It’s four years now since the new translation of the missal was introduced. I was initially sceptical. This was not because of any folksy, hand-clapping aversion to liturgical solemnity on my part, the kind of thing that often erroneously covers itself with the phrase ‘the spirit of Vatican II’. I had being going to Mass at a church which celebrated the Paul VI rite in Latin with plainsong and incense. My concern was, rather, pragmatic and related to concerns about language and translation. Weren’t we supposed to have a vernacular missal for celebrating the Mass in English? The new words didn’t look very vernacular to me! And wasn’t the idea that we should seek to translate texts, any texts, word for word, simply erroneous? It is, after all, the sentence that is the basic unit of meaning, and in any case languages have their own ways of conveying tone and subtext, making translation more of an art than a science. I wasn’t bothered enough to sign one of the many petitions that were circulating at the time, but I was troubled.
Some years on, and a falling away from the practice of my faith (which had nothing to do with the missal) later, I go to Mass according to the new translation pretty much daily. I’ve learned to love it. I feel as though we are praying when we use it (Herbert McCabe once wrote an excellent piece about the challenge to Catholics of understanding the Mass as a prayer). There is a real sense that something special is happening here, something that doesn’t quite belong to this present world.
Not everyone has shared this journey with me. You still hear grumbles about the new book. A few weeks back, going to Mass back home whilst visiting my parents, someone reflected to me as we were leaving church that the new words were ‘nonsense’. There is a lot to be said for this view. In fact, there is a lot to be said for the view that all our talk about God teeters on the brink of nonsense. McCabe, again, wrote of our words, when used of God, ‘wearing second hand clothes’. The point is that we learn the kind of words scripture and liturgy apply to God through applying them to material beings, limited, and potential objects of our experience: we talk about people as strong, good, or loving, we learn to call things fortresses and rocks. And then, and only then, we apply those words to God. Inevitably they fall short of the reality of God, the creator and sustainer of the worldly realities for which our words are equipped. Even in revelation, even in the sacraments, the nature of God remains beyond our ability to comprehend.
I feel that the new translation acknowledges this. The register of our language is shifted. We can still tell, perhaps with a little effort, what the words mean (or at least, what they would mean we were using them to talk to, or about, worldly realities), but we are unsettled. A certain unfamiliarity remains, even when we know the liturgy off by heart. And this, I claim, is good. We are, if you like, shocked out of complacency, out of the tendency to be too familiar with the divine, to adopt a perpetually matey tone that suggests, idolatrously, that the divine reality is some kind of celestial big buddy.
This doesn’t mean, for one second, that there isn’t room for – or more than that, the need for – the kind of prayer that involves, in St Ignatius’ phrase, speaking “as one friend speaks to another”. Yet we equally need to realise that we are only in a position to do this by grace, participating in the life of the Trinity whilst not understanding it. Surely there is no better time to be reminded of this than when we gather to be immersed intimately in the life of that Trinity, as the Spirit makes present under the sacramental signs Christ’s sacrificial prayer to his Father.
It isn’t only God, as such, that is signified in the liturgy. The Eucharist is, as St Thomas has it, “a promise of future glory”. We anticipate the Kingdom of God. Where one day there will be the heavenly banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb, laid out for all to see in a new heaven and a new earth – whatever we mean by that – right now there is a group of people coming up to eat what, for all the world, looks like bread and drink what, for all the world, looks like wine. In doing this, we believe, we share the life of a Kingdom that does not belong to this present age. At Mass, the future comes to high streets, estates, and shanty towns all over the world. The Kingdom isn’t realised in these places; a cursory glance at a newspaper should convince even the most incurable optimist of this. And yet, here is the future, as already present reality.
This brings me to what I think is an important distinction. Opponents of the new translation often point to the Council’s insistence, of which we were reminded at the Office of Readings this morning, of Christ’s presence in his people, assembled to celebrate the liturgy. The thought then seems to be that this presence should be acknowledged by making the liturgy as user-friendly for the congregation as possible, so that they can feel at home. The problem with this is that it doesn’t recognise what kind of people we are. The Church is not a social club, a special interest group, or even simply a meeting of friends (nor is it an alternative for these kind of things: there’s a certain kind of earnest modern churchiness which looks to me like an attempt to verify the charge that religion is a life substitute). We are instead a people who do not belong to this age, whose fundamental identity is not given by a world that is far from perfect. This being so we should be restless, and unsettled, conscious that we are still a pilgrim people, and precisely as such not entirely at home. The new translation makes this realisation easier.
Related to this is my sense that a certain commonly-made association between the ‘reform of the reform’ and political reaction is mistaken. I write as a throughgoing leftist of the old-school. Drably utilitarian liturgy and words lacking a sense of the otherness of their topic might sit comfortably with a certain kind of lightly baptised social democracy. They hardly speak of a world remade from the very foundations because, having shared the Cross, it now shares the Resurrection. It is the gap between the Kingdom and the injustice and violence of our world, rather than the continuities, that has proved the most effective motivation for Christian radicalism. A liturgy that places this gap in the foreground is no bad thing.
But my question remains, is this a vernacular? Well, what does that mean? It’s certainly English. Like any other language, English has numerous registers and tones, some appropriate for some purposes, some for others. Anyone who writes to a lover as they would to a bank manager will soon find themselves single. We don’t expect scientific reports to read like novels, nor the latter like poems or political tracts. Nor should we expect the liturgy, a unique action, to be conducted in words that would be at home elsewhere. Wittgenstein once chastised his earlier self for not recognising that there were a ‘multiplicity of.. tools in language and.. ways they are used’. Perhaps our earlier liturgical selves needed similar correction.