How Both New Testament “Presbyters” and Old Testament “Cohenim” Became “Priests” in English

Marc Chagall. Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

Marc Chagall, Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

A recent commenter complained, as Protestants often do, that there is “no biblical basis” for the New Testament priesthood. My immediate response: Of course there is. There is ample demonstration throughout the New Testament of ministers — deacons, presbyters, and bishops — who are called to serve the Lord and the Church in a special way and appointed to that purpose. The Greek word presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), even, is the root of our English word priest. Even saying it, though, it struck me as odd: If the New Testament Greek word presbyteros is the origin of the English word “priest,” why is it that the Old Testament priesthood is translated with that word in English today, and not the New Testament?

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

If fact, the word priest is the word applied in English to any religious minister in any religion, especially to one who makes sacrifices. But the word for those ministers in each of the various source languages is not priest or anything related to it. So what happened? How did a Christian minister come to be called a “priest” at all? How did this word that originally referred to the New Testament Christian minister come also to be applied to a Jewish minister of the Old Covenant, and in fact to any religious minister? And how is it that, in English today, this word “priest” no longer refers strictly to Christian ministers at all, such that modern Bible translations use the word in the Old Testament (in which it has no historical or etymological root) but not the New Testament (from which it actually derives) — and Protestant Christians are left to question why the New Testament ministry is even called a “priesthood”?

In answering these questions, I embarked on a fascinating journey through language, etymology, and Bible translation, uncovering surprising accidents of translation, usage, and reaction.

Catholic priest

The complaint of some Protestants that the “priesthood” of the Catholic Church has no biblical basis has two separate fronts: a linguistic one, opposed to the use of the word “priest,” and a theological one, opposed to the idea that the New Covenant of Christ has any need of a “priesthood” akin to that of the Old Covenant. Regarding the first point, I will show that the use of the word “priest” in English to describe the ministers of the Christian New Covenant is entirely appropriate, and the use of that same word to also describe ministers of the Jewish Old Covenant is mostly the result of a linguistic accident. I will address the second point in another post.

I. The Words of Scripture

A. “Presbyters”

Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs

From an icon of Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs at Antioch (Wikimedia).

As any student of the New Testament knows, St. Paul instructs us in Scripture, according to most modern Bible translations in English, about the ministry of elders and overseers. There is no mention at all in many recent translations of “priests” or “bishops” — leading Protestant readers especially to presume that the Catholic priesthood has no basis in Scripture, and stems only from “traditions of men.” In this case, though, the titles used in English in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches are primarily an etymological tradition (handed down by language and words) that does have a very firm basis in Scripture.

Modern Bible translations are correct in their translations of the original meanings of the Greek words used in the New Testament. The Greek word translated “elder” is πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], and in Classical Greek, it literally refers to an elder or older man. Likewise, the word translated “overseer” is ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], meaning literally one who sees (skopos = Latin scopus) over (epi) others. These two offices were apparently more or less equivalent in practical biblical usage (cf. e.g. Titus 1:3, 5).

St. Timothy.

St. Timothy.

But almost immediately upon their introduction, these terms came to have meanings apart from their literal senses and apart from the literal interpretation of Scripture, referring specifically to the offices which they named in the developing Christian Church. Timothy, the recipient of Paul’s epistles, by all appearances was an elder or overseer, exercising the duties appointed to those offices (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:11-16, 4:17) and having the authority to appoint both (1 Timothy 3) — and yet Timothy was not an “older man” at all, but one to whom Paul exhorted, “Let no one despise you because of your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12). Ignatius of Antioch, writing in circa A.D. 107, commended an overseer who was likewise not an “older man” (Epistle to the Magnesians III). The office of presbyter, then, was not exclusively limited to “older men,” and came to mean more than the literal meaning of the Greek; and that word continued to be used, even when a younger man held the office.

The fact that the Christian office took on a different meaning than its literal Greek etymology is also evident in the fact that when the New Testament was translated into Latin, and when early Christian writers of the West wrote of Christian ministers, the Greek word πρεσβύτεροι [presbyteroi] was transliterated, copied directly into the Latin as presbyter, and not translated: “older men” in Latin would have been seniores (the word used in other locations of the New Testament where an older man is clearly meant, e.g. Matthew 27:1).

B. “Cohenim,” “Hiereis,” and “Sacerdotes”

cohen

We now turn to those Jewish religious officials in the Bible who are today generally translated into English as “priests.” The Old Testament Hebrew word for the ministers of the Old Covenant is כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [kō·hēn·īm or cohenim], singular כֹּהֵן [kō·hēn or cohen]. Despite the fact that the word “priest” originates from the New Testament presbyter, and that that word has no immediate, etymological connection to the ministry of the Old Covenant — these Hebrew ministers came to be called “priests” in English, and in fact there is no other word in English that can adequately be applied to them or what they did.

The same Hebrew word cohenim was used to describe Egyptian religious ministers (Genesis 41:45) and ministers of Baal (2 Kings 10:19), Chemosh (Jeremiah 48:7), and others. So it appears that even in Hebrew the word was a generic term for what a minister did, his role and relationship to a divine cult, and not anything specific to the Hebrew God or covenant. It is fitting, then, that when the Hebrew ministers were described in other languages, they were likewise described with those languages’ words for a sacrificing religious minister.

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together (c. 1890) (Wikimedia).

In the Greek New Testament, when the Jewish religious officials are described in the Gospels, or when Jesus is called our “high priest,” the Greek word used is ἱερεύς [hiereus], plural ἱερεῖς [hiereis], from ἱερός [hieros], hallowed or holy [cf. English hieroglyphics, “holy symbols”]: meaning a minister in the cult of a god, especially a minister who makes sacrifices. It is the same word used in Greek for the ministers of the pagan Greek religion. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, the cohenim of the Old Covenant were likewise translated as hiereis.

Likewise, when the Christian Bible was translated into Latin, and when the Old Testament was described by the Latin Fathers of the Church, the ministers of the Old Covenant (Hebrew cohenim or Greek hiereis) were translated as sacerdotes [singular sacerdos], literally those who make holy gifts [sacer (holy or sacred) + dos (gift)]. It is the word used in Latin for the ministers of the Roman religion as well as the Greek religion and other similar religious officials.

So in the earliest writings of the Hebrews, the ministers of the Old Covenant did not have a distinct, unique word applied to them. The Hebrew word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] was a generic word for a sacrificing religious minister to any god. Accordingly, this word was translated into Greek and Latin with those languages’ words for sacrificing religious ministers, ἱερεῖς [hiereis] in Greek and sacerdotes in Latin. These words cohenim, hiereis, and sacerdotes have no essential connection to the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], originally denoting an older man but in Christian usage coming to refer to the office of presbyter, a presiding elder at a local church.

II. Words in Time

A. “Priests”

The Venerable Bede translating John

The Venerable Bede translating John. Bede was contemporary with these linguistic developments in English.

How, then, did presbyters come to be known as “priests” in English? It is important to note that the English language first developed (as Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons) in the Christian era, only after the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized in the seventh century A.D. That being the case, our historical evidence of the English language has no surviving indigenous terms (that I’ve been able to discover) for religious ministers.

Thus from the very beginning in English, Christian ministers — the presbyters of the New Testament — became known as prēostas (priests) — the term simply being adopted from Latin biblical and ecclesiastical language. The term bisceop (bishop) was likewise simply adopted from the Latin episcopus (Greek ἐπίσκοπος). On the other hand, Old English adopted the word sacerd (plural sacerdas), from Latin sacerdos, to refer to the priests of the Old Covenant, and in fact as a generic word for any priest (as sacerdos is in Latin). Jewish and pagan ministers were also sometimes called bisceopas (bishops) in Old English. Only Christian ministers were thus originally known as priests in English, and Jewish and other ministers called something different. From the very earliest English manuscripts, there was some overlap in the use of the word bishop.

