the thesis
Article 21 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has confirmed the importance, meaning, and effectiveness of liturgical language in these words: “Texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify. Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as it befits a community.” This conciliar statement forthrightly states that translated texts must convey unambiguously, faithfully, precisely what was essentially in the original. The Council Fathers then declare that “Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand them [these texts and rites] with ease.” This is the goal, the norm, the expressed wish of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. I see in this text a standard, a prerequisite that calls for not just the accuracy of translated texts, but for the easy understanding of these texts. This conciliar statement then concludes that such liturgical texts will enable full, active participation by the community, that is, the assembly.

Many would say this is all common sense, but it is actually a question of theological debate and discussion today. In 2001 the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a new instruction on vernacular translations entitled Liturgiam Authenticam [The Authentic Liturgy]. This instruction provides detailed norms, principles, and criteria for the translation of liturgical books from Latin into vernacular languages. The emphasis in this instruction is on exact, even literal translation. Explicit mention is made of translation being rendered “as literally as possible.”

Liturgiam Authenticam rightly stresses exactness in rendering liturgical and biblical texts into the vernacular in order to assure doctrinal fidelity. But even St. Jerome, years translating the Bible, was not a literalist. He himself said: “If I translate word by word, it sounds absurd.” That is why a word for word translation is not a guarantee of fidelity to the original text. Yet, Liturgiam Authenticam in norm 43 specifies: “It should be borne in mind that a literal translation of terms which may initially sound odd in the vernacular language may for this very reason provoke inquisitiveness in the hearer and provide an occasion for catechesis.”

Having a liturgical text which “may initially sound odd,” and having an artificial language which requires people to seek out the celebrant of the Eucharist for an explanation fails the standard of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which says Christian people “should be able to understand them with ease” and [they should] “be within the people’s powers of comprehension” and “not require much explanation.” Do not these citations support the thesis that a translated liturgical text must be more than accurate? It must also be intelligible, proclaimable, easily understood, enabling the assembly to have full, conscious, and active participation.

Latin liturgical texts and biblical texts in Hebrew and Greek do not give up their riches easily. Translation endeavors to unearth those riches. Texts handed down from another time and culture must communicate with people of a vastly different time and culture. To bridge this gap, translators must select new word alternatives, new grammatical structures and new lexicon systems. An accurate and faithful translation cannot be judged simply on the basis of word for word verbatim transcription from one language to another.

Recall the memorable words of the Council Fathers: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” Full and active participation entails an understanding of the translated texts—texts proclaimable and easily understood. Full and active participation entails that those gathered around the Table of the Lord enter totally into the meaning of liturgical prayer by making it their own. Liturgy is the people’s prayer. This same eloquent and much quoted passage of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reaches a crescendo with the words: “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.” Can we, therefore, not say that in the preparation and promotion of translated liturgical texts, the full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else?

Sacred vernacular
It is a challenging and complex task to provide vernacular prayer texts. The Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments in its instruction Liturgiam Authenticam has introduced a new dimension: a sacred vocabulary for liturgical texts. Norm 27 advocates “a sacred style that will come to be recognized as proper to liturgical language.” Liturgiam Authenticam wants a more profound sense of the sacred, a transcendent emphasis in liturgical translations. Paragraph 47 contains a particular norm in this regard: Liturgical translation ... development of a sacred vernacular, characterized by a vocabulary, syntax, and grammar that are proper to divine worship.” The text then goes on to claim that this sacred vernacular “has occurred in the languages of peoples evangelized long ago.” Many liturgists dispute this claim.

And so we are faced with a sacred language in the proposed Sacramentary and in the Lectionary. What prompts this new approach? Many would contend that after the Second Vatican Council and after the introduction of a new vernacular Missal, there was a decided loss of a sense of awe, mystery, and transcendence in the liturgy. In an attempt to restore this transcendent element, Liturgiam Authenticain mandates a sacred vocabulary. For example, Norm 50 stipulates: “Words used to name liturgical ministers, vessels, furnishings, vesture are not to come from vernacular terms for similar things used in everyday life.”

Therefore, the proposed Order of Mass uses the word “chalice” where we had previously said “cup.” Eucharistic Prayer I says: “When supper was ended, he took this precious chalice into his holy and venerable hands.” Did Jesus at the Last Supper use a “precious chalice” or a “cup”? The gospels clearly say “cup,” but in the Roman Lectionary we have the word “chalice” imposed on the inspired text to carry out this “sacred language.” To say not just “chalice” but “precious chalice” in Eucharistic Prayer I is clearly not a reflection of the biblical text. Should the agenda of a sacred vocabulary, no matter how well intentioned, be allowed to circumvent the inspired word?

NO ONE SHOULD BE OPPOSED to a transcendent dimension in liturgical translation, but an exaggerated attention to the sacred distorts the balance between transcendence and immanence. We must never forget that sacred Scripture presents God under a twofold image: king and neighbor, transcendence and immanence. At times God shows himself as an awesome and powerful presence. At other times the Scriptures reveal God appearing like a neighbor—friendly, c1ose to his people, personal, human in appearance. Revealed in this fashion God inspires love, intimacy, fervor. This is the immanent image of God. Consider, for example, the first five books of the Old Testament. Here God is generally revealed as immanent: God strolls with Adam and Eve in the garden, God chats with them as a friend; God eats in the tent of Abraham; God appears as a cloud of glory over the ark and marches before his people as pillar of fire. God is close to his people and visibly involved in their struggles.

