The New Missal: Disaster or Opportunity?

Last week, the Holy See gave the formal recognitio, or official approval, to the new English translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal, the book that contains the prayers and rubrics of the Mass. The third edition of the Roman Missal was itself approved by Pope John Paul II in 2000.While the approval of this English version has been long anticipated, the process of drafting it, and the debates about its merits among bishops and liturgists, has been stormy. There have been public and sometimes heated disagreements between the bishops over the new Missal. Last November, even as the bishops were poised to approve it, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, a consistent advocate of a more “everyday” style of language in the Missal, staged an eleventh-hour effort to derail the new version. Bishop Trautman and others objected to what they characterize as overly “sacral” language, such as words like “chalice,” “gibbet,” and “ineffable,” saying that such language “does not have a pastoral style.”

Those who support the new Missal cite its more “sacral” character as an advantage. They also prize its greater fidelity to the original Latin text and what Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit described as its potential to open up to Catholics a “lost spiritual vocabulary.” Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent address to the members of the Vox Clara international committee that oversaw the translation process, summed up the beliefs of those who support the introduction of the new Missal when he prayed that it will be a “springboard for a renewal and a deepening of Eucharistic devotion all over the English-speaking world.”The impending implementation of the new Missal reveals interesting and problematic issues regarding our expectations of liturgy and what I have elsewhere described as the “ideologization” of liturgy. Many of the objections and protests regarding the new Missal frequently arise from ideas and agendas that are neither liturgical nor theological, and hence serve neither to clarify the faith nor edify the faithful.The approval of the translation by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — and the anticipation of Rome’s own approval — did nothing to quell the doubts of those who resisted it. Indeed, at least in some quarters, it seems to have spurred efforts to block its implementation. Perhaps the most notable of these attempts is the “What If We Just Said Wait?” campaign. Started by Rev. Michael Ryan, the rector of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, the campaign’s stated goal is to delay the implementation of the Missal for a “time of reflection and consultation” and a period of “market testing” of a full liturgical year, so as to conduct “carefully planned catechesis” and “thorough, honest evaluation.” These goals might sound reasonable enough, but in the America magazine article where Father Ryan offers them, he also describes the new Missal translation as part of an effort to “systematically dismantle the great vision” of Vatican II and dismisses it as based on “flawed principles.” He accuses the bishops who approved it of having “abandoned their best pastoral instincts,” saying that some of the language of the new Missal “border[s] on the unspeakable.” Clearly, however he might soften the language of his goals, Father Ryan’s object is not merely to “evaluate” or edit the new translation; one does not gently tweak something he finds “flawed” in principle and “unspeakable.” Father Ryan wants to stop the new Missal, and the impetus behind it, dead in its tracks. Visiting the “What If We Just Said Wait?” site and reading the comments of its signatories, many of them also seem to be motivated by a desire to eradicate the new Missal, root and branch. Some commenters confine their objections to linguistic or literary aspects of the new Missal, though many others express much broader complaints. For example, one commenter wrote:
The Vatican Council was a great step forward in the Roman Catholic Church. The translation of the Missal following it was also wonderful advance in the liturgy of the church. The proposed translation is a major step backward . . . .
One woman found the new translation to be a sign of a much more sinister problem:
Although I have little hope that we will prevail, I sign in order to be with all those who cherish Vatican II and wish with all my heart that the vision of John XXIII will survive. However, realistically, I expect that the power-hungry Vatican Mafia will prevail . . . .
And finally, one commenter suggested that the Church should stand all principles of translation on their head:
If the English does not conform to the Latin change the Latin. English is the new Vulgate.
The heated rhetoric of so many comments at “What If We Just Said Wait?” can be found even in places where more sober language usually prevails. The “Pray Tell” liturgical blog, sponsored by the Liturgical Press and St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota, is of self-described liberal leanings; while many of the contributors and commenters there have expressed unhappiness over various aspects of the new Missal, however, most have also expressed their intent to faithfully carry out its implementationStill, the pseudonymous contributor “Paulus” described the Missal as a “deeply threatening reassertion of a tyrannical spirituality, imposed by a high-handed, indeed despotic ‘Rome’.” In a subsequent post, he writes that if the new Missal is implemented and therefore
the forces of reaction come to mold the language of our worship, it will be as though the Council, and the liberation it brought to a generation of Catholics damaged by the inhumanities of old-style Catholicism, has been finally reversed.
