The National Catholic Review
A pastor reflects on the new Roman Missal.

In December 2009, in an article on the new Roman Missal (Am., 12/14/09), I asked the question: “What if we just said ‘wait’?” I proposed that the new translation be “road tested” for a year before being widely implemented. More than 23,000 people from around the English-speaking world liked that idea and signed on to a Web site to say so. Now, after several months of using the newly translated Roman Missal, I find myself asking a new question: “What’s next?”

On the first Sunday of Advent, after carefully preparing my parishioners, I swallowed hard, read the prayers, chanted the chants and did what I was required to do. I told myself it would get easier over time. Now I am not so sure. The overloaded sentences and convoluted syntax of the collects and other prayers may be less jarring than at first, but by calling attention to themselves they continue to get in the way of prayer, at least for me. The same is true for frequently recurring words like “humbly,” “graciously,” “beseech” and “grant, we pray.” And I have an almost visceral reaction when it comes to “precious chalice,” “oblation of our service,” “summoned before you,” “conciliation,” “consubstantial with the Father” and “shed for you and for many.”

Perhaps it is a bit different for the people in the pews. My own parishioners have joined in the new responses in fairly good spirit (though with some initial eyebrow-raising), and if our varied renditions of “Lord, I am not worthy” occasionally sound like we are speaking in tongues, their “and with your spirit” comes across loud and clear (even if it sometimes sounds like “There, we did it!”).

An Early Report Card

So how does the report card look? Is the worst over? Apart from critics like me, has the new Missal been well received? Can it be called a success? I do not think so. The Missal continues to be an obstacle to prayer and to raise many more questions than it answers.

First, there is the question of justice. In spite of the outspoken concerns of liturgists, theologians, pastors and lay faithful (and some bishops, too), the new Missal, a book as heavy, awkward and clumsy as the new texts themselves, was rolled out right on schedule—in far more timely fashion than the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, although to considerably less acclaim. This was no small achievement given that, after the Missal finally received the approval of most, not all, of the bishops’ conferences of the English-speaking world, its test flight to Rome resulted in hundreds of last-minute, behind-the-scenes changes made by some nameless Vatican editors.

Second, there is the question of language. Some of the Latin originals of our prayers are wonderful compositions—simple yet profound and expressed with classical economy of language. Not so these translations, where “Roman brevity” is nowhere to be seen. On almost every page, there are passages so turgid as to be distasteful and, in many cases, downright baffling. Here are some cases in point:

• Look kindly, we pray, upon the handiwork of your mercy….

• This oblation, by which divine worship in its fullness has been inaugurated….

• As you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed (Awkward language aside, the clear implication that Mary needed to be “cleansed” should get the attention of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine)….

• Just as the Savior of the world, born this day, is the author of divine generation for us, so he may be the giver even of immortality....

Lent and Easter provided even more egregious howlers that left priests and people scratching their heads and, if not beating their breasts, then perhaps beating their pew cards and missalettes against the pews.

• Accept, we pray, O Lord, the sacrifice of conciliation and praise, and grant that, cleansed by its working, we may offer minds well pleasing to you….

• May the venerable exercises of holy devotion shape the hearts of your faithful….

• [S]urpass, for the honor of your name, what you pledged to the Patriarchs by reason of the faith, and through sacred adoption increase the children of your promise, so that what the Saints of old never doubted would come to pass your Church may now see in great part fulfilled.

• But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor….

• Grant, we pray…that we who have been renewed by paschal remedies, transcending the likeness of our earthly parentage, may be transformed….

• Overcome by paschal joy (Happily, at this point in the Easter Vigil, most people were so overcome by paschal joy that they failed to be overcome by this rather amusing overstatement)

 To read these prayers is difficult; to call them prayerful is to redefine the word; to pray them is almost impossible.

How Is It Being Received?

Third, there is the question of reception. A large number of the Catholic faithful seem to have shrugged helplessly and gone along with the new program, but can their passive acceptance be read as approval? I think not. An informal, admittedly unscientific survey offered by indicates that 70 percent of those who have responded have a negative or strongly negative reaction to the Missal (in spite of feeling “very well prepared” by their parishes for the transition).

Many mainstream Catholics, the people who fill our pews and our collection baskets Sunday after Sunday, are quietly asking questions: Why? Whose idea was this? Who said it would improve our prayer life and deepen our relationship to God? Who thought this was a good idea, when the church has so many more pressing issues to deal with? Who authorized the massive expenditure of money that was required? And who came up with these awkward, clumsy, tongue-twisting and, in some cases, virtually unintelligible translations?

