To change means that one is alive. This applies to people, institutions and languages. Change is a natural development even when it meets resistance from those who have become comfortable with old, familiar ways. The challenge of change faces Catholics now, as the church in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world prepares for the most significant change in the liturgy since the introduction of the new Order of Mass in 1970.
On Nov. 17, 2009, the U.S. bishops completed a review and approved the translation of the Roman Missal, third edition, concluding a work begun in 2004, when the International Commission on English in the Liturgy presented to us first-draft translations. Now, as we await confirmation of the text by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, we prepare for its reception and implementation.
Many have asked questions, expressed concerns or simply wondered about the reasons for the new translation and the goals of its implementation.
Why a New Text?
The Roman Missal, the ritual text for the celebration of the Mass, was first introduced in Latin as the “typical edition.” Periodically it is revised. Pope John Paul II announced the publication of the third edition of the missal during the jubilee year in 2000. Once that text was published, it became the official text to be used in the celebration of the Mass, and conferences of bishops had to begin preparing vernacular translations. The third edition contains a number of new elements: prayers for the observances of feasts/memorials of recently canonized saints, additional prefaces for the eucharistic prayers, additional Masses and prayers for various needs and intentions as well as some minor modifications of instructions for the celebration of the Mass.
To aid the process of translation, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued “Liturgiam Authenticam” in 2001, as the fifth instruction on the vernacular translation of the Roman liturgy. The instruction outlines the principles and rules for translation, which have evolved and been nuanced in the years since the Second Vatican Council, as the church has grown into its use of modern vernacular languages in the celebration of the liturgy. These principles govern the fresh English translation of the missal.
The 16th-century Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus once showed his students 150 different styles they could use when constructing a single Latin sentence. He amply demonstrated that there are many ways to express a single idea. In terms of translation, there are many ways to translate a sentence, but no single translation will ever completely satisfy everyone.
Liturgical language is important for the life of the church. The well-known axiom Lex orandi, lex credendi reminds Christians that what we pray is not only the expression of our sentiment and reverence toward God, but what also speaks to us and articulates for us the faith of the church. Our words in the liturgy are not simply expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history. Rather, they pass on the faith of the church from one generation to the next. For this reason, we bishops take seriously our responsibility to provide translations of liturgical texts that are both accurate and inspiring, hence the sometimes rather passionate discussion of words, syntax and phrases. The new translation provides theologically accurate prayers in a language with dignity and beauty that can be understood, as called for in “Liturgiam Authenticam,” No. 25:
So that the content of the original texts may be evident and comprehensible even to the faithful who lack any special intellectual formation, the translations should be characterized by a kind of language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves these texts’ dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision. By means of words of praise and adoration that foster reverence and gratitude in the face of God’s majesty, his power, his mercy and his transcendent nature, the translations will respond to the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people of our own time, while contributing also to the dignity and beauty of the liturgical celebration itself.
Speaking to a group of translators gathered in Rome in November 1965 about their work regarding liturgical texts, Pope Paul VI quoted St. Jerome, who was also a translator: “If I translate word by word, it sounds absurd; if I am forced to change something in the word order or style, I seem to have stopped being a translator.” Pope Paul went on to say: “The vernacular now taking its place in the liturgy ought to be within the grasp of all, even children and the uneducated. But, as you well know, the language should always be worthy of the noble realities it signifies, set apart from the everyday speech of the street and the marketplace, so that it will affect the spirit and enkindle the heart with love of God.”
For the missal’s third edition, the translation process has involved linguistic, biblical and liturgical scholars from each of the 11 English-speaking countries that ICEL serves; this text will be used by the church throughout the English-speaking world. It is important to remember that we Americans are but one part of a larger English-speaking community.
Proponents of the new text sometimes argue, perhaps unfairly, that the texts currently in use in the liturgy (in the present Sacramentary), the product of great efforts by translators from 1969 to 1973, are marked by a style of English that is flat and uninspiring. That text, however, has well served the English-speaking world for more than 30 years and has enabled the church to take great strides toward the council’s goal of “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy. One should be careful not to judge too hastily what has been the language of worship. The present texts are familiar and comfortable.