By the Middle English period (post-Norman conquest), however, the word sacerd had fallen into disuse, and prēost became the generic term for any religious minister. This is the term that came to be used to describe Christian ministers, pre-Christian pagan ministers, Jewish ministers, and Greek and Roman ministers, and any other religious office. Because ministers in their adopted Christian religion were called “presbyters,” it is from this term that the Anglo-Saxon people eventually adopted the word for all religious ministers. Historical linguists are uncertain how exactly the Greek and Latin word presbyter phonologically evolved into the Anglo-Saxon prēost. Perhaps, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, a late Latin form of presbyter was prebester, leading to prēost and similar developments in other Germanic languages. It is also uncertain why the generic term sacerd was lost.

So rather than the Catholic Church “inventing” the idea that New Testament Christian ministers were priests in analogue to the Old Testament priesthood, quite the opposite happened: The English language, developing around the Christian religion, called Christian ministers priests first. The cohenim, the priests of the Old Covenant, came also to be called priests only after the Christian ministers, because they were seen to be analogous to Christian priests, not the other way around.

So we find, for example, that when John Wycliffe made the first complete translation of the whole Bible into English, in the late 14th century, he translated the ministers of both the New Testament and the Old Testament as priests:

For cause of this thing Y lefte thee at Crete, that thou amende tho thingis that failen, and ordeyne preestis bi citees, as also Y disposide to thee. (Titus 1:5)

And the preest schal brenne tho on the auter, in to the fedyng of fier, and of the offryng to the Lord. (Leviticus 3:11)

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe.

Even Wycliffe, a proto-Protestant, understood the ministers of the New Testament to be rightly called priests, and the Latin word presbyter he was translating to be the root of the English word priest. Wycliffe, too, translated the ministers of the Old Testament — sacerdotes in the Latin — as priests in English. As tempting as it is to pin this coincidence on Wycliffe, it is unclear how much influence Wycliffe’s translation had on later translators. His translation choices probably reflected the common usage of his day: the ministers of both the Old and New Testaments were called priests. (Wycliffe also retained the traditional English translation of bishop for episcopus.)

The original meaning of the Greek πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as “elder” had thus been lost in translation: but then again, the identity of the Christian presbyter as an “older man” had ceased to be essential to the office almost as soon as it originated (see I.A.3 above). Early English speakers, and the earliest translators of Scripture into English, likewise saw the office of “priest” as distinct from its etymology.

B. “Elders”

With the coming of the Renaissance and eventually the Protestant Reformation, there was a renewed interest in the original texts and languages of the Scriptures. In the early sixteenth century, the first polyglot editions of the Scriptures, including the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts, were printed. This paved the way for the work of William Tyndale and other Englishmen who translated the Scriptures directly from their original languages into English.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale.

Tyndale, translating the New Testament into English from the original Greek, translated πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] according to the literal meaning of the Greek: he translated it elder. But not even Tyndale objected to calling these Christian officers priests. Tyndale, in fact, makes an essential connection between the elders of the Old Covenant and the elders (presbyters) of the New Covenant:

In the Old Testament the temporal heads and rulers of the Jews which had the governance over the lay or common people are called elders, as ye may see in the four evangelists. Out of which custom Paul in his pistel and also Peter, call the prelates and spiritual governors which are bishops and priests, elders. Now whether ye call them elders or priests, it is to me all one: so that ye understand that they be officers and servants of the word of God, unto the which all men both high and low that will not rebel against Christ, must obey as long as they preach and rule truly and no longer. (“W.T. unto the Reader,” preface to 1534 edition of New Testament)

The fact that ministers in the Anglican Church continued to be called priests indicates that English-speakers at the time of the English Reformation saw no disconnect between the words presbyter and priest — in fact probably recognizing their essential and etymological connection.

In the Old Testament, Tyndale likewise translated the word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] as priest. By the 1530s, there was simply no other word in English to capture the meaning. As the English language developed, priest had become the word for any religious minister, especially one who sacrifices, thus becoming synonymous with the Latin sacerdos.

(Tyndale, on the other hand, retained the traditional English translation of bishop for ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], as does the King James Bible — leading to a generally greater acceptance of that term among Protestants.)

The heirs to Tyndale’s translation, including the King James Bible and every major English translation since (including most Catholic ones) have translated the word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as elder. There is certainly a element of reaction and even rebellion in some Protestant translations, particularly in more recent ones: a conscious rejection of the idea of a New Testament ministerial priesthood. It is worth noting that they translate the words πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos] according to their literal, primitive meanings as elder and overseer, but not the word διάκονος [diaokonos], which is rendered not by its literal meaning of servant but by the traditional deacon in most English translations. This acknowledges that the word diakonos here has taken on an additional and traditional meaning, referring to the Christian office, more than its literal meaning of servant. Why not, then, leave the other offices to their traditional renderings as priest and bishop — which likewise have taken on additional, traditional meanings more than elder and overseer? The reaction seems particularly pronounced for the word priest, given that the same word is now applied to the Old Testament priesthood, and there is an understandable effort to make a distinction between the two.

Over time, as the English language continued to evolve, the etymological connection between presbyter and priest was lost and forgotten — such that I was taken aback to learn of it as I was becoming Catholic, just as many others are.

Conclusion

Pope Francis at Mass

Pope Francis at Mass.

The premise — which I myself held once — that to call the Christian ministers of the New Testament “priests” is an innovation not supported by Scripture — is false on its face. Stemming directly from the word in the original Greek, πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] or presbyter, the word “priest” was the original term for Christian ministers in English and a perfectly appropriate one. The ministers of the Old Testament — כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew — were originally called sacerdas (after Latin sacerdos) in Old English, and only in time, as an analogy to Christian priests, came to be called priests in English also.

It should be noted, too, that equating the priests of the Old and New Covenants with a single word is not endemic to Catholicism but only to English and other Germanic languages (though French, with Germanic influence, seems to do the same). In several of the Romance languages (Spanish and Italian notably), the words for priest used in Catholic teaching are still more obvious cognates to presbyter (presbítero and presbitero respectively) — while those languages still refer to priests of the Old Covenant as sacerdotes and sacerdoti. In those languages, Christian priests can also be called sacerdotes in analogue to priests of the Old Covenant.

This reflects another development that took place long before even the development of the English language, that no doubt contributed to the ministers of both the Old and New Covenants being called priests in English: Even in Greek and Latin, Christian ministers came sometimes to be referred to as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. This appellation, which can be found in some of the very earliest Christian writers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Cyril, was primarily by analogy: Christian priests were like the cohenim of the Old Testament in their ministry toward God and His people, adminstering Jesus’s work as our high priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]) to the Christian flock. In this sense, priests became synonymous with sacerdotes first in Greek and Latin — paving the way for them to become synonymous in English.

And this begs the question, and the second point of the Protestant charge: Is there any analogue between the priests of the New Covenant and the cohenim of the Old Covenant? Is the priesthood of the Church a sacrificing priesthood, as the Old Testament priesthood certainly was and as the Greek term ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin term sacerdotes understand? Were the Church Fathers correct in applying this analogy, and is there any merit to referring to the priests of the Old and New Covenants by the same term, as we do in English? Or were the Protestants correct to stress the distinction between the two orders? How did the early presbyteri of the Church themselves understand their role? I will strive to address these questions in my next post, so don’t go away!

