New Words: ‘A Deeper Meaning, But the Same Mass’

This week’s title is taken directly from the web site of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and it concerns the upcoming new translations of the Roman Missal, which our priests and faithful will most likely be using within the next two years.

Transition from Latin to the vernacular in the Liturgy

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council had this to say about the language to be used in the celebration of the Sacraments: “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36).

We know that, in reality, this impetus of the Council eventually led to a New Order of Mass, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969 and the eventual celebration of the sacraments almost entirely in the language of the people.

During the first four centuries of the Church’s existence, as far as we know, the Liturgy was celebrated in Latin, Greek or Aramaic. Eventually, Latin alone was used in the Western Churches. The Churches of the East have their own liturgical languages.

If we were to look at some of the explanations that were given over the course of the many centuries during which the Liturgy of the Western Churches was celebrated in Latin, we would find the following principal points explaining its use: Latin is a universal language; it is able to express doctrine and prayer in a very precise and concise manner;it does not have constant changes to the meanings of words and expressions because it is no longer a spoken language.

As the Western Churches transitioned to the vernacular Liturgy, the great challenge was that of translating the texts. I mentioned the advantages that were always put forth concerning the Latin language in order to show what a challenge it is to translate the Latin words, while bringing forth both understanding and beauty, into language that is used by the people every day.

Different directives for translating the texts

With the introduction of the use of the vernacular into Catholic worship, in their official form, the liturgical texts are still published in Latin. It is then up to the various episcopal conferences to authorize translations into the language of the various countries and peoples of the world. Once those translations have been submitted to the Conferences of Bishops, they are voted upon and then submitted to the Holy See for final approval.

It is the direction or “spirit” of these translations that brings us to the next part of our brief explanation.

In 1969, the group, called the Consilium, which had been entrusted with the reform of the Roman Liturgy by Pope Paul VI, issued guidelines concerning the direction that the translations of the liturgical texts were to take.

“The guiding principle of the document was ‘dynamic equivalency,’ which means to translate basic thoughts rather than words. Those who use this principle say that they are aiming for a transfer of the same meaning from the original to the receptor language. The original words and form are important only as a vehicle for the meaning; therefore, it is the meaning alone that is truly important in the translation” (The Third Edition of the Roman Missal; web site of the USCCB). Given the nature of the Latin language, which I have attempted to explain briefly, you can see what a challenge this became to translators.

After about thirty years of these directives, the Holy See issued new instructions for the translation of the Roman Missal, which is the book we use that contains the prayers of the Sacred Liturgy.

These instructions took a different direction than those of 1969. They now directed that the translations, while taking style and the flow of language into account, were to be true accurate translations of the Latin texts found in the official liturgical books.

It might be helpful to quote the pertinent part of the Holy See’s document at this point. It reads: “While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 20).

With this directive, the work of new translations, which is now nearing its completion, had its beginning.

In order to assist and guide this work, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments established the Vox Clara (“Clear Voice”) Committee in 2002. This is made up of a group of bishops and consultants from various English-speaking countries, and I am honored to have been appointed as a member of this Committee.

At the many meetings which we have had in Rome over these years, our task has been to review the English translations of the Latin liturgical texts that have been presented to the Holy See for approval.

Our task, and that of the translators and Episcopal Conferences who are working on these translations, is always to work toward implementing the clear directives of the Holy See, which I have quoted above, in the hope of having accurate, uplifting and easily proclaimable translations.

A proper period of preparation

One of the things that we have learned during the past forty years, which have been a time of great liturgical change, is that it is necessary for both priests and the lay faithful to have a period of adequate preparation and explanation for any changes that are introduced. A large portion of the new translations have already been approved by the Holy See and the Bishops of the United States will vote on the final portions at their meeting in November.

I am very grateful to the Office for Worship of the Archdiocese for the plans that have already been made to introduce and explain the new translations and provide a proper catechesis for them.

This Fall, during the workshops for priests that are conducted at this time, the theme will be the introduction and explanation of these new translations.

Through these workshops, and information that will be shared with our deacons and religious during this year-long period of preparation, we hope to build a foundation of understanding and greater appreciation of the Liturgy among our people. In this way, priests, deacons and religious will be able to aid the faithful in their understanding and appreciation of these new translations.

In anticipation of the preparation that will take place in your own parishes as the time of implementation draws closer, you may wish to refer to the web site of the Bishops’ Conference and its special section I referred to at the beginning of this article:

You may also consult our own Archdiocesan web site at

I pray that this period of preparation may deepen the understanding we all have of the great Prayer of the Church: the Sacred Liturgy.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage