Thursday, June 25, 2009

The New Missal (Book of Mass Prayers): why we should look forward to it

The prayers of the Mass, although we usually pray them in English, are originally in Latin, and have to be translated carefully. They were last translated in 1970, and that was—all involved admit—a rush job that produced an inferior translation that doesn’t do justice to the Mass.

For some time, the bishops of English-speaking countries have been working on it—it’s a big job that needs to be done carefully. The process is nearing its end—at least so the bishops and Rome say. Within a couple of years, we will finally have a revised, updated, and well-done translation of the Mass into English.

When the new translation is put into use, it will be a bit of a surprise to many Catholics—because the differences between the old translation and the new will make crystal-clear just how inferior the prior translation was. In many prayers, such as the Gloria and the Eucharistic Prayers, whole phrases are left out and key elements of the meaning were lost. Now that will be restored. Much of the language is explicitly biblical, but that was obscured—now that will become clear again.

But of course this will involve transition and there will be bumps along the way.

Last October, Bishop Arthur Serratelli, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, gave a talk on the new Missal. What follows is my summary based on his talk, that should help to explain the situation and show ways the new translation is something to look forward to. Thanks to The Adoremus Bulletin, published by Adoremus, the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, which published this address in its June-July, 2009 edition.

Who is doing the work, when did it begin, and how was it carried out?

Early in 2002, the work began after the third edition of the Roman Missal [i.e., the book containing readings and prayers for the Mass, as well as some of the music texts] was published in Rome.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) is made up of 11 English-speaking bishops, but consulted scholars from many English-speaking countries.

The goal was a text that would be usable in all English-speaking countries; even though different countries use the same language differently, the goal was to have a more unified experience of the Mass, not too much variation from country to country.

Once ICEL agreed on a text, it was sent to individual countries’ bishops for comment, involving back and forth over several years between all the English-speaking bishops and Rome. By October, 2008, a series of texts were prepared for final approval by the various bishops, and then to be forwarded to Rome for final approval as well. This final process is underway.

Bishop Sarratelli observed, while awaiting the new translation, “this is a good occasion to understand more deeply” the “particular style and language” of the Roman Rite. “Liturgical language is important for the life of the Church. Lex orandi, lex credendi. I.e., “how we pray is how we believe.”

Sarratelli added, “in the liturgy, the words addressed to God and the words spoken to the people voice the Faith of the Church. They are not simply the expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history. The words used in liturgy also pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next.”

Not only that, “the liturgy is the source of the divine life given through the Church as the sacrament of salvation. As Pope Paul VI once said, it is also ‘the first school of the spiritual life…’

“Wisely, therefore, the Church does not leave the words used in the liturgy to…any individual celebrant.”

Sarratelli adds, “the new translations have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite. Certainly some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not. And with reason. Let me now briefly comment on seven characteristics of the Latin prayers in the Roman Missal and their translation.”

Seven characteristics of the Latin Missal and how they carry through the English translation:

1. “Latin orations…tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point.” Teleology refers to the fundamental meaning of people, things, or life in general; eschatology refers to the ultimate realities that give meaning to this world, and which are our final destiny. So Saratelli is saying the prayers strongly emphasize our ultimate purpose and destiny in this life, leading to eternal life. This is something that gets lost if not translated well—thus the new English prayers will seek to convey this same emphasis.

2. Biblical References will be made clear. In the translation now in use, many of the phrases—in Latin—use explicitly Biblical language that was lost in translation. The new translation makes a great effort to restore this Biblical language—either so those praying may recognize the words of Scripture, or else seek them out to discover the source of a particular image.

For example, Saratelli explains, “in Eucharistic Prayer III, we will no longer say: ‘From east to west, a perfect offering is made to the glory of your name.’ Instead we pray the words of Malachi 1:11: ‘…from the rising of the sun to its setting.’”—which was not so well translated in our current version. Now it is both more faithful, and more poetic, without loss of meaning.