“Saying Jesus’s Name Wrong”: A Fallacy of “Hebrew Roots”

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo (1502)

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo (1502) (WikiArt).

One of the most common and insistent tropes of the “Hebrew Roots” movement is the claim that the majority of Christians in the world are “saying Jesus’s name wrong” — that the name “Jesus” itself is improper, a Westernization and a corruption of the Messiah’s true name. The true name of our Lord, the proper way to address Him, these people argue, is by His original Hebrew name, ישוע (yēšūʿa) — most often rendered in English as Yeshua.

Make no mistake: It’s quite true that the original, Hebrew and Aramaic name of Jesus was probably ישוע, a variant of the name of the Hebrew leader and hero יהושע (yəhôšūʿa), meaning “The Lord is salvation.” And if you’d like to call the Lord that, then more power to you. But before you go around condemning traditional Christians who hail our Lord Jesus, here are a few things you should consider:

  1. There is nothing “traditional” about calling the Lord Yeshua (or Y’shua, or Yah’shua, or any variant).
  2. There is nothing “improper,” no form of syncretism or invention or corruption, in the traditional name Jesus.
  3. To insist that Yeshua is the only proper name by which to address our Lord is, in fact, to reject the entire received Christian tradition, to disown the Apostles and Evangelists, even to deny Scripture itself — and to contradict the very message of the Gospel.

An Invented Tradition

Hebrew Roots

Proponents of “Hebrew Roots” often support their arguments with claims that they are returning to the “authentic traditions” of the first Jewish Christians. But is this really true?

Tradition means what has been handed down. And the truth is that there is no tradition — no writings, no hymns, no inscriptions, no traditional teaching or custom — of our Lord being addressed as Yeshua, passed down by the earliest Christians or by anyone else at all, until the beginnings of the “Messianic” movement in the nineteenth century.

Proponents argue that the name Yeshua is what the Apostles themselves would have called the Lord; and that might very well be true. But they left us no record, no tradition of it. Historians believe that Jesus and the Apostles probably spoke Aramaic as their primary language — not Hebrew. Yeshua is a modern reconstruction, based not on Aramaic but on Hebrew pronunciation.*

* Jews wrote Aramaic with the Hebrew script, but pronounced it differently than the biblical Hebrew language. Our transliteration of Hebrew is based on the rabbinical pronunciation of the biblical texts. The original Hebrew texts had no vowels; the system of vowels and pronunciations we have of ancient Hebrew today was passed down (and in some cases made up, or at least formalized) by rabbis. So a rabbi reading ישוע in a biblical text would pronounce it completely differently than a first-century Jew on the street speaking Aramaic, reading the same characters. Syriac Christians (see below), whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as it would have been spoken in the first century, pronounce these same characters, ישוע, not as “Yeshua” but as “Isho.”

On top of this, there is the matter that Hebrew and other Semitic languages can only be transliterated incompletely into English, which lacks both the phonemes and the graphemes to fully express those languages’ sounds and meanings. Even presuming the rabbinic tradition of pronunciation — Yeshua, like any other rendering, is at best an approximation. Rather than adhering to the “true” name of the Lord, proponents of this are just as guilty of “translating” His name into their own language as the early Greek Christians were in calling Him Jesus.

There are in fact Christians who have been speaking Aramaic for the past two thousand years, since the time of the Apostles, who have passed down the Christian faith in what can be called its native language: the Syriac Christians, whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as Jesus would have spoken it — but they pronounce the Lord’s name not “Yeshua,” but “Isho.” Yeshua was passed down by nobody at all, but invented from imagined traditions in modern times.

What the Apostles did pass down to us, the earliest written records preserved of the Christian Church, are the New Testament Scriptures — written not in Hebrew, not in Aramaic, but in Greek.

The Name of Jesus

Jesus Christ icon

Contrary to arguments I am hearing increasingly from “Hebrew Roots” proponents, the name Jesus is not a late, syncretistic introduction by “Rome,” nor a “corruption” of the true Hebrew teaching, nor any other attempt to pull true Christians away from the “Hebrew Roots” of Christianity. When the Apostles and their associates wrote the New Testament Scriptures in Greek — under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit — they wrote His name as Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous). Every manuscript of every book of the New Testament attests to this.

And this was not a novelty, even for the first Christians. The name Ἰησοῦς had already been extant in Greek for several centuries, as the standard transliteration of the Hebrew name (commonly transliterated in English) Joshua. In the Septuagint, the classic translation of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, which can be dated as early as the second century B.C., Ἰησοῦς was used as the name of Joshua, both the man and the book. In applying that name to the Christ, Greek-speaking Christians were following conventions established long before His coming.

When the Apostle Paul, the first great missionary, carried the Gospel of Christ beyond Judea and Palestine, he carried His name not as Yeshua but as Ἰησοῦς. The name Iesus is a natural transliteration of the Greek name into Latin, and thence, with the translation of the Bible into English, Jesus. Is Scripture itself, then — the divine foundation that even “Messianic” Christians claim — compromised, or corrupt, or flawed? Were the Apostles agents of syncretization or dilution, of leading the people of Christ away from His “Hebrew Roots”? This is in effect what these arguments entail. Clearly, if there were any problem, any heresy or corruption or dilution, in translating the name of the Lord into the native tongues of each of His peoples, then the Apostles themselves would not have done it.

Every Tongue Shall Confess

Nesterov, Resurrection (c. 1892)

Resurrection (c. 1892), by Mikhail Nesterov.

St. Paul himself tells us, in fact:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” — declared in Greek, what was then the lingua franca of the civilized world. The word tongue in Greek, γλώσσα or glōssa, could also refer to language, as with the Latin lingua, and as we continue to use tongue in English. Was “every tongue” to confess the Lord, but only as Yeshua? Plainly not: in that very sentence, Paul hails Him as Jesus in Greek.

Arguing that only “Yeshua,” or any other rendition of the name, is the correct and proper address for our Lord, denies the entire received Christian tradition, the handing down of the faith to every people as the Apostles and their spiritual descendants have done. Just as the Greek people received the name of the Lord as Ἰησοῦς, the English people received Him as Jesus, the Spanish as Jesús, and so forth:

Names of the Lord in Various Languages
Language Name Transliteration
Albanian Jezusi
Amharic ኢየሱስ Iyesus
Aramaic ܝܫܘܥ Isho
Arabic يسوع ʿĪsā
Aragonese Chésus
Bengali যিশু Jishu
Chinese 耶稣
Greek (Koine) Ἰησοῦς Iēsous
Greek (Modern) Ιησούς Iēsous
Hebrew (Modern) ישו Yeshu
Hindi ईसा Jesu
Hungarian Jézus
Irish Gaelic Íosa
Italian Gesù
Korean 예수
Latin Iesus Jesus
Romanian Isus
Russian Иису́с Iisús
Church Slavonic Їисъ
Slovak Ježiš
Tagalog Hesus
Tamil இயேசு
Turkish İsa
Vietnamese Giê-su
Yiddish יעזוס Yezus

… I think you get the idea; and I’m having far too much fun with this. This is only a random smattering of just a few languages, pulled from Jesus’s Wikipedia article.

