Jun 15, 2009

The New Missal – Historic Moment in Liturgical Renewal

Online Edition: June – July 2009

Vol. XV, No. 4

The New Missal –

Historic Moment in Liturgical Renewal

by Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli

Bishop Serratelli, of Paterson, New Jersey, is chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. Following is his address to the national convention of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commis- sions (FDLC) in October 2008. It appears here with Bishop Serratelli’s kind permission.


In May 2002, the publication of the Missale Romanum marked an historic moment in the life of the Church in our day. It gave an impetus to the great liturgical renewal set in motion when Vatican II issued Sacrosanctum Concilium as its first document. With Vatican II,

began … the great work of renewal of the liturgical books of the Roman Rite. [This] … work … included their translation into vernacular languages, with the purpose of bringing about in the most diligent way that renewal of the sacred Liturgy…. (Liturgiam authenticam 1 and 2).

In the enthusiasm of the aggiornamento [updating], translators set to work to produce translations that expressed the Latin Missal in modes of expression appropriate to the vernacular languages.  From 1969 until 2001, the document Comme le Prévoit granted translators wide latitude in translations for the liturgy. Rather quickly in the English-speaking world, translators adopted “dynamic equivalency” as their approach to the texts. Simply stated, dynamic equivalency translates the concepts and ideas of a text, but not necessarily the literal words or expressions.  

In light of the experience in the last 36 years, the Church has revisited the question of how to best translate the texts of Sacred Scripture and the liturgy.  Many people had noticed the deficiency of dynamic equivalency.  In 2001, the Holy See issued the instruction Liturgiam authenticam to guide translations both of the Scriptures and of liturgical texts. The new instruction did not deny the necessity of making the text accessible to the listener. But, it did refocus the attention of translators on the principle of unearthing the theological richness of the original texts. This needed balance keeps us from suffering an impoverishment of language in terms of our biblical and liturgical tradition.  

Liturgiam authenticam espouses the theory of “formal equivalency”. Not just concepts, but words and expression are to be translated faithfully. This approach respects the wealth contained in the original text. In fact, the new instruction has as its stated purpose something wider than translation.  It “envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal, which is consonant with the qualities and the traditions of the particular Churches, but which safeguards also the faith and the unity of the whole Church of God” (Liturgiam authenticam 7). 

From the very beginning, the translation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal has followed the principles given in Liturgiam authenticam. To understand and appreciate the final text, it is extremely enlightening to understand the careful process that has been used in the work of translation. I would like to briefly share this process with you.

The Process of Translation

After the publication of the new Missal, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) worked with scholars to produce a base translation of the texts of the Missal. No less than nine review teams were then asked to look at these base translations and comment on their fidelity to the Latin as well as their suitability for public worship. Working from these comments, a new version of the base text was prepared. It was called the “proposed text”.

Early in 2002, the Roman Missal Editorial Committee was formed. Its members worked with the proposed text. They made adjustments in terms of style, syntax, vocabulary and proclaimablity. Their work produced a new version. Thus, when the commissioners of ICEL met, the members had before them the Latin text, the base text, the proposed text and the Roman Missal Editorial Committee’s text. The bishops of ICEL examined each text according to the same principles of theological accuracy and proclaimablity.

Throughout their work, the commissioners of ICEL kept in mind the goal of producing a text that would be accessible to the different language groups within the English-speaking world. Many people speak English, but not all the same. Our accents differ across the English-speaking world. So do our expressions and vocabulary. British athletes play in a team; American athletes play on a team. We say gas; others say petrol. We take an elevator; other English-speakers take a lift. What we call a stroller, they call a pram. Even in one particular country, words are used differently. In New Jersey and New York, we call our dad pop; in Kansas, they call soda pop.

Furthermore, words, like people’s dress, change from one generation to the next and from one group to another in the same society. What one individual calls a “swamp”, another more ecologically conscious individual calls “wetlands”. The corporate world routinely uses the noun impact as a transitive verb. People happily follow along.

