Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Language of the Bride

Some time ago I downloaded the following article by Archbishop Mark Coleridge (the Roman Catholic Abp of Canberra - Australia). As the original link is broken, I have reproduced it in its entirety. A great apologia for the new translation of the Roman Missal, it also vindicates those Anglican Catholics who are unwilling to allow the beauty and power of our own liturgical English (and the Extraordinary Rite in its ENGLISH MISSAL form) to disappear completely.


In early 2004 I was invited to be the Chair of the Roman Missal Editorial Committee. In accepting the invitation, I had no idea of what I was in for. I had been involved in liturgical translation for some years, and I had a vague notion of the shape of the new Missal project. But I had no idea that I would be thrust on to a very steep learning-curve as I came to grips with the riches of the Roman Missal. I have had to become a student once again, and that has been a great grace.

My seminary studies were done at a time of upheaval in the Church, and the liturgical training we received was negligible. It was a time of great liturgical ferment, as "the new Mass" in English appeared and took hold. Certainly we never looked at the Latin prayers. Latin was out and English was in: that was the long and short of it.

But in my work with the Editorial Committee, I have been forced to go back to the Latin again and again and again. As a result, I have come to see that the translations I grew up with were often not really translations at all. They were paraphrases that bounced off the Latin original and which in the process lost much of the Latin richness. As I discovered more of what the Latin contained, the Roman Missal stirred in me a sense of awe. Not everything in it is a masterpiece by any means, but I now think the Missal is one of the greatest cultural artefacts the West has ever produced.

The Missal is not some lifeless book of perplexing and irrelevant prayers from other times. It is a great mosaic of the Church's journey through two thousand years. It even draws upon elements which go much further back than that. We hear, for instance, the voice of the Bible at every turn.

As a student and teacher of the Bible, I have been surprised to see just how drenched in Scripture the Missal is. In the translations we have known, many of the biblical references, echoes and allusions have been obscured or even omitted. But when you look at the Latin closely, the many voices of the Old and New Testaments sound at every turn. It is now clear to me that in many ways the Missal is the Bible turned into prayer, or even a prayer-book which is a "How to Read the Bible". The new project of which my Committee is a small part is trying to allow the voice of Scripture to sound more clearly in the English texts we use at Mass, and in that sense to make our worship more biblical.

As well as Scripture, we find in the Missal pre-Christian elements which the Church has made part of her repertoire. We hear, for instance, the voice of ancient Roman religion. The way the Opening Prayers are structured is drawn from ancient Rome. Christianity simply took over the Roman prayer-form and, as it were, baptised it.

One of the most striking features of the Missal is that it can take elements from here, there and everywhere and meld them into a deeply coherent whole. It is like symphonic or polyphonic music: many different sounds or voices are brought together to make a single sound or voice. In that sense, the Missal embodies an understanding of the Church where, though we are many, we are one body. It gives voice to the universality of the Church.

Beyond the Scripture, the many voices of Catholic tradition are heard. The Fathers of the Church from East and West are there. Not surprisingly, the great Doctor of the West, St Augustine, is there. In the translations that we have known, Augustine's voice is somewhat muffled, and as a result the theology of grace of which he was the great proponent is obscured. At times, there is a semi-Pelagian sense that we need God's grace only to a certain point as a help, but that beyond that point we can go it alone.

This is not Augustine's theology of grace. He insists that there is never a time when we do not depend totally upon God's grace. We can never go it alone; we certainly cannot save ourselves, as the heretic monk Pelagius claimed. This sense of grace is something which the new Missal project wants to show forth more clearly, allowing Augustine's voice to sound in the chorus as mightily as it should.

Then beyond the Church Fathers, we hear the voices of Saints of every age. We also hear voices rising from the great moments of the Church's life like the General Councils - not just the Councils of long ago, but also the Second Vatican Council. It is surprising how many traces of Vatican II are found in the Latin texts as they were revised after the Council. New touches were added to old texts and new texts were written, which goes to show that the Roman Missal is always a work in progress. It is never a finished product but bears all the marks of the Church's ongoing journey through time. It will be finished only when the Lord returns in glory at the end of time.

Just as there are many different voices in the Missal, so too there are many different idioms. But for all their differences, these idioms have one thing in common: they are not the language of everyday speech. The language of Christian worship was always more complex and elevated than what was spoken in the streets. Therefore, in attempting to produce an English which is accessible to people, we are not trying to reproduce the English of everyday speech, especially given that we are producing a Missal for the entire English-speaking world where the language is spoken in a bewildering variety of ways.

Yet this does not mean that the language of the new Missal will be hopelessly formal or incomprehensible. It does mean, however, that it will have an elevated quality which may sound strange at first. My hope is that, like Shakespeare's verse, the language of the Missal will have its roots in common speech but will take common speech to far distant realms. It will be a language attuned to all the nuances of the Latin, yet deploying all the rich resources of English. But it will be above all the language of the Church's prayer.

When the work of my Committee becomes tedious and hard, or when I am weary of all the travel it involves, I sometimes remind myself that what we are doing is preparing words to place on the lips of the Bride of Christ as she speaks to the Bridegroom. These must be words of earth but also words that reach to heaven. They cannot be banal or one-dimensional; they cannot be the plain speech of everyday life. They must be worthy of the marriage bond between Christ and the Church, words that unite heaven and earth. I also think of Christ instructing his disciples to prepare a place where they could eat the Passover. In working on the Missal at these long and distant meetings, I like to think of myself as one of the disciples who is simply doing what he was told - preparing an appropriate place where we may sit down with the Lord to eat the Passover.


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