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Arthur J. SerratelliMarch 01, 2010

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 Translation

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.

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Livia Fiordelisi
14 years ago

The bishops can present or spin this any way they wish. It's still a pretentious, frivolous translation and will cause chaos. But we have no choice but to swallow it whole unfortunately.

14 years ago

That "pastors will join us in seizing this opportunity with enthusiasm..." As a long-time priest I "seize this opportunity" to sympathize with Bishop Serratelli, and others who work for the company, as they struggle to defend a translation that is simply awful. I'm sure they know this, but of course they cannot speak on the record. The whole new missal should be trashed, and a new one constructed, one that is the result of thorough consultation, without secrecy and without the usual power and control issues, and that is composed by our best and brightest. But before the new missal is shelved, it's mothership, Liturgiam Authenticam with its countless mistakes and assumptions, should be confined somewhere deep in the Vatican secret archives.

Joseph Becker
14 years ago

I appreciate the bishop's explanation. Some of these word examples remind me of the old missal pre-Vatican II. I think I can be willing to see how it is when it comes. I keep 4 Bibles by my bedside for Lectio Divina - unfortunately, none of these is the "approved" U.S. version. But, I'm reading, aren't I?

Eugene Malone
14 years ago

The language of this sales pitch is both arrogant and elitist. It is unnecessary and harmful because it speaks as if the church were God, and the Curia in their selfish interest were gifted with the only abilities extant to serve. The condescension voiced above 'that the least intellectually educated' is certainly not in the way of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. To say that all English language cultures are the same is an insult to them all. For shame USCCBC, your are traitors to your nation and our culture. Of course, The United States may have the resources to fund this unnecessary task, we may have conquered the Fascist and dictatorial  nations of your cultures but your need to get even should not dull the vigor of the American Particular Church. The attacks on us will if they continue drive many American Catholics from their Church into the arms of brother Christians. Remember the Reformation. Shame on you all for taking us back not forward in the Faith - the Faith in God, not any temporary dictate from Rome. 

Robert O'Connell
14 years ago
Is there really a big problem here?

Is it possible that the bishops could be right?

Doesn't the Holy Spirit play the governing role in what our Church does?
John Fitz-Herbert
14 years ago

On this weekend, two bishops from two Conferences of Catholic Bishops who are members of ICEL address the new translation of the Roman Missal prepared for English speaking Catholics.

Bishop Serratelli is the chair of US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Divine Worship.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge is the chair of the Australian Catholic Bishops Commission for Liturgy.

In 'America' Bishop Seratelli believes that the US bishops "recognize the significance of this moment as an opportunity for genuine renewal of the council's vision." 

'The Catholic Weekly' is the weekly Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney. This weekend Archbishop Coleridge of Canberra-Goulburn believes that the new Roman Missal will address the 'serious theological problems' of the missal currently prayed by Roman Catholics in english speaking countries:


I'm confused!

Don't we faithful english speaking Catholics in the US pray from the same english translation as faithful english speaking Catholics in Australia? 

If our public liturgical prayers have 'serious theological problems' then what does this mean for our faith? We faithfully pray these texts each day and have done so for almost four decades.

Were the US bishops who approved our current Missal unaware of these 'serious theological problems'?

Was the Pope who gave his recognitio to the same Missal also unaware of the 'serious theological problems' Archbishop Coleridge's so readily identifies?

Archbishop Coleridge is making very large claims for the faith of hundreds of millions of english speaking Catholics around the world, isn't he?

Roy Van Brunt
14 years ago

The author is kidding, right?  The only liturgical renewal that will come from this is another Reformation!  People want to pray in the language in which they think and speak.  The utterly ridiculous literal translattions being foisted on us via the bishop's "approval" need to be (and, I predict, WILL BE) "not accepted" by the faithful in the pews who will simply not say these words.  The young will not "renew" because they will be totally confused for example by "incarnate of Mary" as being the mutation of "born of the Virgin Mary."  Liturgy is not Shakespearean theater.  "Correctness" bears no premium over lucidity - and even if it did, what is "correct" - or even relevant - about a literal translation of someone else's translation of a translation.  Peter, James, and John must be laughing in their seats.  Can one imagine their Church praying like this?!  This whole escapade is an invitation of the Holy Spirit for the people to reassert that the "Church" is they, and not some misguided hierarchy.  Let's be to it.