The point is this: Are any of these languages “wrong”? Were the apostles, missionaries, evangelists, and translators who carried the faith of Christ “to the ends of the earth,” to each one of these peoples, “wrong”? To argue that there is only one name by which Jesus can properly be addressed is to deny the universality, the catholicity, of Christ’s message of salvation; to cast aside the very message of the Gospel, of forgiveness and acceptance and inclusion into Christ for all peoples. Is Jesus a Savior for the Jews only? Or did He come for the lost sheep of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue? The greatest danger of the “Hebrew Roots” movement, I fear, is that it in effect recycles the heresy of the Judaizers, in arguing that the only true way to be a Christian is to be a Jew — an argument that Scripture rejects again and again.

Veritas

My blog motor has been sputtering. I’ve been doing other things: reading, learning, changing. I’ve been receding deeper and deeper into my hobbit-hole. My prayer every day is that God pour me out and fill me up with His love. I have several posts that are simmering half-stirred, but none of them have really motivated me. So I thought I should take a step back, a wider look, and return to what I originally set out to do: to tell the story of how and why I came to the fullness of the Catholic Church.

I’ve been telling that story at length, and I was getting close to the end — that is, back to the beginning and up to the present. Now this next chapter has been on my mind a lot lately as I find myself once again at a similar place: having finished a degree, standing at a juncture, wondering what to do next.

Veritas Classical Schools

To my surprise and my unexpected blessing five years ago, I found myself a teacher at Veritas, a classical school and homeschool cover. There were a lot of things happening then that were important to my journey, but in this post I thought I’d recount how my time at Veritas led me nearer to the Truth of the Church.

It’s often said that one doesn’t truly understand a subject until one teaches it to another; and I certainly found that to be true. I also found that I loved teaching. I was teaching a full bag of subjects: Medieval European history to the upper class (grades 9 through 12, or approximately ages 14 to 17); Post-Reconstruction U.S. history (that is, ca. 1877 to ca. 1965) to the lower class (grades 7 and 8, or ages about 12 to 13); English grammar and vocabulary to both classes (with a focus on Latin and Greek roots for the lower class); Latin to the lower class; and Koine Greek to a few brave souls of the upper class.

Catholici me docent linguam latinam

St. Thomas Aquinas (Crivelli)

St. Thomas Aquinas (15th century), by Carlo Crivelli. (Wikimedia). St. Thomas is a patron of educators and academics.

In my Latin class, per the direction of Mr. H our headmaster, I taught the Ecclesiastical Pronunciation of Latin — that is, how Latin is pronounced in the Roman liturgy. I had been taught at university using the Reconstructed Classical Pronunciation. To illustrate the difference very briefly: in the Ecclesiastical pronunciation of the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer), we say, Pater Noster, qui est in caelis, with the caelis pronounced ˈtʃeː.liːs (chē-līs or chay-lees: ch as in cherry; ay as in pay; lees as in lease). In Classical Pronunciation, one says ˈkaj.liːs (kai-līs: kai as in kayak; lees as in lease).

Now, I was accustomed to Classical Pronunciation, and at first Ecclesiastical Pronunciation sounded very strange and foreign to me. But it so happened that even in this generally Reformed stronghold (Veritas met at a Presbyterian church, you recall), even deep in the Protestant territory of North Alabama, I had a small handful of Catholic students, including a smart young man named John D who reminded me a lot of myself. John and his family, I soon learned, attended a Traditional Latin Mass in Huntsville — and John was very quick to correct me when I slipped back into Classical Pronunciation as I so often did. Before too long, Ecclesiastical Pronunciation was like honey to my ears: so natural and beautiful, the way Latin lived in our world and the way real people pronounced it. At the height of the year, the whole class actually learned to say the Pater Noster in Latin like good Catholic schoolchildren.

Fr. Robert J. Henle, S.J.

Fr. Robert J. Henle, S.J. (1909–2001), as president of Georgetown University.

The reason for our using Ecclesiastical Pronunciation was that the textbook we were using was Henle Latin by Fr. Robert Henle, S.J., which has found a popular following among classical, even Protestant, homeschoolers (mostly by virtue, I think, of being old and not-newfangled). And it was a decent book, despite being directed primarily toward teaching Caesar’s Gallic Wars: our vocabulary consisted mostly of military terms and words for killing (so the girls especially complained, and I agreed). But we also learned that Maria orat Christianis (Mary prays for Christians) and various other Christian concepts with a distinctly Catholic flavor; and the book was complete with charming illustrations of Catholic life. I didn’t realize at the time how much I appreciated it. After all, if anybody else had a fair devotion to the Latin language, it was the Catholics.

Φῶς Ἱλαρόν (Phos Hilaron or “Hail, Gladdening Light”)

My Greek class, sadly, was not very successful. The half an hour or so we had each week just wasn’t enough time to effectively teach a language so foreign to everybody; and only a few students, mostly the ones who were new to Veritas and out of the Latin loop, chose to participate. I consider it a victory that I was at least able to introduce them to the Greek alphabet and hopefully open up a curiosity in the Greek New Testament for them.

Hagia Sophia

Light shines through the dome of the ancient church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

When it came time to teach the Latin class the Pater Noster in Latin, I thought it would be cool to teach my Greek students something to recite also. At that time, David Crowder Band, one of my favorite groups, had recorded a translation of the Phos Hilaron, one of the earliest recorded Christian hymns outside of Scripture. I don’t think anyone else got as excited about it as I did. But I got excited about it! Here I was, peering into the very dawn of Christianity in its very native tongue! In both my Latin and Greek classes, I felt the deep sense that I was approaching the historic Church — which, at that time, I had not yet identified with today’s Catholic Church.

But day by day — though I still had no idea — I was being drawn to her.

And that’s still only the half of it! Stay turned for more, as I taught medieval history to the upper class, with a mindful focus on the Christian Church.

A few words on the Blessed Virgin Mary as “Co-Redemptrix” or “Co-Mediatrix”

In some Catholic writings and documents of the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary is referred to as a “co-redemptrix” or “co-mediatrix” in salvation through Christ. Those are words and concepts that many Protestants have a hard time with. Here are a few brief words I whipped up on that matter, in response to my new friend Eugene.


Madonna and Child, by Carlo Maratta (c. 1660).

Madonna and Child, by Carlo Maratta (c. 1660).

The term “co-redeemer” does not imply that the Blessed Virgin Mary had a role in salvation in any way similar, equal, or comparable to that of Christ. No one in the Catholic Church intends to share with Mary anything that is rightly Christ’s — rather, we think Christ’s glory is so bright that it illuminates everything around Him, including his mother. Any honor we give to Mary is just a greater way to more greatly honor Him. Jesus loved His mother, and so we do, too. And she did cooperate in a profound way with God’s plan of salvation.

Now, you have to remember that many Catholics of the past were not speaking English — they were speaking Latin. And the Latin language has different rules and conventions than the English language. One major difference, as I mentioned before, is that the Latin brain likes to put prefixes on things. In many cases where an English speaker would use a preposition, a Latin speaker puts a prefix on a noun or verb. For example, the word “convene” comes from the Latin cum + venio, to “come together.” Rather than say “we come together” as an English speaker might, the Latin speaker would say convenimus. The word “cooperate” is another apropos example. It comes from the same prefix — cum + opero, to “work together.”

Virgin and Child with Rosary, 1655 (Murillo)

Virgin and Child with Rosary (1655), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

In English we are used to the prefix “co-” meaning that people share in equal responsibilities in a job — “co-contributors,” “co-chairmen,” “co-instructors” are all people equally pitching into their jobs. But in Latin the prefix doesn’t imply that. It just means that people are doing the job “with” each other. To say that Mary cooperated (“worked together”) with salvation is quite a different proposition (in both English and Latin) than saying Mary “worked” salvation herself. Similarly to say that Mary is a “co-redemptrix,” as she is sometimes called in Latin, in no way implies that she is on the same level as Christ the Redeemer, is “another redeemer,” or shares in His glory or responsibility. There is only one Redeemer, and that is Christ. To call Mary a “co-redemptrix” only means that she “worked together” — she “cooperated” — with redemption. Remember, she herself had to be redeemed, too!

