(A notice from the Department of Who Knew?)

The Benedict XVI Institute, the brainchild of Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco, quietly published in 2014 the Hymnal for the Hours edited by Fr. Samuel Weber OSB, a collection of very nearly all of the Latin hymns of the Divine Office in trustworthy English translations. This book is still in print, via the the on-demand service Lulu (which is a very 21st-century way to make books). You can get it in both hardcover and softcover for a price which just covers production, because the authors envision this as a love-gift to the Church.

We had heard of this book last April (thank you, Paul Hill!) but didn’t know where to find it or what to do with it. Finally (after false starts on eBay and Amazon) we have acquired it and are delighted with it.

Yes, we do care for obscure hymnals, at the Sing the Hours project. Our task here is a little like a marriage broker, whose job it is to acquaint English speakers (and singers) with the beauties of the perennial daily prayer of the Western Church, in the hopes of a permanent union of an English-speaking soul with the speech of the Church. In hopes of an authentic introduction, we aim to represent one party to the other as accurately as possible. Since the Church’s prayer is embodied primarily in Latin (and then in translation), and since Gregorian chant is (according to the instructions of Vatican II) the foremost means of singing that prayer, we use chant and Latin (as all our listeners know), as much as possible, subject to the goals of making the prayers, as a whole, fruitful and intelligible to English speakers.

In order to be faithful to both parties in this proposed alliance between English and Latin, we sometimes just sing the Latin, because there is no sense in trying to hide it, and it’s quite beautiful, and even (depending on one’s ear) sometimes clear enough to grasp. But when we sing the English, we try to use the original melody, and words which convey the actual prayers expressed in the Latin. Sometimes indeed we sing traditional English hymns; these are often inspired by Latin hymns, and some are rough paraphrases of the Latin but in the “hymn language” we all know (which is different from other poetic and prosaic forms). We love traditional English hymns, but we don’t confuse them with translations of the Latin hymns; to do so would be like introducing a would-be bride to her prospective groom’s handsome brother: It’s not the same. Why do we care? Because we are aiming not just for any old beautiful experience, but for unity with the Church, who has spoken and still speaks in Latin.

Enter Fr. Weber’s book, which (as we understand it) is the work of many decades by many translators. The English translations in the Weber Hymnal are set to the original melodies (“hymnody”) used by the Latin texts. This means (among other things) that the English stanzas have the same number of syllables (and metrical structure) as the Latin ones. Anybody who has tried their hand at poetic translation know that this is a serious constraint on the translator, and tends towards either of two things: A very literal rendering (because each English word “takes up room” roughly comparable to its Latin antecedent), or on the other hand a very free rendering which entirely drops some points from the Latin, in order to have something sensible to say in English. Speaking for myself, it is hard to do the latter in good conscience, but sometimes very hard indeed to take the high road and do the former, because Latin and English words do not translate syllable for syllable, and the capabilities of Latin grammar sometimes differ greatly from what English can do.

I hope to learn this book well as we attempt to use it for Sing the Hours. So far, after some glancing through, I see that it has collected both old and new translations from skilled poets. I see the excellent work of J.M. Neale, as well as newer work from the redoubtable Fr. Dylan Schrader and one I assume comes from Fr. Weber himself (#176). Frankly, there are some that I would prefer not to use. (Sorry, Robert Bridges; I don’t care for the “sevenfold dower” in #104, even if rhymes with the “almighty power” you threw in to go with it, though I don’t have anything better to offer than sevenfold munificence.) On the whole, the translations in the Weber Hymnal seem often to take the high road to accuracy, and so can be trusted to conduct you to the same high places that the Latin does.

In short, this Hymnary from Fr. Weber and his team is the most comprehensive source we’ve found of English words to sing the Latin hymns, with the fullest possible accuracy. As readers of this website may know, we have made some of our own translations also, and may continue to do so, but we feel much less alone having found this resouruce.

Those wishing for more information on the Hymnal can read this recent review.

But isn’t Latin passé? After all, the Holy Father just put restrictions on the extraordinary form of the Latin mass. These were promulgated (as he explains) to discourage schism arising Vatican II. But it would be a mistake to imagine that this week’s motu proprio, or Vatican II itself, discourages the use of Latin. Vatican II itself, and the Novus Ordo mass, are promulgated primarily in Latin documents, which are then translated in to English and other languages. Latin remains an irreplaceable basis of the unity of the Roman Catholic Church; it ensures the identity of the prayers of the Church in all languages, and it also embodies the unity of the Church’s devotion across all of time, in every generation.

While there is an English speaking wing of the Latin church, there is not any English Church per se. (Yes there are our mostly-separated brethren in the Anglican communions. And there is the Greek Church, the Russian and Coptic Churches, etc. But their identities are set in millennia of tradition, and are not analogous to that of a modern English-speaking catholic.) In opening the mass to the vernacular, Vatican II is a proposal of friendship to the languages of the world, not a declaration of war on the language of the Church.

I suppose that, if you should ever encounter partisanship towards one language and hostility to another (whether Latin or English or any other), you would be observing a kind of schism, because the Church (like humanity itself) is multilingual. In any case, for the love for the body of Christ, let our uses of language, and above all of the Divine Liturgy, be the occasions not of schism, but of union.

Pope St. John XXIII, who convoked Vatican II and was canonized by our Pope Francis, called for the restored use of Latin as “a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity”. (H/T to Jeff Ostrowski.) Latin remains the language of the heart of the Western Church, and indeed is one of the heart-languages of many of her sons and daughters, including us.

P.S. I spent a little time looking at the function of rhyme in a Latin hymn translated in this book and others. If you find the mechanics of translation and poetry interesting, you might enjoy it: http://rosehome.org/music/rhyme-post.html