This fall we will change to a new English translation of the Mass. You might have heard rumors or hype about the coming changes, but it all boils down to one simple change: You know that big red book that the priest reads all the prayers out of? We’re getting a new copy of the Big Red Book (it’s proper name is the Sacramentary or the Roman Missal).
The Long History of the Big Red Book (in 400 words or less)
When the early Christians gathered for Sunday worship they would usually pray in Greek. Even in Rome, most of the first Christians were Greek-speaking immigrants. Somewhere in the 300’s, enough Latin speakers had converted that the Church in Rome decided to translate the Bible and the Mass prayers into Latin. As the Church continued to expand northwards into the missionary lands of what would become France, Spain, Germany, England, etc., the decision was made that the churches in the former Roman Empire would all use the same Big Red Book. They wrote to Rome and asked the Pope to make copies of the Big Red Book he was using in Rome. Since the book was for Mass it was known as the Missal, and since it came from Rome it was called the Roman Missal. It expanded and changed over the next thousand years, but wherever the Latin church prayed, it always used the same Big Red Book everywhere. When missionary priests came to the New World in the 1600’s they brought with them copies of the Big Red Book and used it to celebrate Mass with and for the native peoples.
After the Second Vatican Council some significant changes were made to the Roman Missal. The most noticeably change was the permission to translate the book into local languages (up to that point, everyone in the West used Latin). Now you could celebrate Mass in Czech or Swedish or Swahili, provided that your translation had been duly approved by the Big Red Book officials in Rome. The Americans worked together with other English-speaking countries to quickly whip up an English translation. We have been using this same translation for the past 40 years.
Why a new Translation
The original translation was done quickly. The translators simplified many of the more complex phrases found in the Latin copy of the Roman Missal. Latin is a very rich language that can say a lot with few words. The Mass in many places quotes from different passages in the Bible. These quotes can be confusing unless you understand the context of where they are coming from. The original translators felt that Americans would not understand some of the complexity of the Latin prayers. In the last 40 years we have learned a great deal about celebrating Mass in English. One of the things we have learned is that given time and good explanations, we can handle big words and complex sentences. About 8 years of thought and careful planning went into this brand new translation.
Our Gospel this weekend reminds us that the most important commandment is to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As important as this commandment is, we can easily forget it in the hustle and bustle of daily life. The current translation of the Mass has become so familiar that sometimes we respond without even realizing what we are saying. This new translation is a good opportunity to take a closer look at what we are saying and what it means. I hope as we look at the words we say, we will put more of our heart into loving God and loving our neighbor when we come to Mass.
(23 Oct 2011)