I, like you, have read with interest the reactions of many to the new translation, after its first week of use. Most of the remarks I have read are quite positive. A smaller, though not insignificant number, are negative, some strikingly so. No need to summarize all the remarks here. I am personally a big fan of the new translation and have carefully and joyfully prepared my congregation for it. Our first Sunday went off without a hitch.
There is one strain of negative reaction I would like to address however, since it goes to the heart of a common misunderstanding of the Liturgy. The negative reaction basically stated is:
I can’t easily understand what Father is saying in those long, run-on sentences. It doesn’t make sense to me and I get lost in all the words.
It is a true fact that the new translation preserves more authentically the sentence structure of the Latin original which, like older English, makes greater use of subordinate clauses. For example, consider the prayer from the first Monday of Advent with subordinate clauses indented,
Keep us alert,
we pray, O Lord our God,
as we await the advent of Christ your Son,
when he comes and knocks,
he may find us watchful in prayer and exultant in his praise.
This manner of speaking is more formal and ancient.
The just abrogated translation of 1970 turned the rich sentence structure of the Latin prayers into a series of declarative statements:
Lord our God,
help us to prepare for the coming of Christ your Son.
May he find us waiting,
eager in joyful prayer.
Not only is the language less elaborate and more informal, it also omits the humbly beseeching quality of the Latin, and wholly omits the Scriptural allusion of Jesus standing at the door and knocking (cf Rev 3:20)
Now, if the priest who recites or sings the prayer is careful with the commas, and alters his tone of voice properly, the new translation is quite intelligible, and also quite beautiful. My own mind lit up as I recited the new prayer above, this morning.
That said, it may still be harder for some in the pew to attend the words of the priest, even if it is well spoken, since the use of sentences with subordinate clauses requires the listener to hold one thought, while a subordinate thought is articulated, and then the speaker branches back to the main thought.
So lets grant that it is a little harder.
But here we come to an important insight that, though it is not politically correct, is still true: The priest is not talking to you. He is not directing the prayer to you, and the first purpose of the prayer is not that you understand it perfectly. The prayer is directed to God, (most often, to God the Father). The priest is speaking to God, and is doing so on your behalf, and that of the whole Church. And God is wholly able to understand the prayer, no matter how complicated its structure.
Too often in modern times we have very anthropocentric (man-centered) notions of the Sacred Liturgy. With the return to the vernacular, and mass celebrated toward the people, (neither intrinsically wrong), there is often the wrongful conclusion that the Liturgy is about us, the gathered assembly. Surely there are aspects celebrated on our behalf and for our benefit, especially the Liturgy of the Word and the reception of Holy Communion, but the prayers of the Sacred Liturgy are addressed to and focused on God.
When we understand God as the addressee, the notion of “formalism” in the texts we use makes more sense. One may reasonably argue that, in private prayer, simple and personal words from the heart are most appropriate. But in the Sacred Liturgy, which is both communal and where the words are carefully chosen in accord with ancient practice, nobility and a stately seriousness are important and instinctive. It is God to whom we speak, and our language down through the centuries, in the liturgical context, has been courtly, rich and marked with a sobriety and elevated quality. While this notion was largely set aside in 1970, it has been recovered now.
If the text is less immediately understandable (it need not be) to the human listeners, it must be recalled that we are not the first or intended audience, God is.
Surely intelligibility to the average “pew sitter” is not wholly unimportant, for the Liturgy has a critical teaching role (lex orandi, lex credendi). Further, if the faithful are to join their prayers to that of the celebrant, some degree of intelligibility is helpful. But, frankly, it is not essential. Otherwise the faithful could not validly attend Mass in foreign lands, and the Mass could not be offered in Latin. Likewise young children would be excluded, since many of even the simplest words mean little to them. Full participation in the liturgy is deeper than mere auditory comprehension.
So the central point here is that God is the one to whom our liturgical prayers are directed. This is often forgotten today, and the complaint that the new prayers are “harder to understand” (they are not intrinsically so) belies a premise that “my personal understanding” is the central point. It is not.
I can hear a thousand “yes, but” s coming in the combox. And many of these will be quite valid. Distinctions are important, as is balance.
Intelligibility, while not the most important thing, IS important. And hence, we priests who celebrate the Mass using the new texts, need to work carefully to master the texts so that what we say is not lost in an ungraceful and stumbling proclamation. God and God’s people deserve our best effort.
There are some contexts where intelligibility is absolutely critical. Here is one of my favorite Berlitz commercials that illustrates a critical failure to communicate:
I sink zey are sinking about making za person sink zey are sinking.