Craig McKee
14 years ago

cf. Benedict XVI's "Sacramentum Caritatis:"

"The Latin language

62. None of the above observations should cast doubt upon the importance of such large-scale liturgies. I am thinking here particularly of celebrations at international gatherings, which nowadays are held with greater frequency. The most should be made of these occasions. In order to express more clearly the unity and universality of the Church, I wish to endorse the proposal made by the Synod of Bishops, in harmony with the directives of the Second Vatican Council, (182) that, with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful, it is fitting that such liturgies be celebrated in Latin. Similarly, the better-known prayers (183) of the Church's tradition should be recited in Latin and, if possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung. Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant. (184)"

Change does not always signify PROGRESS FORWARD... and it just may be that the NEW syntactically archaic, lexicographically arcane ICEL translations are merely a "way station" on the road backwards to Latin.

P.S. The "old" ICEL translation and preparation of the 1998 Roman Missal, now sitting, gathering dust on a shelf at the Vatican, was nearly 25 years in the making. As this article indicates, the "new" one was totally prepared from start to finish in five years from 2004 to 2009. Progress forward?

14 years ago

The "pro" arguments advanced by Bishop Serratelli support the use of the current translation at least as well as the new translation. So what makes the new translation an advancement over the old?

The nearest text to a "needs assessment" in Bishop Serratelli's article that explains why a new translation is desirable or needed is as follows: "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."

The clumsy language of the new translation (the Preface for the Feast of Christ the King contains 88 words in one sentence) and the less than stellar grammar (incomplete sentences in the articles of the Creed) undoubtedly will be included in the needs assessment that will be done prior to the next revision assuming that "needs assessments" come into vogue by then.

14 years ago

As a recipient of 16 years of Catholic education,  a BA and An MA in English literature and language,  a 15 year stint as lector  at daily Mass, and as the wife of a deacon, I have a unique perspective of the the new Roman missal.  It is a disaster of epic proportions.  You can be as authenic as you want to be, but if you are speaking Swahili and someone else is speaking classical Greek, there won't be much of an oportunity for understanding let alone spiritual enrichment.  The new translation should be completely scrapped. At lease the one we have now is understandable.  We will reap the harvest of the intellectual rot of the "professionals" in the Vatican.  Why do people who do not speak English as a first language AND do not have advanced degrees in the English language be the the last word on these translations?  The new translations only show with what contempt the Vatican holds Americans and all English speaking peoples. 

14 years ago

Bishop Seratelli’s article prompts a question, “What if we just said Why?” Why have Bishop Seratelli and so many of his brother bishops turned their backs on the ground-breaking and hard-won Vatican II teaching on the collegiality of bishops? Why have they allowed the Roman Curia a role in adapting liturgy to local circumstances that Sacrosanctum Concilium very pointedly denied them? Why have they sold out on the people they were ordained to serve by denying them the voice that is rightfully theirs by virtue of their baptism?

In case the good bishop hasn’t noticed, people don’t listen so much to bishops these days and they certainly don’t take their word as law as they once did. We want a say in decisions as important as how we are to pray. We are as smart as the bishops are (maybe even smarter!). We know theology and we know English, and we can tell a good translation from a poor one. We also know a raw power play when we see one and we don’t like it. And the last thing we want is for bureaucrats in Rome with a revisionist agenda with regard to the Council to lecture us on what will be good for us!

And even though vast numbers of good American Catholics tend to look the other way when bishops speak, we still entertain the hope that the bishops will stand up for us and represent our best interests instead of acting like spineless ‘yes men.’

The only thing missing from Bishop Seratelli’s utterly predictable, patronizing, and pedestrian piece was a website for people to register their support. How about www.yesmen.org?

14 years ago

I haven't always been happy with some of the decisions that have come down about liturgical practice, but I haven't found them to be the disasters that many predicted.  I got used to purifying the vessels during Mass.  It take a couple of minutes, and I explained that I it was an expression of my love and respect for the Blessed Sacrament, and then I got back to other things.  This is on a larger scale and will require more attenton, but I plan to approach it in the same spirit.