(Because of this linguistic confusion, it’s not very common for people to use the term “co-redeemer” or “co-redemptrix” in English these days. You will mainly find that in older writings, especially those that were translated directly from Latin. You will not find that term in the present Catechism or in any other recent teaching of the Church.)

Here is a recent teaching of the Church on this very question, from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church Lumen Gentium (§62) [which speaks at length about the Catholic Church’s beliefs about Mary and her role in salvation and relationship with the Church]:

This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation [that is, the “Announcement” by the angel Gabriel of Jesus’s coming] and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator. For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary. It knows it through unfailing experience of it and commends it to the hearts of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more intimately adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer.

Peccavimus: We have sinned

Piero della Francesca, The Penance of St. Jerome (c. 1450)

The Penance of St. Jerome (c. 1450), by Piero della Francesca. (WikiPaintings.org)

Today I discovered a new composer, and was immediately inspired to share him with my friends, and one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I’d translated the text of this overpoweringly beautiful and stirring motet. I thought it was worth sharing with you all.

I don’t know how many of you worldwide have access to Spotify; but I certainly hope many of you are able to hear this. Even if you can’t, I hope you enjoy the text. I highly recommend Spotify. With it I am able to explore and discover so much music, listen to whole records, all on a grad student’s budget.

This is from the CD TYE: Missa Euge Bone / MUNDY: Magnificat, from Naxos’s Early Music collection, performed by the Oxford Camerata under Jeremy Summerly (one of my favorite ensembles). This is the motet “Peccavimus cum patribus.”



Christopher Tye (c. 1505 – c. 1572) was an English composer and organist, who lived right in the thick of the English Reformation. He served as Doctor of Music at both Cambridge and Oxford, and as choirmaster and organist of Ely Cathedral. He apparently had Protestant leanings, but served faithfully through the reigns (and religious tumult) of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Later in life he took holy orders and served as Rector of Doddington, Cambridgeshire. This motet was composed, I suppose, under the Church of England, but I’m okay with that. It hit me especially powerfully in the penitent mood I’ve been in lately.

I’ll translate it a little bit by bit. I wasn’t happy with the English translation on ChoralWiki.

Peccavimus cum patribus nostris, 
iniuste egimus, iniquitatem fecimus.
Tuæ tamen clementiæ
spe animati ad te supplices confugimus, 
benignissime Jesu.

We have sinned as our fathers,
we have done unjustly, and committed iniquity.
Nonetheless driven by hope of your mercy
We flee to you in supplication,
Kindest Jesus.

Qui ut omnia potes
ita omnibus te invocantibus 
vere præsto es.
Respice itaque in nos infelices peccatores,
bonitas immensa.

Who just as you are able to do all things
So to all who have prayed to you
You are truly present.
Look upon therefore us unhappy sinners,
O boundless goodness.

Respice in nos ingratissimos miseros, 
salus et misericordia publica; 
nam despecti ad omnipotentem venimus,
vulnerati ad medicum currimus, deprecantes 
ut non secundum peccata nostra facias 
neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis.

Look upon us most ungrateful wretches,
O salvation and mercy for all;
for we despicable ones into your omnipotence come,
Having been wounded we run to your healing [or to the Physician],
Praying that you do not do according to our sins
Neither according to our iniquities repay to us.

Quin potius misericordiæ tuæ antiquæ memor 
pristinam clementiam serva, 
ac mansuetudini adhibe incrementum 
qui tam longanimiter suspendisti 
ultionis gladium, 
ablue innumerositatem criminum, 
qui delectaris multitudine misericordiæ.

Rather remembering your compassion of old
Retain your former mercy,
And add increase to your gentleness
With such long-suffering having held back
The sword of vengeance,
Wash away the countlessness of our offenses,
You who are delighted by a multitude of mercy.

Ingere cordibus nostris 
tui sanctissimum amorem, 
peccati odium 
ac cœlestis patriæ ardens desiderium, 
quod magis ac magis crescere faciat 
tua omnipotens bonitas. Amen.

Pour into our hearts
Most holy love for you,
a hatred of sin,
and a burning desire for the heavenly kingdom,
Which by your omnipotent goodness
Make to grow more and more. Amen.

Of good report

Murillo, Rebecca and Eliezer, 1650

Rebecca and Eliezer (1650), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8

I’m having a pretty good day. So I thought I would share a few good things that are going on now.

    The First Hebrew Primer

  • Part of my penance this week is to devote a considerable length of time to spiritual study — a burden on my time but a joy to my soul. And so, in addition to my studies of the daily readings and working my way through the Old Testament, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my Hebrew book, a study that would be of great benefit to my understanding of Scripture. I started working through the book (Simon, Reznikoff, and Motzkin’s The First Hebrew Primer) right before I began grad school, and got through the first few chapters — enough to know the alphabet — before the grad school monster clobbered me. I am reviewing now and planning to advance further, and I’m glad to find that I still have the basic skills I attained before (reading and writing right to left, understanding and writing the alphabet). It’s mentally exhausting, but exciting!

  • Just for the heck of it, I refreshed my memory of the Roman calendar, to date the headings of my Hebrew notebook (it was originally a Latin notebook). Hodie est dies Martis, ante diem XIX Kalendis Septembris, anno Domini MMXII, sive MMDCCLXV ab urbe condita. I should probably pick up the Hebrew calendar now, too.

  • Speaking of Latin: this is a pretty wonderful find on Google Books: A Copious and Critical English-Latin Lexicon (1849), by the Reverends Riddle and Arnold. Ah, I love free, old books, especially when they are as rich a trove as this.

  • Esplorazioni 1

  • Speaking of Rome: I received on interlibrary loan two massive red tomes — not from Rome, from Emory University; but originally from Rome: Esplorazioni sotto la Confessione di San Pietro in Vaticano (1951) — the official report of the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican uncovering the tomb of St. Peter. This is it. Contained herein are a wealth of technical descriptions, diagrams, and photographs: this is the primary source on which all the books I’ve read so far are based. One challenge: it’s in Italian. But that will only add to the adventure of exploring the scavi in greater depth and unlocking their mysteries.

    (My desk is never really this neat. I shuffled off the contents just to take these pictures.)

    Below are a few quick snapshots from the books. I hope to be able to share some more highlights in the weeks to come.

    Esplorazioni 2 Esplorazioni 3 Esplorazioni 4
  • Do you like the paintings I post on here? WikiPaintings.org has fast become one of my favorite websites ever. The wiki’s goal is nothing less than to collect and catalog high-resolution images of the works of all the masters; to tag them and document them and share them. I post images from it almost daily. Whoever uploaded the great collection of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is singularly responsible for bringing him, in the course of a few months, from being unknown to me to being one of my favorite painters ever.

  • Ware, The Orthodox Church

  • I’m reading a wonderful book on the Orthodox Church, The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Timothy (Kallistos) Ware. I am not very far in (past the Seven Councils), but he is delightfully snooty toward the Roman Catholic Church and toward the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox, who don’t count.

All right. There are many other great things to share, but I will save some for tomorrow! Other things to do.

