Revised Missal: an ecumenical point

A little while back I was asked to contribute a brief introductory note on the Revised English translation of the Roman Missal for Together, the bulletin of Churches Together in Berkshire. The latest issue has just been distributed but there does not seem to be an online edition of the bulletin. So, for the record, the text of the note is included here, below.

As yet there does not seem to be much ecumenical reaction to the revision of the English version of the Missal, though it is very early days yet. It will interesting to see what the various Christian groups say about it.

The third typical, or standard, edition of the post-Vatican II Roman Missal was promulgated in Latin in 2002, replacing the second edition of 1973. The English translation of the earlier (current) Missal has been in use since 1975, though the process of revising that translation has been underway for some two decades. That process has at times been troubled, not least due to the fact that English is both highly politicised and internationally diffuse.

The current Missal was translated according to the 1950s linguistic principle called dynamic equivalence, which aimed above all to convey the central meaning in the original language, and was less concerned with exact correspondence to its form. The problem with this method is that very often the English bears little resemblance either to the form or the meaning of the Latin original. Biblical imagery and references were obscured or weakened, and the rhythm and structure of the Latin prayers, many of them ancient and venerable, were sacrificed to the point that the logical sequence and balance of the original was lost. It is not so easy to separate the form, structure and vocabulary of a text from its meaning and its power to move.

This noble conciseness of the Latin prayers is an essential part of the heritage of the Roman Rite, much as the rich extravagance of language in the prayers of the Orthodox and Oriental liturgies is an essential feature of those rites. Ironically, the Book of Common Prayer, which translated many of the prayers of the Roman Missal of its day, managed to capture the structure, balance and meaning of the original Latin in often astoundingly beautiful English, which even then was somewhat higher a register of voice than the English of the street.

The English translation of the revised Roman Missal of 2002 has instead opted to rely more on formal equivalence, largely retaining the structure and vocabulary of the original in its translation. As a result, the scriptural allusions, the nuances and the emotive power of the Latin original are more clearly reproduced.

A fear often raised is that the new texts will undermine years of ecumenical liturgical sharing. One suspects however that Anglicans who look to the Roman Missal for inspiration in their worship will find in the new texts a register more familiar to that of their own liturgical tradition. From a Catholic point of view, a more fundamental unity is fostered by the new texts. They will be far more faithful to the original Latin, and so to the other language translations of the Roman Rite, thus making more explicit and substantial the unity of all Roman-Rite Catholics in their liturgy. When Latin was the sole liturgical language, this unity was a given. In the age of vernacular worship, concordance with the normative latin text is crucial to express this unity. Moreover, by retaining the form of ancient prayers, a unity is strengthened not only in space here and now, but across time, with fellow Catholics of centuries past who worshipped using these prayers.

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