The words we speak together currently as the priest shows us the Eucharist before communion are a weak translation of Matthew 8:8, which will be restored as follows: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word…”

3. “The new translations are careful to keep the allusions from patristic writings,” Saratelli explains—that is, those major figures of the Church’s early centuries, such as Augustine, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Basil and others, who were so important in teaching and transmitting the Apostolic Faith.

In several places, the original Latin prayers include phrases and images that come from these great saints, but again, they were lost in translation. Now they are put back.

4. The new translation will respect the “rich vocabulary of the Roman Rite. The post-communion prayers employ a variety of words such as nourished,fed, recreated and made new….The many different words of the Latin text are not monotonously translated with the same words,” Saratelli observes. “Thus, by being faithful to the Latin text, the new translations enrich the use of our liturgical language in English.”

5. The Latin text uses many concrete images and parallel expressions. It also uses anthropomorphic expressions—i.e., human images of God—that “add a certain poetry to the prayers. “And so,” Saratelli explains, “while it is perfectly good English to say: in your pity hear our prayers, the translation respects the poetry of the text and, in the blessing of ashes, says: in your pity give ear to our prayers.”

6. Exactness and style befitting the liturgy. Care is taken to ensure the prayers teach about the Faith with clarity, as they are intended to do with the underlying Latin text which uses exact language as well.

“The Latin prayers are concise and noble in tone,” Saratelli observes; “When we frame our prayers in liturgy, the language of the street is not appropriate.”

What are the next steps?

Between now and November, the U.S. bishops will vote on the final texts, and with their approval, they will be forwarded to Rome for final approval. Sometime in 2010 or 2011, we should begin learning more about the texts and then begin using them.


Father Gregory said...

Father, what are you doing to prepare your congregation(s) for these changes? I have been going over the GIRM instead of preaching on some Sundays in Ordinary Time. For my own part, I have also pasted in the soto voce prayers of the celebrant from the new, approved, translation of the Ordinary that is available now, and use them myself just to get my tongue around them. I also use the new texts wherever the present text says "these or similar words," such as the introduction to the Lord's Prayer. I do not see that this is implementing the new translation before it is allowed, although I would humbly submit to correction if it were deemed so.

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

You can read Bishop Serratelli's whole speech at the Adoremus Bulletin web site here.

I've recently done a blog post responding to some complaints (from the Australian group "Catholics for Ministry") about the new text. It's a bit lengthy, but it's thorough.

And as far as preparations for the new translation, I have a book that is just about ready for publication: Praying the Mass: The Prayers of the People (volume one of a two-volume set, the second of which deals with the prayers of the priest).

Mike L said...

Seems to me that trying to have one translation for all "English" speaking countries is kink of like having one translation for Italian and French since they are both Romance Languages.

The example "from east to west" always invoked a wave spreading around the world, the new translation sounds more like only during daylight hours. Oh well.

Mike L

Father Martin Fox said...


I haven't done much. This article is a start, as I intend to distribute it to parishioners at some point. Posting it here gives me a chance to get feedback.


Equating the relationship between French and Italian to the relationship between the English spoken in various English-speaking countries is not very reasonable. French and Italian are different languages, while the English used in UK, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and other English-speaking countries is the same language.

You can see this plainly--simply find an English-language website in any of those other countries, and tell me if you can comprehend what you read there. I have had no difficulty whatsoever reading news from Australia, Canada and UK. It is the same language.

That said, if you have examples of incomprehensible English from those sites, would you be so kind as to come back and give examples? That would be edifying.

As far as "east to west," what's important is not your preferences or mine, but what is the original Latin text? After all, if we don't care about the underlying text, why don't we just write our own Mass in English? Of course, at that point, we cease to be Catholic.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Mike. "From East to West" always invoked for me a continuous 24 hour a day celebration. This "new" one, writtem hundreds of years ago, probably even before the church acknowledged that the earth was round, invokes a celebration that runs from morning to nigh, leaving out about half the day. To me it's one revision they could have skipped, in the interest of a fuller understanding. Just my opinion. At any rate, where can a person obtain a copy of the new texts, to read and digest?

