U.S. bishops’ conference acquires translation of Psalms and Canticles from Conception Abbey

Fr. Merz of J.C. diocese helped with translation


King David first sang of striving for almost-good-enough before letting his aspirations soar toward perfection.

That evolution is one of many subtle nuances to be restored in the latest translation of the Book of Psalms for liturgical use in the Church.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has purchased the copyrights to the Revised Grail Psalter and the Old and New Testament Canticles translated by the monks of Conception Abbey in Northwestern Missouri.

The two texts will now together be titled Abbey Psalms and Canticles and will gradually be incorporated into the Church’s official liturgical books.

These sacred texts play an important role in the public prayer of the Church, especially in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the readings for Mass.

Father Daniel J. Merz,  SLD, a priest of the Jefferson City diocese, had a hand in refining the latest translations and shepherding them through the byzantine approval process.

That process’s purpose is to ensure the most accurate translations of Bible texts possible, so people who study God’s Word may follow it more fully along the path to eternity.

The U.S. bishops spent about two decades in search of a translation of the Psalms and canticles that would be more accurate and more conducive to singing and recitation.

Since at least 1998, the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey have been working to prepare translations that would meet those goals.

The monks at Conception also staff Conception Seminary College, where many priests of this diocese began their priestly formation.

The USCCB first approved the monks’ translation of the psalter in 2008, and the Holy See then approved that text in 2010.

In June 2015, the USCCB approved Conception Abbey’s translation of the canticles, hymn-like passages from the Bible that are used on certain occasions in the liturgy.

The bishops subsequently approved a revised version of the psalter in 2016.

In May 2018, the Holy See approved both the psalter and the canticles in what should now be their definitive form.

Spiritual nourishment

Abbot Gregory Polan, the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, was abbot of Conception Abbey for nearly 20 years and coordinated the preparation of the Abbey Psalms and Canticles.

“It is my sincere hope,” he commented, “that this translation of the Psalms and biblical canticles will be a source of spiritual nourishment for the liturgy and the private prayer of all who use them.”

The USCCB is grateful for the exceptional service that the monks of Conception Abbey have provided to the Church by their work.

Since 2010 many composers have prepared their own settings of these Psalms for use in the liturgy, and some of the more recently-published liturgical books have already begun incorporating material from the new translations.

The Abbey Psalms and Canticles will begin to see a wider dissemination in the coming years, especially when new editions of the Lectionary for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours are completed.

In purchasing these copyrights, the bishops are following the guidelines of the Holy See’s Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, which requires that a Conference of Bishops possess all the rights necessary to promote and safeguard the accurate and appropriate use of the texts of the Sacred Liturgy.

“Marinated in the Psalms”

Fr. Merz — pastor of St. George parish in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein, and chairman of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission — had an inside view of the creation of these Psalm arrangements and their adoption by the USCCB.

He spent 10 years with Abbot Polan on the Conception Seminary College faculty before serving for three and a half years as associate director of the USCCB Secretariat for Divine Worship.

“Abbot Polan is a well-respected scholar of the Old Testament,” Fr. Merz noted. “But equally, if not more important than his scholarship, is the fact that he has dedicated his whole life to meditating on and praying the Psalms and canticles of the Church.”

Fr. Merz noted that the monks at Conception Abby pray the Psalms and canticles five times a day.

They also practice lectio divina, an ancient method of praying with Scripture, for 30 minutes each morning and 30 minutes each evening.

“They are marinated in the Psalms, this great prayerbook of the Church,” he said.

Guiding principles

Fr. Merz said the initial project authorized in 2010 was intended to be a revision of the Grail translation of the Psalms, the translation currently used in the Liturgy of the Hours.

“The principles employed for this revision were to bring out more fully some of the earthy Hebrew imagery, while making the English more musical,” he said.

The monks followed an English language rhythm popularized by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, called “sprung rhythm.”

Fr. Merz said the revised Grail psalter models this style beautifully.

“The other principle at work in the translation was to avoid changing the revised Grail unless it was deemed necessary,” he said.

Having all sweetness

Fr. Merz remembers studying Hebrew under Father (now Abbot) Polan as a seminarian at Conception Seminary College.

“The day we learned our first vocabulary word, he gave us all a Hershey’s kiss, because the Word of God is sweet to the taste: ‘How sweet is Your promise to my tongue, more than honey in the mouth’” (Psalm 119:103).

The revised Grail Psalms had just been approved by the Church’s Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments when Fr. Merz began working at the USCCB in 2011.

Upon reviewing the approved texts, he and his colleagues noticed that subtle changes had been made in certain texts.

The changes were made for good reasons, but some had spoiled the sprung rhythm.

The Conception monks and the scholars in the USCCB Secretariat for Liturgy asked if any of the changes could be reconsidered.

“We discovered that the Congregation was open to a reconsideration of the translation in light of our concerns,” said Fr. Merz.

In the process of preparing a new version to be voted on by the U.S. bishops and resubmitted to Rome, they came to feel less and less bound to the vocabulary of the Grail translation and moved toward a translation that was even more faithful to the sacred Hebrew text.

The U.S. Bishops had also recently completed a revised translation of the Psalms for the New American Bible (NAB).

The USCCB staff compared the revised Grail translation and the revised NAB Psalms in order to bring the two closer together where possible, “thus making it easier to replace the NAB Psalms with the revised Grail,” said Fr. Merz.

“With holy men”

The process was complex but invigorating.

“There were several times when Abbot Gregory flew to Washington, D.C., and the two of us spent a good chunk of the day pondering and comparing translations,” Fr. Merz recalled.

“It may have bored some people to tears, but the two of us were energized by the experience!” he said.

He likened it to the deep desire expressed by Tevye, the lead character in “Fiddler on the Roof,” to have the time and money to spend the whole day “discussing the learned books with the holy men.”

“That would be the sweetest thing of all!” Tevye exclaims in song.

Greatly appreciated

Fr. Merz cited an example revealed in this translation work of how a minor revision communicates significant meaning.

Psalm 62 is a Psalm of David, a meditation about how David should deal with the wicked and his temptation to take matters into his own hands rather than to trust in the Lord.

“In the first stanza,” said Fr. Merz, “he considers his situation and confesses God as his rock and says that he shall not ‘greatly falter’ — which is to say, he might falter a little.”

But as David continues his meditation, he comes to full confidence by the end of verse 7, saying he “shall not falter” — that is to say, not at all.

“The Grail had omitted the adverb ‘greatly’ altogether,” Fr. Merz noted. “Restoring it shows the progression of David’s faith, reminding us that we don’t need to be perfect all at once, but we do need to continue growing in our faith.”

The priest said there are many such examples in which the original Hebrew contains a depth and nuance of meaning that is lost unless carefully and accurately translated.

Painful necessity

Fr. Merz said it was a blessing to be working at the USCCB at just the time when the revised Grail Psalms were coming through and so to have the opportunity to collaborate with Abbot Gregory and the monks of Conception Abby.

“They are a wise and faithful group of men,” he said.

He acknowledged that no translation this side of the veil is perfect.

He pointed to St. Jerome, who translated the Hebrew and Greek of the Old and New Testaments into Latin in the fifth century and is known as the patron saint of translators.

“He once wrote that every translator is a traitor, because you always lose something either from the genius of the original or by a stilted creation in the new,” said Fr. Merz.

Even so, the Word of God must not only be proclaimed but understood and loved, which is why translators will always be necessary.

“I pray that this new translation of the Psalms and canticles will inspire a renewed love for the Word that was with God in the beginning,” he said.