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Online Edition -
July - August 2007
Vol. XIII, No. 5

Bishop Laments Loss of Sacred
Accurate Translations "will not disturb our faith. They will build it up".

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Bishop Arthur Serratelli, chairman-elect of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), recently wrote a column lamenting the loss of the sacred in the Church today, and how this has diminished Catholic belief and worship.

“The anti-authoritarian prejudice that we have inherited from the social revolution of the ‘60s imprinted on many a deep mistrust not only of government but of Church”, he observed.  “Some even reject the very idea of hierarchy (literally, ‘a sacred origin’) as a spiritual authority established by God.  As a result, Church means, for some, simply the assembly of like-minded believers who organize themselves and make their own rules and dogmas.  Thus, the Church’s role in the spiritual realm is greatly eclipsed”.

Bishop Serratelli will succeed Erie Bishop Donald Trautman as chairman of the BCL following the November 2007 bishops’ meeting. He also heads the ad hoc Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations, and is former chairman of the Committee on Doctrine, of which he is still a member. He was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1968, and holds degrees in Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and in theology from the Gregorian University. He has taught theology, Scripture and biblical languages in several seminaries before he became auxiliary bishop of Newark in 2000, and bishop of Paterson in 2004.

Bishop Serratelli’s column, “Loss of the Sacred”, is the first of a four-part series on this topic, and is posted on the diocese of Paterson web site (http://www.patersondiocese.org/article.cfm?Web_ID=2224).

His comments are, logically, focused principally on the Mass, and he notes the loss of understanding of the sacrificial meaning of the Mass.

“Living in our world, we breathe the toxic air that surrounds us”, Bishop Serratelli writes.  “Even within the most sacred precincts of the Church, we witness a loss of the sense of the sacred. With the enthusiasm that followed the Second Vatican Council, there was a well-intentioned effort to make the liturgy modern.  It became commonplace to say that the liturgy had to be relevant to the worshipper.  Old songs were jettisoned.  The guitar replaced the organ.  Some priests even began to walk down the road of liturgical innovation, only to discover it was a dead end.  And all the while, the awareness of entering into something sacred that has been given to us from above and draws us out of ourselves and into the mystery of God was gone.”

He summarizes what happened: “Teaching about the Mass began to emphasize the community.  The Mass was seen as a community meal.  It was something everyone did together.  Lost was the notion of sacrifice.  Lost the awesome mystery of the Eucharist as Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  The priest was no longer seen as specially consecrated.  He was no different than the laity.  With all of this, a profound loss of the sacred”.

The impact of this loss persists, Bishop Serratelli stresses:

“Not one factor can account for the decline in Mass attendance, Church marriages, baptisms and funerals in the last years.  But most certainly, the loss of the sense of the sacred has had a major impact.

“Walk into any church today before Mass and you will notice that the silence that should embrace those who stand in God’s House is gone. Even the Church is no longer a sacred place. Gathering for Mass sometimes becomes as noisy as gathering for any other social event . 

“We may not have the ability to do much about the loss of the sacredness of life in the songs, videos and movies of our day”, Bishop Serratelli writes. “But, most assuredly, we can do much about helping one another recover the sacredness of God’s Presence in His Church”.

Translation and de-sacralization

How did the method of liturgical translation in use after the Council contribute to this loss of the sacred?

Last year, after the bishops had discussed the translations of the new Order of Mass at their June 2006 meeting in Los Angeles, Bishop Serratelli wrote two columns on the new ICEL translations. He noted the “differences” among bishops in these matters, noting that “[w]hen it comes to a question about the liturgy, the bishops are always passionately engaged”, and that all the bishops recognize that the liturgy “deserves great concern and attention”.

The words of the liturgy, the bishop pointed out, “are not expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history.  The words used in liturgy also pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next. This is why the bishops take seriously their responsibility to provide for the faithful the translations of liturgical texts that are accurate and inspiring”.

(Bishop Serratelli’s columns on the new Mass translation, “Changes in the Liturgy: Why the Changes?”, and “Changes in the Liturgy: New Words, Deeper Faith”, are archived and available on the Paterson diocesan web site: http://www.patersondiocese.org.)