Mike L said...

Father, you are correct, most of the time I can figure out what Australian or English sites are saying, at least in general, although I find I do not always understand what particular words mean.

It is also my understanding that if you or I were to immigrate to Australia we would be required to take a course in Australian so as to avoid misunderstandings. That certainly implies, at least to me that the languages have drifted considerably over the years.

As for the "east to west" I did not say I had a preference, only that the meaning in my mind changes completely. And apparently not just in my mind. I have no idea which becomes the better translation as far as what the original writer meant and so which would be the better translation.

It sounds to me that you are giving some kind of magical meaning to the "underlying text" and ignoring the underlying meaning. Being old I might call you a "gay" priest without meaning any insult since the meaning of "gay" has changed in a rather short time. I am sure you would be much happier with the term "happy priest". So even American has changed over the last couple of decades.

As a final comment I now notice that in computer software when I choose English as a language, I am then asked if I want American or whatever. I think to maintain that English as a spoken language is the same all over the world is stretching it a bit. I think most linguists would even tell you that there is a written English and a Spoken English. Then of course, there is the English used on the internet, something altogether different again.

Mike L

Father Martin Fox said...


The Church always knew the earth was round. The ancient astrologer Ptolemy discovered the earth was round long before the Christian Era, and his observations were considered standard in this area all by educated people all through the Christian Era.


The underlying text is normative. Celebrating the Mass in English (or whatever vernacular language is spoken locally) is a concession, for example, it has never been deemed normative, no, not even by Vatican II.

It's not a question of what the "writer" of the Mass "meant" --the Latin is plain enough; it doesn't require guesswork. Latin is a very precise language, comparatively easy to translate, particularly into English. So translating it isn't guesswork, it's a matter of being faithful to the text.

Mike L said...

I think that you are pushing it, Father. I am certainly aware that Latin is defined as normative for both mass and scripture, even when translated from another language. But the very fact that there is so much controversy over the English translation gives lie to your belief that the translation into English is so easy.

If what you say is true, then you are implying that the current translations were performed by an incompetent translator or biased by politics, neither of which shows the Church in a good light.

I think we had best drop this since both of us hate to lose an argument and it is quickly coming to that state.


Mike L

Father Martin Fox said...


I appreciate you may not want to continue this, that's fine, but I think a response is due, for the benefit of others reading.

I'm not aware of anyone disputing the accuracy of the new translation. Nor am I aware of any of those experts critical of the translation arguing that translating the Latin is a particularly uncertain matter.

The debate is over the principles of translation, but there that debate has been settled: Rome has spoken, the matter is settled, at least for the time being.

There is also a debate over how "elevated" the language should be, and how much the English text should mimic the Latin in structure and style. Reasonable people can disagree on this, but at the end of the day, it's the job of the bishops, together with the Bishop of Rome, to make that decision.

I think an excellent case can be made that the current translation was, indeed, incompetently executed, insofar as it was done in haste; or else it was a product of a hard-driven agenda.

Simply lay the Latin text of the Gloria side-by-side with the English we now use; you don't have to know much more Latin than the average bear, to see (a) the structure of the original prayer was not followed and (b) whole phrases were left out.

I think it is beyond dispute that a particular agenda was pushed right after the Council, in the implementation of the Council's mandate; and that whole agenda has come under careful scrutiny for some time now, and it's bringing a lot of things to the surface.

Many of the faithful, who don't follow these things all that closely, are shocked and dismayed to discover that any number of things they were told were mandated by the Council, were not mandated at all. There is great confusion, still to be unraveled, about this. That certainly generates controversy, and that is appropriate, and will be fruitful.

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

Regarding "from east to west." That's not what the Scripture says (Mal 1:11) either in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. The phrase "from east to west" is merely space-oriented (i.e. geographcal), whereas the phrase "from the rising of the sun to its setting" is time-oriented (i.e. temporal)... in addition to being poetic.

