Bishop Drennan, ‘thumbs up’. Two ‘thumbs up’ to Bishop Campbell

Jogging our memories, I’m sure we can recall the liturgical branding for the new translation of the Mass.

“New words, deeper meaning, same Mass.”

Initially prepared to go with the flow, after a little while I found the cognitive dissonance became too apparent.

What we got were old words with foreign meanings and a Mass that somehow changed my expression of faith.

‘Thumbs up’ then to Bishop Drennan, secretary of the New Zealand Bishop’s Conference, for his piece in Wel-com, and collectively to the Conference, for their encouragement of Rome to overcome the clunky, awkward new translation.

Of particular mention, ‘two thumbs up’ to Bishop Campbell who, when global liturgical ‘group think’ was at its peak, swam publicly against the tide, risked a ‘rap over the knuckles‘ from the then pope and criticised the new translation.

Disappointed, Bishop Campbell not only questioned the outcome of the new translation but also its delivery process and, from memory, he warned the ‘new translation’ would not be the endpoint.

Importance of language

Sociolinguistics is the study of language and culture; it views language as intrinsic to communication.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity states the structure of a culture’s language determines the behaviour, habits and thinking of that culture.

Thus, language forms a culture through the realities embedded in it.

“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood. We are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for our society.

“We see, hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” (Benjamin Whorf: Language, Thought, and Reality, p 134.)

Some describe the new translation as beautiful, but it is not the kind of developed world beauty people speak to me about; it doesn’t talk about the reality of the cultural setting of antipodean life.

It seems to me the language of the new translation, of exclusivity, archaic vocabulary; “dewfall,” “consubstantial,” “oblation,” and the over-inflated language of prayer; “graciously hear,” “graciously grant”, “holy and unblemished” and, “and with your spirit,” belong to a time long past.

These and other similar phrases may have deep meaning, they may be accurate translations of the Latin, but so what?

Language is a living tradition, it’s meant to be readily understood and used, and if the language of the liturgy needs sermons and articles in periodicals to interpret various phrases, haven’t we lost the point?

Global and local

I find it sad that a global initiative, which included Bishops Denis Browne and Peter Cullinane, started out to positively address such issues as sexism in liturgical texts but, through no fault of theirs, it got diverted into a mash-up of old and new.

For many, the new translation never really hit the mark and probably never really helped shape us as Catholics in the 21st Century.

So I, for one, welcome Bishop Drennan saying that a better translation of the Mass is possible.

Seemingly under a little pressure to move, I also hear his plea for patience, but I welcome people putting pressure on the bishops for change because it shows interest and involvement in their faith.

A potentially huge task

As the song goes, “Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”.

I’d note that the global initiative before the new translation, started at the beginning and had input from specialists in pastoral liturgy, languages etc.

It took decades to formulate.

So I wonder if there is a need to go back to the beginning; to as it were, ‘recreate the wheel’ when the translation that met with almost universal approval, still exists?

Thankfully now, with a change in Canon Law, Pope Francis has shifted primary responsibility for liturgical texts to each diocesan bishop. However, Bishop Drennan’s comments suggest the New Zealand Bishops, at least, will work as a conference on the new text.

Hopefully, this will make things more simple, but, it may not!

For example, many years prior to the ‘new translation’, the Christchurch diocese used a different version of the “Our Father”, so it was possible then and now more possible for a diocesan bishop to allow e.g. different versions of prayers, and different congregational responses.

Yes, that means there may be different prayers and different responses in dioceses within a country, around the world, and in language groupings.

There are times when I’m sure being a bishop must be a thankless task. However, on this one I think we can be proud of our bishops, for like no others they’ve knocked on Rome’s door expressing our frustrations with the current translation.

To use Pope Francis’ expression, they are shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep’.

  • After postgraduate communications study at Victoria University Wellington, Fr John Murphy SM works in new media.

News category: Opinion.

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