Mass Protest: Will the latest Catholic Mass translation get another overhaul?

A new translation of the Mass has been used in the nation’s Catholic parishes for less than three years, but there are signs that the language—often criticized as stilted and awkward—could be in for another edit.

“We’ve tried it, we’ve lived with it, we think it needs correction,” Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory told a conference on liturgical reform last month in one of the most public and high-level expressions of discontent with the missal, as the Mass text is called.


Gregory was seconded by Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, in an echo of comments last year by Bishop Robert Brom, now retired as head of the San Diego diocese, who said “the new missal needs corrective surgery and this should take place without delay.”

Reopening that process would be a momentous step.

The latest translation was approved only after a tortuous, decade-long struggle between those who wanted words and phrasings that sounded more like the original Latin text and those who thought that the proposed vocabulary sounded pompous and incomprehensible.

“It’s the creed! It’s not the SAT prep,” as comedian and practicing Catholic Stephen Colbert put it.

But with a big shove from the Vatican, which essentially took over the process and mandated the Latinate language, the more formal text won out.

Words such as “consubstantial” became part of the Mass, Jesus was not “born of the Virgin Mary” but is now “incarnate of” her, and before taking the host Catholics now say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” instead of “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.”

That language dismayed some in the pews but was especially problematic for priests and bishops who have to say Mass every day, and a new survey released this week appears to give further impetus to a reform of the reform.

The national poll of priests and lay leaders in parishes around the country found that more than half of the 444 clergy who responded reject the new missal, by a margin of 52-42 percent.

Just 27 percent said the new translation has lived up to expectations. The smaller number of lay leaders who responded tended to be more positive about the changes.

The study was commissioned by the Godfrey Diekmann Center for Patristics and Liturgical Studies at St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minn., and carried out by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The survey is based on 539 interviews, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

The results were first published at the blog Pray Tell, which is operated by the Rev. Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine and liturgist at St. John’s who has been critical of the new Mass.

Among the other findings of the study:

* 75 percent of clergy and lay leaders say “some of the language of the new text is awkward and distracting.”
* 58 percent of clergy say they do not like the more formal style of language in the new text.
* 39 percent of clergy think the new missal is an improvement on the previous translation.
* 50 percent of clergy and lay leaders say the new translation urgently needs to be revised.

The Rev. Anthony Cutcher, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, said the data should push the bishops to modify the texts.

“Armed with the latest data, we can take this opportunity to help craft a revision that stays true to the text and at the same time is accessible to all,” Cutcher told Pray Tell.

Critics of the new missal have also been buoyed by last year’s election of Pope Francis, who has shown himself to be far more relaxed about liturgical customs and a big change from Pope Benedict XVI, who was a stickler for old-fashioned rites and a chief proponent of the new English translations.

Moreover, bishops in other countries have in the past year taken advantage of the change of popes to call for a halt to implementing the new translations in their respective languages.

But church officials and experts in liturgy in Rome and the U.S. also cite numerous factors working against another effort at changing the language of the Mass.

One is that Francis has so many other problems and reforms he needs to address that tackling the liturgy—which is always one of the most divisive issues for church officials and Mass-goers—is relatively low on the list. In addition, he has not yet revamped the Vatican congregation that oversees liturgical matters, and the holdovers from Benedict’s pontificate are unlikely to welcome any changes.

Above all, they say, the American bishops are still catching their breath after such a long struggle with Rome, and one that they wound up losing. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of further changes, but (the bishops) are just tired of it,” said one U.S.-based liturgy expert.

