In St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the great preacher to the Gentiles tells his readers, “We give thanks to God always for you.”
The offering of thanksgiving is one of the foundational activities of the Christian believer. We are all called to offer thanks to God for the many blessings he has bestowed upon our life. The greatest of these gifts is the gift of faith, that profound mercy by which we come to know the true and living God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
As Catholics, we offer this thanksgiving most fully and fittingly in the Holy Eucharist, when we gather around the altar to break bread and to offer to God a sacrifice of praise. Indeed, as many of you know, the Greek word from which we receive the word “Eucharist,” “Eucharistia,” is the word for thanks.
But our way of offering thanks to God is not by simply saying the words, “thank you” to the Almighty. Rather, we offer to God our hearts. This is the sacrifice acceptable to God — a heart full of love. In the Mass, when the celebrant invites “Lift up your hearts,” our response must be resolute and enthusiastic — “We lift them up to the Lord!”
For nearly 40 years, most Roman Catholics have been offering this prayer of thanksgiving using what is called the “vernacular,” or our mother tongue. In our case, this has been English. One of the truly powerful fruits of the Second Vatican Council was the allowance for the use of the vernacular in the liturgy.
The purpose of this pastoral decision was the call of the council for an ever greater participation of all the faithful in the mysteries of the Mass. The church knows that the Mass is the pinnacle of her activity here on earth. Indeed, it is a participation in the worship of heaven, that homeland to which we are all called. To be attentive to the prayers of the Mass, making them our own while we offer our lives in union with Christ’s one sacrifice, is to grow in the true Christian spirit.
The Mass is the source of our identity, our strength and our purpose as Catholics.
When the revised Latin Missal of Pope Paul VI was released in 1969, a revision that involved much more than the allowance of the vernacular, the bishops of the Catholic world were given the monumental task of translating this new text into the many vernacular languages of the world so that their people would be better able to receive the graces of the Holy Mass.
The principle of translation used at that time was known as “dynamic equivalence,” the idea that the conveyance of the basic meaning of a sentence was of utmost importance, even as particular words or phrases, even scriptural ones, found in the Latin text, could be paraphrased or, at times, eliminated.
It’s important to point out that this principle, approved by the church and utilized in our current translation, has served us well as a community of faith. It has been an effective first step in learning how to pray and offer the Mass in the vernacular. The entirety of my priesthood has utilized this current translation, and I can state without hesitation that I have been touched and formed by the rich and effective words we currently say in the Sacred Liturgy.
But the church is a teacher and a mother, and through years of observing the use of “dynamic equivalence” in our churches and communities, she has determined that we can do even better in conveying the rich meaning of the liturgical prayers of our tradition.
This determination has been guided by the Holy Spirit and only after many years of consultation and deliberation. The new translation is not a betrayal of the Second Vatican Council, as some have erroneously charged, but rather a fulfillment of the council’s own call for an ever greater and more precise use of the vernacular in our liturgical prayer, utilizing translations that are faithful to the base Latin texts.
Simply put, we are continuing to learn how to worship in the vernacular, and the new translation, which will be introduced on Nov. 27, is but one more step in learning how to pray the Mass well.
Rather than the principle of “dynamic equivalence,” the new translation utilizes what has been called “formal equivalence,” a translation that follows more closely the Latin text upon which the English is based. But the new translation is about much more than “getting the Latin right.” It’s also about making the many scriptural references of the Mass shine more brilliantly.
“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.” Ask any passerby on the street and I would wager that they will know the origins of this phrase. That’s not to say that they will be able to state which Gospel it comes from, or perhaps even whether it is an Old Testament or New Testament quotation. But that the saying comes from the Bible?
Despite our culture’s often ignorance of Scripture, there are some sayings that we just know are biblical. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “forgive us our trespasses,” “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” and today’s quote from the Gospel of St. Matthew, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” These are all quotes that are widely acknowledged as biblical, even by non-believers.
One of the great goods of the new translation of the Roman Missal, to be used in the Sacred Liturgy starting Nov. 27, is an unveiling of the many scriptural references that are obscured or even eliminated in the current translation. Again, the new translation is about so much more than just getting the Latin right. It is also about making the many images and references to Sacred Scripture found in the Holy Mass clearer and more poignant. This can only be of great benefit for the church and for all believers.
The new translation also aims at fostering what has been called a “higher register.” A language register is the tone we assume in certain circumstances. The way I spoke to my mother and father is far different than the way I speak to my nephews and nieces. So, too, in the Mass — we are speaking to God, and the new translation attempts to remind us of the supreme dignity of the liturgical context of the Mass.
Taking time to listen
But my dear brothers and sisters, this time in the church’s life is about more than just learning new words. It has to be about drawing closer to the mystery of the Holy Eucharist and making it a greater reality in our own lives as Catholics. Learning new words will take time and effort, to be sure. But we will learn them and we will use them and soon they will be just as familiar to us as the words we currently use.
But if we can take this time to listen again to the words of the Mass and the many scriptural allusions within it; if we can spend this time in truly lifting up our hearts in the sacrifice of praise that is the Mass; if we can use this time to make the Mass the source and summit of our lives as Christians — then we will have benefitted from this time. We will not have let this time of preparation go to waste.
May God bless this time of preparation for the new translation. And may God bless us today, as we approach this altar and this sacrifice, to offer a fitting prayer of thanksgiving to the True and Living God.
God bless you!
This message was originally shared as a homily at the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul and was later published by The Catholic Spirit, the award-winning newspaper of the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.