Friday, June 28, 2002

Ite, Missa Est

My more observant readers will no doubt notice that I have corrected my suggested translation of the Epiclesis from the Second Eucharistic Prayer, which I provided as an example of problems faced by translators, such as those who will be employed by Vox Clara in rendering liturgical texts into English. A reader pointed out that I had made an error in the sequence of tenses, and in the use of the pronouns "thee" and "thy". So I fixed my mistake. That's the sort of thing that happens when you toss off an offhand translation at 1:00 in the morning. So what, you may be wondering, am I doing further ruminating on Latin at 3:00 in the morning? Well, I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep, so it seemed like a good time to blog.

If anyone was left unsatisfied by my explanation of the troublesome formula for the dismissal of Mass, "Ite, Missa est", don't worry, I too was unsatisfied. I have consulted with my learned Latinist colleagues about the phrase, and they are also unsatisfied. The thing that we (two Ph.D's and 2 M.A.'s in Classics or Patristics) all agree on is that no one is exactly sure what it means. The problem, for those who know Latin, is that a word seems to be missing. But we have only "educated" guesses as to what that word may be. Now the Romans valued conciseness, and so were very free about leaving words out of phrases or sentences. The more stock or idiomatic the phrase or formula was, the free-er they felt about leaving things out. This Roman habit has been the bane of second and third year Latin students from time immemorial. It seems that the Romans thought "everyone knows what we're talking about anyway, so why bother saying the whole thing?" Except that we, coming along centuries or even millenia later, don't always know what they were talking about, so we are left with verbal puzzles.

The most plausible explanation I have heard is that the phrase "Ite, missa est" was borrowed from a standard Roman formula for ending a public meeting or hearing. According to my friend Prof. John Pepino, who teaches Latin and Greek at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Lincoln, NE, the phrase may originally have been "Ite, [causa] missa est." Causais the Latin word for "case," or "matter", as in a court case or a matter of public proceeding. Thus, the formula means "Go, the matter is ended." He adds that the early Roman Christians "would have been accustomed to clearing out of a basilica upon those words."

This may not be the deep "theological" explanation some would hope for. But it has the ring of truth to me. The early Roman liturgy was rather austere and no-nonsense. It became more elaborate as time went on and the Church's understanding of her own prayer developed. But the explanation offered here, and any other, is more conjecture than anything else. So Mark, if you are waiting for the definitive translation of "Ite, Missa Est", I hope you don't hold your breath.