As for where these texts can be found, the Ordinary of the Mass can be downloaded from the USCCB Committee for Divine Worship's web page for Missal Formation:

Anonymous said...

All of this business of re-translating Mass prayers, borders on ridiculous. It seems like just an exercise sent to the bishops just to keep them busy. Maybe, instead of rewriting beautiful prayers, they need to send these priests and clerics into the real world amd make them pastors and chaplains. That would be much more productive and alleviate some of the shortages. And leave the overwhelming majority of us Catholics alone to priase God with what we have. I think that if God were displeased with our prayers, songs and hymns of praise He would have done something about it long before now. I do take great umbrage with your criticism of the Council Fathers and their work. You are beginning to sound like a LeFebreite. And that's disturbing.


Father Martin Fox said...


Who has criticized the Council?

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

Anonymous: "All of this business of re-translating Mass prayers, borders on ridiculous. It seems like just an exercise sent to the bishops just to keep them busy."

The Bishops aren't the ones re-translating the Latin Missal. Never were, still aren't. They're simply voting on the translation put together by the commission DOING the translation. Why is it "ridiculous"? (Was it ridiculous 40+ years ago?) Bishops are the regulators and guardians of the liturgy for their diocese, so it seems to me like something they should be taking seriously.

"they need to send these priests and clerics into the real world and make them pastors and chaplains."

Some bishops and priests are light on their pastoral side, I agree with you.

"I think that if God were displeased with our prayers, songs and hymns of praise He would have done something about it long before now."

With your logic, God has no problem with abortion. Or you could argue that God DID do something about it: He caused the SSPX bishops to do what they did! In other words, your argument is empty. God waited centuries before rescuing Israel from Egypt. God knows when the "fullness of time" will arrive.

"I do take great umbrage with your criticism of the Council Fathers and their work. You are beginning to sound like a LeFebreite."

How on earth is Fr. Fox sounding like a "LeFebreite" [sic]? Have you read Cardinal Ratzinger's perspective on the "disintegration of the liturgy" that occurred? Regardless, face Fr. Fox's arguments on their own merit; don't just simply lump him together with a group you don't take seriously so that you can ignore or disdain him.

The Council (and the Council Fathers) are distinct from the post-Council activities. The Consilium, for instance, was charged with implementing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (which, you'll notice, was not a DOGMATIC Constitution), but their implementations virtually eliminated Latin and Gregorian chant from the Mass (which was the opposite of the Constitution's instructions). And concerning that "dogmatic" part, some of the Consilium members thought that they WERE enacting a doctrinal reform of the liturgy: "[The liturgical reform after Vatican II was] one of the greatest liturgical reforms in the history of the Western Church. Unlike the reform after Trent, it was all the greater because it also dealt with doctrine." (A Challenging Reform, p. 46)

Anonymous said...

I am concerned about how this will be presented in my parish. We already have a pastor who doesn't use the approved text for Mass prayers. I wonder how, or even if, he will present this to the parishioners.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely correct with your comments concerning what I said about God being displeased. Actually, upon further consideration, it hit me that the Lord is probably pleased with all the ways in which we praise Him, whether it be in English, Latin, Swahili... with prayers, hymns, dancing, musical instruments... Thank you for setting me straight.


Joseph Smith said...

Father, is the "pro multis" thing fixed? I believed last time I heard it WASN'T, which in my opinion is a travesty.

Jeff Pinyan (japhy) said...

Joseph Smith: yes it is.

See here, here (essentially a rehash of the first link), and here (PDF).

Catholic Mom of 10 said...

Do you mind updating to my newest blog?

Catholic Mom of 10 said...

Hi Fr can you update your blog roll to my new blog please?

Anonymous said...

"From the rising of the sun to its setting...."
Don't get all literal. It is a very poetic way of saying "always."
I remember the old words and welcome them back as a truer translation.