Traditional Latin Mass

Latin Mass

Tridentine Mass in a chapel of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston. (Wikipedia)

Last Sunday I attended my first traditional Latin Mass, at a local parish in Alabama while I was home visiting my parents. I had been meaning to check it out for a while. It was considerably different than what I’ve been used to; though I could still observe the basic form of the Mass. I wanted to briefly share my thoughts and observations.

What is commonly referred to as the “traditional” Latin Mass is also known as the Tridentine Mass (Tridentine from Tridentinus, belonging to the city of Tridentum — or Trent) — the Mass that was in use from the Council of Trent (1545–1563) until the revision of the Mass following the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). The Mass liturgy we use today is known as the Mass of Paul VI. There is actually a bit of disagreement about what to call the pre–Vatican II Mass. The Catholics who hosted this Mass I attended were Traditionalists, and so referred to it as the “Traditional Latin Mass.”

But “Traditional Latin Mass” is something of a misnomer, I discovered. The liturgy was traditional, certainly; but the form that was presented was essentially 1962 frozen in time. I was kind of expecting something more ancient — traditional music and chant forms, in particular — but the music felt like the 1950s. It was pretty, don’t get me wrong; but it wasn’t “traditional.” My parish, especially before the recent Mass revisions, was much more traditional in its music.

Mantilla

Something like this.

It was immediately apparent, as soon as I entered the church, that these people were Traditionalists. All of the women wore headcoverings, mostly in the form of lace mantillas. This was kind of neat; though besides it being in the Bible (1 Corinthians 11), I don’t understand the reasons for doing it. (Is that the only reason? They argue that the requirement of headcoverings is still binding today.) If the idea of headcoverings is modesty, I must confess, like many modest fashions, I found it rather alluring, wondering what the ladies’ hair and faces looked like underneath their headcoverings.

Another thing I noticed is that the church was packed. It wasn’t a very large church, but the pews were mostly full. A man was leading the Rosary. At my church, we also pray the Rosary about thirty minutes before Mass, but there are usually only a handful of people there then. Here, everyone was praying. It was rather moving.

But here I noticed another aspect of Traditionalism: at every iteration of the Glory Be, the orator invoked the “Holy Ghost,” rather than the “Holy Spirit” as I’m used to. Throughout the entire meeting, the name “Holy Ghost” was consistently used in English (in the priest’s homily, too — this was Pentecost, so he talked about the “Holy Ghost” quite a lot). This seems to me a rather pointless traditionalism just for the sake of traditionalism. Why insist on the Germanic “ghost” rather than the Latinate “spirit” — when the Latin of the Mass, which this gathering was supposed to preserve, refers to the Spiritus Sanctus?

A couple of other aspects of the priest’s homily grated on me. He referred several times to Pentecost as the birth of the Catholic Church, and to the Holy Spirit as a gift to Catholicism; he never once used the word “Christian.” His words seemed chosen specifically to separate and exclude all others but Catholics from the celebration of the Holy Spirit — and, I suspect, he would have privileged Traditionalists if he’d had the chance.

On to the Mass itself: I picked up a little booklet that contained the Latin liturgy and an English translation on the opposite page. Now, my Latin is fairly good, though pretty rusty. But the priest celebrated the Mass ad orientem, and spoke his Latin very fluidly and not distinctly. I was almost immediately lost, and struggled to keep up in the book throughout the liturgy. I wasn’t in a very good position to see what he was doing, either, since he was facing away and I wasn’t very close, so I didn’t have any visual cues. It was very much like experiencing a liturgy in an unknown foreign language. I suppose that those who attend Latin Mass every week probably have a much easier time following and understanding — looking around, none of the regulars had the little liturgy books — but I didn’t feel that I had taken much of a part.

But that’s just it — no one really did. It was true what I had heard — that before Vatican II, the congregation didn’t really have much to do or say; that they mainly just watched the priest. The liturgical reforms of Vatican II restored many of prayers and responses of the faithful that had fallen into disuse and been transferred to the priest over the centuries; in this Mass, he said nearly all of them. The main response the people consistently had was to answer “Et cum spiritu tuo” (“And with your spirit”) to the priest’s “Pax vobiscum” (“Peace be with you”). At several other places — the Pater Noster, the Credo — the choir sang, and the faithful could sing along if they liked, but not many people did.

I also didn’t get the feeling that even the priest was speaking the Latin with a grasp or appreciation for its sense and meaning. The words were rote, for both the priest and the people. They may have known what they meant, but they didn’t act like it. A prime example that stood out to me: When the priest spoke, “Oremus” (“Let us pray”), he didn’t actually pause for anybody to pray. He did this consistently throughout the liturgy.

In the second part of the Mass, the Mass of the Faithful (so called because the non-baptized were once excluded from it; in some places they still are) — what’s known in today’s Mass as the Liturgy of the Eucharist — the priest more or less conducted the liturgy privately. His prayers were low and inaudible (at least from where I was sitting), and the sense was that he was praying for the consecration of the Host in his own intimate communion with God. The faithful weren’t a part of this.

And that, I think, is what bothered me the most. The participation of the faithful throughout the Mass — and most especially at that intimate moment of consecration — is one of the most important aspects of the Mass to me. It’s at that moment that I feel the most connected, the most in communion, with the Church and with her members and with all believers over the ages. I respect the mystery of the liturgy; I know that in the medieval church, the rood screen separated the people in the nave from the priest in the sanctuary, and that Orthodox churches have an even more solid separation in the iconostatis — but I feel, as the Vatican II Council Fathers felt, that the people should not be excluded from the liturgy. The liturgy is the work of the people; we are the people of Christ. I go to Mass to be a participant, to practice my worship actively; not to be a spectator.

One thing I liked, and this is minor, and not exclusive to a Traditionalist Mass: in receiving Communion, we went to kneel at the altar rail, and the priest walked by to communicate us. It was much more solemn and humble than our usual habit of lining up, efficient though it may be.

Missale Romanum

Overall, my experience at the “Traditionalist” Latin Mass was one of intriguing cultural reconnaissance, and a peek into the past, though it was the not-too-distant past: the way a Catholic would have experienced Mass in 1962. I decidedly prefer today’s Mass, especially since the recent revision. The Tridentine Mass is beautiful, and its tradition is valuable — but tradition shouldn’t stand in the way of the faithful approaching God. I think, in some basic respects, the Mass of Paul VI is more conducive to our corporate worship.

I don’t understand the Traditionalists’ objections; I admittedly haven’t read much about that. But I get the feeling that they object to change just because it is change. I do think the intentions of the Vatican II Council Fathers were good, that the reforms were needed, and that the letter of their voices in the documents is true and faithful to the tradition of the Church. The Church today is making steady progress to undo the abuses and mistakes that were wrought by modernists “in the spirit of Vatican II.”

On the Place of Latin in Our Liturgy

I value the Latin of the liturgy a lot. Contrary to popular conceptions, Vatican II didn’t eliminate Latin as the language of the Mass. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, firmly states (36),

Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the [vernacular] tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. . . . These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority . . . to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used . . .

“In the spirit of Vatican II,” modernists have run a lot further with this than they should have. The use of the vernacular language is certainly advantageous to the people. The faithful need to understand and take part in our worship and devotion. But the Latin of the Mass is our glory and our heritage, and it should be preserved and celebrated. Again, Sacrosanctum Concilium (54):

In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their [vernacular] tongue. . . . Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.

When I first started attending Mass in my parish, this is what we did. We sang in Latin, in traditional chant forms, much of the Ordinary of the Mass: the Kyrie (in Greek), the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. And the people loved it and embraced it; it was never an impediment but an ornament to our worship. Now, since the new Mass settings ordered by our bishop, we only have the Agnus Dei in Latin. (We also still sing the Salve Regina and the other seasonal Marian antiphons in Latin.) But I would love so much to reincorporate more Latin.