He concludes his piece with a call for his readers to “cultivate holy resistance.” But perhaps Paulus’s most extreme post was one in which he compared Rome’s and the bishops’ efforts to implement the new Missal to the priestly abuse scandal, calling it “liturgical abuse.” Paulus justified his remark on the grounds that if the bishops wouldn’t listen to “more high-minded arguments,” then perhaps “more emotive considerations will persuade them.” Closely allied with the rhetoric of “tyrannical spirituality” and “holy resistance” are various predictions of impending ecclesial doom when the new Missal is implemented. These assertions take their tone from Bishop Trautman, who argued that the Missal could occasion a “pastoral disaster.” Some point to last year’s ill-executed attempt to prematurely implement the new Missal in South Africa and, like Jesuit Rev. Thomas Reese, predict that “there is going to be a worldwide problem when these new translations are put into effect.” Whether the South African experience can be generalized does not seem to me self-evident: The U.S. bishops are mounting an extensive preparation and catechesis program, with a lengthy run-up period so that people can become accustomed to the new translation. Other organizations, such as the Liturgical Institute, are also mounting detailed programs to help people and parishes get ready. It is plausible to imagine that well-prepared and widely targeted programs might succeed where a hasty and poorly executed program has failed.Reading these increasingly shrill and, in some cases, unreasonable objections to the new translation, as well as the dire predictions of what will ensue if it is implemented, I began to wonder how the average layman would really react to the new texts. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am wholeheartedly supportive of the new translation. I have a Master’s Degree in Classics and have pursued graduate studies in Patristic Greek and Latin, but even as an undergraduate Latin student, I could see the poverty and banality of the English translation when compared to the beauty and richness of the Latin. I was mystified by the consistent and oppressive tendency of the English translation to “flatten” any exalted expression or colorful imagery, as well as the seemingly deliberate effort to expunge any trace of supplicatory language from the prayers. Finally, I was shocked at the frequent failure of the English version to actually translate the Latin, instead often passing over words and even whole phrases as if they weren’t there. I find the new English version of the Missal to be vastly superior to the current one in the areas of fidelity, beauty, richness of imagery, and the drawing out of scriptural language in the Mass. So I do not pretend to be neutral or indifferent on the merits of the new Missal and the necessity of introducing it. But as a priest and former pastor, I know well that, to be pastorally effective, you need to know not only where you stand but where your people stand as well. Obviously, if I were to present texts of the new Missal to faithful Catholics and receive an overwhelmingly negative reaction, such as that predicted by Bishop Trautman and others, I’d have to reexamine my opinion about the advisability of introducing it. So I devised a little survey. Visiting three parishes in two dioceses, selected specifically to represent the average parish (containing a mixed lay demographic, with no particular progressivism or traditionalism in the liturgy, etc.), I asked for participants in a “liturgical survey.” I wanted to be sure that participants were responding to the text itself, and not questions about the larger revision process or issues of authority and autonomy in the Church, so I mentioned only that they would be reviewing a proposed new translation of one of the prayers of the Mass — the Third Eucharistic Prayer (chosen because it is the most commonly used at Sunday Masses, and therefore probably the most familiar).After inviting the participants to read through the text on their own, silently, I then read it aloud to them, while they followed along. Next I distributed the survey, consisting of five questions:
1.After reading and having heard the proposed translation, did you find any words or passages unclear or difficult to understand? If so, please provide examples.
2. If any passages were unclear or difficult to understand, would you become more comfortable with them if the priest were to explain them and the reasons for using them?
3. Did you find the rhythm, or flow, of the language in this proposed translation smooth or choppy? Pleasant or awkward?
4. Did your reaction to the text change from when you read it silently to when you heard it proclaimed?
5. If this text was used regularly at your parish Masses, would you find it easy or difficult to become accustomed to it?
