Day: August 21, 2009

Bringing our buried treasure to light

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Jesus tells the story of a man who discovered a buried treasure while ploughing in a field. He was so delighted, he sold everything he had so that he could buy the field – and its treasure – for himself!

Our world abounds in hidden treasures that have been brought to light by hard work and painstaking effort. In all cases, the effort involved in uncovering these long-hidden treasures has been more than compensated for by the final reward.

One example comes immediately to my mind.

For centuries, Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were dulled by the build-up of grime and soot from smoke and humidity. The remarkable thing was that many people had come to think that these dark and muted colours were the way Michelangelo originally intended his paintings to appear. They had become so accustomed to the dilapidated appearance of this great masterpiece, that by the beginning of the 19th century, some could even describe the artist who created it as “a painter insensitive to colour”.

When the restoration work began in 1984, close inspection showed that – besides the accumulated grime – some of the damage had actually been caused by earlier, less skilled attempts at restoration. Both repair and correction were required to uncover the ‘buried treasure’. When the restoration was completed, the world was able to marvel once again at the brilliance of Michelangelo’s original work as it was when he first painted it. Even so, there were still critics who claimed that the new colours were too bright or that the restoration had removed a ‘respectful quality of age’ from the artwork.

English-speaking Catholics today are awaiting the restoration of an even greater treasure than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: a fresh and faithful translation of the Liturgy of the Church into the English language.

In 1963, in its very first Decree, the Second Vatican Council granted that it “may frequently be of great advantage to the people” if some parts of the Liturgy were translated into the common language of the people. In this way, the Council Fathers hoped that some of the hidden treasures of the Liturgy would be brought to light for all to appreciate. We have been using the translation that resulted for the past 40 years.

While very successful in many ways, this translation has, in many cases, hidden rather than revealed the true treasures of the Liturgy. Just as the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel were dulled by smoke and grime, so the vivid colours of the Sacred Liturgy were dulled by a limited use of vocabulary and a pedestrian style of sentence structure. Like the earlier, unskilled attempts at restoring the work of Michelangelo, so the rich imagery of the original Latin text was often obscured or removed altogether.

Most tragically, in some places our current translations have actually hidden the Church’s true faith. An ancient saying, ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’ (‘the way we pray is the way we believe’) teaches that if our prayers are robbed of their full meaning, so also our faith is impoverished. If our prayers are in the vocal equivalent of ‘black and white’, so also our faith will lose its vivid colour and tone.

The Latin text of the Liturgy is the result of many centuries of faith and tradition. Parts of the text go back to the very earliest times of the Church. Like Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the Roman Liturgy carries in it many allusions to the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers. It reaches from the floor level of our present history right up to the ceiling level of the Last Judgement and beyond into eternity. It centres on the Sacrifice of the Mass, the greatest treasure of the Church, in which saints and martyrs and bishops and priests and people join together with the angels ‘as one voice’ to praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To enable this great symphony, the Liturgy employs a language that is ‘noble’ and ‘poetic’. The language of public worship has never been the language of the street or the marketplace. Even when Catholics still spoke Latin as an everyday language, they intentionally used a courtly style to address their praise and worship to God, following the instinct of the Church that in matters of worship we should offer God the very best of which we are capable.

The desire to use English in our liturgies and the desire to offer our prayers to God in a language of the highest nobility ought not to be mutually opposed. English, like Latin, can also be poetic and beautiful. English, like Latin, is also capable of bearing many layers of meaning. English, like Latin, can accurately express and convey the truth of our Faith.

In 2001, with the authority of Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for Divine Worship began to oversee the huge work of the retranslation of the Latin Liturgy into English. This task required “the preparation of (new) liturgical books marked by sound doctrine, which are exact in wording, free from all ideological influence, and otherwise endowed with those qualities by which the sacred mysteries of salvation and the indefectible faith of the Church are efficaciously transmitted by means of human language to prayer, and worthy worship is offered to God the Most High” (Liturgiam Authenticam).

The process of retranslation is now nearing an end and, hopefully before very long, we will be able to begin to enjoy the fruits of this great labour. The new texts will be common to the whole of the English-speaking Church. All the bishops’ conferences of Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Scotland, South Africa and the United States have been involved. I have been privileged to be a part of the process, as the Australian bishops’ representative on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

Of course, there is much work to be done in the introduction of the new translations when they are ready. Priests and people will need to be pastorally prepared through a period of catechesis. I truly look forward to this phase of the introduction as a way for us all to grow in our faith and our appreciation and understanding of the riches of the Liturgy.

I recognise that, like digging for buried treasure, the work of introducing the new Liturgy will take some considerable effort on behalf of the whole worshipping community. I understand that the period of transition will not be easy. I ask all of you to show a gracious degree of patience and a firm degree of solidarity with me and with the whole Church during the introduction of the new translations.

However, I am sure that when this great work of restoration is completed and we are all able to experience the result for ourselves, we will rejoice to see the revelation of the hidden treasures of the Liturgy – a treasure fresh and restored for the Church today and for many future generations.

Written by Archbishop Denis Hart