Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Where We Got the Bible

As Christians, we believe that God has revealed Himself to man. We also believe that the Bible is the inerrant written record of that Revelation. What is the Bible, where does it come from, and why do we, as Catholics, hold it to be inerrant?

The word “Bible” comes from the Greek word for “book.” The Bible is our sacred book. The Jewish people had a variety of sacred books they believed to be divinely inspired. Christ and the Apostles confirmed this by basing their teachings on these sacred books. These books make up the Old Testament. The teachings of the Catholic Church are handed on from the Apostles, who learned them from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is what is referred to as the Deposit of Faith, and this has not been added to or taken away since the beginning of the Church. Some of this teaching has been committed to writing, and this constitutes the New Testament.


The Jewish people had many books that they considered holy and inspired. Sometime during the third century BC these began to be compiled. There are several early compilations, but the one adopted by the first Christians, and the Catholic Church, was called the Septuagint, or Alexandrine, version, and was a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. During the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC), Jewish scholars met in Alexandria to translate the entire Jewish bible into Greek, which was the common language of many Jews throughout the Mediterranean and Palestine. There were 70 or 72 translators, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is why we call their work the “Septuagint,” which comes from the Latin word for 70.

Though other translations of the Jewish scriptures existed, this was the one used by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. Over 300 of the Old Testament quotes found in the New Testament come from the Septuagint. This is not surprising, as the New Testament was written in Greek, and it is only logical that the writers would use the Greek Jewish scriptures.

The Septuagint contains 46 books. The current Hebrew cannon only has 39, however. This is because the Hebrew canon was not formally established until around 100 AD by Jewish rabbis in the Palestinian city of Jamnia. This may have been in reaction to the growing Christian church, which these rabbis rejected. They left out seven books that are found in the Septuagint. These are Wisdom, Sirach, Judith, Baruch, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees (as well as parts of David and Esther). They did this chiefly because they could find no extant versions of these books in Hebrew, from which the Greek was translated. They had four criteria that they used to determine which books were included in the cannon: 1) they were written in Hebrew, 2) they were in conformity with the Torah, 3) they were older than the time of Ezra (400 BC), and 4) they were written in Palestine. Christians, however, continued to use the Septuagint version that Christ and the Apostles had used.

Along with the Jewish scriptures, there were many other books being circulated and used as sacred texts among the early Christians. These were mainly gospel accounts and letters of St. Paul and other Apostles. Some of these books would come to be our New Testament. The New Testament books were written between 50 AD and 100 AD, and there are 27 in all. Why did these books get included in the canon of Sacred Scripture and others, like the Gospel of Thomas and the letters of Barnabas, not? The Church herself would use her infallible teaching authority to determine which books did and did not belong in the Bible.

The first bishop to compile a list of inspired books was Mileto of Sardis in 175 AD. Other bishops also kept lists of inspired books (texts which were allowed to be read from during the liturgy), but nothing formal was done until the fourth century. In 382 Pope Damasus, prompted by the Council of Rome, issued decree listing the 73 books that have made up our Old and New Testament ever since. The Catholic Church declared these 73 books to be the Christian Biblical canon at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD, and then again confirmed this in the Council of Carthage in 397 AD. Pope St. Innocent I officially approved this same list of 73 books in 405 AD and forever closed the canon of the Christian Bible. These books were considered divinely inspired on the authority of the Catholic Church. This was to be held uncontested as the Christian canon until the 16th century.

Sometime before the end of the second century, at least one Latin translation of the whole Bible existed based on the Septuagint and Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. This is called the Vetus Itala, or Old Latin text. By the late fourth century, it was discovered that the Old Latin Bible had variations in the text from one church to another, and a unified version was desired. Pope Damasus authorized St. Jerome to revise the Old Latin text to this end. Jerome used the Greek manuscripts of the Old and New Testament to correct errors in the Latin text and re-translated sections to provide a better sense of the original meaning.

While doing this translation, he became convinced that the Western Church needed a new translation directly from the Hebrew of the Old Testament. He began this work in 390 and ended in 405 AD. It took some time for this translation to take hold, but it gradually gained acceptance over the Old Latin version. By the sixth century it was in general use by much of the west and by the ninth century it was more or less universal among the Latin Church (the Eastern, or Greek Church, of course using the original Greek Septuagint and New Testament, since that was the liturgical language of the Church there). By the thirteenth century this new Latin translation was being referred to commonly as the Vulgate (a title that used to belong to the Old Latin text).

The advent of the printing press greatly affected the history of the Bible. The first printing of the Vulgate Bible was done by Gutenberg in 1456, but other editions came out rapidly. The circulation of other Latin versions of the Bible caused uncertainty as to which was the standard text. This caused the bishops at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century to declare the Vulgate alone to be “authentic in public readings, discourses, and disputes, and that nobody might dare or presume to reject it on any pretence.”