I'll see what I think of this translation after having prayed it for a couple of years.  I see the arguments for and against, but we shall see.  Given the grotesque language we have had to endure in the name of inclusive language, I'm thinking this will  not be too bad.

I do think its a good thing to stretch outselves with more majestic language, even if people do have to learn a couple of new words. Given the human tendency to go to autopilot when words are familar, it may not be such a bad thing to take some effort to learn to pray the Mass anew.  

Livia Fiordelisi
14 years ago

"Given the grotesque language we have had to endure in the name of inclusive language, I'm thinking this will  not be too bad."

Fr. Wyse, Can you give me a few examples of this grotesque language we've had to endure? Thank you

Maggie Rose
14 years ago

what poppycock. while reading this article i had the impression that a successful used car salesman was smoothly convincing me of something my conscience knows ain't so. say it ain't so, joe. 

14 years ago

Bishop Serratelli,

What you characterize as an opportunity, some 17, 000 folks from across the English speaking world see as a rather sad development. In 2001, after first reading Liturgicam Authenticam I shared with my Bishop my fear about its impact. You quote one of its inspiring paragraphs, but its rules are exactly the opposite of St. Jerome’s wisdom when it seeks to impose the idolatry of Latin word order.

But if you buy the premise, you buy the conclusions. Rather than dialoging with the Holy See about the rules, the Bishops have played the game by the new rules. By and large the efforts of the Bishops to amend these texts were rejected. I was present in Orlando when a number of your brother Bishops pleaded with the body to take another look at the results of this process. You were at the podium and put the highest value on the time-line.

The agenda of "reforming the reform" is in action. When the diocesan office received the first proposed texts for review in 2004, I turned on the sound system in my empty church and tried to proclaim these texts. There are some poetic renditions, but there were significant sections which are impossible to read with sense. I made copious notes and sent them to ICEL at the request of my Bishop. I received a misaddressed form letter #3 response from the Executive Secretary of ICEL. I really lost hope.

Historians of the Church life will someday identify the political process by which the first effort to retranslate the Missal was rejected, ICEL was reconstituted, and the Anglicanization and sacralization of the vocabulary came about. It has not really been very transparent.

God is good. I am going to retire before the text is authorized.

14 years ago

I woud include as grotesque language "humankind" as well as "God calls God's people to God'self." 

14 years ago
Nowhere in the ICEL 1973 Roman Missal, nor in the extensively revised version of 1998, can you find the words "God calls God's people to God's self." If an individual priest speaks in this strange way, go after him, not the former ICEL.

"Humankind": see The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993), I, p.1276, for starters.
13 years 12 months ago

Bishop Serratelli tries to justify this "solution" without stating the problem that it is a solution for. It is clearly not a solution to lack of integrity of the liturgy. If it were, the words would flow, not be stumbling blocks to understanding. Then what? Could it be simply another cynical attempt to let us "faithful", including those of us who do have "special intellectual formation" know who's really in charge here on earth? 

Jose Pimentel
13 years 12 months ago
Having read Bishop Serratelli's article and Fr. Ryan's article sometime ago in the NY Times along with the above comments I'm increasingly convinced that once again Rome and our American bishops are so out of touch with the realities of our faith experience in the USA. This new translation will further aliate the youth of our church who already feel that the church doesn't listen or care about their issues. As a priest who has worked mostly in campus ministry and with young people in the military, I'm convinced that the young people will not relate in the least with this demeaning language in the new translation. Secondly, it will also add to the distrust of the older generation that has worshiped faithfully for the last 35 years using the current translation and believed that the language was sacred and for the most part comfortable. I believe when it's all done this latest move by the US bishops and Rome will have the same negative inpact the last "reform" of the liturgy had; reducing the involvement of the laity in their worship experience and further alianating the faithful from their Church.
13 years 11 months ago
More "Pray, Pay & Obey" for good Catholics.
What else can be said.
Robert Ensman
13 years 11 months ago

Taken from the text "Welcoming the Roman Missal" -

"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."

In my seventy two years as a practicing, educated Catholic, it appears to me that contemporary, learned, parishioners are no longer creatures of habit and are, in fact, seekers of change who relish refreshing liturgical experiences in our lifelong quest seeking the Living God.

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