Replacing the Sacramentary: a Progress Report

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Why is the translation taking so long?  How is it being done?  When will it be ready?  What should we expect when it gets here?

The forthcoming English translation of the third edition of the Missale Romanum is stirring anxieties.  After 40 years of use, the first-ever English translation of the mass has been taken to the shop for restoration.  Some Catholics look forward to the results; others are worried; many others are oblivious.  The longer the process takes, the more questions people ask.  The working version of the texts is not public, which stokes fears of secrecy, back-room deals, and autocracy.

The third Latin edition of the Missale Romanum was promulgated as part of the Jubilee Year 2000 by Pope John Paul II.  But the book wasn’t quite ready yet.  It was published in 2002.  The sacramentary presently in use at parishes is the English translation of the second edition of the Missale Romanum.

In the years prior to 2000, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) was working on a revised English translation of the second edition of the missal.  The commission hoped to generate more expressive texts, while preserving the tone of the previous work.

However, after many years of labor during which a complete new translation was accomplished, the entire project was aborted for two reasons.  One was the publication of the third edition of the missal.  A few changes were made: some rubrics became more precise, new saints’ days were added, some older mass texts were restored, more sense lines were introduced, and some sections were rearranged.  The other reason was that the theory of translation changed.  The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued new guidelines for translation in its instruction Liturgiam authenticam, which rendered most of ICEL’s newly revised texts obsolete.

There are horror stories about power plays, muscle flexing, finger pointing, and heads rolling throughout this transition.  Without question, some very good and devout people were maligned.  In many respects, it has been an embarrassing chapter in the history of liturgy.  These events left many people angry and discouraged about the forthcoming missal.  But the translation is coming anyway – like an out-of-wedlock child.  People may not be happy about it, or about the timing of its arrival, but it is going to come, and it deserves to be brought into the family as respectfully as possible.

Why is the translation taking so long?  It is passing through many different committees.  The labyrinth includes these components:

* members of the ICEL secretariat, who steer the process from the office in Washington DC

* a base translator, who works up a direct but usable translation of one section of the missal

* an ad hoc team, who rework the base translation into a more effective text

* the Roman Missal Editorial Committee, which receives all the work of all the translators and teams, and unifies the style

* ICEL itself - the commission of bishops who represent 11 English-language episcopal conferences: The United States, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines

* the conferences of bishops of these same countries, who review the materials, make suggestions, and vote

* the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome, which evaluates what the bishops approved

* Vox Clara, an ad hoc committee of bishops and experts who advise the Congregation

* and the pope, who alone can change the form of sacraments, such as the words of institution during the eucharistic prayers.

The entire missal is divided into about 25 sections, and each section must pass through these hands.  All sections are out of the starting blocks.  Many sections are much farther along.  The part that has advanced the furthest is the Order of Mass – all the spoken texts that remain the same at every mass, from the sign of the cross to the dismissal, including the four traditional eucharistic prayers.  It is the most controversial part of the missal because it includes the responses of the people.  The results have been – well, controversial.  Change is hard, and concerns about the new translation increased as parts of the Order of Mass leaked.  Still, in context, the whole missal will probably settle into a uniform style acceptable to the Catholic ear.  But it will take time.  Change demands patience.

Some wonder if all these committees are really necessary.  It is much better than having only a very few people make all the decisions about the new translation.  The most expendable piece of the process is probably Vox Clara, which helped break the logjam on translations before the publication of Liturgiam authenticam, and which now seems to have completed its most significant work.  Vox Clara continues to meet, however, and adds a layer of bureaucracy to the process.

How does the work get done?  Mostly in committee.  All participants may voice opinions and discuss corrections.  The work is done aloud.  Committee members never look at the texts on paper without pronouncing and hearing them.  Attention is given to punctuation, sense lines, unintended alliteration and assonance, meter, length of sentences, vocabulary, and orality.  Sometimes what is clear in print is not clear when spoken aloud.  The best solutions are sought for all the problems faced.  Among the fears commonly voiced about the new translations is that they will be a “slavish, word-for-word rendering” of the Latin.  But the reality is different.  Participants search for an English that will be understandable when spoken, rich in its allusions to scripture, expressive in its theology, varied in vocabulary, and deep in spirit.  The new rules for translation have been justly criticized; as a document, Liturgiam authenticam is flawed.  But the translators are skilled.

So when will it all be ready?  As one wag says, “Hopefully in our lifetime.”  No one knows for sure.  There have been predictions, many of which have already been surpassed.  Some have hoped that Pope Benedict would debut the new texts at the mass for World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, during the summer of 2008.  Certainly texts could be readied for a mass on that day, but the entire missal will take more time.  And it should.  It should not be rushed.  At the current pace, it is hard to imagine a finished book before 2009 or 2010.  A parish with a decomposing sacramentary should go ahead and buy a new one – or some red duct tape.

Many bishops of England and Wales would like to start using the new Order of Mass immediately.  It is not clear if Rome would grant such permission.  If it happens, other conferences will want it as well.  There is some wisdom in waiting, so that the project can be evaluated as a whole before it goes to press.

One of the most difficult parts of any large project is ending it.  There are always last-minute hesitations, re-evaluations, discoveries, and changes.

Going to press will also take time.  The work must be carefully proofread – and this book has to be as free of error as possible.  Extra care will go into editing.  Printing and binding take time.  Even if the project is rushed, it will take several months if not a year for a publisher to produce the books.

During that time, the texts would probably be public.  That will allow catechesis to begin, for priests to become familiar with the prayers, and for composers to write new settings for the Order of Mass.

Musicians are wondering if they will be able to sing the former mass settings once the new texts are in force.  No one has given a clear answer to this question, which is probably good.  It will take time for new music to be written, learned and loved.  The rush to legislate is best avoided.  If the new texts inspire better music, congregations will sing it.  If a congregation has 4 or 5 mass settings in its repertoire, it will take years to replace them with 4 or 5 more.

The missal will be published with a chant setting, and congregations who learn it will create some uniformity in sung worship.  The settings in the current sacramentary are not all commonly used.  For example, many people learned the preface dialogue one way before the sacramentary published it another way in 1975.  The new missal will probably change the notes for intoning “The Lord be with you,” in order to send an oral cue that people should sing a new response.

The missal is coming.  It is still a few years away.  It will change the way the mass sounds.  Some people will find the change very difficult.  But it will open the riches of the Catholic prayer tradition in some new ways.  In time, the revised translation will become as remembered and owned as the current one has been for the past 40 years.

Pastoral Music 31/5 (June-July 2007):27-29.

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