Today, politically correct or linguistically conscious individuals carefully circumvent the word “man” so as not to offend women. Past generations pronounced the word with never the slightest intention of excluding women. But times have changed. We speak now about humankind. Certainly, we have gained inclusivity. But, in opting for the generic word over the specific, we have also lost a note of personalism in the process.

Translating a Latin text into English for all English-speaking countries, therefore, requires the expertise of many people. The eleven bishops on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy work with scholars from different English-speaking countries to produce a final text. All involved in the work of translation realize that, in addition to expertise in translating, there is also needed the art of compromise that comes from humility.

Once ICEL agreed on a text, it was sent to the individual national conferences as a Green Book. So, there was a Green Book for the Order of Mass, one for the Proper of Seasons, one for Ritual Masses.

Each national conference of bishops used its own process of consultation on both a diocesan and conference level.

Bishops had the opportunity to consult with priests, laypeople and religious. Then, the bishops forwarded their individual consultation and personal work to the national conference’s Committee on Divine Worship.

This committee collated the results and presented them to all the bishops, who then made them their own and forwarded the results to ICEL.

Once again ICEL attentively examined each of these comments and incorporated the insights into the production of the final text that is the Gray Book.

By October 2008, thirteen Gray Books have been prepared and are in the process of final approval by each national conference. Once a national conference of bishops approves a Gray Book, it is forwarded to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

[Editor’s note: the process of approval by the national conferences is to be completed by November 2009. See “Liturgical Translation Update” and the updated timetable from the US Committee on Divine Worship in AB April 2009.]

The Congregation has the responsibility of approving the text in the form in which it is to be used. The Congregation works collaboratively both with ICEL and with the national conferences of bishops. It is aided in its work by Vox Clara. This commission includes bishops from eight English-speaking countries. When texts are presented to the Congregation for approval, Vox Clara advises the Congregation with input from English-speaking experts.

Translation Transmits the Faith of the Church

I mentioned in detail this long, careful, scholarly, and I must add, pastoral process for a reason. The production of the final liturgical text is a work of immense importance. It deserves and receives all the attention it is given. It is not left to the competence or preference of a few, because it is the expression of the Faith of the whole Church.

While individuals will inevitably differ in their judgment on the quality of particular translations, there is no dissent on the vital importance that proper texts have in the Church’s life. Therefore, preparing an English version of the third edition of the Missal has not been simply a matter of translation.

Rather, during these years of preparing the new texts, as scholars and pastors debate the value of particular words and styles, the awaiting of a new translation of the Roman Missal has become a moment to enter into a fresh appreciation of the Roman rite. This is a good occasion to understand more deeply its particular style and language of prayer. Liturgical language is important for the life of the Church. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

In the liturgy, the words addressed to God and the words spoken to the people voice the Faith of the Church. They are not simply the expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history.  The words used in liturgy also pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next. For this reason, the bishops take seriously their responsibility to provide for the faithful translations of liturgical texts that are both accurate and inspiring. Hence, the sometimes passionate discussion of words, phrases and syntax.

The liturgy is the source of the divine life given through the Church as the sacrament of salvation.  As Pope Paul VI once said, it is also “the first school of the spiritual life, the first gift which we can give to the Christian people who believe and pray with us…” (Address at the Closing of the Second Session of the Council, December 4, 1963). 

Wisely, therefore, the Church does not leave the words used in the liturgy to the theology or pastoral sensitivity of any individual celebrant. The words used in the prayers of the liturgy, and most especially the Eucharistic prayer, cannot be casual or improvised. They are not to be changed by the priest. They are freighted with too much meaning and tradition.

The new translations also have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite. Certainly, some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not. And with reason.

Let me now briefly comment on seven characteristics of the Latin prayers in the Roman Missal and their translation.