“Dynamic Equivalency” Deficient

Noting the importance the Second Vatican Council ascribed to the liturgy, and that the use of vernacular languages was meant to facilitate the understanding of the people, Bishop Serratelli described the approach of “dynamic equivalency”, and its deficiencies:

“In the enthusiasm of the aggiornmento [updating], translators set to work to produce translations that expressed the Latin in modes of expression appropriate to the various vernacular languages”, he explains.  

From 1969 until 2001, the document Comme le Prévoit granted translators wide latitude in translations for the liturgy. Rather quickly in the English-speaking world, translators adopted dynamic equivalency as their approach to the texts. Simply stated, dynamic equivalency translates the concepts and ideas of a text, but not necessarily the literal words or expressions.  The principle of making the text accessible to the listener outweighs other considerations.  As a result, the theological richness of the original texts can be lost and our liturgical prayer impoverished.  

Liturgium authenticam addresses this impoverishment, Bishop Serratelli wrote:

In light of the experience in the last 36 years, the Church has revisited the question of translation. Many people had noticed the deficiency of dynamic equivalency. In fact, the man who originally proposed this theory himself abandoned it. [Eugene Nida, head of the American Bible Society. — Editor] In 2001, the Holy See issued Liturgiam authenticam, a new document to guide all new translations, both of the Scriptures and of liturgical texts.

This new document espouses the theory of formal equivalency. Not just concepts, but words and expression are to be translated faithfully. This approach respects the wealth contained in the original text. In fact, the new instruction has as its stated purpose something wider than translation.  It “envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal, which is consonant with the qualities and the traditions of the particular Churches, but which safeguards also the faith and the unity of the whole Church of God” (Liturgiam authenticam 7). 

A “Catechetical Moment”

This change in method of translation as employed by the new ICEL translators will mean changes for us, in the words we say (and hear) at Mass. Some have claimed that this will unduly disturb “John and Mary Catholic”. But Bishop Serratelli, perhaps anticipating such claims, is reassuring. “The changes”, he writes, “will not disturb our faith. They will build it up”.

“The new Order of the Mass is a catechetical moment for all of us to understand more deeply the faith we express in our prayer. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The Law of prayer is the Law of belief”, the bishop reminds us, and he gives several examples to “help us to understand why we will be using new words at Mass and why this will be an improvement over our present texts”. Here are two of the four examples he gives:

First, the new translation corrects our present texts that do not follow the style and syntax of the Latin original. Thus, the order of the Gloria at the beginning of Mass will change to be more accurate in word order and style. The beginning of the first Eucharistic prayer will also change. It will now begin with direct address first to God, focusing our hearts on Him and not, as the present text begins, focusing on ourselves.

Second, the new translation is more faithful to the Scriptural allusions found within the Latin. In the third Eucharistic prayer, the words we now say, “so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name,” will become “so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.” Those who use dynamic equivalency as the principle of translation say that “from east to west” means the same as “from the rising of the sun to its setting.” It does in the sterile language of giving directions. But there is more here than mere direction. The new translation is more faithful to Scripture because it is more literal. The words are taken straight from Malachi 1:11. How powerful it is to use God’s own words to us in prayer back to God! Furthermore, the sacred text itself is much more poetic. It evokes the beauty of sunrise and sunset that speak of the majesty of God.

The increased accuracy, he wrote, “opens us up to the theological density of the Liturgy”. And he pointed out that sometimes our language at Mass “can mimic our attitudes in dress and become less fitting for the house of God. The new language will help remind us that we are in the presence of the All-Holy God who stoops to love us in Christ.”

When we begin to use the new text, Bishop Serratelli said, “we will notice and experience in so many ways the rich patrimony of faith that is celebrated in Liturgy. And we will do so in a language worthy of worshipping God.”

He points out that “[e]xperts in theology, liturgy and linguistics have collaborated with the bishops in producing the new translation of the Order of the Mass”. 

The bishop assures us: “The time is right. The need clear. The work warranted”.

***

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