What I would really like to experience, in fact — and I don’t know of anybody around here who does this — is the whole of the ordinary form of the Mass celebrated in its underlying Latin.

Advent, and the New English Translation of the Missal

AdventToday is the beginning of Advent, the liturgical season of expectation and preparation for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas. I’ve never celebrated Advent before, that I recall. (I remember the celebration of Advent from the year or two we attended the United Methodist church when I was a child. We had an Advent wreath at home. But I don’t remember any personal participation or devotion to it.) So this will be a new experience for me, discovering the prayers and the mindset and heartset of the expectation of Christ, as I continue to be molded to Christ and to the life of the Church.

The church distributed our Little Blue Advent Books a couple of weeks ago at RCIA. I’m looking forward to its devotional guidance. Last year I followed the Little Books for Lent and Easter, and grew more as a Christian during those seasons than I think I ever have before. It was during that time that God confirmed that my path was leading into the Church.

Advent also marks the beginning of the liturgical year, and so accordingly, we moved as a whole church body into the long-heralded new English translation of the Roman Missal. We’ve been transitioning slowly for some time. As a diocese, we adopted new musical settings of the propers of the Mass in September; since October, Father Joe has been gradually introducing more and more of the new translation into our weekday daily Masses. This morning was the first time the whole church used the new translation in its entirety; it was the first time I had used the new Confiteor and Credo. By and large, it went off without a hitch. I heard some people who, all through the Mass, kept slipping up and giving the responses they knew by heart (admittedly, I slipped up right along with them). For many, these words were what they’d known all their lives.

Missale RomanumThe more I’ve gotten used to it, the more I like and prefer the new translation; the more I read about its rationale, the more I value it. As a Latinist and traditionalist, I certainly value a return to closer adherence with the Latin Mass in all its catholicity.  That is, I’m a little-t traditionalist, meaning someone who is faithful to Church tradition, as opposed to a big-T Traditionalist, meaning someone who perceives rupture in the Church since Vatican II and demands reversion. Speaking of Traditionalists: I wonder how they are taking this? This new translation, as I understand it, is in fact a reversion, a turning back of many of the mistaken and misguided departures the English translation of the Mass made from the Latin. It strives to be a return to unity and catholicity, doctrinally and liturgically, with the rest of the Catholic world.

Will any of the Traditionalists be appeased? Will any of the schismatic ones return to communion with the Church? It’s times like these I wish I wasn’t so overwhelmed by the blogosphere, and was more in touch with prominent bloggers of different liturgical positions. (For that matter, I wish I wasn’t so overwhelmed by different positions. Right now, I’m still trying to bring myself to orthodoxy with the Church.) I tend to think that some who found issue with the substantial departures in the previous English translation from the Latin might find the new translation more acceptable. As much as I love Latin and value it in the Church and in the Mass, those Traditionalists who cling unyieldingly to the Latin Mass itself, rejecting any liturgical use of the vernacular at all, seem about as unreasonable to me as the Protestant King James Only adherents. I suppose there were other changes between the Tridentine Mass (the traditional Latin Mass) and the Mass of Paul VI (introduced in 1969) to which some Traditionalists object. I haven’t researched this. Can any reader key me in?

A piece I heard on NPR the other day about this was food for thought. I thought it did a good job of presenting both sides without bias. But I must say I was amazed at the ignorance — or is it willful innovation? — of the dissenting positions represented. I quote:

Trautman says sometimes the new translation is not faithful to the Bible. For example, it has Jesus, a poor carpenter, sipping from a precious chalice during the Last Supper.

“Any Greek dictionary will tell you, it’s a drinking cup,” Trautman says, “It’s a vessel. It’s not a chalice.”

Trautman says even Indiana Jones got that one right; the rugged historian selected a rough cup as the Holy Grail.

This is where churchmen should not take their Bible scholarship from Hollywood. Trautman is correct that the original Greek text of the Bible uses the word ποτήριον (potērion) in the accounts of Last Supper, from the Greek verb to drink, cognate with English potable, etc., and meaning literally, according to the LSJ and BDAG, a cup or drinking vessel. But if Trautman wants to take issue with the use of the word chalice in English, he should take it up with St. Jerome, not with anyone today. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translates ποτήριον, in all four accounts (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and 1 Corinthians), as calix, from which chalice is a direct translation. Calix also translates literally, according to Lewis and Short, as a cup or drinking vessel. It’s only in English, liturgical usage that chalice has come to connote an ornate or luxurious cup; in Latin, it was just a simple cup.

(For what it’s worth, and this is extra: Latin calix derives from a different Greek word, κύλιξ [kulix], which still means a cup, especially a wine cup. So this was certainly a defensible translation choice for St. Jerome. A more direct translation from the Greek would have been poculum, which, similar to ποτήριον, derives from the verb to drink [poto].)

But Trautman’s concerns also go beyond vocabulary to theology. He cites where the new translation says Jesus died “for you and for many.”

“In preaching, we will hear that Jesus died for all people, but at the altar we will hear it Jesus died for many,” he notes. “For whom did he not die?”

Again, I wonder if this guy has ever actually read the Bible (or spoken to a Calvinist). Matthew’s Gospel, at Matthew 26:28, and most modern translations, both Protestant and Catholic, agree, reads “this is my blood of the covenant, which will is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (ESV). The Greek, without dispute, reads περὶ πολλῶν, for many. Christians can debate the theological significance of this, but that’s what the Bible says.

The Rev. Michael Ryan, the pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, has similar reservations. “It seems that the Latin is more important than the theology; that’s a pity,” Ryan says.

This is the part that troubles me. The last time I checked, the Church Fathers, and churchmen of all the ages, including the pope today, have written our theology in Latin. What theology is he concerned about apart from Latin? Is not closer adherence to the Latin also closer adherence to orthodox theology?

“The Second Vatican Council talked about language that would exhibit ‘noble simplicity,’ ” Ryan says. “This is anything but that. No, it’s a total move away from the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.”

Personally, I find a lot of “noble simplicity” in this new English translation. The “noble simplicity” is inherent in the original text, and this translation grasps it even more fully than the previous one. If anything, we had lost that “noble simplicity” before for vagueness and fuzziness. If this is a “total move” away from Vatican II, it’s only from the mistaken “spirit of Vatican II” that some modernists have interpreted.

“We’re dealing with a power play on the part of certain people in Rome who wanted to make changes in order, I think, to bring under greater control people in the English-speaking world.”

If this is designed to bring anyone “back into line,” it’s because some liberals have taken the “spirit of Vatican II” and the flawed, older English translation of the Mass and taken the Church in directions she wasn’t meant to go.

Approaching Rome

So in a very real way, liturgy drew me to Latin; Latin drew me to history; and history drew me to Rome. I had begun listening to the Requiem Mass out of a desperate feeling, not any liturgical impulse. I chose to take Latin by a chance, extemporaneous decision. My conversion to a history major was a pragmatic resignation to forces that had been pulling for a long time. But in these moments I can perceive a gradual, steady progression; the gentle guidance of God’s hand.

Perhaps more significantly, Latin led me to the Society. The Society was our university’s classical language society, founded by Dr. G and held together by his gravity. The Society met weekly to read and discuss Latin texts (and occasionally texts in Greek and other ancient languages), gave public readings, and brought in distinguished academic speakers on subjects of classics and history. Dr. G actively recruited members out of his classes; I was drawn immediately. The members appointed me secretary the first time I attended. And suddenly, for the first time since high school, I had found a social and academic home; a sense of purpose and belonging. Over the next half dozen years, my association with the Society and Dr. G would shape me more as a student and as a person than any other influence.