Translated Prayers Retain Distinctive Theological Emphasis of Latin

First of all, Latin orations, especially the post-Communion orations, tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point. The new translations in English follow the sequence of these Latin prayers in order to end on a strong note. Let me read you just a few examples.

From the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Renewed by the nourishment
of the Sacred Body and the Precious Blood,
we ask your clemency, Lord,
that what we celebrate with constant
we may attain with redemption assured.
Through Christ our Lord.

The phrase what we celebrate with constant devotion is out of its normal order of speech. We would expect the prayer to read in the following way: that we may attain what we celebrate with constant devotion. But this order is now inverted; and this has the effect of giving greater emphasis to the purpose of the celebration — namely, our redemption.

From Tuesday of the first week of Lent:

Grant us through these mysteries, Lord,
that by tempering earthly desires
we may learn to love the things of heaven.

Here we would expect to say that we may learn to love the things of heaven, by tempering earthly desires. Yet the order is reversed. The result: there is now a strong teleological emphasis on the things of heaven.

Let me give another example of an inverted word order.

In the collect on the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church, there is a prayer taken from the Ambrosian Sacramentary. It reads:

Let your consecrated people
reap the fruits and joy of your blessing, Lord, we pray,
so that they may know
that what they have offered in bodily
on this festival day
they have received in return as a
spiritual gift.
Through Christ our Lord.

Normally, the direct object, what they have offered, should follow the main verb, receive. But it does not and the emphasis and teleology is kept. In liturgy, we receive a spiritual gift.

This use of inversion is a characteristic of the Latin Missal. In the Proper of Seasons, eighteen (14%) of the Prayers after Communion use inversions. Most of these inversions place the adverbial prepositional phrase at the beginning of the clause. The result is powerful. When prayed, the prayer does not simply dribble off into insignificance.

Why should we strip the English translation of the distinctive theological emphases of the Latin text? In fact, a slightly non-colloquial word order can lead the listener to a greater attentiveness to the point of the prayer.

Biblical References Made Clear

Secondly, in the new translation, there is a deliberate attempt to pass on the biblical references imbedded in the Roman Rite.

On the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we pray in the collect:

Almighty everlasting God,
You solemnly declared the Christ
to be your beloved Son
as the Holy Spirit descended upon Him
after His baptism in the River Jordan
grant that your children of adoption
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may continue always
to be those in whom you are well pleased.

In this prayer, our words breathe the words of the Markan baptism narrative (Mk 1:11) that, in turn, have been taken from the first Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah (42:1). Our prayer is scriptural.

In the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, we pray:

Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that your faithful may resolve
to run forth with righteous deeds,
to meet your Christ who is coming,
so that gathered at His right hand
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.

In the Latin prayer, we find the word occurrentes, “running to meet”. Yet, our current text says nothing about running. It was lost in the translation. However, in the newly translated prayer, we now pray for the resolve to run forth with righteous deeds, to meet your Christ who is coming.

Running a race: the image is Pauline. In I Corinthians 9:24-26, Paul says: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”

Again in Galatians 2:2; 5:7 and Romans 9:16, Paul uses the same image. With the image of the race, Paul reminds us that the Christian life requires discipline and personal effort. Hence, the new translation is richer, fuller and more biblical than the translation we are using at the present.

On the Friday in the Second Week of Advent, we pray this prayer taken from the 8th-century Old Gelasian Sacramentary:

Grant your people, we pray, almighty God,
to keep wide awake for the coming of your Only-Begotten Son,
that as He Himself, the author of our salvation, has taught,
we may be alert, with lamps alight,
and hurry out to greet Him as He comes.

The images of hastening, of staying awake, of meeting Christ with lamps lit are taken right from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

Some prayers do more than weave biblical images into our liturgical prayer. Some prayers place on our lips the very words of the biblical texts themselves. A few examples will suffice.

