Was the Mass broken? Why fix it? A history lesson

By Blogger Philip Stine

“Why are you doing this? It’s not like the Mass was broken,” Roman Catholics throughout the English speaking world were asking when the Church recently introduced sweeping changes in the language of the prayers, chants and responses of the Mass. The answer is simple: their church is returning to its distinctive theological and political identity.

Throughout the history of Christianity, language and theology have been intricately intertwined. Roman Catholics traditionally translated both Scriptures and liturgy from Latin texts; Protestants based their Scriptures on the original languages Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament); Orthodox Churches used the Greek texts as the basis for both Old and New Testament translations.

The home language of Jesus and his disciples was probably Aramaic, although they may well have learned to read some Hebrew. However, since the time of Alexander the Great, Greek had been the language of commerce and education throughout the Middle East, and even the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, were translated into Greek for use by Jews in diaspora. This translation, known as the Septuagint, was the one the New Testament writers quoted as they wrote their books and epistles in Greek.

The early Church had several principal centers, but over time, as Rome gained ascendency in the west, Latin became the language of liturgy in the west, and in the year 382, Pope Damusus I asked St. Jerome to prepare a translation of the Bible in Latin. This led to the translation known as the Vulgate (meaning common), used by the Roman Church for more than 1100 years. However, the Eastern Church, with Constantinople as its center, continued to use the Greek Scriptures for both Old and New Testaments. As vernacular translations were developed in the west, they were based on the Latin. Churches established in the east based their translations on Greek.

A distinguishing feature of reformers such as Martin Luther was the decision to use the Hebrew and Greek texts as the base for translation, and to put the Scriptures into the languages people spoke. Even Henry VIII saw immediately that one clear way to cement the separation of the English Church from Rome was to produce a Bible in English, the so-called Great Bible of 1539. It was of course based not on Latin but on the original texts.

When Elizabeth I began to persecute many Roman Catholic leaders, a number fled to Douai and Rheims in France where they founded an English speaking university, and between 1582 and 1610 produced a translation in English. The Douai Rheims translation was extensively revised over the years, but remained the principal Bible of Catholic English speakers well into the mid-20th century.

In the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church began to use the Hebrew and Greek texts in some vernacular translations. In October 1959 the Jesuit magazine America published an article by Father Walter Abbot, S.J., in which he pointed out that since it was now possible for Catholics and non-Catholics to agree on the source texts for the Bible, it should be possible for people around the world to have the same Bible. When Pope John XXIII announced a council which became known as Vatican II, Abbott’s article became the core of Chapter 6 of Dei Verbum, the principal document of the council. Abbott’s dream was realized as around the world Catholics worked with other churches to prepare common translations, all based on the Greek and Hebrew. There are about 650 languages now with such shared, common Scripture translations.

But enthusiasm cooled. Many bishops were uncomfortable with this lack of distinctiveness and what they saw as a loss of traditional theology. In March 2001 Pope John Paul II approved a document which gave detailed guidelines for translating texts of the Roman liturgy. It demanded that translators give priority to doctrine, theology and fidelity to the linguistic form rather than the meaning or cultural context, and required that translations of biblical passages be based on the Latin. The revised Missal that was launched two weeks ago is a direct result of that directive.


2 responses to “Was the Mass broken? Why fix it? A history lesson

  1. Thank you Philip for this history lesson. I found it very interesting and informative as a devout Catholic who did not grow up attending Latin Masses. I have attended the once a month Latin Masses at St. Mary with my family and although it is different from the English Mass, it is evident that the central focus is the Eucharist. I appreciate the changes of the revised Missal since I have complete faith that Pope John Paul II was guided by the Holy Spirit to approve the document that bases biblical passages on the Latin. As a parent, I believe it is my duty to embrace these changes, learn them, and to continue to pass on the beauty and richness of my Catholic faith to my children.

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