Thursday, December 1, 2011



On Sunday, November 27, during the first mass at which we Catholics were using the new English translation of the mass, I gave a quick summary of the main points behind the changes. I got such nice feedback about my remarks that I thought I might as well share the ideas with you. If you already know all of this, you can skip this post.

There is only one official mass text for the Roman Catholic Church, and this is in Latin. All the language groups in the church translate this text into their own language. In the year 2000, to mark the new millennium, Pope John Paul II caused a new Latin mass book to be produced one that included lots of additions (e.g. prayers for newly canonized saints, masses for various needs, etc.). This meant that a new English translation needed to be produced. It is this text that was officially used on the First Sunday of Advent, 2011.


For the past 40 years we have been using an English translation of the Roman missal; why do we need a new translation? Here are a few thoughts.

- The first translation was a first attempt at translation liturgical texts into English for use in the liturgy. (Remember that such a task was brand new for the Church – we’d never had to come up with a translation from Latin into a “vernacular” language to be used for worship.) No one can expect to get everything right on the first try. Considering the monumental task and how quickly it was accomplished in 1972, the translators did a great job. But since we’ve been living with the text for four decades we’ve come to see its shortcomings as well as its strengths.

The first translation was done using a different set of guidelines for translation which allowed for paraphrasing, for departing from the exact Latin wording to achieve something similar but perhaps with a different “feel.” For example, the orations at mass in the Latin were all addressed to “God” (Deus), but in the English the word was translated “Father” instead, in an attempt to make the prayers seem less cold and distant.


The new set of guidelines used for the recent translation require a much more faithful rendering of the words of the Latin text, with no allowance for paraphrasing or adjusting the meaning for various purposes. This closer faithfulness to the Latin text has resulted in a different “feel” to the English translation, a “feel” that is quite deliberate on the part of the translators. Here are just a few examples of such changes.

We Catholics spend a lot of resources on making our worship spaces beautiful and decorated appropriately. Most churches request that people come to church dressed in a way befitting the sacred nature of the liturgy. This notion of sacred formality was not very evident, however, in the first English translation, in which “accessibility” and other such characteristics were aimed at instead. Cultural anthropologists will tell you that the language used in religious rituals in any religion is always a step “above” normal everyday language. So, the language of the new translation is more formal, as befits sacred liturgical language. Two characteristics of this kind of “sacred” language will be immediately apparent in the new texts:

(a) First, the sentences are longer and more complex, reflecting the more complex theology of the original Latin. On a personal note, when the first English translation appeared 40 years ago I remember feeling disappointed that the English of the mass orations lacked the nobility and theological richness of the Latin prayers. The first translation broke the long Latin sentences down into simpler phrases and shorter sentences. The idea at the time went something like this: now that the texts are in English they should be completely understandable to the hearer the very first time they’re heard. Modern English doesn’t use long complex sentences. Now there’s something to be said for the latter argument, of course; and maybe we’ll find that the newer translation sacrifices too much by introducing these long Latin-style sentences, but I personally think the longer sentences may sound more solemn, which is not a bad thing. The more complex sentence structures will certainly demand more “work” (i.e. closer attention) on the apart of the faithful in the pews and more careful preparation on the part of the priest who has to proclaim them aloud in a way that they make sense to his congregation.

(b) A second difference is that the vocabulary in the new translation is much wider and richer and includes many words which are not used in everyday English, e.g. words such as “beseech” and “chalice.” This latter word is a good example of the purpose and effect of the new translation. The priest used to say “When supper was ended he took the cup” but in the new text the priest says “he took the chalice.” The word “chalice” is obviously a very specialized word, one that is pretty much confined to biblical passages and ritual contexts. “Cup” is an everyday word that is at home at the breakfast table, at Starbucks and in the local diner. “He took the chalice” helps locate us in a special, sacred context. What we are engaged in around the altar is not any old supper but a solemn ritual meal. The new vocabulary will help us feel that.


One of the characteristics of the original Latin mass it its frequent allusions to sacred scripture. Many of these references were lost in the first translation, however, in favor of simplicity and clarity. A good example comes up at the communion rite. The old text says, “Happy are those who are called to his supper,” but the new translation restores the scriptural reference from the book of Revelation, “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” Rather than depriving the faithful of this reference to a beautiful passage in the Book of Revelation (“They’ll never understand the connection with scripture”) the new translation puts the burden on priests and other teachers to educate people and make them aware of the connection. This will take time, but not everything has to happen instantly – even in America in 2011!

The response of the faithful to the priest also contains a similar scriptural citation. The old translation said, “Lord I am to worthy to receive you. But only say the word and I shall be healed.”

The new translation, based on the original Latin, says “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” This is based closely on a quotation from the miracle story of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10) in which the centurion tells Jesus “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but just say the word and my servant will be healed” (Mt 8:8). Is that scriptural allusion really so hard to grasp? I’m happy that it’s been restored.