Only once they had completed the survey did I reveal that the text they had reviewed was in fact the proposed (and now approved) English translation of the new Missal, explaining some of the history of that process and the reasons for this new translation. Forty-four people in total participated, and while I’ll be the first to admit that this was by no means a scientific study, the results are nevertheless instructive.First, I found that a slight majority of the participants were not even aware that a new translation of the Missal was coming soon, and none were aware of the controversies regarding the Missal or the efforts to resist it. This is consistent with my own experience as a pastor: Most Catholics don’t read much material beyond their parish bulletins and diocesan newspapers, where this issue had not yet been introduced. Whether for good or ill, most of the people in the pews are simply unaware of the sorts of things that exercise liturgists and clergy. In response to my specific questions, I found that the participants were evenly split over whether they found any words or passages unclear or difficult. Those who did have difficulties identified only one or two points in the text: The most common difficulty was with the word “oblation” (“Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church . . .”), followed by the phrase “inheritance with your elect” (“so that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect”). However, all of the respondents but one indicated that they would be more comfortable with the difficult words and passages, and more comfortable with the text as a whole, if their priest explained them. In the post-survey discussions, I found that people were satisfied by the explanations of the passages they found difficult, and most displayed a healthy curiosity about the text, rather than any skepticism or suspicion. At the end of one session, one woman exclaimed, “I feel like I learned something already, and we haven’t even started using the new prayers yet!”Regarding the “flow” of the language, a majority (69 percent) responded that they found it smooth and pleasant. Those who said that they found aspects of the text choppy or awkward mainly pointed to one or two passages. For example, one participant felt that the phrase “he himself took bread” was awkward, though he admitted that it was a minor point. Another objected to the phrase “sacrifice of our reconciliation.” But many of those who identified awkward elements also said that part of the “awkwardness” was simply being accustomed to hearing other words. One woman noted that while she was used to the current version, she expected that the new text would feel smoother after she had heard it a few times.After having both read the text and heard it proclaimed aloud, 64 percent of respondents said that their reaction to the text changed in a positive way after hearing it read. Some found no change; only one respondent characterized the change as negative, and he advocated a return to an all-Latin liturgy. Finally, 91 percent of respondents identified that they would find it “easy” to adapt to this text if it were used regularly.On the whole, the response of these “ordinary Catholics” to the new texts was overwhelmingly positive. While there were some criticisms and difficulties, they were limited, and most of those who identified such difficulties found them surmountable. Indeed, in our post-survey discussion, most found the explanations of why certain words were chosen to be interesting and helpful. In those discussions, a number of participants also observed that the language of the new texts seemed “higher” or “more sacred.” When asked whether they thought discussing the new texts and having a chance to learn about them would deepen their experience of the Mass, the answer was a resounding “yes.”So what explains the difference between my experience and the predictions of “pastoral disaster” offered by Bishop Trautman and others? Why did 9 out of 10 Catholics that I surveyed say they would find it “easy” to adapt to the new texts, whereas one commenter at “What If We Just Said Wait” dismissed the new texts as “not helpful at all to our prayer life as a community”? Not one of the participants in my survey had reactions remotely similar to those who wrote that the new text represented “regression and retrenchment,” or that the prospect of celebrating Mass with the text they had reviewed left them “enraged and terrified.” There is not only a difference in the kind of reaction, but a difference in its toneand emotional intensity. Clearly, more is going on here than meets the eye. I have observed that “something more” before, writing and speaking about what I describe as “ideologized” liturgy — that is, liturgy being made to bear ideological burdens that are extrinsic and, in many cases, inimical to it. The highly charged language of many of those objecting to the new Missal is frequently ideological: When I see words like “archaic” and “tyrannical,” and phrases like “a great step forward” or “a major step backward,” being used in complaints about the Missal, I suspect that the train of thought is carrying heavy ideological freight. I use “ideology” here in the circumscribed manner of political theorists like Michael Oakeshott and Russell Kirk: to refer to the political fanaticism that results from elevating an abstraction to an absolute, all-explaining and all-encompassing concept, and making everything, including persons, subordinate to that concept. It is to take political concepts and impulses and make them serve ends that are properly religious.One of those ideologies most prevalent in American society today, even among Catholics, is egalitarianism: the belief in a radical equality that