The acquiescence of priests cannot necessarily be read as approval, either. In many cases, our willingness to go along with the program can be chalked up to: our powerlessness to do anything else, our fear of reprisals or our unwillingness to sacrifice the unity of the communities we serve.

Speaking for myself, it was difficult to make the decision to implement the Missal, but I took hope in the thought that our people, once they heard it, would speak out. Some have. But most people have been quiet. A friend recently asked me how realistic it was to expect the people to speak up about the Missal. “I don’t know,” she wrote, “if you’re right to hope that your people will resist even as you yourself are yielding and going along with a diminished Mass. They trust you and they will follow your lead.” Her question has kept me awake some nights.

More Questions

So I come to the question I hope we will respectfully but insistently ask: What’s next? That triggers a series of other questions.

Can our bishops begin at once to talk about necessary modifications: correcting the most egregious flaws in the new Missal—errors in translation, grammatical problems and theological anomalies? This would provide some temporary relief.

Can our bishops begin to engage scholars, liturgists and poets in a conversation about the art of translation and the principles that should govern it? Can they talk about how to treasure our long tradition while also treasuring the great breakthrough of the Second Vatican Council, which called not just for a translated liturgy but for a genuinely vernacular liturgy? Can they then bring the fruits of this dialogue to Rome?

But it is not enough for the bishops alone to talk. A more general conversation is called for. Instead of carping in private, can we all talk openly and honestly about the texts we have been given? Can we talk about what works well and what clearly does not? Can we talk about tortured texts being forced into lines of music with all the comfort of an ill-fitting pair of shoes? Can we talk about what contributes to prayer and what gets in the way?

Can we talk about a new edition of the Missal, not someday, but soon? (A costly question, for sure, but something tells me that many a priest would gladly help foot the bill.) Can we even talk about the beautiful 1998 translation of the Missal—the product of 17 years of labor by seasoned professionals?

If we do not talk, we may face two very unfortunate outcomes. The first is that the people will simply tune out the texts when they realize how much effort is required to make sense of them. (This is clearly already happening.) The second is that we will see a kind of liturgical free-for-all in which celebrants alter the texts to fit their comfort level—whether theological, literary or both. (This, too, is already happening.)

So can we keep talking, not letting weariness with the whole business or indifference or fear of reprisals prevent us from talking and listening to each other?

We need to talk about what’s next.

Rev. Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle since 1988, serves on the board of the national Cathedral Ministry Conference.

Show Comments (59)

Comments (hide)

THOMAS REESE | 5/18/2012 - 2:26am
I wish someone would do a scientific survey of priests to get their views of what they think about the new missal.
Roger O'Brien | 5/17/2012 - 10:47pm

As a presbyter I find the new missal language cumbersome, garbled, prolix…and, most of all, other worldly.  It’s like I’m shifting into Elizabethan jargon (maybe that would  be better?).  In any event, it’s not how I speak pastorally (or unpastorally!) with parishioners, nor is it the language in which I preach my homilies.  Kudos to Fr. Mike Ryan, always faithful and a man of integrity, to keep raising the question.  Accept, I humbly beseech you, and graciously hear my plea, which in mortal frailty is all I can offer, that, of course, this is really not about language but about the need of Rome and our episcopacy for power and control.

Chris NUNEZ | 5/17/2012 - 9:24pm

Every word written by Cody Serra in the last two paragraphs!
And furthermore, the language is far from the 'vernacular' English of any of the English-speaking regions, and I somehow doubt that even in London is English thusly spoken. What it is in this context is an alienating element that underscores that we, the laity, don't speak in this kind of English at all. It's as if to remind us that we are not 'priestly' in spite of our baptism, here's one more obstacle to realization of our baptismal priestly roles. And it doesn't really convey what the mass is. The clear message I've been getting is that the bishops can make us do whatever they want to make us do. Not a good message this year at all.

But I have to reiterate that the English is so far removed from the vernacular of each English-speaking region that it actually fails to 'tell the story' and that is what the mass is about, telling the story (Do this in memory of me...) and instill in us that we are now His body, all of it. If anything this has been a failure in its alienating effect.

And my final point on the English 'vernacular' translation, we don't speak this way in California, so I have the distinct feeling that we who are English-speaking Latinas and Latinos are being transformed into Anglicans singing Anglican hymns, using the English of the Anglican Church. This is not the English of the United States, and not California. There, I think I've vented.

