“BEFORE I die, I would be delighted to celebrate once again the Eucharist in my native language,” begins a new book that urges the Roman Catholic Church’s English-speaking bishops to restore a translation of the Roman Missal “moldering in a Vatican cupboard”.
In Lost in translation: The English language and the Catholic mass, Fr Gerald O’Collins, a research professor at the Jesuit Theological College in Parkville, Australia, calls for the reintroduction of the 1998 “Missal that never was”: an English translation that fell foul of demands by the Vatican for “a mythical ‘sacred vernacular’”, and a centralising tendency that led to the “usurpation” of the body that produced it — the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).
The missal, which the ICEL worked on for 12 years, found its arch opponent in the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Medina Estévez. After rejecting it, he demanded a complete overhaul of the ICEL, which eventually produced a translation approved in 2010, and is still in use today. Fr O’Collins argues that this is not only linguistically inferior to the 1998 translation, but verges on Pelagian heresy.
“Rather than sounding like stiff and awkward ‘translation’ English, the 1998 Missal is eminently suitable for proclamation,” he writes. “Its language proves natural and clearly understandable”. He finds in the 2010 missal “odd, ‘stately’ words, obsequious ways of addressing God, and a non-inclusive language that leaves out half the human race. . . All too often its translations are misleading and even theologically false.” The prayers, he complains, are full of “long sentences that belong more to the Latin of Cicero than to contemporary English”. He gives the examples of “charity” rather than “love”, “laud” rather than “praise”, and “supplication” over “prayer”, writing: “Every now and then I have to speak about the eucharistic ‘oblation’ and wonder how many of the assembled faithful think that I have mispronounced ‘ablution’.”
Fr O’Collins takes hope from Pope Francis’s commitment to “sound decentralisation”, including his appointment last year of a commission to revisit the guidelines for translation — Authentic Liturgy — that underpinned the 2010 translation. He wrote the book after a favourable reaction to an open letter to English-speaking bishops, published in The Tablet in 2015, in which he called for the reintroduction of the 1998 missal. Its first chapter is written by a former editor of the magazine, John Wilkins, who also edited it.
“Take it down from a Vatican shelf, dust it off, and make a few additions,” Fr O’Collins writes. “Then Mass in the vernacular can become, as it should be, a powerful tool of evangelisation when people experience it.”