Editor’s Note: On Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent, the new English translation of the Roman Missal will be implemented in all Catholic parishes in the United States. Here we present part 3 of a five-part series about the new translation–and the reasons behind it. You can read part 2 here. Part 4 will appear next Thursday.
Roman Missal 3.0
When many of us first heard that a new English translation of the liturgy was being prepared, the news brought some angst. We’re used to the way Mass has been said in the Latin Rite our whole lives, and we’d like it to stay that way. Change is unwelcome. Fortunately, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI understands the challenge as well as the opportunity that the new Mass text poses for English-speaking Catholics. “Many will find it hard to adjust to unfamiliar texts after nearly forty years of continuous use of the previous translation,” His Holiness remarked to members of Vox Clara in April 2010. Because of this, he added, “The change will need to be introduced with due sensitivity.”
But, some Catholics object, why can’t the Church retain the familiar English Mass translation it has been using since Vatican II? This objection indicates a narrow and distorted vision of the Church’s liturgy based on a mere few decades of experiencing the Latin Rite Mass exclusively in English. The answer to it is that the translation we’re used to was intended by the Church to be part of the period of careful experimentation following the Council. The Council’s Instruction Comme le Prevoit stated: “Above all, after sufficient experimentation and passage of time, all translations will need review.” The Instruction did not say that some translations might need review, but that all translations would. This clearly indicates that the new liturgical translations following Vatican II were not meant to be carved in stone, but to be eventually reviewed and revised.
The foundational text for the Novus Ordo Mass in the Latin Rite from which all vernacular liturgical texts are translated is the Missale Romanum (Roman Missal) issued in Latin by the Holy See. This contains both the Ordinary of the Mass (the unchangeable parts of the liturgy) and Propers for Mass (parts of the liturgy such as Scripture readings and certain prayers that change from day to day and season to season). Three editions of the Missale Romanum have been promulgated since Vatican II—one in 1969, one in 1975 and one in 2000. There have been very few changes to the Latin text of the Ordinary of the Mass through these three editions. Their main features have been additions to the Ordinary and the Propers and changes in some of the Proper prayers, with most of the additions and changes to the Propers resulting from revisions in the liturgical calendar. In this tradition, the Third Edition of the Roman Missal adds several new Prefaces for Eucharistic Prayers to the Ordinary, as well as new Votive Masses and prayers for the feasts of new saints to the Propers. Most of the differences we’ll be noticing in the English words of the Ordinary of the Mass on November 27, 2011 will stem from changes in translation based on the new principle of formal equivalence, not from changes in the Latin text of the Missale Romanum.
Many Latin Rite Catholics today lack familiarity with the original Latin words of the Mass. As a result, they are comparing, analyzing, and judging the old and new English Mass translations based solely on their perceived merits and demerits in the vernacular. This is unfortunate, because being cut off from the mother language of the liturgy presents a barrier to the proper understanding of any vernacular Mass text that comes from it. The true standard by which a vernacular Mass translation may be judged is its fidelity to the Latin text of the Missale Romanum. That text deserves considerable respect because it contains the accumulated riches of 2,000 years of Catholic liturgical tradition.
The new English translation of the Roman Missal includes a Mass text that is much more faithful to the original Latin than the 1974 and 1985 English Mass texts. For example, the first sentence of the Gloria in the Missale Romanum reads, “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” The new English translation of this passage reads: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” This is a precise, word-for-word rendering of the Latin text. By contrast, the previous translations read: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” This rendering deleted the words “bonae voluntatis,” “good will,” and replaced “people of good will” with the more ambiguous term “his people,” thus losing some of the meaning of the original text. Another example is the first word of the Creed in the Missale Romanum, “Credo,” which literally means “I believe” and is rendered this way in the new translation. The outgoing translation reads “We believe,” diluting the significance of the Creed as a solemn statement of faith pronounced by each individual believer. Another part of the Creed that in the Missale Romanum reads “consubstantialem Patris” is accurately rendered “consubstantial with the Father” in the new translation. The same text appears in the outgoing version as “one in being with the Father,” which is similar in meaning but not as accurate a translation of the original Latin. The new Mass text also includes a literal translation of the traditional Latin response, “Et cum spiritu tuo”—“And with your spirit.” The previous translation, “And also with you,” is a paraphrase that has no precedent in our liturgical tradition. A fifth example of the fidelity of the new Mass text to the Missale Romanum is the prayer of priest and people before Communion, which reads in Latin: “Domine, non sum dignus ut inters sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea.” The new translation is a faithful rendering of that text: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The 1985 translation, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” changes some of the literal Scriptural text of this passage and dilutes some of its meaning.
Besides fidelity to the Latin, the new English Mass text has many other positive qualities that reflect its linguistic origin. One of these is a more formal and reverent tone that is better suited to divine worship. This is evident in a passage from the first Eucharistic Prayer, which in the outgoing translation reads: “Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedech.” Here is the same passage in the new translation: “Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedech, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.” This example also makes clear that intelligibility, good taste and beauty have not been sacrificed to accuracy in the new translation. Although traditional and dignified, there is nothing archaic or arcane about it. It is not a turning back of the liturgical clock to before Vatican II as some contend. There is no “Holy Ghost” or “thee” or “thou” to be found in it. The words of the new English liturgical text are simple and modern, yet they join together to form a beautiful, poetic rhythm reflecting the rhythm of the Latin and suited to the great prayer of the Church.
And even if we cannot fully grasp the reason for the wording of any part of the new Mass text, we ought to trust our Holy Mother the Church regarding it and accept it in a spirit of humble obedience to her. The new English translation of Mass is not the hasty work of one bishop or one translator, but the product of many thousands of hours of intense labor by all the English-speaking bishops of the world working together in careful collaboration under the direction of the Holy See. These prelates deserve recognition and hearty gratitude for providing English-speaking Catholics of the Latin Rite with a new and sound translation of the Sacred Liturgy that grows organically from their liturgical tradition while also fulfilling the aims of the Second Vatican Council.
Naturally, it will take some time for priests and laity alike to adjust to the words and phrases of the new Mass translation. The burden of adjustment will fall on our priests, since there are many more changes in the words of the priest than in the words of the people. In fact, a majority of the changes in the English Mass text occur in the four Eucharistic Prayers, where nearly every sentence has been reworded to better match the original Latin. Yet through all the changes in words of priest and people, the familiar prayers of the Novus Ordo Mass are still recognizable, and the basic form of the liturgy remains unchanged.