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"Father Joncas Promotes New Translation of the Mass:
Reflections from Drury Lane"

by Father Michael Gilligan

How will you implement the new texts of the liturgy, come Advent, 2011?  What will be done in your parish or in your diocese?  Here is a case study of what transpired in one diocese.  Perhaps this narrative will be helpful to you, in your
own catechesis.

Presentation: Content and Context

This past October 29, Father Michael Joncas spoke to 1,100 priests, gathered at the Drury Lane Theater in Oak Brook, Illinois.  He flew in from St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches at the University of St. Thomas. Father Joncas traced the development of the sacramentary and the missal, in the Roman Rite.  In a half-hour tour de force, he began with the improvised prayers of the primitive Church. He then explained the development of the earliest sacramentaries, the Leonine,
the Gelasian, the Gregorian, the various editions of the Ordines Romani, and the Franciscan missals of the 12th and
13th centuries.

The speaker then summarized the main principles of Roman documents, intended to help translators do their work.  These would be Comme le prévoit (1969) and Liturgiam Authenticam (2001).  As his quotations showed (displayed on a screen), the former document commended “dynamic equivalence,” in which the needs of the receptor language are emphasized.  The latter document, however, contradicts Comme le prévoit and emphasizes “formal equivalence,” in which the translation conveys as much of the original language as possible, including even similar sentence construction and grammar.  According to this approach, it is less important that people understand the translation or find it natural to their mode of expression.  What is more important is that the translation be as faithful as possible to the original, in this case, the
Latin language.

Finally, Father Joncas provided texts of Eucharistic Prayers II and III, which are the most widely used in the Latin Rite.  He compared the Latin original texts with the current translation and the new translation.  This version, he said, would go into effect in December, 2011.  Priests seemed to appreciate the opportunity to sing through parts of these Eucharistic Prayers.  The speaker pointed out that singing these prayers was promoted in the Roman Missal itself and that recordings were widely available.  Throughout, his talk was supplemented with an extensive printed handout and two large projection screens.

He said that, as a pastor, his duty was to get into the meaning of the text, highlight what is beautiful, and make it effective prayer for the people.  The priest knows, he said, that “It is not my prayer but the prayer of the Church.”  As a scholar, Father Joncas said that he would reflect on the translation and the documents in consideration, raising questions for the future.  However, that work is not done in the pulpit.  It is primarily a matter of private study and scholarly publication.  In this regard, Father Joncas recommended the recent work of Peter Jeffery, Translating Tradition
(To order this book, send an e-mail to [email protected] or call 708-331-5485.)

Both Father Joncas and Cardinal Francis George described the work of two organizations most responsible for the new translation, ICEL and Vox Clara (“clear voice”).  Cardinal George is a member of Vox Clara.  He said that when the new translation first came out, some people criticized Rome for not having enough English-speaking bishops involved.  So, Vox Clara was set up to facilitate the work.

Perhaps a third of the Chicago priests present were from religious orders.  Two thirds were diocesan priests, of whom over a hundred are retired.  There was no open discussion; all questions for Father Joncas were submitted in writing.  He then read the questions, organized them, and responded as he thought appropriate.  His comments were insightful and informative. He was clearly an expert teacher, endowed with both humor and wisdom. From the questions presented and the general audience reaction, the priests seemed to be optimistic about the new translation.  Over lunch and dinner, the general mood was positive.

Among themselves, numerous clergy spoke to each other in their native tongues, e.g., Polish, Spanish, and various African languages.  For these priests, English was not the first language they learned.  In such a gathering, the ethnic diversity of the Chicago clergy was evident.  Today, there are relatively few native-born vocations.  Many of the younger priests were not born in the diocese.

Several catechetical resources were made available for both priests and people, especially from Liturgy Training Publications (LTP).  John Thomas, director of LTP, said that the new sacramentary is expected to be available in October, 2011, from seven different publishers.  In all editions, the page numbering is expected to be the same, for the sake of clarity, from parish to parish.  The only difference among the various editions will be typeface, art work, binding, etc.  This sacramentary will bear the title, Roman Missal.  In the Chicago Archdiocese, copies will be distributed to each parish free of charge; they will be donated by an agency of the diocese.

Cardinal George concluded the meeting by saying that he considers the new translation an improvement, both in fidelity to the Latin original and in theological accuracy.  In fact, he said that the translation in use for the past 40 years is theologically deficient.  The bishop gave the example of mereor, which is currently treated simply as an auxiliary verb.  However, he said, it was important to translate the verb accurately, because the meaning gets us into the whole discussion about nature and grace.

Widespread Discontent

Recently, in Port Laoise, Ireland, more than 300 priests gathered to form the new “Association of Catholic Priests.”  Father Brendan Hoban, one of the founders said that they hope to express opposition to the new translation of the Mass:  “We believe [it] is over-complicated and over-Latinized…Nobody seems to want it.  It’s another example,” said Father Hoban,
“of the Church trying to fix things that don’t need to be fixed and not fixing the things that need fixing.”

About a year ago, the bishop of St. Petersburg, Florida, gave copies of the new translation to his priests and invited their feedback.  Reaction was strongly negative.  Overwhelmingly, priests said that the new translation sounded foreign and awkward.  In South Africa, the new texts were introduced in parish churches, ahead of time.  People were disappointed with the translation and very unhappy.

