If you read any book on English style, it will tell you to avoid phrases like “In a hasty manner” or “In a sly mode.” Rule 17 of the most respected style guide, Strunk and White, states: “Omit needless words” and then gives this as a specific example to avoid. In English it is incredibly easy to make an adverb; you just add –ly (in case you’re wondering, the above phrases are properly replaced by “hastily” and “slyly” according to Strunk and White).
Yet, in the Mass, the Latin phrase “Simili modo” is translated “In a similar way” rather than “Similarly” in the Eucharistic prayers. When I first read this about 5 years ago, this seeming grammatical faux pas bothered me. I wanted to write to the committee to express my dismay at what I assumed was improper English style but never got around to it.
I’m not a professional grammarian (but my sister teaches foreign languages and English composition, which is about as close as you can get to being one), only an engineer-turned-priest-turned-Catholic-blogger. Why did this bother me? Why did this concern me yet I let other people’s errors go unchecked? Reflecting on this, I drew three lessons.
The first lesson is the value of the Mass and the importance of following the rubrics. It bothered me in the same way that the old translation bothered intellectual Catholics: if we say the Mass is the source and summit of Christian life, all the beauty of Christendom should be contained to it including proper English. Except for Oxford English professors (and a few others), our natural tendency is to dumb down our language and lower it rather than raise it up. Yet, the language of the Mass should raise us to God. Everything about the Mass should elevate our soul to God. We cannot let banalities slip in. The Mass has certain aspects which respect Latin style, such as much longer sentences than standard English. However, it also needs to respect proper English style. Overall, the Mass has a very elevating style. Since we want to elevate people to God, it is important that we stick to the words that are written in that style.
The second lesson is obedience. Even though in one singular instance, I believe the Mass could be superior in English style, I have avoided changing the words of the Eucharistic prayer. I definitely prefer my own English style here but I have to realize how God works. God doesn’t work by sitting up on his throne and directly communicating everything to us. He often uses human means, and even broken human means. When we obey, we get his grace. Even though God could’ve worked in a million ways, he chose to work in this way and we now receive grace by following it. I may not understand it, but I obey.
To conclude, my third lesson is that I actually drew the first two lessons out of something that was seemingly negative (my dislike for the translation of one phrase). It is easy to be overwhelmed by the negative, but we need to know how to draw the positive out. If I hadn’t noticed another way to translate that phrase, I wouldn’t have learned the lessons about the dignity of the Mass and about obedience, which I have.
EDIT: several people have rightly pointed out that I should have used “Style” not “Grammar” in the title. I was slightly inaccurate in my word use. Sorry for any confusion this caused.