Within the mind of any single translator of a liturgical text, formal equivalence and functional equivalence are always at work, opposing each other here, cooperating there. Formal equivalence by itself would give you translatorese, the awkward, often inscrutable prose of the sort that crude translation software is apt to serve up. Functional equivalence by itself would do as good a job of ensuring that the English representation of what was written in the original language was mangled, as any peculiar background music that complicated the passage but might be essential to discerning its tone would be cheerfully ignored, all in the interest of raising what the translator calculated to be the signal-to-noise ratio.

The two methods check and balance each other. The new English translation of the Roman missal is an effort to attain better balance by turning up the volume on formal equivalence. And so, for example, at Communion the people will now say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” a close translation of “Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum,” which was carried over from the Tridentine Mass to the Mass of Paul VI but in the English translation has been, until now, flattened into “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” which is less enigmatic but also less faithful to the missal.

One effect of the new translation is that the distance between the two forms of the Roman rite of Mass will shrink, as the ordinary form moves closer to the Tridentine Mass. Inch the English of the ordinary form toward the Latin it’s been translated from and you’ve inched the ordinary form nearer to the extraordinary form: Both missals are first of all in Latin. Foster a greater awareness of that in the popular imagination and you’ve chipped away at the wall of suspicion separating those who worship on opposite sides of the line dividing the two forms of the Roman rite.

Most Western Catholics feel no great love for Latin. Its continuance depends on a creative minority who tenderly feed that guttering flame. They regard Latin as a sacred language, the very concept of which is contradicted by the spirit of our age, which disdains the historical sensibility (“it’s history,” we say, meaning it’s moot, irrelevant, or obsolete) and fails to recognize the value that time adds through the power of antiquity.

Here the logic of functional equivalence does harm not just by distorting this or that particular translation but by blinding us to the very reasons for preserving antiquities in the first place. To Western Europeans of the fourth century, wasn’t Latin what English is to us? The lingua franca? So that when we pray in English we more closely imitate our fathers in faith than when we pray in a moribund language that we keep on artificial life support?

Of course, the same logic applies to Torah and classical Hebrew. But the kabbalist and the Orthodox rabbi know better. Just because the language was native to Moses and isn’t to us doesn’t mean it isn’t sacred to us these three thousand years later. Lingua sacra isn’t Esperanto. It’s born as a natural language. By intimate association with the tongues and hands of the saints who over the centuries speak and write in it to God, for God, and about God, it gradually takes on a character that elicits reverence from later generations, who come to regard it as sacral.

Opinions about whether Mass should be said in Latin probably align with assumptions about whether Jesus spoke Hebrew at the Last Supper. At Vatican II, Patriarch Maximos IV of the Melkite Catholic Church, arguing for the vernacular in the eucharistic liturgy, blithely asserted that at the first such liturgy Jesus spoke Aramaic. Scholars go back and forth on exactly how much Hebrew he might have used. While we don’t have audio from the event and so can only conjecture, American Catholics would do well not to project their own monolingualism onto first-century Galileans and Judeans. Archeological evidence suggests that they used some Hebrew, the lingua sacra, alongside Aramaic and Greek.

The Last Supper is one dimension of Mass”the crossbar, as it were, the horizontal dimension. What about the vertical dimension, the pole? That would be the sacrifice on Calvary. The ordinary form does a better job of underscoring how Mass is a shared meal; the extraordinary, of underscoring how it’s a sacrifice.

The ordinary form of Mass in many places where it’s celebrated in North America recalls something of the spirit of the Agap“, the communal meal that in the early Church preceded or, in some accounts, followed the eucharistic liturgy. It’s more than coffee and donuts but not so intense as an encounter with the Almighty in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps half a century ago what the signs of the times indicated and what the Church in its reform of the eucharistic liturgy attempted to respond to was a need to revive the Agap“, a religious practice whose most natural expression is in the vernacular language and the relaxed idioms of the ambient popular culture.

What we are witnessing now in the reform of the reform is the beginning of another revival”the revival of the eucharistic liturgy.

Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at Servant Books.

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Articles by Nicholas Frankovich

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