Pope Francis has announced the formation of a committee to review the Church’s governing document on liturgical translation, Liturgiam Authenticam. Father Michael Ryan of the Archdiocese of Seattle—a leading opponent of the new English translation of the Mass that followed from the principles set forth in Liturgiam Authenticam—has greeted this news with joy in an article on America magazine’s website.
Father Ryan unloads his usual barrage of charges against the new translation, calling it a “wooden, woefully inadequate, theologically limited Missal that is low on poetry, if high on precision.” A few words must be said in answer to this before we proceed to the areas of greater concern.
Firstly, these complaints are largely a matter of aesthetics; one man’s “wooden and lifeless” is another’s “solemnly reverent and beautiful.” We must remember here, too, that “solemn” does not mean “somber” or “depressed”; it rather well described by C.S. Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost:
This quality will be understood by anyone who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modem English “solemn.” Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a “solemnity.” The feast at the beginning of “Gawain and the Green Knight” is very much of a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp—and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of “solemnity.” … Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. …The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.
In sum, “solemn” language reminds us that what we do in Mass is not an everyday activity. It is something holy, sacred, literally “set apart.”
Second, complaints that people don’t know words like “consubstantial,” “oblation,” or “regeneration” suggest another problem is at play. Decades of poor catechesis have caused the average layperson’s theological vocabulary to atrophy, so that once commonly understood terms are now mysterious. This says less about the fittingness of the words themselves than of the failure of the Church to impart their meaning. People could learn these terms again, if they were used and explained. We should always be wary of those who doubt the capacities of others—whether it’s their ability to learn, or to understand, or to live the moral life.
One last curious point arises when Father Ryan complains about the tenor of the new translation over that of the old, “emphasizing merit over mercy, sinfulness over dignity.” First, there is no opposition between merit and mercy. Indeed, it is only by the mercy of God in gifting us with His own life and regenerating us (to use another dirty word) that we are able to merit and cooperate with God’s grace at all.
But the primary problem with this critique goes deeper, because Father Ryan is talking here about substantive differences, not merely aesthetic ones. This is not a matter of tone or taste, but of what the prayer actually says. If the prayer speaks of merit, shouldn’t that be reflected in the English?
What he is suggesting here goes far beyond translating the universal Latin text. He does not simply want to express the essence of the Latin in a more contemporary English mode; he wants to change what meaning of the Latin text itself. Where the Latin speaks of our sinfulness, he wants to insert references to our dignity. This is akin to a priest telling you to name your accomplishments instead of your sins in the confessional—that is, it misses the point. This shows a desire not to retranslate the missal, but to simply to rewrite it. Translation should not be used as a Trojan horse to introduce novel concepts into the Church’s liturgy.
But the greatest danger in Father Ryan’s proposal is the kind of support he claims to have for his argument. Father Ryan writes:
But there is more to consider here than style and syntax and questionable theology. There is Pope Francis and the transformational moment he has ushered in for the church—the fresh air, the invitation to dialogue, the resetting of priorities, the quest for simplicity. And there are also his writings, especially Evangelii Gaudium. Although the pope does not focus on the Mass or the Missal, he does talk about language, communication, modes of expression, and cultural adaptation—all of which have significant implications for the way we pray.
Pope Francis points to the importance of simplicity, clarity, directness and adapting to “the language of the people in order to reach them with God’s word… and to share in their lives” (No. 158). In light of this, how can we justify using words like “consubstantial,” “conciliation,” “oblation” or “regeneration”?
Father Ryan makes two subtle moves here. First, he applies Pope Francis’ words on communicating the Gospel message to the question of how the Mass ought to be translated. But this is an illegitimate move. While the Mass is itself a primary means of communicating the Gospel, the mode of the liturgy itself is wholly different from that of a homily, conference talk, or conversation, because the liturgy is firstly an act of worship, and it is within the context of the Mass as act of worship that its language must be understood and evaluated. To return to C.S. Lewis’ point, the Mass is not a chat with your friend, but a more solemn affair, which requires another kind of language. The discussion we ought to be having is this: what ought liturgical language to be like?
Father Ryan implicitly claims to answer this question: in speaking of Pope Francis’ “transformational moment” in the Church, Father Ryan suggests that Pope Francis’ personality and preferences should be the determining factor in the shape and style of the liturgy. He later states bluntly: “The principles of Liturgiam Authenticam run precisely counter to Pope Francis’ vision.” For Father Ryan, the question is not whether the Church’s governing document on liturgical translation has sound principles, or ideas that conform to the Church’s traditions and theology on the matter, but whether it mirrors the characteristics of the current pope. Is this what the liturgy ought to do?
Liturgiam Authenticam claims to be a genuine expression of the Church’s liturgical principles and traditions. Father Ryan’s argument shifts from “this is not what I think the liturgy ought to sound like” to “this is not what Pope Francis thinks the liturgy ought to sound like,” yet he bases this argument not on Pope Francis’ actual comments on the liturgy, but on more general statements spoken by the Pope in other contexts.
Father Ryan’s implicit argument in all of this is a form of ultramontanism: this is what Pope Francis likes, so that’s what we should do, because he’s pope. Yet this is not the way to approach something as integral to the faith as the liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council teaches has an inherently didactic or teaching function. The liturgy belongs to the whole Church, across time and space; it is not to be manipulated according to the whims of each individual pope.
To use an analogy, think of the place of the Church Fathers within our faith. Something is not part of the Sacred Tradition simply because St. Augustine or St. Basil are Fathers and they said it; rather, they are revered as Fathers because they expressed the tradition so well. Likewise, something does not, or ought not, become an integral part of our faith merely because it fits the style of the present pope; rather, it is the pope’s duty to ensure that his words and actions conform to the substance and traditions of the faith. Imagine the chaos of re-shaping Catholicism to map to the characteristics of each successive pontiff. Imagine the hysterics from Father Ryan if, say, Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Sarah become pope and institute their own vision of what the Church’s liturgy ought to be (one, we could reasonably guess, to which Father Ryan would object). Yet if this is a true principle, it should apply regardless of who sits on the throne of Peter—and Father Ryan should not have objected when Pope St. John Paul II ratified Liturgiam Authenticam as his own “preference.” Rather, this appears to be an attempt by Father Ryan to play off of the popularity of Pope Francis’ public image to put forward his own agenda. It is a political move, not a pastoral one. Such moves have no place in the Church or the Church’s liturgy.