The canon of Sacred Scripture, as set down by the Catholic Church, was unquestioned until the Protestant Reformation. In 1529, Martin Luther proposed an Old Testament of 39 books, made up of the Palestinian canon chosen by the Jewish rabbis in 100 AD. He justified this by citing some concerns that St. Jerome had when he was translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew—that some books in the Septuagint had no extant Hebrew versions. But Jerome did not think that these texts were not inspired, and never proposed to remove them from the canon. The Church always upheld an Old Testament canon of 46 books. In more modern times, the Dead Sea scrolls discovered at Qumran have revealed Hebrew versions of many of these disputed texts from the Septuagint, so they can no longer be contested on those grounds.

Luther really wanted to remove these books from the canon because they conflicted with his theological theories. For instance, 2 Maccabees 12:46 says, “it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.” This is a direct reference to purgatory, which Luther rejected. Luther even wanted to remove books from the New Testament that did not agree with his theology, such as the epistle of James, and Revelation. But there was no popular support for this, and he was eventually convinced to leave these books in his canon of the Bible.

He did succeed in removing the 7 books not found in the Palestinian Hebrew scriptures, those being Wisdom, Sirach, Judith, Baruch, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees (and parts of David and Esther). The first English Bible to leave these books out was translated by Miles Coverdale in 1535. He added these books at the end, calling them the “Apocrypha.” This Greek word means “hidden away,” and should not be applied to these texts, which have never been hidden at all. Some Protestant Bibles today leave them out completely, but most include them under this title at the end, or together between the Old and New Testaments. Most Protestants still do not hold them to be inspired as the rest of the Scriptures are.

As Catholics, we can rely on the infallibility of the living, teaching, Catholic Church, to determine which books are indeed inspired by God, and therefore considered part of the Christian canon. As St. Augustine said, “I would not believe in the Gospel, if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.”


Protestant churches follow the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which means “Scripture Alone.” This doctrine asserts that we are to follow the Bible alone as our sole rule of faith. What this means is that we have to reject Sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church. As Catholics, we accept the Bible as an authoritative text, but not the only authority on the faith.

First of all, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura not only is not found in the Bible, it is actually contradicted by the Bible! According to the Bible, not everything Jesus said or did is recorded in the New Testament (John 21:25). The Bible also tells us that we as Christians must hold fast to oral tradition and the preached word of God (1 Cor 11:2, 1 Pet 1:25). The Bible also warns us that Scripture can be very difficult to interpret, which implies the need for an authority to interpret these difficult texts for us (2 Pet 3:15-16). Where is that authority found? In 1 Timothy 3:15, we are told that the Church is the “pillar and foundation of truth.”

Indeed, Christ did not come to earth to write a book. He came to earth to found a Church. In the Scriptures, we read that Christ founded a Church with divine authority to govern in His name (Mt 16:13-20, 18:18; Lk 10:16). Christ also promised that this Church would last until the end of time (Mt 16:18, 28:19-20; Jn 14:16).

As you have read in the history above, it was the Apostolic Church, acting with divine authority, that determined what was and was not inspired Scripture. It was not the Scripture that established the Church. We would have no way of knowing what should and should not be trusted as an inspired text if it was not for the teaching of an authoritative Church. Even Luther himself had to admit, “We are obliged to yield many things to the Papists [Catholics]—that they possess the Word of God which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it.”

And we also continue to rely on that Church to help us interpret the Scriptures. A book such as the Bible, that plays such an important role in our faith, cannot be left for free interpretation, open to all. This would result in chaos, with everyone insisting that his or her own reading of the text is the correct one. Indeed, this is largely the reason why there are approximately 30,000 different Protestant denominations in existence today, all believing slightly different things, based on different interpretations of Scripture. Surely this is not what Christ had in mind when he prayed “that they may be one” (Jn 17:20-21).

The Catholic Church rejects the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, relying on Sacred Scripture as well as Sacred Tradition as our rules of faith, and the Church herself as the interpreter of that faith. This is the way it was in all Christendom for 1500 years before the Reformation came about, and the way it still is in the Catholic Church today.


The Catholic Church has always held the Bible to be the inspired word of God, and an invaluable teaching tool for our religion. According to the first Vatican Council, “These books are held by the Church as sacred and canonical, not as having been compiled merely by human labour and afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because, written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author, and have been transmitted to the Church as such.”

And from the 1952 Papal Encyclical, Provid. Deus, “The Holy Ghost Himself, by His supernatural power, stirred up and impelled the Biblical writers to write, and assisted them while writing in such a manner that they conceived in their minds exactly, and determined to commit to writing faithfully, and render in exact language, with infallible truth, all that God commanded and nothing else; without that, God would not be the author of Scripture in its entirety.”

A full treatment of what the Catholic Church teaches about the Bible can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 101 through 141. The Catechism confirms that “’The Church has always venerated the divine Scripture as she venerated the Body of the Lord’: both nourish and govern the whole Christian life.”


There are several myths and misconceptions about the Bible, and what Catholics believe about it. One of the largest of these is that there were no vernacular translations of the Bible until the Protestant Reformers undertook this task. Though this is far from being true, even those who should know better often repeat it as “fact.”