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4 years 9 months ago
The final words tell it all, "...but (the bishops) are just tired of it,..." OMG if the chief liturgists have this attitude (and I do believe many of them do) then we are in big trouble. I have no problem with language which is stately or majestic but it must also be sensible and understood in the hearing. I listen Sunday after Sunday and many weekdays and the strung out sentences which attempt to translate the Latin (not bad in Latin at all) leave me more often than not with a big "huh?" What'd he say? This is serious business and we need to hire some really good linguists who understand American English and can differentiate it from all other English. If Pope Francis can eschew medieval and renaissance living quarters to be closer to real life day to day people ought not the divine liturgy be able to do the same? Getting our heads out of the clouds (remember Jesus words to the apostles...why stand here looking up to heaven?) might help us to have eventually churches filled with worshipers who get it, get it on and get uplifted.
Andrew Di Liddo
4 years 9 months ago
Jack: Why must we "Hire" "some realy good linguists"???? In my brief life, I have witnessed seven popes...... all of them were brilliant linguists. It seems that Popes are so facile with languages, its mind boggling that these challenges exist. I am against spending more money on linguists.....we need the funds for attorneys fees.
Marie Rehbein
4 years 9 months ago
I am pretty good at pronouncing things, and every time it's time to say consubstantial, I have to shorten it to constantial or I fall behind in saying the creed. Maybe I'm too picky about how I pronounce words, but the word is too long for the time everyone else seems to take to say it. They're probably all saying constantial also; that's my guess.
Jack Rakosky
4 years 9 months ago
As one of the more than 20,000 people who signed the petition, all this dissatisfaction could have been avoided if we had just done the pilot study that was proposed. We would not only have found out all the dissatisfaction of the priests, we could have gotten a far more accurate report on what the people in the pews think about the New Missal from focus groups and in-depth interviews in the pilot parishes and dioceses. Here in the Diocese of Cleveland the Vibrant Parish Life Survey (2003) of 129 participating parishes and 46,241 respondents found that “Masses that are prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving” was the top priority among 39 items, but was ranked 21st in being well done. “ A church large enough for worship” was ranked first in being well done although only 9th in importance. Perhaps most importantly the study found that “Parish leadership that listens to the concerns of parishioners” was ranked 7th in importance but 29th in being well done. The priests in this most recent study think it is unlikely that bishops are going to listen to their concerns about the Missal translation, and the Vibrant Parish Life Study shows the parish staff fail to listen to the concerns of the people, likely including their views that the liturgy gets a mediocre score for being well done. Until the bishops go to the peripheries (the parishes) and the parish staff goes to their peripheries (especially the people who are not in the pews anymore), any further changes will likely be a waste of time and money.
John Walton
4 years 9 months ago
I wish they would be more careful of the Latin. In particular, "sedet ad dexteram Patris" is incorrectly translated into the passive voice of the verb. Isn't the correct translation is "sits", NOT "is seated"? Use of the passive places Jesus in a secondary position to the Father, who, from the incorrect translation would seem to have been put in the position rather than assuming it on his own. In the Latin, "Et Homo factus est" and "Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto" were given more emphasis than "ex Maria Virgine", but now the phraseology seems a bit turned upside down. It's interesting that the Vatican website still has the old version of the Nicene Creed on their website!
Mike Evans
4 years 9 months ago
In the ordinary life of Catholic parishioners and local priests, what is more essential and familiar than the weekly and/or daily mass? Every time one listens to the artificially congested and complex prayers, wording, and even theology expressed from this imposed new translation, one cringes and shakes one's head. What were they thinking? Now we know - only of pomposity and majesty - not the ordinary prayer life of the people. Even our clergy are embarrassed and find the new translations poor and clumsy. Send it back for a do-over and even the publishers will love it.
Robert Killoren
4 years 9 months ago
I'm just in a small country parish, but I think the parishioners here have finally gotten used to the new translation. I hate to see putting them all through another period of change. The translation from the Latin to English reads like it was done by a freshman studying first year Latin. I was against the new translation and also signed the petition mentioned above, but knocking the issue back and forth like a shuttlecock isn't good for the people. I also shutter to think how much money the American Church would have to spend with every parish buying another new missal.
4 years 9 months ago
As much as I would hate to purchase all new books, a better translation would be welcomed. Also, tell who ever is deciding these matters NOT to mess with the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours too
Dawna Sutton
4 years 9 months ago
I quit going to my Catholic parish because of the translation. My local Episcopal parish used a better translation, the same catholic creed and has more lay participation and has women priests. Why should I belong to a Church that thinks I am a secondary member and not "worthy" to be an acolyte let alone a priest. The Episcopal church is full of RC who found their souls nourished with the Eucharist (and we believe in the real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist) and can pray in their own language, not the translation from a "dead" language. I feel and experience God anew, where I was dying before
Dawna Sutton
4 years 9 months ago
Oh and I am a trained Liturgist with a Masters in Theology and Liturgy. I get to use my talents and skills with no thought that I am only a woman. The RC church could learn a lot from the Anglican/Episcopalian neighbors in following the Way of Jesus.
Dawna Sutton
4 years 9 months ago
Oh and I am a trained Liturgist with a Masters in Theology and Liturgy. I get to use my talents and skills with no thought that I am only a woman. The RC church could learn a lot from the Anglican/Episcopalian neighbors in following the Way of Jesus.
Anne Chapman
4 years 9 months ago