Those who have already been critical of the new text, often without having seen more than a few examples out of context, express concern about unfamiliar vocabulary and unnecessarily complicated sentence structures. Having been involved in the work of translation with ICEL and with the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, I can attest that the new translation is good and worthy of use. It is not perfect, but perfection will come only when the liturgy on earth gives way to that of heaven, where all the saints praise God with one voice. Change will not come easily, as both priest-celebrants (including us bishops) and the lay faithful will have to work to prepare to celebrate the liturgy fully.
Where We Go From Here
We humans are creatures of habit. We Catholics are creatures of ritual. Ritual is based on the familiar, on patterns learned. A liturgical assembly can fully, consciously and actively participate in the liturgy because the priest and people know what they are doing. Any change in the rituals will affect how we participate. It is natural to resist such changes simply to remain grounded in the familiar. The new text of the Roman Missal represents a change in the language, but not in the ritual. There have been only a few minor adjustments to the rubrics of the Order of Mass, and most of them were already in effect. So how do we prepare ourselves to use the new text? We bishops have called for an extensive process of catechesis leading to the implementation of the text. I propose several important approaches for individuals and parishes.
First, get to know the text. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of the richness and importance of liturgical texts in his apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis”: “These texts contain riches which have preserved and expressed the faith and experience of the People of God over its two-thousand-year history” (No. 40). Many have pointed out that the vocabulary, syntax and sentence structure will be markedly different from the current text. The guiding principles of translation call for the preservation of biblical imagery and poetic language (and structure). The new texts contain many beautiful examples of language drawn directly from the Scriptures, especially the Gospels and the Psalms: “from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Psalm 113, Eucharistic Prayer 3), “sending down your Spirit…like the dewfall” (Psalm 133, Eucharistic Prayer 2), “blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb” (See Revelation 19, communion rite), and “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” (Matthew 8, communion rite). These are but a few examples.
Of particular note in the new texts are expressions of reverence for God, articulated not only by the vocabulary but by the style of expression in addressing God. Forms of address such as “we humbly beseech you, O Lord,” “we beg you,” “we call upon your majesty” and “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” express our posture before the Lord, to whom we look for every gift and grace. Some may find the use of such self-deprecatory language uncomfortable at first, but it effectively acknowledges the primacy of God’s grace and our dependence on it for salvation.
The texts may be unfamiliar now, but the more one understands their meaning, the more meaningful their use will be in the liturgy. We Catholics are invited to undergo a process of theological reflection and/or use the practice of lectio divina with the texts of the new Roman Missal. Praying with these words will help us all to open our hearts to the mysteries they express.
The second approach is to recommit to a prayerful, vibrant celebration of the liturgy. In his encyclical “Sacramentum Caritatis,” Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged all to celebrate the liturgy effectively and faithfully; he emphasizes the art of proper celebration.
Third, attend to the process of catechesis in preparation for the reception of the new text. The Committee on Divine Worship suggests a two-part process: remote and proximate. Currently we are in the remote stage of preparation, which will last until the confirmation of the text is given. This period should include general liturgical catechesis: the nature and aim of the liturgy, the meaning of “full, conscious and active participation” and the background of the Roman Missal. The proximate preparation will begin after the confirmation is received. It will last 12 to 18 months and will look specifically at particular texts of the missal, preparing pastors and the faithful to celebrate the liturgy using those texts.
The fathers of Vatican II were aware of the need for liturgical catechesis as an essential aspect of liturgical reform (SC, No. 19):
With zeal and patience pastors must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful and also their active participation in the Liturgy both internally and externally, taking into account their age and condition, their way of life, and their stage of religious development. By doing so, pastors will be fulfilling one of their chief duties as faithful stewards of the mysteries of God; and in this matter they must lead their flock not only by word but also by example.
A wide range of resources is being developed by the U.S.C.C.B., the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and catechetical and liturgical publishers. Representatives of English-speaking countries are producing an international multimedia resource. Last year the Committee on Divine Worship launched a Web site to serve as a central hub of information regarding the new missal (www.usccb.org/romanmissal). We hope it will encourage the development of more resources for use in parishes, schools and homes.
On the 25th anniversary of “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” Pope John Paul II encouraged the church “to renew that spirit which inspired the church at the moment when the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium was…promulgated.” As the church prepares to receive the third edition of the Roman Missal, we bishops recognize the significance of this moment as an opportunity for genuine renewal of the council’s vision. We hope pastors and the faithful will join us in seizing this opportunity with enthusiasm, finding it, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “a moment to sink our roots deeper into the soil of tradition handed on in the Roman rite.”
The full text of this essay is also available online.