As an example, let us look at The Illustrated Guide to the Bible, by J. R. Porter, published by Barnes & Noble. Porter, an Anglican, is Professor Emeritus of Theology at the University of Exeter, and served for twenty years as a member of the General Synod of the Church of England. His book can be considered a mainstream text, from a mainstream publisher. In it, he makes the statement, “Protestant versions of the Scriptures led the way, but Catholics soon responded to a demand for Bibles in the vernacular.” This statement implies that Catholics only provided vernacular Bibles after Protestants had already begun this work.

However, this statement of Porter’s does not even agree with his own words written a few paragraphs earlier! He wrote, “from an early period, there were numerous renderings of Scripture into vernacular languages,” and, “In Eastern Europe, the first translations of the Bible into the Slavonic languages were made by the Greek missionaries Cyril and Methodius in the 860s.” One can find many more examples of pre-Protestant vernacular translations of the Scripture. Yet Protestants continue to get credit in the history texts for this innovation.

Let us look at only German translations of the Bible for argument’s sake, as Luther is often credited as being the first one to provide a German version of the Scriptures. History shows us that there were numerous partial translations of the Scriptures into Germanic languages as early as the seventh and eighth centuries. Even more German translations were undertaken in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and a complete German translation was done by the fifteenth—all before the invention of the printing press. In fact, fourteen complete folio editions of the Scriptures in Germanic languages still exist that date from prior to 1522, when Luther translated his New Testament. Similar early examples can be found of vernacular versions of the Bible in nearly all major European languages prior to the Reformation.

Another myth has to do with the “Apocryphal” books mentioned above. In much anti-Catholic literature, it will be stated that the Council of Trent, in 1546, added these books to the Bible. As can be shown historically, this is simply untrue. The Reformers dropped these books, and the Council of Trent, called to uphold Catholic doctrine, simply restated the fact that these books have always been in the Christian canon, since the canon was officially decided upon in the fourth century, and these books would continue to be in the canon.

One more myth, that is all-too often repeated to make the Catholic Church look unbiblical, is that in 1229, the Bible itself was forbidden to laymen and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Council of Valencia. This lie originated in the anti-Catholic book, Roman Catholicism, by Loraine Boettner. Unfortunately, it has been repeated and repeated by other anti-Catholic writers, and even spread into mainstream literature. It is one of the simplest arguments to refute, as it simply cannot stand up to historic scrutiny.

First of all, the Index of Forbidden Books was established in 1543, so a council in 1229 could not have placed a book on it. Second of all, there has never been a church council held in Valencia, Spain. Plus, the Moors were in control of that area in 1229, so the Church could not have had a council there even if they wanted to.

There was a council in 1229, but it was in Toulouse, France. It was a local council, not an ecumenical council (which means it did not represent the entire Church). This council did deal with the Bible, in a way. It was called to address the Albigensian heresy, which maintained that the flesh is evil and therefore marriage is evil, fornication is not a sin, and suicide is not immoral. They also opposed taking oaths, which completely undermined medieval feudal society, which was based on oaths. These Albigensians were using corrupt vernacular versions of the Bible to support their theories, twisting the Bible to “prove” their point. To combat this, the bishops at Toulouse restricted the use of the Bible until this heresy was ended. This was a local restriction, not a universal one, and when the heresy was over, the restriction was lifted.

This restriction never affected more than one area of southern France, and is a far cry from the Catholic Church banning the Bible from all laymen.

While doing some research into the early English translations of the Bible by Wycliff and Tyndale, I came across many references claiming that translating the Bible into English was considered heretical, and that in 1408 a law was enacted that forbade the translation of the Bible into English, and made reading it in English a crime. Like the other "myths" we have examined, there is more to this story as well.

After John Wycliff's corrupt translation of the Bible (full of Lollard heresy) caused so much confusion and scandal in the church in England, the Church did enact a law, in 1408, that prohibited the unauthorized translation of the Bible into English, and the reading of any unauthorized translation. The goal was to avoid another incident like the Wycliff translation. Under this law, any of the authorized English translations of Scripture before Wycliff were perfectly legal, as would be any future translation into English, done with the permission of Church authority. And of course reading these versions of Scripture was not only perfectly legal, but was in fact encouraged.


To protect this important book and to keep it inerrant, we rely on the infallible Church. In this capacity, the Catholic Church has approved certain versions of the Bible and specifically condemned others. Why is there a need for this?

Since early times, various translations and editions of the Bible have been better than others and some have been specifically in error. This is why the Church commissioned St. Jerome to produce the Vulgate edition in the first place. But with the advent of the printing press, and then the Protestant Reformation, more editions of the Bible were produced, in greater volume than ever before, and many of these were edited specifically to make the Catholic Church and her doctrines appear “unbiblical.” Others have just suffered from poor scholarship.