Local Response

Now, Cardinal George has two earned doctorates.  His episcopal peers hold him in high regard.  He is no dummy.  He knows that the new translation will be difficult for many to accept.  As a pastor, however, he wants to implement what Rome wants; he intends to engage in damage control.  He also knows that Chicago priests have a history of independent thinking, of frankness, and of directness, to say the least.  In this diocese, then, things could be much more difficult than in Durban or in St. Petersburg.  What does he do?

First, he sends out a letter, asking all priests to meet, to study the new translation.  If he makes attendance mandatory, some will refuse to come, because they don’t like being told what to do.  If he makes attendance optional, some will avoid the gathering, because they don’t want to be bothered.  So, the bishop tells the priests to spend $50 from their ministerial allowance at each parish.  This is a marketing tool.  When people spend money for something, they place more value on it.  They also are more likely to show up.

Second, he brings in Father Michael Joncas, who is a diocesan priest, an effective speaker, and a respected scholar.  Cardinal George has several expert priests in the diocese, for example, on the faculties of Mundelein Seminary and of Catholic Theological Union.  But an outsider who is flown in would usually have more authority, so that’s a good move, too.  Besides, Father Joncas is already known and esteemed, for his excellent publications and musical compositions for the liturgy.

Third, the gathering is diluted.  Today, as a whole, priests are not the same as in the 1960s and 1970s.  Neither the Young Priests’ Caucus (long defunct) nor the Association of Chicago Priests is likely to raise any protests.  Moreover, the gathering is also substantially diluted with religious clergy and foreign-born.  The former live under a vow of obedience and are not primarily in parish work; they may be expected to go along and get along.  The latter aren’t always sure of what contemporary English may demand; it’s not their native tongue.  They too will go along and get along.  Some of the younger priests, furthermore, are relatively more traditional, in their obedience to Church law and custom. In fact, some of them may well prefer the idiom of the new translation.

To make sure that things go well, no oral questions are permitted from the floor. There is no dialogue.  So, any protests or objections can be effectively disregarded and not brought out in public.

In the end, Cardinal George lends his own considerable authority to supporting the new translation.  He knows perfectly well that most priests do not know Latin and have no idea what a deponent verb is, such as mereor.  In fact, they don’t know a deponent verb from an ablative absolute.  So, most give his theological criticism the benefit of the doubt.

He also points out that much of the current translation was written by an anonymous author from New Zealand.  Obviously, this attribution is meant to counter the objection that the new translation sounds foreign.

Pastoral Implementation

In his talk, Father Joncas gives an example how priests can appreciate and implement the new translation, by picking out what looks good to them, not by considering the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam.  (That’s because some people with good sense would reject some of those principles.)  The example Father Joncas gives is the new translation of Ecce Agnus Dei as “Behold the Lamb of God.”  He says that text is a more powerful wording, especially when the priest holds up the host
before Communion.

About such a translation, Msgr. Ronald Knox wrote, back in 1949:

The Latin for “Behold the Man!” is Aspicite hominem; to translate Ecce homo quite literally, you would have to print it with a comma, “Behold, the man!” which is poor English of any period.  What Pilate said, of course, was “Here is the fellow.”  (Trials of a Translator, 102).

In other words, Msgr. Knox points out, �ecce� does not mean �behold,� �look at this.� It is, as any Latinist knows well, merely an interjection, something that would not be translated as an imperative. That being the case, Father Joncas is suggesting a fanciful interpretation. In this case, the current translation is more accurate than the new. By using the word �behold,� the meaning of the text is really being distorted. In preaching, we will ignore this mistranslation; but it is not honest to say that it�s an improvement. It�s not.

Both Father Joncas and Cardinal George went to considerable effort in this session, to promote a pastoral approach to the new translation.  In this respect, their efforts were successful.  The priests were motivated to prepare well to proclaim the texts that they will use, to reflect on those texts, and to make the texts effective prayer.  The speakers used several methods of persuasion, to achieve their ends.  For this, they could only be thanked and praised.  We remain in their debt.

In private, though, priests are not just pastors.  While they will not be “apologizing to the people,” as some have suggested, they will respect those who produced and fostered the good work of the past forty years, especially the members of ICEL and the bishops who made the final decisions.  In writing and in preaching, priests will continually use dynamic equivalence, to get through to those whom they are trying to reach. Sermons especially will be paradigms of effective discourse.

No, pastors will be thinking persons, as lay people also will be.  For us, to understand what makes a good translation, we can read Dewey Beegle, S.I. Hayakawa, Peter Jeffery, Msgr. Knox, Eugene Nida, Bishop Donald Trautman, or, perhaps best of all, our own bishops’ statement on translation from 1990.  Our bishops were wise, and they were right.


In the pastoral situation, we need to be honest and truthful.  For the good of the Church, the most honest thing to say is that perhaps in ten or twenty years, this translation too may be revised, as Father Joncas pointed out.  What we have, after all, is not our prayer, as he said, but the Church’s prayer.  We have to make the best of it, without complaining or criticizing.  That would do no good.

If presiders sing the Eucharistic Prayers, for example, as both he and the official Church recommend, the beauty of song may well compensate for the shortcomings of the revised texts.  Even though the new translation will be seen by many as poor English, it is still preferable to the Latin which was imposed on people for many generations.  In general, poor English is surely a better pastoral choice than a language nobody understands.  Besides, whatever the translation, people will get used to it over time and learn to accept it.  That’s what we have to do.  Procedamus in pace.

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