Why we need the new translation of the Mass

Why we need the new translation of the Mass

Bishop Peter J. Elliott

This is the edited text of Bishop Peter J. Elliott's address given at the Catholic Women's League National Conference in Melbourne on 31 July 2010. The full text can be emailed on request. Bishop Elliott is an auxiliary bishop in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

Next year, a new English translation of the 2002 Latin edition of the  Missale Romanum, the Roman Missal, will be introduced. A new Lectionary will follow, no longer derived from the Jerusalem Bible. And in the next few years, all the sacramental rites will appear in a new translation. But the first project is the missal.

A reorganised International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has worked on the translations, under the guidance of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments through the Vox Clara ("A Clear Voice") committee, chaired by Cardinal George Pell. The new principles for translation are set out in an official instruction  Liturgiam authenticam.

The printing of new missals for the altar and the people is under way, a massive project as there is one version for the whole English speaking world. Other language groups are under notice that they too must review and retranslate their texts, in particular the liturgy in French and German which is replete with inaccuracies. Not only in the English-speaking world have people been grumbling about shoddy translations from the past and seeking something better.

Worship of God

But do we need a new translation of the Mass in English?  Is the text we currently use not good enough?

No, it is not good enough because it is not particularly good – and "good enough" is not the way to describe the language we should use in the worship of God. The time has come to change because what we are using is not only often inaccurate as a translation, but the style of English is rather dull, banal, lacking in the dignity of language for worship, more like the language of a homily than a prayer. How did this come about?

It needs to be stated at the outset that this dismal situation was brought about by good pastoral and catechetical intentions. The bishops in the early seventies were anxious to get the "new missal" to the people as quickly as possible. But the translation they hastily approved was distorted because it was based on a flawed principle of translation known as "dynamic equivalence".

The principle was endorsed in the 1969 instruction of the Consilium for Implementing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,  Comme le prevoit. ICEL was faithful to much of that instruction, and even went beyond it, so what we ended up with was a paraphrase rather than a translation.

For example, the Sunday collects were reduced to something like this: " God! You are good. So do this for us", followed by a slightly inaccurate version of the Trinitarian ending.

When we examine the specific content of the ICEL collects we currently use, we find a more serious result of ruthless paraphrase and précis – the virtual elimination of a key Christian word, "grace". It could be argued that this went beyond  Comme le prevoit. This serious falsification may be observed in the current translations of seven Sunday collects in so-called 'Ordinary Time" that contain the Latin word "gratia". Of these seven collects, not one has translated "gratia" as "grace"!

Taking the essential Christian word "grace" out of the key seasonal prayers is a symptom of the deeper doctrinal weakness that is evident in not a few of the current ICEL texts. As others have noted, this is a kind of Pelagianism, the heresy that we save ourselves by our own efforts, not through the grace of God. What we do is what matters, not so much what God does. This led to the mentality that "we make the liturgy" so liturgy is no longer primarily a gift to us from God through the Church, rather something we fabricate, work, "create".

Our Lady

Striking examples of inaccuracy are also evident if Latin references to Our Lady in the  Missale Romanum are checked against the current ICEL texts. Here we find an amazing failure to comprehend a basic principle of Christology and Mariology. The Marian adjectives are doctrinal not poetic. Let me assure you that all this is corrected in the new translation, which gives full honour to the Mother of God. 

"Dynamic equivalence" becomes more destructive when Marian phrases which convey doctrinal truths taught by the Church are simply removed. In the first Preface of Our Lady, two unequivocal Latin phrases expressing Mary's perpetual virginity just vanished. The second became a paraphrase "She became the virgin mother of your Son". But that does not carry the Latin "virginitatis gloria permanente", literally "the glory of her virginity remaining". "She became the virgin mother of your Son" barely hints at Mary's perpetual virginity as set out in the  Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here we touch on trendy ideological motives reflecting the era when the ICEL translations were made.

In the more recent ICEL translation of the beautiful new Preface of Mary Mother of the Church a reference to Mary's immaculate heart has been excised. Why?  Do the Catholic people need to be protected from 'something'? Is it exotic language, or does that phrase hint too much of Fatima? In the collect for the third day before Christmas the adjective "immaculate" also vanished. In the collect for the Memorial of Our Lady of Mount Carmel the mystical representation of the Son of Mary as a holy mountain has also vanished, even if it is central to Carmelite spirituality. Why?

These examples of the destructive effects of the old ICEL following "dynamic equivalence" reveal a vernacular version of the text of the Roman liturgy that in some places tells lies, so that, at these points and many others,  it is no longer the Roman liturgy.