We have already discussed Martin Luther, and his removal of part of the Old Testament, called the “Apocrypha,” and the fact that he also wanted to remove certain New Testament books that he disagreed with, such as James and Revelation. But Martin Luther, in his German translation, also added things, such as the word “alone” to Romans 3:28, to support his doctrine of salvation by faith alone (which goes against Catholic teaching). Surely a Catholic would be in error to use a translation to which this word (or any word!) has been added. This is but one example of the type of abuse committed against the Bible.

Let us consider for a moment the most beloved of English translations, the King James Version (KJV). King James I of England and VI of Scotland sponsored this version of the Bible. King James was a Protestant king, and a devout anti-Catholic. His authorized translation was geared in many ways to condemn Catholic practices. One obvious example can be found in Matthew 6:7. The KJV reads, “But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathens do. . .” Many a Catholic has heard this verse quoted as an argument against the praying of the Rosary, which involves repeating the same prayers over and over again.

However, the Greek word that is translated as “vain repetitions” really should be better translated as “to stammer” or “to babble.” What Jesus really is saying in this text is to not ramble on when you pray, but get to the point, say what you mean. He is warning us not to confuse quantity of prayer with quality of prayer. But He certainly did not intend to tell us not to repeat prayers. In fact, Jesus Himself often repeats the same prayer, as in the Our Father.

Consider the circumstances the KJV was commissioned in. During the reign of King James in England, Catholics were forbidden to carry arms, deprived of all rights in court, forced to stay within five miles of their homes, prevented from entering the professions of law or medicine, subject to searches of their homes and persons, had their religious books burned, their devotional items confiscated, were fined for not attending Anglican services, and penalized for not having their babies baptized or their marriages blessed by Protestant ministers. Would you trust a Bible authorized by a man who treated Catholics this way?

During the Protestant Reformation, the Church did authorize an English translation. The New Testament part of this was printed in Reims in 1582 and the Old Testament was printed at Douai in 1609-10. This is called the Douai-Reims translation, and was approved for use by the Catholic Church.

Part of the reason why the Catholic Church insisted on the use of Latin in the liturgies for so long is because Latin, as a dead language, is also a preserved language. The meaning of a Latin word or phrase is the same today as it was 1000 years ago. English, and other vernacular languages, are living, and therefore changing. A phrase in English written today might mean something slightly different 100 years from now, and might be completely misunderstood in 1000 years. Just compare our English to Middle English or Old English! Plus, as you can tell from all of this, the process of translating the text from one language to another opens the door for all sorts of errors, whether purposeful or accidental.

So the Catholic Church takes care authorize modern language Bibles in the vernacular which accurately reflect the meaning of the text. So which English language versions can we rely on? Of course the Douai-Reims is still appropriate. In fact, since it was translated at the same time as the KJV, it has the same poetic language, and those attracted to that in the King James might look to the Douai-Reims for a more reliable version.

A good guide is to use the versions the Holy See has authorized for liturgical use. There are currently three English versions authorized for use in the United States. These are The New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, and the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition). The New American Bible is the one used in the American Lectionary (where the readings are taken for Mass). The RSV Catholic Edition is the one quoted in the Catechism. Any of these are very appropriate for Catholic use.

There are some versions that have been specifically rejected by the Catholic Church for use at Mass, largely for their use of inclusive language. These are the New American Bible with Revised Psalms and Revised New Testament and the New Revised Standard Version. If you want to determine if any specific version of the Bible can be relied upon, a good litmus test is to look at the first Psalm. It should read, “Happy is the man who follows not the council the wicked,” or some version of that. If it reads, “Happy is the one . . .” or some other gender inclusive term, it should be avoided. This is because the Holy See has rejected this as contradicting the messianic references to Christ in these texts, in which “man” refers not only to David, who wrote the Psalms, but backwards to Adam (the man) and forward to Christ (the Son of Man and the Son of David).

I hope this brief treatment of the Scriptures has shed some light on a complicated issue and enabled people to better understand the place the Bible has in our faith and the Catholic teaching on the Sacred Scriptures. For more reading on the Bible, please see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article III, or the following Catholic Encyclopedia articles on line:

From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The Bible:

The Authenticity of the Bible:

Editions of the Bible:

Inspiration of the Bible:

Manuscripts of the Bible:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Looking at the text...

Up until now I have primarily focused on giving background information on the Mass to provide some context for the changes we will be experiencing this Advent. Now I would like to begin looking at some of these changes specifically so that we can get into the nitty-gritty of just what you and I can expect. The differences we will notice will largely involve more poetic language, more theological language, more Scripture references, and greater fidelity to the original Latin texts of the Church.

First I want to give you excerpts from an interview with Fr. Paul Turner, a priest with the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who is also a Latin scholar who worked for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) as they developed this translation. Fr. Turner says, “Anytime you translate you are doing your best. But it is nearly impossible to capture all the nuances and bring them into a new language.” Fr. Turner said that the ICEL committee was determined to render the meaning of the Latin original as faithfully as possible into English. “We want the liturgy to be understood,” he says, “But those who pray it have to know that it is the prayer being brought to us by tradition.”

