The New Translation of the Roman Missal

Folks familiar with Godblogging’s normal proclivity to have an opinion on all things Catholic have been nagging me to comment on the upcoming ta-da moment of the new translation of the Roman Missal. I’ve declined up until now for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that writing a coherent, cohesive and educational post about something that includes the words “consubstantial” and “Liturgiam” takes a good chunk of time (read: my entire Sunday afternoon and part of my evening).

Nonetheless, here we go. First, this isn’t the end of the world or a complete reversal of the Second Vatican Council’s original reforms on the missal, which called for the Latin-worded Mass to be translated into the vernacular of each country. Neither is it to be conflated with power-grabs by certain priests or bishops to turn back the clock and rein in the Holy Spirit  (although those issues are massively troublesome by themselves) nor does it portend, as this not-quite-complete article suggests, ritual whiplash is in the offing.

That said, the new translation is more of a big deal to some clergy and laity than the official church would have us believe, partially because the document that demanded the new translation (Liturgiam Authenticam, 2001) was the Vatican’s rather loud hand-slap to national and regional conferences of bishops – including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – which had, heretofore, been allowed by the 1969 document Comme le prevoit to approve liturgical translations.

Additionally, there was no input from the laity, who are, after all, the folks most affected by the wording of the Mass and whom, Rome’s assertions aside, want a say in the Church. (For a humorous look at the translation – we all need some good humor at this point – and the lack of lay input, see this over at PrayTell.)

Finally, people are upset because many of the changes seem unnecessary and one of them – to the Confiteor – actually is a direct and firm step back to pre-Vatican II theological thought (something, by the way, I would’t have known if I was raised in a pre-Vatican II Church because I wouldn’t have been encouraged to read the Bible, much less join study sessions on the Vatican II documents.)

On the unnecessary side, one can look at a change to the Nicene Creed, where we used to say “…begotten, not made, one in being with the Father,” and now will say, “… begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” Does Rome really think most people will know what “consubstantial” means? (I can hear the homilies and reactions even now: Priest: “So, consubstantial means to be the same as, in other words, Jesus is God.” People in the pews: “Well, why don’t we just say ‘We believe Jesus is God’ then?” Sigh.)

On the march-back-to-pre-Vatican II side we have an important addition to the Confiteor, what many Catholics know as the “I confess” prayer. Before Vatican II, the emphasis in that prayer – and much of Catholic life – was placed on the unworthiness of a person instead of the grace and mercy of God. After Vatican II, the emphasis was changed: Yes, we were sinners, but God was loving and merciful and that mercy became the focus.

I was only 3 years old when the Vatican II Council was first called, so I do not remember the days of “Catholic guilt” that many of my older friends and relatives recall in the pre-Vatican II Church. I do remember relatives and friends telling me they left the Church because of that guilt. As one aunt – now in her late 80s – said to me a few years ago, she had enough pain in daily life, she didn’t need to go to Church “and feel horrible there, too.” So the fact that the Confiteor adds the words “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” to the confession is a turn for the worse, IMHO.

If Holy Mother Church really wanted the Confiteor to be honest and reflective of real life, even if it didn’t match the original Latin text, it should be “I confess to Almighty God, and you by brothers and sisters, that I have sinned, sometimes with full thought and intent – and thus through my grevious fault – but many times through human weakness, confusion and, some times, just plain stupidity.”

Because that’s what we humans are much of the time: weak, stupid and confused. Luckily, God loves us anyway, even if the translators (or original writers) of the Catholic Missal don’t seem to understand that.

As you can read in this great collection of opinions in the Adoremus Bulletin, a number of clergy have taken issue with the translation (or need for one), so it isn’t just laity that have frustration or concern over what is behind these changes. While I tend to agree with my pastor at Tucson’s St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center that the changes in liturgical wording might wake up Catholics who have long mumbled their way through memorized Mass parts, I also think the assessment of Father William J. O’Malley, S.J. makes a point:

“… the changes are palliatives to the specialist minds of theologians, liturgists, and church historians. In a conversation with several priests, I was dimwitted enough to ask, “But what about the audience?” And one said, pretty intensely, “The audience doesn’t matter. It’s the message that matters!”

The message will matter little if people aren’t there to hear it – and O’Malley argues these changes are the opposite of what is needed to reach disenfranchised Catholics. A few 20-somethings I spoke with after Mass today seemed to agree. They didn’t much care that the wording would change (“Oh well,” one said, “I guess they have to have something to keep them busy in Rome.”), but they feared that this reach from the Vatican was a harbinger of things to come.

One said the Church may state that She wants the “full and active participation” by the laity in the liturgy, but what She really wants “is the laity following around men in dresses doing exactly what they say, never having an opinion and only being involved to a certain point.” In other words, please fully participate in the prayers we, as the Church heirarchy, say that you, as laity, may say and nothing more, even if you erroneously believe the Holy Spirit is moving you to pray a certain way. Pretty pointed, and, sadly, pretty accurate. Another said, sighing with resignation, “It doesn’t matter what we think. We have no voice. This is just one more thing making me wonder why I stick around.”