MICHAEL EVERNDEN | 5/17/2012 - 7:55pm
I gave it a valiant effort but I find myself sight reading sense into the nonsense.  I take comfort that Benedict XVI, in his former post, once said that no liturgy once used never becomes invalid.  We need to petition our bishops for permission to use the Vatican II mass, as do those who want to use the triditine rite.
John Feehily | 5/17/2012 - 5:33pm
I was happy to spend months to prepare for these changes in the context of a fresh catechesis (for many the first) on the Mass and what it means for a priestly people to offer the Mass. Other priests suggested that a thorough examination of the prayers used at the chair and at the altar would make it possible to pray them well. For the most part, that has not been my experience.  I made a valiant effort to just read what was on the page, bit it proved too painful and distracting.There are a small number of texts which I can manage to pray verbatim, but most require a judicious editing to render them more intelligible not just to the people but to me. I never alter the substance of the prayers since that would require a departure from "lex orandi, lex credendi". As a priest I must pray with the church, but as one who is called to seek holiness and integrity I should not be expected to pray what doesn't make sense. The people have now adopted the new responses and learned the new settings, but no one has said anything like: "I'm so happy for the new prayers, Father." I cannot believe that bishops can't see for themselves the difficulties these texts cause, so I harbor some hope that a movement may arise among the more intellectually honest to come up with a plan of action for dealing with the problem.
Weldon Nisly | 5/17/2012 - 3:34pm
A reminder to post your full name with your comment.
Cody Serra | 5/17/2012 - 3:25pm

"So can we keep talking, not letting weariness with the whole business or indifference or fear of reprisals prevent us from talking and listening to each other?"

The sentence I quoted above says a lot about not people's indifference, but the desolation and frustration many of us feel. And yes, fear of reprisal stops many, specially those employed by the Church.

Besides of the unfortunate mistranslation, we still have court battles on clergy sex abuse, the humiliation of the sisters after the Inquisition rendered its sentence, the contraceptives, the girl scouts admonition for alleged misbehavior, and you know the rest.

Personally, I have relegated the Missal translation to the back burner. No, I have not accepted it: I continue to use the old words, except for "and with your spirit" which has always been said in the Spanish translation. But there are too many issues that are vital to the life of our Church that are being questioned and they are disturbing.  

We should be united not only joining our voices for the revision of the new Missal, but praying for structural, policy and pastoral changes of the institutional Church. 
Our Church divisions are the product of most of the problems. It is not the Gospel or the dogmas that are being argued against and dividing us. Faith is as strong as ever in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit -the Trinity. But the weakness is rooted in the loss of respect for the Hierarchy and its exercise of absolute power, without accountability.

Is the "sensus fildelium" an invention of some lay Catholics?  Did Vatican II make pastoral changes, like inclusiveness and collegiality, spelled out in its documents? Were the 2000 plus Bishops not inspired by the Spirit when they approved them? If in doubt, can we also doubt all previous Vatican Councils documents? 

Mary Sweeney | 5/17/2012 - 3:19pm

Father, you missed out on December 8th's unforgettable "prevenient grace" which besides giving me instant indigestion inspired me to write a note on Facebook: "The 'Steve Jobs' Grace: Prevenient" or "The Securitization of the Gospel",!/note.php?note_id=345641362114421

Like kddidit, I no longer say the prayers. I am an observer. I do have one occasion to smile. I know that words mean what they say, and so when the celebrant says "The Lord be with you." and the congregation dutifully answers "And with your spirit", I think to myself - well, no help with your arthritis or your blood pressure or whatever else, Father. So much for choosing the short end of the stick. Good luck with that.

Your original insightful article “What if we just said ‘wait’?” linguistically hides, not through your fault, the problem. In English we use the pronoun "we" with a massive geographical sweep. In other languages, Pacific languages in particular where community and who is in or out is very important, different words distinguish we-the-two of us, we-the-three-of-us, we-all-of-us, we-us-but-not-you. Our problem is that that "we" means "us" but not "you" and it is the all-male, all-wise, all-powerful, all-excluding hierarchy speaking. The biggest threat to Jesus' Church today is not the Girl Scouts, not the Sisters, not the LCWR, but the Hierarchy.

1575536 | 5/17/2012 - 2:56pm

Can the bishops really do anything? They already had a translation that was a good revision of the previous one, and it got shoved aside, along with their participation in the process of the new translation.

At least, that is my understanding. If I am wrong, please correct me, humbly, I pray.