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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A language understanded of the people?

Considering today some of the notices of Bishop Trautman's latest attack on the new ICEL translations (cf. Fr Z, and Diogenes, for example) I was minded to look up one of the first essays in producing a book of worship in "a language understanded of the people" Here are some examples.
It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation

Prevent us O Lord, in all our doings

Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin: and that our Saviour Christ saith, None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost
Meet, supplications, dispose, prevent, forasmuch, regenerate - not to mention vouchsafe, and graft - "Them's all fancy words!"

Many Catholics will object that the words ineffable, wrought, and gibbet can be perfectly well understood by an intelligent person who, if necessary can consult a dictionary. For others, as it is well urged, the priest can explain what the words mean.

Nevertheless, we should recognise that people do in fact vary in their ability to understand unusual words. It is undoubtedly true that some people will not understand "them fancy words"; but one is then obliged to ask whether the same people will understand, for example, the arguments advanced by St Paul in his letter to the Romans read at them earnestly throughout the corpus of the Lectionary.

The mistake at the heart of the whole argument is to think that we can come up with a form of words that will be immediately accessible to everyone. Having studied psychology, I do not subscribe to the confidence that Eysenck and others placed in the modern psychological theory of IQ. Nevertheless, it may be taken as a convenient, if rough measure. Someone with a relatively high IQ (let us say, above 120) might be expected to understand the "fancy words" or to be able to cope with them by referring to a reference book. Someone with an IQ of 100 might find this a little daunting. Someone with an IQ of 80 or below would simply be left behind.

Should any such consideration be of the slightest interest in our celebration of the Liturgy? I would say that it has no place whatsoever. The Liturgy is for all, and should be available for all, regardless of their academic ability or attainment.

Does this mean that we should make every word in the Liturgy immediately accessible to those who, for no fault of their own, could not cope well with words like "ineffable" or "vouchsafe"? Obviously not - otherwise, we would inevitably discriminate against those who can. Much more effective would be to allow the Sacred Liturgy to appeal to people of all abilities, some following each word with academic understanding, others, loving the beauty and solemnity in a way that is beyond literary expression.

The great thing is that in Catholic thinking, neither is superior. The humble person who is functionally illiterate may have a spiritual life far more pleasing to God than the post-doctoral student who can tell you the history of the prayers of the Gelasian sacramentary; and vice versa. What matters is not our ability to comprehend every sentence but our love of the Good Lord.

Any attempt to make the words of the Liturgy immediately comprehensible to everyone will be doomed to failure. What we must do is to preserve the riches of our tradition so that it is available to everyone to participate in the way best suited to the character and aptitude of each. The reduction of the Liturgy to a didactic style suited to the struggling undergraduate will do nobody any favours. The recovery of the Liturgy which offers a wide range of styles of participation will be genuinely egalitarian, and, in pastoral terms, help to bring back those who have been repelled by forms that are perceived as either patronising reductionism, or overly theoretical and misplaced attempts to appease those who have walked away because the beauty and dignity that can be appreciated wordlessly has been emptied away.
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