Fr Gerald O'Collins' guided missal destroyer

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ has launched the new book by Fr Gerald O’Collins SJ, Lost in Translation, critiquing the controversial 2010 English Mass translation.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ launched the new book by Fr Gerald O’Collins SJ, Lost in Translation: The English Language and the Catholic Mass (Liturgical Press Academic, 2017) in Melbourne on 13 February 2018. This is the text from his address at the launch.

Gerald O'Collins: Lost in Translation

Gerald O’Collins: Lost in Translation

The work we have before us today, Lost in Translation, is I believe Gerry’s 69th volume. I had hoped that it might be his 70th, because then one could have made play with that more biblical number. However, the 70th and 71st are well in the pipeline, destined to appear later this year.

If we were to think of Gerry’s books as ships, they would amount to a sizeable navy for a middle power such as Australia. Many of them are weighty tomes of serious original scholarship. Within our naval image these would be battleships, aircraft carriers or other large ships of the line. This work before us today is more in the nature of smaller but nonetheless necessary craft. We might think of a patrol boat or frigate or, perhaps, a guided missal destroyer.

But let us abandon the image. This work is not out to destroy — though Gerry, it is clear, would happily see the 2010 translation given decent Christian burial. If Lost in Translation contains a serious critique, it does so entirely ‘within the family’, so to speak. It is not taking pot shots at anyone from outside. The facts are soberly presented, especially in the historical survey of British journalist John Wilkins in the opening chapter. Then Gerry takes over, summoning up his vast armoury of talent — historical, linguistic, theological, and literary — in a penetrating analysis of all the documents relevant to the case.

Of course, as in all stories there are heroes and villains — wearers, as in Westerns, of hats white and black — though, in the latter case, the hats here for the most part tend to be purple or red.

As I said, John Wilkins and Gerry simply recite the facts, allowing us readers to judge for ourselves the motives of the major players involved. One suspects that, were the cause for canonistion of Cardinal Medina Estevez, sometime prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, to arise, the Devil’s Advocate might find in this slim volume much grist for his mill.

However, Gerry is not here playing the man — and, yes, they are all men. He is reaching behind the polemics to state a case for rejection of the translation introduced — or rather imposed — in 2011, and doing so on two grounds in particular: first, the theological and pastoral intent of the Second Vatican Council; second, a theory of translation, with a pedigree he shows to reach back behind George Steiner, T. S. Eliot, Ronald Knox, and Cardinal Newman, to Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, and even to the Patristic era.

If it is still acceptable to speak of ‘trump cards’ these days, let me mention two that Gerry slaps down on the table: Here is Aquinas, no less, writing in letter to Pope Urban IV: ‘It is … the task of the good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning but to adapt the mode of expression, so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating.’ And with, surely, some measure of understatement, the Angelic Doctor continues: ‘When anything expressed in one language is translated merely word-for-word into another it will be no surprise if perplexity … sometimes occurs.’

Still more forceful is the fourth century writer Evagrius of Antioch, admired for his intelligence by St Jerome, one hardly given to throw around admiration loosely: ‘A word-for-word translation from one language to another conceals the meaning and strangles it, even as spreading couch grass [does to] a field of corn.’

It will help perhaps at this point to recall, briefly, the chief facts.

The first document the Second Vatican Council promulgated, at the end of its work in 1965, was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium — a document that had received virtually unanimous approval from the attending bishops. A central principle, stated repeatedly in the text, was the desirability of ‘full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations … by all the faithful’. To achieve this aim, the document, while insisting that Latin was to be preserved, allowed ‘a wider use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy’. The preparation of translations into vernacular languages, the Council entrusted to the relevant bishops’ conferences — the results of their labours requiring a simple ‘confirmation’ from Rome.

Some of the provisional attempts were not felicitous. I recall a short-lived introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in play for a time in England. Its concluding phrase, ‘the prayer he taught us’, far too readily conjuring up images of reptiles loose on Western plains.

