Apr 15, 2010

Welcoming the Roman Missal

Online Edition:

April 2010

Vol. XVI, No. 2


Welcoming the Roman Missal

by Bishop Arthur Serratelli

Bishop Arthur Serratelli, of Paterson, New Jersey, chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, presents a basic catechesis on the new translation of the Roman Missal in this article, originally published in America magazine, March 1, 2010. His article addresses frequent questions about the translation, and responds, though indirectly, to efforts to delay or resist the texts. Bishop Serratelli has kindly permitted us to publish his helpful article.


To change indicates that one is alive. This applies to people, institutions and even language. It is a natural development even when it meets resistance, because we can become comfortable in old and familiar ways. The challenge of change is before Catholics now as the Church in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world prepares for the most significant change in the liturgy since the introduction of the new Order of Mass in 1970.

On November 17, 2009, the bishops of the United States completed our review and approval of the translation of the Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia. We brought to a conclusion the work we began in 2004, when the first draft translations were presented to us by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). As the Church in the English-speaking world awaits the confirmation (recognitio) of the text by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments at the Holy See, we now take time to prepare for its reception and implementation. Many have asked questions, expressed concerns, or simply wondered about the reasons for the new translation and the goals of its implementation.

Why a New Text?

The Missale Romanum (Roman Missal), the ritual text for the celebration of the Mass, is first introduced in Latin as the editio typica (“typical edition”). Pope John Paul II announced the publication of the third edition (editio typica tertia) of the Missale Romanum during the Jubilee Year in 2000. Once that text was published, it became the official text to be used in the celebration of the Mass, and conferences of bishops had to begin the work of preparing vernacular translations. The third edition contains a number of new elements: prayers for the observances of feasts/memorials of recently canonized saints, additional prefaces for the Eucharistic Prayers, additional Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Intentions, as well as some minor modifications of rubrics (instructions) for the celebration of the Mass.

To aid the process of translation of the Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued Liturgiam authenticam in 2001, as the fifth instruction on the vernacular translation of the Roman liturgy, which outlines the principles and rules for translation. These principles have evolved and been nuanced in the years following the Second Vatican Council as the Church grew into its use of modern vernacular languages in the celebration of the liturgy. These guiding principles govern the work, which has resulted in a fresh English translation of the Missale Romanum.

The Translation

In his popular rhetorical guide De duplici copia verborum ac rerum, 16th-century Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus showed students 150 different styles they could use when phrasing the Latin sentence Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt (“Your letter has delighted me very much”). He amply demonstrated that no single translation will ever completely satisfy everyone.

Liturgical language is important for the life of the Church. The well-known axiom Lex orandi, lex credendi reminds us that what we pray is not only the expression of our sentiment and our reverence directed toward God, but what we pray also speaks to us and articulates for us the faith of the Church. Our words in the liturgy are not simply expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history. Rather, they pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next. For this reason, we bishops take seriously our responsibility to provide translations of liturgical texts that are at the same time accurate and inspiring, hence the sometimes rather passionate discussion of words, syntax and phrases.

The new translation provides us with prayers that are theologically accurate, in a language with dignity and beauty that can be understood, as called for in Liturgiam authenticam:

25. So that the content of the original texts may be evident and comprehensible even to the faithful who lack any special intellectual formation, the translations should be characterized by a kind of language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves these texts’ dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision. By means of words of praise and adoration that foster reverence and gratitude in the face of God’s majesty, His power, His mercy and His transcendent nature, the translations will respond to the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people of our own time, while contributing also to the dignity and beauty of the liturgical celebration itself.

Speaking to a group of translators gathered in Rome in 1965 about their work in regard to liturgical texts, Pope Paul VI quoted Saint Jerome, who was also a translator, speaking about the magnitude of the work of translation: “If I translate word by word, it sounds absurd; if I am forced to change something in the word order or style, I seem to have stopped being a translator.” Pope Paul went on to say, “The vernacular now taking its place in the liturgy ought to be within the grasp of all, even children and the uneducated. But, as you well know, the language should always be worthy of the noble realities it signifies, set apart from the everyday speech of the street and the marketplace, so that it will affect the spirit and enkindle the heart with love of God.”

The process of translation of the new edition of the Roman Missal has involved linguistic, biblical, and liturgical scholars from each of the eleven English-speaking countries that ICEL serves. This process has been thorough and it has been collaborative on an international level, because this text will be used by the Church throughout the English-speaking world. It is important for us to remember that we Americans are but one part of a larger English-speaking community. The preparation of this translation has been an international effort to produce an international text. The result is a text that draws us together and situates us as Americans within a much larger ecclesial communion.

Even the best of all possible translations of the new Missal will not suit every individual’s preference. No translation will be perfect. Proponents of the new text sometimes argue, perhaps unfairly, that the texts currently in use in our liturgy (in the present Sacramentary), the product of great efforts by translators from 1969 to 1973, are marked by a style of English that is flat and uninspiring. That text, however, has served the Church in the English-speaking world well for more than thirty years, and has enabled us to take great strides in working toward the Council’s goal of “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy. We should be careful not judge too hastily what has been the language of our worship. Our present texts are familiar and comfortable.

