The Mother’s Mother Tongue
Aug 29, 2019

The Mother’s Mother Tongue

Et cum spiritu tuo, had been rendered “And also with you” in the Roman Missal’s initial English translations. Since the 2011 introduction of the 3rd edition of the Missal in English, it has been translated, “And with your spirit.”

Why is there such a difference?

While no single explanation exhausts its meaning, there are a number of answers that give little satisfaction. For example, “We say ‘And with your spirit’ because the Pope says we have to.” Or, “The Church has always said it this way.” Or, “That’s how the rubrics direct us to respond.” Each of these explanations is true—the Pope does tell us we have to do this, and the Church really has always done it this way, and the rubrics do direct us accordingly—but none gives us spiritual insight into the substance of the said “spirit.”

Another explanation, and one that is commonly heard, is that “And with your spirit” reflects more clearly the Latin original, Et cum spiritu tuo. Like the explanations mentioned above, this one is also true: “And with your spirit” is in fact what the Latin text, literally translated, says. But is this explanation any more satisfying than the others? “The present translation—of et cum spiritu tuo and other Mass texts—is more faithful to the Latin original.” So what? Why is such fidelity a good thing? Why must a modern language like English resemble so closely an ancient (some would even say “dead”) language like Latin? The answers to these questions get us closer to the heart of the matter.

Learning to express one’s thoughts in clear and concise words is not always easy. While children are, on the whole, able to pick up and use their native language without much trouble, years of schooling seek to refine their communication skills. Even writing this present article isn’t an easy task: there is much deleting, re-writing, editing, and searching for the best words to use. (But I pray these hurdles don’t show themselves to you, my dear reader!)

The Church is as divine as her founder; she is also as human as her founder. And because of her humanity—in some 2,000 years—she continues to develop a language that expresses clearly what she means to say. This liturgical language is rooted in Hebrew, Roman, and Greek soil; nourished by the Sacred Scriptures; and produces much fruit in the Church’s members who use it. For the most part it is also—and here we get to the crux of the issue of translation—contained in the Latin tongue.

Let’s return to our earlier question: “Why is it a virtue for the English translation of the Mass to have such fidelity to its Latin source?” The answer is that this Latin original is the product of 2,000 years of the Catholic Church at prayer. During this time she has cultivated a “liturgical lexicon,” a sacramental way of speaking, signing, and praying that expresses her belief. Consequently, deviations from the Latin may also be departures from the fullness of faith contained in her prayer.

To use our present example (and it is only one among many—consider recent translations of the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria by some European bishops’ conferences), “And with your spirit” translates fully and accurately Et cum spiritu tuo. Furthermore, it is important that it do so because “your spirit” says something to us about the faith, in this case our belief in the sacrament of ordination.

Here the “spirit” refers to that spirit received at ordination. As one early Father of the Church, Narsai of Nisibis, explains, “the name ‘spirit’ [refers] not to the soul of the priest but to the spirit he has received through the laying on of hands.” Likewise, Moses, who in many ways prefigured Christ himself, had some of the spirit which filled him given to 70 elders, who were then able to prophesy along with him (see Numbers 11).

When the people acknowledge the “spirit” of the priest or deacon, they confess at the same time the grace of ordination and the new way that the ordained share in the ministry of Christ the head of the Church. On the other hand, when the spirit is not mentioned, neither is this truth of the Church’s faith.

The Church is our Mother, and our Mother’s tongue speaks with the voice of Christ her head: not only to God the Father, but also to her children. It is important, therefore, that this voice, cultivated over the centuries, be prayed in all its clarity, whether in Latin or in English. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Novus Ordo Missal in November 2019, we should recall that sound translation principles are an essential aspect of our evaluation of the Missal’s value.