The current translation we have been using focused more on making the text understandable to modern English-speakers, often times to the detriment of the nuances and beauty of the original. “It is not that the translation we have now is wrong or heretical,” Fr. Turner comments, “But what we gained in fluidity (in English) we lost in nuance (from the Latin).”

For example, the new translation sometimes uses the word “ineffable” to talk about the power of God. Ineffable is a perfectly good English word, though not often used in day-to-day speech. But then again, the power of God is not a day-to-day mundane topic. “Ineffable” means “incapable of being expressed in words.” Fr. Turner says, “It’s a great word when you talk about the mystery of God. It is a word that means we are speechless before God.”

Another change Fr. Turner comments on is the change in the Creed from the phrase “one in being” to describe Jesus’ relationship with the Father, to “consubstantial,” an English word that comes as close as possible to the Latin original, consubstantialum. Fr. Turner says, “It’s an unusual word. But the relationship between Jesus and the Father is unusual and needs a unique word.” He also adds that the ancient Church Councils worked hard to define this relationship as precisely as possible and we modern English speakers deserve to have the benefit of those insights.

Fr. Turner lastly points out that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we use the phrase “hallowed be thy name.” The word “hallowed” is not an everyday English word. But we are familiar with it and understand what it means in the context of the prayer. Nor does it seem odd to us to have a special word that we use just for prayer. The same should hold true for any unfamiliar words we may encounter in this new translation.

Most of the coming changes do not involve so much what we, the lay people, will be saying as what we will be hearing. Most of the changes to the Mass text involve parts which the priest or deacon says. Only a few involve the people’s parts of the Mass. In light of that I’d like to start first with a part that belongs to the priest, in order to give you a bit of the flavor of the new Mass translation. We’ll start with the preface from the first Sunday of Advent, the first time we will hear the new translation.

CURRENT: When he humbled himself to come among us as a man, he fulfilled the plan you formed long ago and opened for us the way to salvation. Now we watch for the day, hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory.

NEW: For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.

The second is more evocative of the idea of Advent. Just to drive it home, here are all the phrases that are included in the new translation that are absent from the old: the lowliness of flesh; the eternity of salvation; the glory and majesty of the coming; the inheritance of the promise; the dare of our hope. It has so much more color and drama!

To give you another example, here is the preface from the first Sunday of Lent.

CURRENT: His fast of forty days makes this a holy season of self-denial. By rejecting the devil’s temptations he has taught us to rid ourselves of the hidden corruption of evil, and so to share his paschal meal in purity of heart, until we come to its fulfillment in the promised land of heaven.

NEW: By abstaining forty long days from earthly food, he consecrated through his fast the pattern of our Lenten observance, and by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, taught us to cast out the leaven of malice, so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery, we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast.

So in the new text, we see the relationship of Christ’s fast to our own, the parallel of the devil in the desert and the devil in the garden, the rejecting of sin and the need for our own repentance, and the final relationship between Christ’s resurrection and our own eternal life of which the season of Easter serves as a metaphor.

This is just to give you a taste of the flavor of the new translation. Next we will take a look at the people’s parts of the Mass.

Change is nothing new...

This coming Advent we will be welcoming the third edition of the Roman Missal, featuring a new English translation of the Mass. I’d like to put this new translation into context before we take a look at the translation itself. We’ve already discussed the Mass of the early church. In those early days before the printing press, when everything had to be meticulously copied by hand, there were not large bound volumes containing the entire Roman Rite in every parish across Europe. What they likely had were smaller collections of prayers used at Mass, and these may have indeed varied depending upon your geographic location.

At one point in the past there was a plurality of Rites in the West, just as there are today a plurality of Rites in the East; the Byzantine Rite, Maronite Rite, etc., all Catholic, but with different cultural variations in the specific way in which they pray the liturgy. Long ago, however, the Western Church moved towards the dominance of a single Rite, the Roman or Latin Rite. That Rite is contained in a book called the Missale Romanum, which we call in English the Roman Missal. The first book to be published called the Missale Romanum was published in 1474, not long after the invention of the printing press. At this point, though the Roman Rite was dominant in the West, there were still other Rites being practiced in various locations. In 1570, after the Council of Trent, Pope Pius V promulgated an edition of the Missale Romanum which was to be obligatory for use throughout the Western Church. As it came from the Council of Trent, this is commonly called the Tridentine Mass.

Since 1570 there have been numerous updates and revisions in the Roman Missal to accommodate the ongoing development of the liturgy, including the addition of newly canonized saints to the calendar. Pope Clement VIII issued a new edition in 1604. Urban VIII did so in 1634. In 1884 Pope Leo XIII issued a new Missal, as did Benedict XV in 1920, and John XXIII in 1962, which was the last edition of the Tridentine Mass to be promulgated before the Second Vatican Council. That Council, as we all know, called for a revision of the Roman Rite, which despite all the various editions I just mentioned, had not seen a major revision since the Council of Trent. That New Mass, or Novus Ordo, came in 1970, promulgated by Pope Paul VI. Paul VI also promulgated a second edition of the Novus Ordo in 1975, and then most recently Blessed Pope John Paul II promulgated the third edition of the Roman Missal in 2000. That third edition is the one we are preparing to welcome this Advent.