The Venerable Bede

The Venerable Bede.

The next semester after my introduction to Latin, Dr. G taught his History of the Christian Church. I was still maturing as a student and as a historian, so I certainly didn’t get as much out of the course as I could have; but what I did get was profound: an historical, scholarly, and rational approach to Early Christianity — one that could coexist with matters of faith, that questioned them academically, but not polemically. Dr. G, the son of a long line of prominent Lutheran ministers, had an equal and unconflicted love for the richness and beauty of the Catholic tradition and the boldness and courage of the Protestant Reformers. As a medieval historian, he held a deep admiration for the Church Fathers and the saints, the world of popes and abbots and monumental cathedrals — this he conveyed to us as students. One student, Hibernius, a philosophy student and atheist, Dr. G’s course made a Roman Catholic. I discovered that semester the first of my many heroes of the faith, the Venerable Bede. I wrote my term paper on Bede’s account of the Synod of Whitby and its import. If listening to the Requiem had planted a seed in me, Dr. G planted a forest that semester.

The Baptism of Clovis

The Baptism of Clovis, a scene from Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks, on which I wrote my research paper for Medieval Latin.

That summer, having traversed Wheelock’s Latin, I took my first advanced Latin course — momentously, in Church Latin. Over the next weeks, I would immerse myself in the writings of the Church Fathers, medieval historians, hagiographers, and theologians, and come to love them not just in thought, but in letter and in word; not just as history, but as literature and life. My pantheon of heroes grew by leaps and bounds: St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Gregory of Tours, St. Anselm, and others; and of course St. Bede. The process had begun in earnest: I was falling in love with the medieval Church.

Of course, I still had so far to go. This was still seven years ago. I still had so many misconceptions about the modern Catholic Church. I believed it was corrupt, bound up with baseless, man-made accretions that only served to keep man away from God; I believed it was so set in tradition that it could neither move nor change. Raised in the Protestant tradition, I never conceived that the Reformers might have been wrong — or that anything beyond the Protestant tradition might have been right. I had never attended a Mass; it never occurred to me that I might. But I was approaching, surely and steadily, even if I didn’t know where I was going. The coming year would bring me to the threshold of Rome itself.

The Wandering Road

The Winding RoadIn the next phase of my life, I spent a great deal of time on the road. I took several grand road trips, taking off all across the Southern United States. I was always going somewhere, if only to the next town or county or state. At the time, what I thought I felt was freedom, liberation, the ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted. But I was irresponsible with my money and time, impulsive, and foolish. In retrospect I can see that I was actually in flight — fleeing to escape the pain of my failure; to escape who I was and where I was; to be someone else, somewhere else. Many people fall into drugs or alcohol out of similar drives. I never went to those places, but I fell to many other sins during this time. The chief among them, though — the root of everything else — was always that escapism.

After several years, I returned to school, to a more local university to which I could commute. Out of practical concerns, I began a degree in computer science. Programming was always something I had enjoyed, and I saw in it a good career. Immediately, though, history was once again a compelling interest. Whenever I picked up a course catalog, I dreamily eyed the history section, imagining all the history courses I would somehow have time to take. The first history course I took was Western Civilization from ancient to medieval. The topic I chose for my research paper, picked from a preselected list of topics, was the Great Schism. At the time I picked it, I was thinking of the Great East–West Schism that formally split the Western and Eastern Churches — a topic that interested me, and still does; I would still like to learn more about it. I remember being initially confused that there was more than one “Great Schism” — and whatever sources I found led me to write instead about the Western Schism, an event I had previously been unaware of. Although I’m not sure it presented a very positive picture, that research gave me my first introduction to the medieval papacy, and my first academic look at the Catholic Church.

For my second history course, the second half of Western Civ, from Renaissance to modern, I carefully studied the faculty bios of the history department. I chose Dr. G, who impressed me as being the most erudite and the most learned about what the course would be on. I was not disappointed. I had never had a teacher like him, who enriched his lectures with only the drama of history, but a sense of the underlying forces that drive history. He taught socratically, challenging me in new ways and urging me to do more than sit back and take notes. Initially, I did well. But towards the middle of the semester, a nagging anxiety and perfectionism took hold of me. His research paper called for a historiographic approach — something many students never hear about until graduate school — and paralyzed with fear, rather than seek help, I sank.

Mozart's Requiem

A page from the autograph of Mozart's Requiem.

I remember an episode during this dark time that presaged my journey to Rome, and my entire future course, more certainly than anything else I can think of. Like many a depressed and struggling young man before, having visions of my own impending doom, I turned to Mozart’s Requiem. I listened to it obsessively, often on my commutes to school. It was Latin; I wondered what its words meant. I went online and printed off a transcript of the Latin and its translation. Within a few weeks, I had memorized it. I had little concept then that was I was learning was liturgy, or even what that meant; but it planted a seed that was to bear fruit.

I tanked completely that semester. It was the first of many times I failed, usually in the face of term papers and major projects. I ran away and medicated rather than faced my demons. But I returned. The next semester was better. It wasn’t until a year later that I dared attempt another history course — but rather than avoid the situation and the man who had defeated me before, I recognized the value of the challenge Dr. G presented. I registered for his course again, and charged once more unto the breach.

This time, I excelled thoroughly. I clearly had an aptitude. I wrote my research paper, the historiographic one, on different historians’ interpretations of Charles I and the Battle of Naseby. That time, it presented little difficulty. I remember staying up all night (oh, to still be able to do that) the night before the final exam, rewriting and memorizing my notes backward and forward: I blew the exam out of the water. It felt to me a great coup, the first victory in overcoming my demons.

In order to major in computer science, I would have had to minor in mathematics. At one time, when I was younger, I was pretty good at math. But that part of my brain had atrophied over the years, partly because it had then been five years since I had graduated from high school, but mostly because I had lost interest in it. It had become something painful for me, and even worse, I was unwilling to devote the time necessary to study for it. The next semester after my triumph with Dr. G, it was time for me to face Calculus B. The first day of class, the professor, a kindly man named Dr. M, gave a pre-test to assess where we stood coming into the course: I missed every single question. Afterward in his office, with concern in his voice and not a trace of condescension, he asked me if I was sure I needed to be in his course. “No,” I answered, quavering.

So I needed another course to fill out my schedule. That semester I was also taking another course with Dr. G, a survey of ancient history. In all of Dr. G’s courses, he peppered explications of the etymologies of words, to uncover the deeper meanings of concepts: I was fascinated. As it happened, Dr. G was also the professor of Latin at my school, and he frequently plugged it in his history classes. Poring over the course schedule, looking for something I could fit in, I fell upon Latin. I thought back to my fascination with the Latin of the Requiem Mass. It could work, I thought.

Wheelock's LatinI went to Dr. G’s office, and told him that I was thinking of transferring into his Latin class. By this time it was three or four days into the course, but he didn’t hesitate, and didn’t give me the opportunity to. “Well, come on; it’s about to begin.” He handed me a copy of Wheelock’s Latin.

Immediately, the Latin language seized me. I went home that night and wrote in my journal that I didn’t think there would be any turning back. And there wasn’t. If I was abandoning math, then logically I would have to abandon computer science also. And I did: within a year, I was a history major. The next summer after taking Latin, I translated the Dies irae of the Requiem Mass on my own. So marked the first, real steps in a journey that has led me to Rome.