There are those who argue that the way they feel close to God is by having a giant wall of separation brought about through more “spiritual” language and a highly defined boundary between clergy and laity (see: clericalism.) You can find plenty of these folks at the St. Gianna Oratory, where Mass is said in Latin, there are no female altar servers (or lectors) and the priest faces away from the congregation as he celebrates Mass – just as it was done for centuries before Vatican II.

But there are other Catholics who discovered after Vatican II that they get closer to God by actually understanding what was being said during Mass. You’ll find these people at just about every other parish in the United States. To them, the clarity the Vatican says will come with the new translation may be elusive. And for the young (and perhaps not-so-young) Catholics who already feel the Church is keeping them at arms length when it comes to active participation in liturgy, the renewal Rome hopes they feel with the change in liturgical wording may be hollow. Then again, a year from now, many (if not most) Catholics will not even remember the difference. Those will be the Catholics who stayed. We won’t know – and I fear the Church won’t care – about the ones who leave.

7 Replies to “The New Translation of the Roman Missal”

  1. I think the bigger problem is this change: “for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven” will change to “for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

    So much for redemption. 


    1. Hey Kate,
      Hope you are well love!  Before I help provide some light on your comment.  I myself was a fallen away Catholic, I came back to the faith through an unconventional way.  First I started praying the Rosary, second I wanted to understand what the Mass truly was and the Catholic faith as I was never taught properly in Catholic school and my local church because of their liberal erroneous interpretations almost heretical even (I still pray for them).  I found my faith again through a Traditional Roman Catholic group called the Society of Saint Pius X, who have unfairly received a bad reputation in Catholic circles just because they have maintained the teachings of the Church and the Traditional Latin Mass.  But that’s another story but through them I understood and gained an appreciation of the faith and the Mass even in it’s Novus ordo form.  The Mass is a Sacrifice not a ‘last supper service’, it’s Christ dying on the Cross all over again at Calvary.  When the wine turns into the actual Blood of Christ, it is done under three conditions for the transformation to take effect validly, proper intent, proper form and proper matter.  “For you and for many unto the remission of sins” was the original translation.  In laymans terms, theologically it makes sense to use the original translation because “all” can imply (which was I erroneously taught in school)  that no conditions apply for receiving the graces of the sacrament, and salvation, it can imply that you don’t even need to be a member of the Catholic Church as we know “all” people are not Catholics but “many” are.  Christ established one historical apostolic Church which is the Catholic Church, we all need to be members of that Church to receive the affects of forgiveness or remission of our sins and all other sacramental graces.  The “for many” formula was also derived from Gospel of St.Matt 26:28 “For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins”.  “For many” is actually being more faithful to Christ’s own words as found in the bible.  Charitably speaking, the new translation is about being honest with the facts, and more honest with the original intention of the church.  Hope this helps Kate!
      God Bless you, Pax Vobiscum!


  2. Renee–well done on presenting this subject!! as someone whose first language is Spanish and can follow the Mass in several other Romance languages, I think it’s about time that English joined the rest of the world!! what we are now saying in English — in every single change — are exactly the words that we have been saying in Spanish since Vatican II.

    the real issue with the “new translation” in English really goes back to a question as to why the English speaking world followed “dynamic equivalence” in translating after Vatican II when other languages followed strictly and closer to the literal translation of the Latin.  Great topic, and presentation!


    1. Hi, Maria:
      I, too, wonder at your question. Do you know the answer? There must have been a reason….But also, doesn’t it bring up another question – why translate from the Latin? Why, if we want to be accurate, don’t we do what the Lebanese Maronite Rite does, which is celebrate Mass with Aramaic (and, in their case, a mix of Lebanese and Latin)? Or, why not Hebrew and Greek since those are the original languages of Scripture. 


  3. Renee, good job on taking on this topic so relevant to the Catholic world right now. Not sure I have a whole lot to add at this point, since I’m still taking it in and I’m not one to react quickly to such things. I tend to wait, observe, process before jumping in with shaking fists claiming injustice, or, the opposite, embracing it all without any thought whatsoever. But truly, if people leave the Church because of these changes, I would tend to think pride is involved. There is so much more about tending Mass than the words. They are really important, but there’s more — the invisible as well as visible. And I trust that much; the Holy Spirit’s presence. If people want to leave the Church because of a few words changes, that’s unfortunate. As to why Latin, because it’s a longtime tradition, and a good jumping-off point, perhaps? Because the Latin language has a universality to it. Not all languages derive from it, but a good many do, so it seems a good choice to me. Thanks again for taking time to delve in a bit.


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