Now, you may be wondering, if the third edition of the Roman Missal was issued by John Paul II in 2000 why are we just now starting to use it in Advent 2011? When John Paul II approved of the third edition, the liturgical texts he was promulgating were in Latin. And if Masses were all celebrated in Latin everywhere, then we would have seen these changes long ago. But Vatican II opened the door for the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, and this means that the Roman Missal must therefore be translated into many, many different languages, only one of which is English. And as anyone who speaks more than one language can tell you, translation is not an easy business. Often there are not direct equivalents between one language and another, or there may be several possible words or phrases, depending upon what nuance or emphasis the translator desires. It is far from an exact science.

As we mentioned in our very first installment, words do really matter -- especially in our liturgy, when we pray together as a Church. So the Church authorities are very careful, as they should be, to ensure that the translation of the Mass we will use is an accurate and good translation that does justice to the original liturgical text. And that original is in Latin, which remains the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.

Soon after the third edition of the Roman Missal was promulgated in 2000, John Paul II issued a document, in 2001, called Liturgiam Authenticam, which gave guidelines for how liturgical texts ought to be translated into vernacular languages. That document says that the guiding principle for translation is “formal equivalency.” It states: "While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses." This may seem like common sense, insofar as you want a translation to be as accurate as possible. But it was important for the Vatican to state those principles because much of the translation that had been done of earlier editions of the Roman Missal, into English particularly, were not made following these guidelines.

Following the issuing of Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican established a committee of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2002 called Vox Clara which means “clear voice.” That committee’s express purpose was to assist and review the English translation of the Mass to be done by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). The ICEL presented its first drafts of an English translation of the Missal to the Vatican in 2004. This began a long period work involving many drafts and revisions. A translation was ultimately confirmed by the Holy See in 2008, with the final approval of the third edition of the Roman Missal in English, to be used in the US, coming in 2009.

In order to give the faithful time to prepare for the new translation, it was decided that the third edition of the Roman Missal would go into effect on the first Sunday of Advent, 2011. And so finally, for the first time since we have been able to celebrate the Mass in English, we will be celebrating it with an English translation which follows the ideals set out in Liturgiam Authenticam.

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

Our preparation for the new translation of the Mass we will begin using this Advent is a good occasion for us to look back and reflect upon the history of the Mass itself. The Mass is something that has been with us since the beginning of the Church. Indeed one cannot separate the life of the Church from the Eucharist. This is why the Second Vatican Council calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of our faith.” In the days leading up to his Passion, Jesus instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist during the Last Supper on Holy Thursday.

We are all familiar with the words. From Luke’s Gospel we read, “He took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

This celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ was performed reverently by the very first Christians. The book of Acts speaks of the first converts “attending temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” In other words they heard the Word of God preached in the Synagogue and followed that with the new Christian celebration of the Body and Blood of our Lord -- the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist, the two elements which together make up our Mass today.

It has been so from the beginning. We have testimony to this from some of the earliest Christian writers. St. Justin Martyr wrote about the Mass around the year 155 AD. He had found in his travels that there was widespread misconception and confusion over what Christians do and what they believe. So he wrote an Apologia, which was a rational defense of the Christian life. He wrote:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or countryside gather in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has finished, the president instructs and exhorts them to imitate these good things [“president” comes from presbyter which is where we get our word “preist”]. Then we all rise together and pray… When our prayer is ended, bread and wine with water are brought forth, and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability. The people assent, saying “Amen”; and there is a distribution to each of the Eucharistic elements. The deacons carry a portion to those who are absent. Those who are able give willingly whatever sum they each think appropriate. The money collected is deposited with the president.…

Those of us familiar with the Mass can easily see patterns we are familiar with. We see the readings of sacred texts. We see the homily. There is even a collection! And central to it all is the Eucharist. In an earlier part of his Apologia, St. Justin writes:

[B]read and a cup of wine mixed with water are brought to the president of the brethren. Taking them, he gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and he offers thanks at considerable length that we have been counted worthy to receive these things from his hands.

When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying, “Amen.” This word is Hebrew for “so be it.” And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those whom we call deacons distribute to each of those present a portion of the bread and the wine mixed with water, over which the thanksgiving was pronounced. To those who are absent, they carry away a portion.

This food we call the Eucharist, and no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that our doctrines are true, who has been washed with the bath of remission of sins and rebirth, and who is living as Christ has commanded.

We do not receive these as common bread and drink. For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation. Likewise, we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of his word – and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed – is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.