In the New Testament we meet the same parallel. The Jesus of the Gospels is generally immanent. He eats and drinks with his disciples, he dines with sinners, he fishes with his apostles, he suffers disappointments, he lets people embrace him, he falls asleep in the boat. Yet, the Jesus of the Pauline epistles presents a different appearance. For Paul, Jesus is the risen Lord, the glorified Lord. Paul never knew the Jesus who traveled with the apostles. Paul knew only the risen Lord he met on the road to Damascus, and so he stresses the triumphant risen Christ—the transcendent Lord.

We must always keep in mind that the inspired Scriptures reveal God to us in a twofold way, both through transcendence and immanence. Both are necessary for a proper understanding of the revealed God. Balance is needed. The delicate balance between transcendence and immanence must be maintained in our liturgy. To those calling for more transcendence in liturgy, I would respond that a true idea of God’s immanence cannot be overemphasized, for an adequate idea of an immanent God presumes a proper understanding of God’s majesty and goodness as transcendent. Is there an imbalance between transcendence and immanence in our liturgical language? Is God’s immanence reflected adequately in the language of prayer and in the norms of Liturgiam authenticam?
Paragraph 27 of that instruction tells us that liturgical texts “should be free of an overly servile adherence to prevailing modes of expression.” It even recommends that “a certain manner of speech, which has come to be considered obsolete” be continued in liturgical use. How do these principles relate to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and its stress on liturgical
texts being easily understood? People need an understanding of the transcendence of God, but the use of expressions not prevalent in the speech of the assembly and the use of archaic words actually defeats that purpose and makes God remote and not relevant.
A rigid formalism in sacred language can stifle authentic worship “in spirit and in truth.” The exaggerated use of sacred language hazards losing touch with contemporary life and risks falling into archaic speech. Do we not see that in the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer? These texts are the closest the English language has come to a sacred language. Will a sacred language with its ecclesiastical vocabulary, obsolete speech, and exaggerated transcendence enable the people of God to have full, conscious, and active participation? Liturgical and biblical texts are meant to inform, form, and transform the assembly. How will unfamiliar and archaic words and expressions accomplish that?
For the early Christians there was no such thing as a sacred language. And yet they knew and loved the transcendence of God.

The liturgical and biblical texts of the Eucharist can only be heard and prayed in the culture of the assembly. Liturgical texts never exist in a vacuum. No one in the assembly can escape from being conditioned by the social environment and intellectual climate of our present day culture. If liturgical translations do not reflect the cultural context of the assembly, they lose intelligibility and diminish the full, conscious, and active participation of the
eucharistic assembly.

Recognizing this cultural factor in the life of God’s people, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for liturgy to be inculturated. The council fathers realized that social and cultural conditions had changed drastically in our day. So they stated: “Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not affect the faith or good of the whole community; rather the Church respects and fosters the genius and talents of various races and peoples.” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy provided for legitimate variations in the liturgy. Article 40 asserted “an even more radical adaptation of the Liturgy is needed” in some places and circumstances. A good example of cultural adaptation of the Roman liturgy occurs in the church in Zaire, which celebrates the Liturgy of the Word before the Penitential Rite.

I am not advocating that liturgy should be accommodated to the spirit of the times or subordinated to cultural forms. Liturgical content cannot be compromised. There must be a balance between preserving the received liturgical or biblical message and expressing it in a relevant and understandable way. This falls to the charism and genius of the translator who must faithfully communicate to the people of this millennium that message which the biblical or 1iturgical texts originally intended to communicate to a different people at another time.

Recall that when the New Testament was written, its authors used the everyday, ordinary language spoken in the marketplace, on the streets, and at the supper table. The New Testament was not an elite literary composition. The first Christians did not need liturgical dictionaries or biblical commentaries to understand the message. The people grasped the meaning of what was celebrated in the Scriptures and in the liturgy. Why, then, are so many of our scriptural and liturgical texts unfathomable and convoluted? Has literalism, sacred language, and the formal equivalency approach to translation failed the basic definition of translation, namely to bring the meaning of a text from one language to another?

We need to be sensitive to the problem that translators face in trying to bridge different cultures, the past and the present, classical and contemporary idioms. Roman collects or prayers are Roman collects, not American, and yet they are destined to become the prayers expressed in contemporary culture with English words and idioms. No translator can render into contemporary English a Latin text which has exactly the identical meaning, form, nuance, tone, and feeling of the original. There will always be choices and interpretation. The Pontifical Biblical Commission notes that “a translation is always more than a simple transcription of the original text. The passage from one language to another necessarily> involves the change of cultural context.” This should be the guiding principle for the translation of the Sacramentary and Lectionary.

