A Polish (John Paul II) and German (Benedict XVI) Pope, working together in Italian, were instrumental in bringing together the beauty that is seen in the new Roman Missal — though the true hero was Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, according to Fr. de Souza. CNS photo/Eliseo Fernandez, Reuters

New Missal bodes well for the new evangelization

  • December 7, 2011

Less than two weeks after we began using the new translation of the Roman Missal, parishes and priests are getting used to the new prayers. Before the novelty wears off though, we ought to note that the very fact that the new translation exists at all is a promising sign for the Church’s witness in the 21st century.

Consider simply this: Whether at a parish in Bombay or Belfast, whether the Mass is being offered in Brisbane or Brandon, Catholics are praying the same prayers. For a universal Church whose liturgy is in Latin, that should not be surprising. Yet over the past decades centrifugal forces have been strong in the Church, with a certain liturgical mentality taking hold that emphasized the differences in various localities rather than the unity. When differing educational jurisdictions within a single country have a difficult time harmonizing their curriculum and examinations, it is no small achievement to have a single English translation used both in South Africa and South Dakota.

That signal accomplishment was not easy. It required a process involving hundreds of bishops in nearly a dozen countries working in a prolonged collaboration with liturgical and linguistic experts under the guidance of the Holy See. A project of such scale and importance inevitably produces some friction, but given the monumental task that was at hand, there was rather little of that, save from those who opposed the whole project in principle. In point of fact, the work proceeded with more harmony than acrimony.

Some who worked on the process say that no book in history has been the fruit of as much consultation as the new Roman Missal in English. In the arts and literature, committee work and consultative processes usually produce mediocre results, a sort of lowest common denominator. That didn’t happen with this translation, another aspect of the project worth remarking.

Yet it is in the broader Christian landscape that the fact of a new translation takes on its deeper significance. Consider three aspects necessary for a successful global translation project — consensus on the importance of worship, collegial governance and confidence in the future.

If you were to follow the secular press and, to be honest, much of the religious press, the impression could be had that the Christian Church is beset by moral controversies, political conflicts and managerial challenges. The idea that a Christian community could devote enormous energies over more than a decade on the right worship of God is refreshingly encouraging. That the Catholic Church, so often portrayed as battered and bewildered, could put in good order the most important thing she does — the worship of God — means that the shepherds of the Church have not lost track of her mission, even if others have lost the story.

A translation for the entire English-speaking world necessarily involves collegial work by a wide array of Catholics from different parts of the world. Which other Church could manage that today? A great sadness of the 21st century will be the accelerating death of large parts of the Christian Church, especially in its historic homelands. In many parts of world Christianity, gathering leaders together simply to meet has become a task too difficult. The prospect of actual agreement is pure fantasy. Catholics acknowledge that our capacity to do so is not our work, but the grace of the Petrine ministry as the rock of the Church’s unity. Is it not a marvel of Providence that a Polish and German Pope, working in Italian, would be instrumental in the beauty of our English translation? The real hero of the whole piece was actually a Chilean cardinal, Jorge Medina Estevez — about whom more in a later column.

The new translation is a mark of renewed confidence in the future. I don’t mean the theological virtue of hope, but rather something on the natural plane, namely a sense that the future is not all bleak. That confidence permits a global project that will outlive many who worked on it. Communities that are only managing terminal decline do not engage in such bold action.

All of which points to reasons why the witness of the Catholic Church in the new millennium may indeed be more robust than commonly thought. The new translation is both a sign of and an impetus to the new evangelization — about which more next week.

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