Archbishop Coleridge of Canberra rightly has said that, in the current ICEL texts, the metaphors have been "bleached out". An obvious one is in the Third Eucharistic Prayer "so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name".

In Australia "from east to west" can mean from Sydney to Perth. But if we go back to the prophecy of Malachi concerning the universal sacrifice we find poetic language bringing together both space and time. So the new accurate translation from Latin will be: "… so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name." This recaptures the original scriptural text.

Sense of sacred

Another dimension of truth in translation is asking  whether a text maintains the mystery or a 'sense of the sacred' in the original tongue. In the East, mystery in worship is maintained largely by the  ikonostasis, the ikon screen across the sanctuary. In the West Latin functioned as a kind of  ikonostatis of language. Coupled with the celebration of Mass 'ad orientem', facing the altar, the Roman Rite retained the sense of a holy mystery which the East maintained through the universal liturgical paradox of concealing so as to reveal. The truth of the mystery came to be carried in the Latin texts.

Nevertheless, it is possible to translate the Mass into our vernacular while retaining much of that sense of linguistic mystery, as may already be seen in the work of the current project. The new ICEL translation seeks to reclaim the truth of the mystery. But that was not the prevailing mentality of the era of the 'sixties. The reasons for this attitude may be discerned by beginning with the obvious  'didacticism' of the translations, that is regarding liturgical texts as primarily messages directed at us, to teach us.

The new ICEL translations reflect not only accuracy but reverence for the mystery of God, indeed the centrality of God, which is the meaning of Christian worship. To elucidate this, we may compare the two translations of the opening words of the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon.

The ICEL text that we currently use begins: "We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving through Jesus Christ your Son. Through him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice."

By contrast the new ICEL text begins: "To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition, through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord: that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices ...".

The ICEL of the past avoided repetitions, but repetition is always a part of prayer. The old ICEL air-brushed out that strong sacrificial word "victim" –  hostia. The words that follow, explain who "this victim is", namely "the holy Bread of eternal life and the chalice of everlasting salvation". As at the consecration, we note the recovery of the dignified and accurate term "chalice", with its religious and cultural connotations. We do not usually ask for "a cup of wine".

Obviously priests will have to become accustomed to a new style in virtually every prayer they say. But to what extent will the words said by the people be different? Here care has been taken to keep the changes to a minimum. I indicate what is new at some key points of the Mass.

The first obvious change will be the response to "The Lord be with you", which will be " And with your spirit". This brings us into line with all the other major languages where "et cum spiritu tuo" is translated literally, for example "con il tuo spirito" in Italian. This is an ancient mystical response to a blessing-greeting referring either to the priest's angelic guardian or the presence of the Holy Spirit in the priest. This is why this greeting with its response is only given by the ordained and not by lay people, for example when a lay person leads a "Communion service".

In the "I confess" we will admit that we have "greatly" sinned, "through my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault". Again the new ICEL is not afraid of symbolic repetition and respects Catholic familiarity with the "mea culpa".

The new text of the Gloria largely returns to the first English translation that was used between 1964 and late 1969. It will be easier to set to music, as we already see in new musical settings that are appearing for the new texts.

In "Pray brothers and sisters ..." we find a return to the Latin "my sacrifice and yours", to restore the distinction between the two modes of offering Mass, that of the priest and that of the priestly people with him. The word "holy" has been restored to the response to qualify "Church". One wonders why someone presumed to remove one of the  four marks of the Church forty years ago. The Church is "one,  holy, Catholic and apostolic".


A particularly beautiful development is the complete retranslation of the invitation to Communion. Instead of the blunt and bland "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, happy are those who are called to his supper", the priest will say, "Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb".

Our response will be closer to the words of the centurion in the Scriptures (Luke 7:6-7): "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." Note the shift to God's initiative, not "that  I should receive you" rather "that  you should enter under my roof" and the restoration of "soul". There was a fear of the word "soul" among theologians forty years ago. Since then Pope John Paul's "theology of the body" has deepened our understanding of the unity of the person in body and soul.

These examples show that what is coming is richer, more elegant in style, more truthful in doctrinal content, closer to the Scriptures and more spiritual and mystical. The new translations should gradually deepen the quality and tone of our worship. The transition will not be easy for some people for while the new texts carry better doctrinal content they will call for careful catechesis and explanation.

But, what an opportunity this is! For all of us the transition and the catechesis involved should enrich our faith and worship, and our love for the Mass.

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