A honest priest – or Why I love Fr. James Martin

Parishes across the country have been getting ready, in one form or another, for the release of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which happens officially this coming Sunday. Like many Catholics, I’ve been dreading this for awhile, but unable to really figure out why. After all, change is inevitable and it isn’t like Holy Mother Church has said we have to go back to actually celebrating the Mass in Latin (although some fear this may be the next step), simply that the wording needs to more accurately reflect the original Latin translation. My writer’s ear and publication background are offended by the violation of a cardinal rule of writing – don’t use a fancy word when simple will do –  since this translation moves us from clear, certain, understandable language to more obtuse, complicated, awkward language. But, overall, will those wording changes seem so convoluted a year from now? I’m not so sure.

Still, there was an upset in my heart and not simply because of the homilies I’ve heard in different parishes over the past month or the reports from friends of the homilies they’ve heard — homilies where not one positive word was said about the gift of Vatican II, the simple joy of being able to come to a Church and actually understand what the heck was going on. The fact that many priests (and/of bishops) are using this time of change in translation to issue, in one priest’s unfortunate choice of words, “a corrective” in liturgical habits of particular parishes, has also been more than a little irritating. (One very active, faithful mid-20-something Catholic said hearing her pastor’s sermon condemning her parish’s habit of holding hands during The Lord’s Prayer felt hurtful and she couldn’t understand why he felt the need to – in a time of translation shock – take away something most in her community find unifying in prayer. “It isn’t ‘My father,’ it’s ‘Our Father,‘” she said, explaining why it make sense to the laity to hold hands.)

That said, I didn’t think it was the homilies per se that were upsetting me until I read the thoughts of Fr. James Martin, S.J. today. One of my favorite Jesuits (and definitely Colbert’s favorite), Martin said he was sad about losing the Sacramentary, or the book of Mass prayers the priest uses to celebrate Mass. Those prayers are being part of the new translation and he said there’s been no real mention of the “appreciation for the riches it brought to the church for the last few decades.”

Ah, there it is. I’m sad because what we’re losing with this translation is just as important as what some people say we are gaining and I’ve not heard that from any priest. Our grief over the loss of the words that brought us to God (or kept us there) has not been acknowledged. Instead we’ve heard that this change is necessary because what we had before was wrong. We went too far astray. We got too familiar with God, too familiar with the Mass, too familiar with each other (all that holding of hands!). The message many Catholics have been getting from the “instruction” on the new translation is that Rome needs to rein us in with more high-minded language so we’ll remember what we’re doing and how important the Liturgy is – intimating that we haven’t recognized the importance of the Liturgy all these years.

These messages  have had the effect of a kick in the stomach to most of the people in the pews. Martin’s piece is the antidote to that. A snip:

It would be odd, therefore, not to acknowledge some sadness over the passing of something so central to Catholic life as what will soon be called the “old” Sacramentary.  Even if you are eagerly anticipating the new translations, something significant is moving into the past, and is being lost.

And loss requires some acknowledgement. It seems most of the clergy are intent on ignoring the sadness many of their parishioners feel in this moment, so busy are they kow-towing to the group that thinks these changes are long overdue or using it as a moment to make “correctives.” (Or maybe, as some Catholics have suggested, they’re just clueless.) Surely there is a balance between who-hooing the changes and recognizing the gift that they were to the Church. It is not that the old translation of the Mass prayers was horrible; it wasn’t. Indeed, as Martin so honestly writes, those prayers were full of language that was “simple, clean, clear, direct, unadorned, beautiful.”

It is language that resulted in thousands of conversions to Catholicism in the past four decades in the U.S., conversions were not wrought in a Latin-speaking Mass setting. There should be some acknowledgement of that fact, and so I say, “Amen, brother,” to Fr. Martin for giving voice to what many of my Catholic friends and I are feeling. And, I’m glad you’re keeping your Sacramentary. May you be able to pray the old as you get used to the new.

