Reading into the wealth of theological vocabulary the liturgy has to offer


RITE AND REASON:The new Missal texts are good

IN RECENT weeks I have been involved in explaining changes to the Roman Missal to various groups. I welcome this opportunity to explain the context of some of the changes.

The text of the Mass that is currently in use has served the church well. Many priests and people have used no other translation and, understandably, are attached to the rhythm and content of the Missal and many are unsettled by the prospect of change. However, for the congregation, there will not be many changes in the new text.

The decision of the Vatican Council to use the vernacular in the liturgy ushered in a new era: given that modern languages change, both in meaning or connotation, it is inevitable that liturgical texts will have to change from time to time.

In the past 40 years the limitations of the present text became apparent. During the work on the new translation I was often surprised that significant elements of the Latin text were simply not rendered in English. For example, the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) before the words of institution of the Eucharist reads as follows:

Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

The original Latin text includes the phrase “ Spiritus tui rore sanctifica”, literally, “bless by the dew of your Spirit”. “Dew” is a metaphor with strong resonances in the Bible.

Dew was and is important in Palestine because it is at its maximum during the almost rainless four months of summer. Therefore, it is a vital source of water in a land and at a time when water is very scarce indeed.

As a figure of speech, it represents abundant fruitfulness ( Gen 27:28), refreshment and renewal ( Ps 110:3; Hos 14:5), what is beyond human power ( Mic 5:7) and a silent coming ( 2 Sam 17:12).

But perhaps the most interesting and evocative use of “dew” comes in Isaiah 26:16: “Your dead shall live, their bodies shall arise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is dew of light and the earth will give birth to those long dead.”

“Your” dew here refers to God, not to the dwellers in the dust. The image seems to foreshadow the resurrection of the dead, with the dew of God’s light seeping into the darkness of the underworld.

This is why it is such a deeply biblical image of the Holy Spirit (“who raised Jesus from the dead”). With its combination of gentleness and power, the image fits well with the working of the Spirit involved at the epiclesis.

The proposed translation of this text is: Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.

The Irish translation currently in use managed to convey the sense of the Latin text both accurately and in beautiful Irish: Naomhaigh, mar sin, na bronntanais seo le drúcht do Spioraid . . .

Restoring the reference to “dew” is not just about accuracy; it releases the Scriptural resonances of a potent image into the imagination and faith of those who will pray this text.

The challenge faced by the translators of the new text was to produce a text that was faithful to the original Latin and, at the same time, was suitable for worship today.

Many issues have been raised in recent weeks about elements of the proposed new text. Since last year the Church in Ireland has undertaken a programme of catechetical preparation to assist priests and parishes to adapt to the changes.

I believe that the new texts are good; they represent a development; they capture more of the wealth of theological vocabulary and, therefore, help us enter more fully into the riches of the liturgy itself.

John McAreavey is Bishop of Dromore and is the Irish bishops’ representative on the International Committee on English in the Liturgy