In 1969 the Holy See issued an instruction to translators known by its French title, Comme le prévoit. It is one of the great merits of Gerry’s book that he has, in a sense, retrieved this document and called attention both to its origins — in a conference of experienced translators — and its guiding principles. Comme le prévoit endorsed the responsibility of episcopal conferences for the translations; it set its face, to use Gerry’s words, against word for word translations, insisting that ‘the unit of meaning is not the individual word but the whole passage’. It called attention to the propensity of Latin to pile up alliterative phrases and superlatives to increase the sense of invocation. It went on to warn that to do so in other languages may actually undermine the sense.

If a personal reminiscence may again be pardoned. At the end of my time as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in Rome, I received a letter of thanks, in Latin of course, from the President of the Commission, the then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. The concluding salutation ran, ‘Tibi addictissimus in Domino’. Now, as far as I could judge, for six years on the commission my relations with the good cardinal had never been other than courteous and cordial. I never, however, was under the impression that the regard in which he held me amounted to an ‘addiction’ of love in superlative degree.

Finally, and significantly, as Gerry notes, Comme le prévoit observed that, for a ‘fully renewed liturgy’ the ‘creation of new texts will be necessary’. Guided by Comme le prévoi, the International Commission on the English Liturgy (known by its acronym ICEL) had by 1978 produced English translations of all the texts issued by Rome following the post-Vatican 2, revision of the Latin missal — and these translations came into common use. They were not perfect; they were at times reductionist and banal. Witness, for example, the reduction of the biblical and poetic ‘from the rising of the sun to its setting’ to ‘from the east to the west’. However, they were, on the whole easy to recite, and they allowed for use on an ecumenical basis.

It was accepted, however, that work on the missal had to continue. ICEL circulated a revised version, with much heightened style, to bishops’ conferences in 1992.

By and large, this fresh version received wide acceptance. A minority of US bishops, however, whose churchmanship very much reflected the centralising and conservative ethos of Pope John Paul II, thought the product insufficiently literal. Though the translation received the necessary two-thirds majority, their complaints found a ready ear in Rome. The upshot is that since 1998 the translation, the fruit of 13 years of ICEL’s work, lies, as John Wilkins writes, somewhere on a shelf in Rome.

Unpromulgated and officially a dead letter it may be. But it also lies conveniently on the internet, whence Gerry, amongst others, have retrieved it for sustained and salutary comparison with the translation imposed in Advent 2011.

Behind this shelving of the 1998 translation lies a series of centralising and heavy-handed developments vividly described by John Wilkins and reflected upon by Gerry: notably, the disbanding of ICEL, and its recasting, away from the English-speaking bishops’ conference, to become an organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship; the extinguishing of any sense that ecumenical considerations had a role to play in the construction of the text. Above all, there was the appearance of the instruction, Liturgiam Authenticam on 28 March, 2001, mandating ‘extreme literalism in translation, even extending to syntax, rhythm, punctuation and capital letter’.

In connection with this document, Gerry quotes an American liturgical scholar, Peter Jeffery. While castigating it as ‘the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation’, Jeffery also detects in it ‘a sincere desire for a deeper sense of the sacred, a hunger to be connected with eternal reality, and a yearning to experience the mysterious holiness of God’.

This of course is the ultimate aim that both sides in the controversy share and one that could be a source of reconciliation between them. The issue is how best to secure that aim in contemporary English. Imposing technical theological terms such as ‘prevenient’ or ‘consubstantial’ (in place of ‘one in being’) will not achieve it. It is hard to think of an uglier sounding word in English than ‘oblation’. Today it sounds like a surgical procedure. Couldn’t we leave it, then, to the medical profession to give it a home? To say that Jesus, after his death and before his resurrection, descended into ‘Hell’, rather than ‘to the dead’ — to announce their release and salvation — is simply to mislead the faithful and very likely to disturb them. Mystification is not the path to mystery but to alienation.