Contemporary American Culture uses inclusive language. To exclude inclusive language in liturgical and biblical texts is a serious problem since it fails to recognize the reality of contemporary culture. Modern English does not have grammatical gender the way French, German, and Spanish do. With the course of time and the influence of culture, the meanings of words have changed. Words that once referred to all human beings are increasingly taken as gender specific and, consequently, exclusive. Words such as “man, brethren, forefathers” which were once understood as inclusive generic terms, today are understood as referring to only males. Certain usages of “he, his, and him” once were considered to be generic and included both women and men, but today in contemporary American usage they refer to only males. For more and more people, generic language no longer works. To refer to women using masculine language does not promote their full participation in the liturgy.

It is important to distinguish vertical inclusive language from horizontal inclusive language. Vertical inclusive language is God language, and the bishops of the United States have stated long before Liturgiam Authenticam: “In fidelity to the inspired Word of God, the traditional biblical usage for naming persons of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be retained.” Horizontal inclusive language refers to the use of inclusive or gender neutral phrasing for references to humans, that is, terms which are intended to refer to both men and women. Today major newspapers, magazines, textbooks, television, network news anchors, government leaders, best-selling authors, all employ sex inclusive language.

In 1981 the Apostolic See permitted the dropping of the word “men” from the Words of Institution, making the text inclusive. Why did the Church change? Was this not a recognition that exclusive language was misleading? Was this not a recognition that the contemporary culture in the United States no longer attached an inclusive meaning to the word “men”? And yet in the proposed translation of the Sacramentary we have continued the use of exclusive language. For example, in the Creed we pray: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” In Eucharistic Prayer IV we will pray: “Time and again you offered covenants to men.”

With respect to inclusive language, our present Lectionary without horizontal inclusive language is inferior to other biblical translations, even to those done by fundamentalists who certainly uphold the literal meaning of Scripture. Several years ago a new translation of the Bible, with a recommendation by Billy Graham, was published by Tyndale, entitled Holy Bible: A New Living Translation. This Bible is the work of conservative biblical scholars. This text boasts of the fact that it uses gender inclusive language. If biblical scholars from the fundamentalist tradition, who clearly revere the literal interpretation of the Bible, employ gender inclusive language and Roman Catholics are denied that opportunity, there is not just a liturgical problem, there is an ecclesiological problem.

We have already used inclusive language in liturgical texts since 1976 without any significant problem in the rites of anointing and viaticum, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and the Order of Christian Funerals. These texts have been well received by our people because they resonate with the culture. Let it be stated forcefully that the use of horizontal inclusive language does not mean an endorsement of a feminist agenda or women’s ordination. Inclusive language is simply a recognition of contemporary culture and the changes in the English language. It is clearly a response to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that there be full participation in the liturgy. To a great extent our present biblical and liturgical texts do not reflect the cultural context of contemporary Christians. Full, conscious, and active participation inevitably suffers.

This lecture has advanced the thesis that the ultimate goal for translated liturgical texts is to lead the assembly to full, conscious, and active participation in the Eucharist. This is the essential criterion. This is “the aim to be considered before all else” according to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The primacy of full, conscious, and active participation must be the dominant influence in translating the Sacramentary and Lectionary. Therefore, it is not sufficient that translated texts reflect the original “as literally as possible.” As foundational and necessary as it is to have a precise and faithful translation, much more is still required. Translations destined for their prayer must resonate with the people, be owned by the people and be expressed in their living language. This necessitates that the vocabulary, word order, and linguistic style of the mainstream of the people prevail. Simply using dictionary equivalence of Latin and Greek words and preserving as close as possible the original word order is not communication for people who pray in a living language.

People need the transcendent dimension of liturgy, but employing archaic speech and ecclesiastical words may actually distance people from the transcendent God, rendering their worship more and more remote. We need to imitate the early Christians who did not have a sacred language but did have a transcendent understanding of God and manifested it in their liturgy.

To produce full, conscious, and active participation, a translated text must convey the cultural context of the assembly. If liturgical language is divorced from the reality of people’s culture, communication is impossible. Liturgical prayer never happens in a vacuum. There is always a cultural impact.

In translating liturgical texts, the Church of today needs to learn a lesson from the church of a former time. In 1951 the United States Catholic Bishops commissioned the translation of the Latin ritual book of the Church (Collectio rituum). The bishops wanted this to be an instrument for catechizing the people in the liturgical truths of their faith. However, they rejected the first draft since it relied too heavily on a British translation and sounded too British. The bishops decided they needed a text that would be more reflective of the English language in the United States. The translating committee finished its work in 1953 and presented the following rationale for its translation:

A good translator must, while preserving the sense of the truths which he is translating, adapt his style to the genius of the language in which he is expressing himself . . . We have tried to make sure that it [our translation] would not be slavishly exact or loosely free; that it would not sound either archaic or foreign, but American; that it would not be difficult to read aloud . . . that it would not be lacking in the simple dignity characteristic of the prayer of the Church.

In 1953 the American bishops approved unanimously this ritual book translated according to these principles. This was long before the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which voiced the same openness and balance for liturgical translations. Will the wisdom of the American bishops in 1953 influence present day bishops in their handling proposed liturgical translations? Will the primacy of full, conscious, and active participation prevail in the translated public prayer of the Church?


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