This is, to me, one of the great treasures of the Catholic Church – the fact that I can read something written nearly 1900 years ago, and recognize and indeed be familiar with the ceremonies and rites described. These are some of the earliest written records we have of how the first Christians lived and worshipped. And here we find the Mass, recognizable to us today. And that is really my point in relating this description of the early Mass to you. We should realize that the Mass we know today is the same Mass as that celebrated by the very first Christians.

Now, when I say that the Mass is the same, I don’t mean that it is literally the same down to the letter. Obviously there have been some changes over the centuries. No one thinks that those early Christians all sang “Gather Us In” from their Glory & Praise hymnals to kick off their liturgical celebration! But those elements of the Mass that have changed have all been surface changes. The true essence of the liturgy has remained the same from the beginning, which is why we can so easily identify with St. Justin’s description from so long ago.

The Mass ought to be viewed as God’s gift to the Church, the means by which He has chosen to communicate Himself to us most intimately through the Eucharist, by allowing us to consume His very Body and Blood into our own bodies. That precious gift should be treasured and revered. One then can view the Church as the caretaker of that gift. It is her great honor and responsibility to maintain the liturgy and to care for it, and to present it in such a way as to best transmit those divine mysteries to the faithful. And the specifics of this may indeed change from time to time, place to place, culture to culture.

Our modern age has seen great changes in the liturgy after Vatican II. Those too young to have lived through it can only imagine the difficulty involved in making those changes. The changes that we are preparing for this coming Advent are nowhere near as dramatic. Indeed, what we saw after Vatican II was the introduction of the Novus Ordo, or New Order of the Mass. What we are preparing for today is not a “new Mass” at all, but simply an updated edition, featuring a new translation, of the same Rite of Mass that we are currently using.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Who Owns the Liturgy?

In our ongoing study of the upcoming changes to the Mass which go into effect the First Sunday of Advent this year, we began by looking at some fundamental principles. The first principle we looked at was simply that “words matter.” The second principle is that the Liturgy belongs to us. But it does not belong to us.

Come again? What’s that mean? It means that the liturgy does belong to us as a people, but it does not belong to us as individuals. The liturgy is the public property of the whole Church. No single individual owns it (not even the Pope, and certainly not you or I). The word “liturgy” itself comes from the Latin for “public work.” It is the public work of the Church.

That is why a prayer such as the rosary is not considered liturgical. It’s a private devotion, not a public work of the Church. So we have some room there for individualization. You might like to recite the St. Michael the Archangel prayer at the end of the rosary. Perhaps I don’t. That’s ok. We can pray our rosaries in different ways and that’s fine when we pray them by ourselves as individuals.

But there is no such leeway with liturgical prayer, because it is not a private devotion that we offer only on our own behalf. It is the public work of the Church and any time we participate in the liturgy we are praying along with the entire Church. And I do not simply mean the Church here on earth, but those with whom we are united in heaven, as well. Pay attention at Mass next time before we sing the Sanctus and you’ll note that we are joining in that hymn of praise along with the angels and choirs of heaven.

So the Mass is no one’s private property; though sometimes people are tempted to treat it as such. Whenever we do that it causes division, and we always end up missing something important.

At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, there is a part where the priest says, “Pray brothers and sisters, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God the almighty Father,” and we respond, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His church.” Or that is how we are supposed to respond, according to the current translation of the Mass that we have. But some people choose instead to say, “for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good and the good of all the church.”

On the surface, one could ask, what’s wrong with that? After all, the difference is minor, and it does not really change the overall meaning of the prayer. But here’s the thing -- that’s not how the Church is instructing us to respond at that moment. When we choose to respond in a different way, we are making a decision to ignore what the Church is asking us to do in the liturgy and instead substitute our own will. We are saying, “I know better than the Church.”
In this particular case we are assuming that by referring to God with a masculine pronoun we are continuing an archaic and outdated tradition of thinking of God in anthropomorphic terms which reflect an oppressive patriarchal society, designed to keep women in their place. After all, God is neither male nor female, so why should we refer to God as “Him”?

Except that the Church has always taught us to refer to God as “Him.” And rather than decide on our own, based on our oh-so-superior understanding, we ought to reflect on what the Church might be trying to teach us with her words.

Did you notice I just wrote, “her words?” Just as the Church has always referred to God as masculine, she has always referred to herself as feminine, as in “Holy Mother Church” or “The Bride of Christ.” These are metaphors we are all familiar with. Yet no one is attempting to transmorph those phrases into “inclusive” language. Can you imagine “Holy Parent Church” or “the Spouse of Christ”? It sounds ridiculous.

So why does the Church refer to God as masculine and herself as feminine? Neither one is a being with a sexual nature that exists as male or female. Obviously it is a metaphor. So the thing to ask is what does that metaphor teach us?

Biologically speaking, the male of the species is the one who gives, and the female is the one who receives. The male gives his seed, which is a part of himself, a part of his own body, and the female receives that gift into her own body in order to engender new life.

What an absolutely marvelous metaphor to describe our relationship to God. We are all female in relation to Him. He is the one who gives. Our role is to receive God’s gift of Himself into our bodies, into our hearts, our minds and our souls.