In Eucharistic Prayer III, we will no longer say: “From east to west, a perfect offering is made to the glory of your name.” Instead we pray the words of Malachi 1:11: “… from the rising of the sun to its setting”. Nothing is lost in meaning. A sense of poetry is gained.

In the Communion Rite, we will now repeat the words of the humble and compassionate centurion of Matthew 8:8: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word….”

Formal equivalency as a method of translation works. Unearthing the biblical allusions, images and words helps us to make the words of Scripture our own. The Word that God speaks to us in Revelation, we speak to Him in prayer

The Church Fathers Are Heard

Thirdly, the new translations are careful to keep the allusions from patristic writings. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this. Ex pede Herculem!

In the post-Communion prayer for August 28, the memorial of Saint Augustine, we pray:

May the partaking of the table of Christ
sanctify us, we pray, O Lord,
that, being made His members,
we may be what we have received.

Our words asking God that we may be what we receive play on Saint Augustine’s dictum: “If you have received worthily, you are what you have received” (Sermons 227; cf. 272).

In the Collect for Saint Ignatius of Antioch (October 17), we pray:

May the offering of our worship be pleasing to you, O Lord,
who accepted Saint Ignatius,
the wheat of Christ,
made pure bread through the suffering of his martyrdom.
Through Christ our Lord.

This prayer places on our lips the words of the courageous third bishop of Antioch, who, more than any other Church father, expressed his desire for union with Christ:

Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ (Epistle to the Romans, 4).

Richness in Vocabulary, Images

Fourth, the new translation respects the rich vocabulary of the Roman rite. The post-Communion prayers employ a variety of words such as nourished, fed, recreated, and made new. The collects use words such as: we pray, we beseech, we ask.

The many different words of the Latin text are not monotonously translated with the same words. Thus, by being faithful to the Latin text, the new translations enrich the use of our liturgical language in English.

Fifth, the Latin text is cast in concrete images and parallelism. The Latin uses anthropomorphic expressions that add a certain poetry to the prayers.

And so, while it is perfectly good English to say: in your pity hear our prayers, the translation respects the poetry of the text and, in the blessing of ashes, says: in your pity give ear to our prayers.

Another example. The collect for Ash Wednesday reads:

Grant us, Lord, to begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service
that, as we fight against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with the weapons of self restraint.
Through our Lord.

The images of a military campaign, a fight and weapons are certainly appropriate for the struggle of Lenten discipline against evil. These are not suppressed in the new translation.

Exactness, Style Befitting the Liturgy

Sixth, within the new translation, there is a concern for an exactness of vocabulary.

Look kindly, almighty God,
upon the sacrificial gifts we offer
in commemoration of Saint Paul,
and grant that we
who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion
may imitate what we now do.
Through Christ our Lord.

Certainly the phrase imitemur quod agimus might be translated “May we imitate what we enact”. Yet, since the word “enact” might lead people who hear this to think of the Mass as a performance, agere is translated as “do”. The new text reads “that we … may imitate what we now do”. The catechetical, formative aspect of public prayer is thus safeguarded.

Seventh, the Latin prayers are concise and noble in tone. When we frame our prayers in liturgy, the language of the street is not appropriate. The vocabulary of the person in the supermarket, in the gym or around the kitchen table should not be the standard for liturgical language.

There is a difference between the language of public discourse used in a presidential address and the language we use in everyday conversation. It is the difference between our active vocabulary and our passive vocabulary.

There are many words that we may not use every day, words such as ignominy, penitence and oblation. Yet these words are in our passive vocabulary. We can understand them. Rightly do the translations respect the difference and consistently maintain a noble style of speech befitting the Divine Liturgy.

The Next Steps: Preparation for Use

In his June 23, 2008 letter granting the recognitio for Ordo Missae I, Cardinal Arinze made an extremely important point about the present moment in terms of the new texts and their use in the liturgy,

The granting now of the recognitio to this crucial section of the Roman Missal [that is, Ordo Missae I] will provide time for pastoral preparation for the priests, deacons, and for the appropriate catechesis of the lay faithful.