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4 thoughts on “A honest priest – or Why I love Fr. James Martin

  1. I am sad the English speaking Church Strayed away from the direct translation 40 years ago! The Itialian, Spanish, Polish, French, German, etc speaking countries never did! They remained faithful to the direct translation from the Latin. Its about UNITY!
    And what you shold really be so sad about is the real “fruits” of Vatican II– closed parishes, Closed Catholic schools, Horrible religious education, empty seminaries, no Nuns under 70, Mass attendance down from 80% in 1965  to 20% now in the US, (so much for the old Sacramentary drawing people to Mass! It was a FAILURE!!)  Really wat are the fruits of Vatican II you are so proud of???

    1. The fruits of Vatican ll were and are from the heart of the most loved Pope in the last 300 years.  The sociological , Ecclesiastical statistics you quote are for real, but hardly a result of the reformation of stale and cold liturgies that chased away genuine adherents to the faith.  80 to 20 %? I think not.  Horrible education? Who says? Empty Seminaries? Well only empty of draft dodgers and men of  weak commitments and aberrant behavior that was tolerated and has now been purged.  This linguistic retro stuff is fueled by the new age neo-cons who believe that a return to the ” good ole days” is a way to fill the pews and fill the coffers….which is the real back story.  Not only are the Bells of St Marys not ringing anymore, but neither are the cash registers. The changes in the Mass are a marketing ploy that have little to do with “sola filia.”  Jesus says, why do you play with my words and call them “corrective.” My words do not change.

  2. Anytime we talk about the translation of a text, especially into muliple languages (Italian, Spanish, Polish, French, German, etc. as previously stated) we must acknowledge the fault in a “direct translation” from one to another. Any good translator knows it is not only about directly translating word to word but about capturing the sense of what is being said or written (so aptly put by the blogger as not using fancy words where simple will do). Since the above languages mentioned all use a common alphabet it is perhaps easier to imagine a word to word translation from latin without taking into regard the meaning that is trying to be stated. However, begin to consider the text being translated into Chinese and Arabic, which use different alphabet systems. Transliteration becomes a bit more tricky. In my opinion I believe we can all assume that the translators are doing their best, and if this is what they have come up with, then excellent. However, it is understandable that people feel a loss to the sense they have identified to the “old” text as they adjust to the new, and the changes have poor backing if you ask me. Why mess with a good thing? How about instead of spending time changing words in liturgy we work more on building community and learning how to live out our Catholicism beyond church on Sunday. But do we need yet another reason for division in the Catholic church? I think not. So I will pray the new words the same as the old.
    Unity in the Catholic church is about more than saying the same words at mass. It is a common desire to connect with your community and encounter God on a visceral level. From the discussions with most Catholics that I’ve had, the frustration comes not from translation but the effort to somehow reformat what we do in a “Father (lit.) knows best” kind of way. Were we asked? When will we be truly included in this unified Church we love?
    Im unsure of where the stats came from above, but from the source I found (http://cara.georgetown.edu/CARAServices/requestedchurchstats.html) , which openly states the difficulty of accurately measuring the attendance by Catholics to mass (I personally have never been asked), the data shows that the Catholic population has grown and since deacons came into existence the number has skyrocketed (we won’t discuss why, although to some it may seem obvious). However, the number of nuns and priests has declined, as have some other Catholic related statistics. Should Vatican II be blamed for this? From the literature I’ve read, the changes to the liturgy have to do with words we say not actions we do. I’m still at a loss for why Vatican II was brought into this mess.
    Perhaps these small changes reflect the ‘let them eat cake’ attitude of the Church hierarchy in response to the desires that more serious changes be made in the Catholic church. Whatever the reason, the change will come and go, and we must weather the storm per usual. Much like the disciples on the boat in the stormy sea, I’m sure Jesus is looking down on the worriers saying, “How is it that you have no faith?”

    1. Daily and weekly Mass attendance may be down, but those that profess to be Catholic is on the rise, here and around the world, especially the African nations. Odd eh? Maybe something to do with the social gospel and consumerism?  Veils, incense, and language changes have little to so with Social Justice and the gospel of Jesus Christ. I will wait this one out.

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