When we refuse to refer to God using the masculine pronoun we are robbing ourselves of this rich way of describing our relationship with Him. And further, when we make the decision on our own to change the words of the liturgy, we are setting ourselves up as the arbiter of how the Church ought to do things, and that is a dangerous position in which to be. It sows the seeds of disobedience.

It is very important to remember that every Catholic has the right to participate in the liturgy of the Church. When we attempt to change the liturgy based on our own preferences and preconceptions, we deny others of that right. The liturgy belongs to us. But it does not belong to us. It belongs to all of us as the Church. It does not belong to any one of us as individuals.

Words Matter

Beginning this coming Advent, parishes across our country will begin using the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, featuring a new English translation of the Mass. We are going to notice quite a few changes. What I’d like to explore with you is not only what some of those changes will be, but more importantly, why the changes are occurring. Let’s begin looking at the “why” part by establishing some basic principles.

The first (and in many ways most important) principle is that words matter. What we say and how we say it has an effect on our beliefs, our perceptions, our understanding, and how important information is transmitted from one person to another and from one generation to the next. Let me give a few examples.

This first one is from history. You may be familiar with the phrase “not one iota of difference.” This comes from an early conflict within the church over the nature and person of Jesus Christ. One of the largest and most destructive heresies in the early centuries of the Christianity was Arianism, named for Arius, a priest from Lybia, who taught that Jesus Christ was created by God and therefore could not be equal to God. Jesus was the greatest of all of God’s creatures, but he was created and not himself divine.

To combat this error the Church convened the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, from which we get our Nicean Creed. Part of that familiar creed states that Jesus Christ is “one in being” with the Father. This comes from the Latin consubstantialum, (where we get our word “consubstantial”) which itself is a translation of the Greek word homoousios. That word comes from the Greek words homo, meaning “the same” and ousios, meaning “substance or essence.” So, in other words, we believe that Jesus Christ and God the Father are of the same essence. They are substantially the same. They are one in being.

Well, there was a faction at the Council of Nicea who would have preferred the term homoiousios, which means “like in substance.” The reason some preferred this term was because they thought ousios might also be taken to mean “person” and the Father and the Son are two different persons. So they preferred to say that they were “like” or “similar” in their substance, not the same.

That term was ultimately rejected for many reasons, but I’ll just give you one. We believe in one God. We are monotheists. We don’t have a pantheon like the Hindus or the ancient Greeks. That’s always been a hallmark of Christianity and it likewise set the Jewish people apart from their neighbors for millennia. God revealed Himself to the Jews as the one and only universal God. The first commandment is that Thou Shalt Have No Gods Before Me. That’s a biggy!

So what would it do to our monotheism if we said that Jesus and the Father were like in essence or nature, but not the same? Well, let’s just look at ourselves. I have human nature. And you have human nature. In other words, we are like in nature. But we don’t both share the same human nature. We are two different individual beings. So likewise if we believed that Jesus had a divine nature that was similar to the Father’s divine nature but not the same nature, then all of a sudden we are not worshipping one God, but two!

And so it was very important that the Council Fathers at Nicea considered their words carefully and chose homoousios or “one in being” rather than homoiousios or “like in being.” The two words are so similar, only differing by one letter “i” or iota in Greek. And that one iota of difference is a bedrock principle of what we believe and proclaim about the nature of Jesus Christ.

So words do matter. They matter in theology. And they matter in the liturgy, as well. There is an old saying, lex orendi, lex credendi, or “how we pray is how we believe.” The words we use in our prayers really and truly do affect what we believe about God and our relationship with Him.

I was attending Mass out of town one year on Ascension Sunday. At this parish, the priest gave a good homily about what it means that Jesus Christ rose bodily into heaven, and how His physical human body has now been taken into the Godhead, uniting the human and divine natures. And how it is important to our faith that we know and understand that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and Ascended bodily into heaven, for this is our ultimate destiny; to be united, spirit and body, with our creator in heaven. It was a nice homily -- on point, a good message.

Well, during Communion, the choir sang a song, the refrain of which was, “Jesus has no body now, but you.” The point of the song was that we all must be the hands and feet of Christ, doing His work here on earth through His Church. That is a great message; it’s perfectly fine on its own. However, the refrain, set to a catchy tune, had us singing over and over again that “Jesus has no body,” at the point of the Mass when we were receiving the Body and Blood of Christ!
And this on Ascension Sunday, when we celebrate the fact that Jesus ascended with His body into heaven. I very much doubt many there that day would remember the message of the homily, that Jesus Ascended bodily into heaven. Instead they would walk out to the parking lot, humming to themselves, “Jesus has no body…” Words matter.

And our theology matters. Our liturgy matters. Our prayers matter. These things all shape how we understand the world we live in, how we understand and worship God. And so the words we use when we teach and when we pray, especially when we pray together as one Church in the liturgy, really are important. We must take great care to select our words and make certain that we understand them well.