Those who have already been critical of the new text, often without having seen more than a few examples out of context, express concern about unfamiliar vocabulary and unnecessarily complicated sentence structures. Having been involved in the work of translation with ICEL and with the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, I can attest that the new translation is good and worthy of our use. It is not perfect, but perfection will come only when the liturgy on earth gives way to that of heaven, where all the saints praise God with one voice. Change will not come easily, as both priest-celebrants (including us bishops) and the lay faithful will have to work to prepare to celebrate the liturgy fully, consciously, and actively.

Where We Go from Here

We humans are creatures of habit. We Catholics are creatures of ritual. Ritual is based on the familiar — on patterns that have been learned. A liturgical assembly can fully, consciously, and actively participate in the liturgy because the members of the assembly (priest and people) know what they are doing. Any change in the rituals will affect how we participate. It is natural to resist such changes simply to remain grounded in the familiar because it is comfortable.

It should be said at the outset that the new text of the Roman Missal represents a change in the language, but not in the ritual. There have been only a few minor adjustments to the rubrics of the Order of Mass, and most of them represent changes that were already in effect through other liturgical books (such as the Ceremonial of Bishops) that had not been incorporated into the printed text of the Missal. So how do we prepare ourselves to use the new text? We bishops have called for an extensive process of catechesis leading to the implementation of the text. In particular, I propose several important approaches both for individuals and for parish communities.

First, get to know the text. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of the richness and importance of liturgical texts in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis: “These texts contain riches which have preserved and expressed the faith and experience of the People of God over its two-thousand-year history” (§40).

Many have pointed out that the vocabulary, syntax and sentence structure will be markedly different from the current text. The guiding principles of translation call for the preservation of biblical imagery and poetic language (and structure). The new texts contain many beautiful examples of language drawn directly from the Scriptures, especially the Gospels and the Psalms: “from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Ps 113, Eucharistic Prayer III), “sending down your Spirit … like the dewfall” (Ps 133, Eucharistic Prayer II), “blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb” (See Rev 19, Communion Rite), and “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” (Mt 8, Communion Rite). These are but a few examples.

Of particular note in the new texts are expressions of reverence for God, articulated not only by the vocabulary but by the style of expression in addressing God. Some may find the use of such self-deprecatory language uncomfortable at first, but it effectively acknowledges the primacy of God’s grace and our dependence on it for salvation.

The texts may be unfamiliar now, but the more one understands their meaning, the more meaningful their use will be in the liturgy. We are invited to undergo a process of theological reflection or even the practice of lectio divina [prayerful reading] with the texts of the new Roman Missal. To pray with and reflect on these words will help us all to open our hearts to the mysteries the texts express.

Second, in Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged all to renew our commitment to celebrating the liturgy effectively and faithfully. The Holy Father calls attention to the ars celebrandi, the art of proper celebration. The implementation of the new Roman Missal ought to be an opportunity to recommit ourselves to prayerful, faithful and vibrant celebration of the liturgy.

Third, we turn our attention to the process of catechesis, which needs to be undertaken to prepare for the reception of the new text. The bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship has suggested a two-part process to lead us to the implementation of the Missal. At the present moment we are in the remote stage of preparation, and this remote stage will last until the recognitio is given for the text.

This period should include efforts at general liturgical catechesis: the nature and aim of the liturgy, the meaning of “full, conscious, and active participation”, and the background of the Roman Missal. The proximate preparation will begin when the recognitio is given, and then will last for a period of 12 to 18 months, and will look more specifically at the particular texts of the Missal to prepare pastors and the faithful to celebrate the liturgy using those texts.

The fathers of the Second Vatican Council were well aware of the need for catechesis about the liturgy as an essential aspect of liturgical reform:

With zeal and patience pastors must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally, taking into account their age and condition, their way of life, and their stage of religious development. By doing so, pastors will be fulfilling one of their chief duties as faithful stewards of the mysteries of God; and in this matter they must lead their flock not only by word but also by example (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §19).

A wide range of resources is being developed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC), and many catechetical and liturgical publishers. In addition, representatives of English-speaking countries have been working together to produce an international multi-media catechetical resource. The bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship launched a web site last year to serve as a central hub of information regarding the new Missal, and we hope that it will encourage the development of even more resources for use in parishes, schools and homes. (www.usccb.org/romanmissal/)

Pope John Paul II encouraged the Church on the 25th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium to continue the work of the liturgical reform “to renew that spirit which inspired the Church at the moment when the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium was … promulgated” (Vicesimus Quintus Annus, §23).

As we prepare to receive the text of the third edition of the Roman Missal, we bishops recognize the significance of this moment as an opportunity for genuine renewal of the Council’s vision. We hope that pastors and the faithful will join us in seizing this opportunity with enthusiasm and, in the words of Pope John Paul II, to accept the new Missal as “a moment to sink our roots deeper into the soil of tradition handed on in the Roman Rite” (ibid.)



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.