Since this new phase of liturgical renewal is not simply about changing words, but changing hearts, there is a need for proper catechesis before the new texts are put into use. The goal is “full, active, conscious participation in the liturgy”. Therefore, on a number of fronts, work is already being done to make available material that will facilitate this proper catechesis:

1. The USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship has posted some initial material on its website to help in catechesis. [www.usccb.org]

2. The conference itself is forming a joint committee to make available needed materials.

3. An international group called “the Leeds Group” is working to provide material that then can be adapted and used by each national conference.

The work of the Leeds Group has been centering around five basic themes: 1) a general theological reflection on the new Missal; 2) presidential prayers and practices; 3) living the liturgy spiritually; 4) liturgical roles and ministries; and, 5) a walk through the Mass. To make the substance of these reflections user-friendly, the Leeds Group will produce a CD.

All this work is necessary to help priests and laity to appreciate and cherish the new Missal.

4. The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions is working to provide materials specially helpful to diocesan liturgy directors and heads of offices.

5. Musicians and translators have also been working together since the Ordo Missae I received recognitio. ICEL has had consultations, one in Washington and one in Chicago with a very talented, international group.

Much work has been done. Much work still will be done on the liturgical texts that we will soon be using. The process that has guided this work continues to involve scholars, laity and bishops, on an international and national level. This is just what one would want so that our new translations open to us the richness of the Roman Missal and serve as an authentic expression of the faith of the Church at prayer.

In September 2008, ICEL completed its work of offering a translation of the Missal for the English-speaking world. In the United States, bishops have yet to approve eleven Gray Books and forward them to the Holy See. [Ed. note: Votes on the remaining books will take place at the June and November 2009 USCCB meetings.]

Keep in mind…

As we await the final modifications and amendments that will come, at this point, we should recall a number of facts:

1. The new texts will be used in many different English-speaking countries. Therefore, the language will not bear the cultural stamp or preference of one particular country. This calls for certain openness on the part of all of us to use words that may be understood, but are not commonly used in our own particular country.

2. Since we use the language of the liturgy to address God, it should be intelligible. This does not, however, mean every word has to be part of the active vocabulary of everyone.

3. In the liturgy, we should use a noble language that lifts us up as well as honors God. From the earliest Latin texts from the 4th century, the style of the language used in prayer differed from street language. In the new translations, the noble, heightened style of liturgical prayer is certainly a gain for all.

4. When we receive the new Roman Missal for the English-speaking world, we will have a work that has aimed at an exact, though not slavishly literal translation.

5. The new Missal will provide prayers that are “marked by sound doctrine, exact in wording and free from all ideological influence” so that “the sacred mysteries of salvation and the indefectible faith of the Church are efficaciously transmitted by means of human language….” (Liturgiam authenticam 3)

6. The new Missal will come as the result of years of growth and understanding. It will improve our liturgical prayer, but it will not be perfect. Perfection will come when the liturgy on earth gives way to that of heaven where all the saints praise God with one voice.

7. When put in use, the common English text for all English-speaking countries will reaffirm in a tangible manner the breadth of our Catholic identity.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that this is a moment of organic growth within the liturgical renewal of the Church. As Pope John Paul II said on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:

The time has come to renew that spirit which inspired the Church at the moment when the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium was … promulgated…. The seed was sown; it has known the rigors of winter, but the seed has sprouted…. (Vicesimus Quintus Annus 23)

Our acceptance of the new Missal is truly “a moment to sink our roots deeper into the soil of tradition handed on in the Roman Rite” (VQA 23).



Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli

Bishop Arthur Serratelli has served as bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, since 2004. In November he concluded his term as Chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. In October 2016 he was appointed by Pope Francis as a member of the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. At present, he is the Chairman of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). He is a member of the Vatican’s Vox Clara Commission.