The Latin liturgical patrimony of the Roman church is a magnificent cultural construct. Having experienced it richly in my youth, I reflect upon its near demise with no small nostalgia and regret. To translate it into a modern vernacular, while preserving that sense of transcendence and beauty, is an immense cultural task — perhaps the work of generations. Our Anglican brethren managed with some success to do so in the late 16th and early 17th century. They had at their disposal the gifts of Thomas Cranmer and the language of Shakespeare, from which of course, English has moved on. They too, for over a century, have wrestled with the challenge of preserving this patrimony while effectively communicating with people today. We Roman Catholics are surely not doing ourselves a service by turning our backs on whatever experience, guidance, and advice they have, fraternally, to offer.

After exposing the severe limitations of the principles of translation that inspired Liturgiam Authenticam and its dissonance from a broad tradition reaching back to Patristic times, Gerry in the later chapters subjects the instruction’s imprint in the 2010 translation to painstaking and meticulous critique, and also to comparison with the 1998 version, still lying readily at hand. A book launch is not the occasion to pursue his critique in detail. The neuralgic points are well known: ‘for many’ in the words of consecration; the near-heretical profusion of ‘meriting’ to which the faithful are constantly enjoined; and so forth.

Gerry is superbly equipped for the task: armed early in life with a first-rate degree in classics, a biblical scholar manqué, a systematic theologian with a life-time’s grasp of the tradition, a craftsman of written English, a flair for journalism: he mounts a powerful challenge. Lost in Translation will be painful reading for current members of ICEL and not a few bishops of the English-speaking world.

However, as Gerry notes in a post-script (dated September 2017), the ice is beginning to crack. Pope Francis — perhaps alerted to the dissatisfaction in the English-speaking church by his sub-secretary of state, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, former student and friend of Gerry’s and recent Nuncio to Australia — has issued a motu proprio, rather grandly titled Magnum Principium. The ‘great principle’ is the right of the faithful, of whatever age and culture, to ‘share in a conscious and active way in the liturgical celebrations’. Translations should not only be faithful to the Latin original but also ‘intelligible’. Their fidelity must be judged in the context of the whole act of communication rather than in individual words. This, as Gerry remarks, is really Rome’s polite way of indicating, without saying so in as many words, that Liturgiam Authenticam no longer enjoys authoritative status. Like the British Empire at its zenith, ‘Never apologise, never explain. Just move on.’

I wouldn’t be surprised were many of you were thinking: in the face of the massive crises — of poverty, disease, dislocation of peoples — confronting the world at large, and the issue of clerical sexual abuse, considered by many to be the greatest crisis confronting the Roman church since the Reformation, in the face of all this, is it right or appropriate to be so concerned about liturgy. After all, we may presume, no human beings or animals were injured in the implementation of the 2010 missal. But, when the chips are down, the Church’s core business is worship. And worship is what the Church — and all churches — alone can provide. If the Church doesn’t get its worship right, that will soon redound negatively upon its proclamation and living out of the gospel, including the works of justice and mercy.

Worship shapes people’s image of God. If they are led to address the deity in language fitting for a Byzantine emperor, they will imagine and think of God — and their relationship with God — in similarly oppressive terms. If devout elderly faithful, who have spent many years in blameless and often heroic service of God and neighbour, are constantly reminded that they have behind them a lifetime of ‘grievous’ sinning, through their own ‘most grievous fault’ — though how one could ‘sin’ without its being one’s ‘fault’ is not clear — if these damning superlatives are laid upon them, instead of being consoled by God’s mercy, they will be oppressed — surely a serious injustice.

In the very first sentence of the book, Gerry records his delight in a weekly appointment to celebrate Mass in Italian. He hopes one day, before he dies — though happily showing no sign of early appointment with that event — to celebrate with equal delight in his native language. We join you, Gerry, in hope and prayer that that may soon be the case. More immediately, we thank for an excellent work that will surely hurry that day along. I declare the good ship, Lost in Translation, duly launched, and, dare I say, sent on its missal destroying way.