"The RC church could learn a lot from the Anglican/Episcopalian neighbors in following the Way of Jesus." Yes they could. I went on strike from the RC a few years ago because of the failure of the Pope to hold accountable the bishops who enabled the sexual abuse of children and because of the church's teachings on the subservient status of women (divinely decreed according to these men when it's actually man-made (and I do mean man) patriarchy). I also believe that the two realities are intertwined. I assumed that at some point I would return to the Catholic church. That seems less and less likely as time goes on. The more time I have spent in Episcopal pews on Sundays, the more I have come to appreciate the beauty and richness of the Anglican tradition, including the liturgy. I also love the humility (no infallibility nonsense), the welcome to all to Christ's table (Jesus did not demand Catholic baptismal certificates at the Last Supper) and the openness to listening to the Holy Spirit. Their system of governance is much closer to that of the early church than is the Roman Catholic system - both churches have hierarchies, but the Anglican Communion churches also include the laity in the governance structure, from the parish on up through representation by laity at the General Convention. So Episcopalians can hire their own priest, they have a voice and vote in the selection of their own bishops, and in the general rules governing the church through participation in the General Conventions. Women are equal to men and not denied Holy Orders because of their genetic make-up and I love our two priests - one is male and one female and together they make a healthy whole that is absolutely not there in the Catholic church, which deliberately has chosen to operate with half a brain. The few parishes that objected to women priests/bishops dropped out. In England, the disaffected, three years after the Ordinariate was launched, still counts fewer than 1500 people. They don't like women so are happier with Rome. The rest of the church follows Jesus' example and treats women as fully equal human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis).
Chris Sharp
4 years 9 months ago
You aren't only a woman Dawna just because you can't perform the work of the Priesthood. I find your reasoning for not being Catholic ironic--given the source from which Anglicanism sprung. Jesus spent 30 years with Mary, and 3 years with the people He made priests (who do you think He valued more?). The Catholic Church cannot ordain women because Christ did not give her the authority to do it--just as we can't allow a King to divorce his wife(s) on a whim and then kill them. Life is created inside you, souls are infused inside your womb not that of a man, God's favorite person is a woman, He came down to Earth because of the merits of a woman. Isn't that enough for you?
William Nassari
4 years 9 months ago
Can't believe the new English translation of the Mass is a final product of a "tortuous, decade-long struggle". How many more years it'll take if the Vatican decides to do fix it?
Charles Erlinger
4 years 9 months ago
This obsession with the "original Latin" has been so amusing. I have been fortunate to attend daily and Sunday mass for decades where a celebrant has been a professor of theology and often, specifically a professor of scripture. At least once a month, on average, one of these homilists will give us an "aside" remark about a Gospel passage, illustrating how much more meaningful the passage would have been if it had been translated differently FROM THE GREEK! These asides are frequently nothing less than startling in the richness of the insight provided by the improved translation. Now here is a translation issue worth worrying about, in my estimation.
Matthew Hoffman
4 years 9 months ago
This article reeks of liberal "advocacy journalism" of the worst kind. Trying to claim that Catholics in general are against the translation just because three notoriously liberal bishops are whining about it is over the top, even for America magazine. Notice that the push poll cited was not carried out by a professional polling agency and didn't ask Catholic mass-goers in general, but only clergy and "lay leaders." Citing Stephen Colbert takes the article to an even lower low -- this is the same "comedian" who makes tasteless jokes that make light of the murder of the unborn. Apparently, the author of this article is horrified that American Catholics might pray with formal, dignified language that indicates that something profound is happening in the mass. I live in Mexico and can say that we've been using a similar kind of translation here for decades. By the way, the part of about receiving Christ under one's roof is a direct reference to the Roman centurion who says that he is not worthy for Christ to enter under his roof -- is it really overwhelming for the little minds of Americans to have a translation that maintains that reference? This article is an insult.
Benjamin Holmes
4 years 9 months ago
You know, the English language of the Holy Mass was watered down to child-like proportions for over 40 years. The 2011 translation is more faithful to the ancient texts, more mature more poetic. It is like listening to the Psalms! Why are so many people opposed to traditional forms of worship and words? It is almost a visceral response on behalf of many. Catholic youth benefit from being inundated by beauty and more ancient lyrics, instead of being dumbed down by today's party pop and hip hop/rap standards. I imagine the same people who despise this new, more faithful translation are also ones more prone to despise the infinite beauty of chant in favor of bongos, tambourines, and Protestant musicians. Let the Church elevate the culture to higher levels of transcendence, not be dumbed down by the wider culture. I am under 30, married in the Church, and about to have my first child.
Anne Chapman
4 years 9 months ago
I know that you are sincere, and apparently don't see your own visceral response to those who prefer the previous translation to the current one. Remember, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Many do not find the 2011 translation to be beautiful, but often awkward and cumbersome. Please get past your automatic dislike of those who prefer a liturgy that differs from your own preferences. There is nothing at all "dumbed down" about preferring the more natural translation into English that preceded the changes in 2011 to the changed versions. As one of the many older readers of this site, I am among those many who studied Latin (four years). There are many readers of this site who studied Latin, and those who were once Latin students can assure you that some of the 2011 translations (literally, word for word) would not have earned a very good grade! Good translations are never word for word, literal translations. It's very sad that Rome chose to put forward a translation into English that was done by non-native speakers of English. Their lack of native fluency in English is all too apparent. To use a modern language example, French, if an English speaker, using a dictionary, came across the expression "Ça marche" he or she might translate it as "That walks", since "marcher" means to walk. But the correct translation would be "OK, that works" - for example, in setting a time to meet.. Can we meet at 10 tomorrow morning - that works! Preferring more natural language and cadences (not paragraph long sentences that are anything but poetic, I'm afraid) also has nothing to do with bongo, hip/hop or any other of your pet peeves. I am more than twice your age, and I can assure you, that I have never witnessed a hip/hop mass or even one with bongos. It is also important to remember that the Catholic church is "universal". I have seen videos of beautiful masses in other cultures that did include instruments that are part of their normal cultural expressions, if not of the white Europeans and their descendants.
Tom Helwick
4 years 9 months ago
Bravo Anne ! Well said.


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