One final scriptural allusion that has been re-introduced to us English-speaking Catholics comes in Eucharistic Prayer II. The priest now prays over the gifts: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Holy Spirit upon them like the dewfall….” In Israel during the dry months every year, dewfall means water and therefore life. The bible refers in several places to God's life-giving gift of dew. In the early centuries of the Christian church, the church Fathers loved to refer to the Holy Spirit as descending like the dew, quietly giving life to the world. So this change also takes us back to our early Christian roots in the great writers like Augustine and Gregory the Great. I can’t wait to give a homily or two on this new phrase in Eucharistic Prayer II!


This topic is a bit more controversial, but we need to stay open and see how this all feels after we’ve lived with it for a few years.

The most obvious example of a theological nicety that has been restored comes in the common response to the priest’s greeting, “The Lord be with you.” The Latin “Et cum spiritu tuo” was simplified in the first to translation to “And also with you.” This made it seem like a simple exchange of greetings in which the priest says “Greetings, everyone” and the faithful respond “You too, father!” Well, that’s friendly enough, no doubt, but it loses the theological meaning of this second-century greeting of the people to their priest. What they are saying by their response of “And with your spirit” is something like “And with the Spirit that you received in the sacrament of ordination which gives you the grace to fulfill the office of priest at this celebration.” It reminds everyone of the role of the Spirit in the heart of each person present, and is another way of acknowledging that this a special kind of event, one in which various people play specialized roles. There are plenty of good homilies hiding inside of this exchange of greetings!

Another change, and one I will find harder to get used to, comes in the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday. It’s the phrase that used to be translated “one in being with the Father,” but which now reads (following the technical Latin vocabulary) “consubstantial with the Father.” What in the world were the translators trying to accomplish by using this seemingly indecipherable technical Latin word? Well, here are a couple of thoughts. First, to say that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” doesn’t say very much about Jesus: everything in creation somehow participates in God’s being, so you could argue that plants and animals and rocks are all “one in being with the Father.” But why this big Latinate word that nobody can understand at all? Well, the reasoning here (whether you agree with it or not) is that the Council of Nicea fought long and hard over the best way to express the doctrine of the Trinity, including Jesus’ nature and his relation to the Father. The bishops at the council settled on a Greek word which is set into a Latin equivalent word “consubstantialis” to express the divinity of Jesus. This was no mere dispute about words: the doctrines of the incarnation and of the Trinity itself were at stake. So now in the 21st century the word “consubstantial” will send priests and teachers scurrying to find out just what the word means and why it was so important back in the 300’s. And that’s okay. A few sermons about the divinity of Christ won’t hurt any of us. Besides, contrary to what most modern American Christians might think, not everything in our liturgical texts has to be immediately understandable. In the case of "consubstantial"it may be enough for now to realize that our ancestors in the faith struggled with the problem of how to express the relationship between God the Father and Christ, and this tongue-twisting word is a reminder of their struggle.

One final change that you’ll notice is in the Eucharistic acclamations. Why did we drop the one that went “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?” This acclamation was never one of the three in the original Latin mass. The reason it is being dropped is, as I understand it, because the acclamations are all addressed TO Christ, they’re not ABOUT Christ. Look at the other acclamations and you’ll see what I’m talking about. This acclamation was dropped because it is not in line with the idea of the Eucharistic acclamation.


Change is always difficult, and our emotional attachment to sacred texts makes a revised translation that much more difficult. The art of translation is tricky in any case, and the task of the translators of the new Roman Missal was well nigh impossible. I hope that my little excursus may have helped a couple of my readers to appreciate the good points about the new translation. As for the points that bother you about the new translation, try thinking of it this way: When you sit down to a chicken dinner you may find a few bones in the meat. You’ve got a choice: you can decide to choke on the bones or you can just put them to one side and enjoy the rest of the feast. Don’t go to mass to choke on the bones!



  1. Excellent explanation on the purpose of the changes in the Mass. Thank you Father!

  2. Father=Thank you for a better explanation than I received at my home church. Could you explain why during the distribution of the Body and Blood the lay are kept away from the altar area? It seems to me that the church is "alienating" the populace.

  3. The question about keeping the laity away from the sanctuary raises lots of good areas for discussion. Maybe I can blog about a few of them in the future, but for the moment let me just make a few of quick responses. 1. The architecture of the church building influences to a great extent the sense of being drawn into the mass or being distanced from it. (Churches in the round and small chapels, for example, don't seem to have the problem you raise.) 2. Also, don't forget that there are areas of a church building that have specialized uses. The special chair for the presider (only), or the lectern which is reserved for the reading of scripture and nothing else. With this specialization of spaces in mind, we can see that the altar of sacrifice is used for the celebration of mass only, and the sanctuary around itis to be maintained and treated as an especially sacred space, not a thoroughfare, say, or a meeting place. 3. So what may look like "keeping people away" may be seen from a whole other point of view as well: the leader of song, for example is not supposed to use the scripture lectern to lead hymns, and the altar should not be used as a shelf for storing books, and so forth. 4. If a lay person feels "alienated" from the church, the solution does not seem to me to lie in the direction of undoing the designation of spaces in church for specific purposes. I'd suggest that we look at the deeper causes for why some folks feel distant from their church.