seeks to level all differences and distinctions between persons. It is true that we are all equal in the eyes of God, but there are distinctions between the members of the Body of Christ. The Church, then, is hierarchical in its very nature, and its liturgy reflects that. The ecclesiastical egalitarian seeks to demolish those hierarchical elements of the Church’s life, wanting instead to subsume all under the abstraction of Equality. This outlook informs comments like those of one priest at “What If We Just Wait?” who asked, “Why have we wasted all this time and money and energy on ‘egotistical’ improvements?” Another commenter sees the new Missal as evidence of “elitism,” saying “Liturgy is the work of the people rather than just liturgical elites.” In an egalitarian worldview, any exercise of hierarchical authority is condemned as elitism or oppression. Another strain of objection to the new Missal is what I have sometimes called the ideology of “progress,” one based in the Enlightenment concept of humanity’s development and advancement from darkness to light. This ideology rejects the past as de facto inferior to the present, believing that we necessarily know more and understand better than our forebears. Pope Benedict XVI called this mindset a “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” which has as its starting point the assumption that Vatican II marked a point of division between the pre- and post-conciliar Church. Adherents to this ideology reject expressions of piety and liturgical forms from before the Council, seeing them as “regressive” or “unable to speak to our times.”Adherents to an ideology of progress use language like “up-to-date” or forward-looking” to show approval, and “antiquated” or “backwards” to illustrate disapproval. Examples of this ideological frame of mind abound in the objections to the new Missal: “Please do not ask us to move back in time!” “Yet another retrograde maneuver by the conservative hierarchy.” “Many of us are not going to go backwards.”Even if the new Missal represented a “return” to something former, it does not therefore follow that what is former is worse. After all, truth does not change from day to day. As Benedict wrote in his introductory letter to Summorum Pontificum, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.” The Church must first and foremost be faithful to what she has been given by Christ. That fidelity must include the sacred liturgy, through which Christ speaks to His church. An accurate and faithful translation of the Missal communicates not the truths of today but the truths of eternity. To get caught up in ideas of progress or regression is to think with the spirit of the age, not the eternal Spirit of all ages. But that being said, the new Missal translationdoes not return to something past. A reading of the texts does not reveal precious or antiquated language; there are no thee’s and thou’s. This excerpt from the Third Eucharistic Prayer is not Elizabethan or King James English:
Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial
of the saving Passion of your Son,
his wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into heaven,
and as we look forward to his second coming,
we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.
This is not antiquated English; this is formal and sacral English. To use this kind of language is not “retrograde,” nor does it represent an effort to “freeze” the “Spirit of Vatican II.” It is, instead, faithful to the nature of the Liturgy — a formal and public worship, where formal language is therefore appropriate. Sacral language marks what we are doing as sacred and holy, not ordinary or everyday. The Mass, as the “source and summit” from which our life in Christ flows, is the holiest thing that we do, in which we participate in Christ’s own prayer as high priest. If that doesn’t warrant language set apart from the ordinary, then nothing does. In the end, if you see the liturgy as an engine of egalitarian transformation, then texts that bring its hierarchical aspects to the fore (such as “humbly imploring” God) will be objectionable. If you see the liturgy as a mechanism for asserting human progress, then elements that hearken back to Tradition will seem out of place. These ideological frameworks, of course, are extrinsic to the liturgy, and to the Faith itself. Ideologically driven objections to the Missal, however sincerely felt and expressed, really attempt to invert the proper order of things and make the liturgy serve ends that are antithetical to itself. Those ideological ends derive mainly from the prevailing secular culture, and as such, their presence is a source of confusion. The new Missal, because of its greater fidelity, will be an antidote to that confusion. If my own effort to gauge the response of faithful Catholics shows anything, it is that most of the people in the pews will take the implementation of the new language in stride. Far from the “pastoral disaster” feared by some, I believe that the new Missal, if approached in a spirit of fidelity, will provide all Catholics with an opportunity to enrich their faith and lead to the deeper participation in the liturgy that Vatican II envisioned.


  • Fr. Robert Johansen

    Fr. Robert Johansen is a priest of the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds degrees in Classics and Patristics, and also has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, where he is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Sacred Theology. He has presented a number of papers on musical and liturgical subjects at academic conferences, and published articles on the same topics in several academic and popular journals.

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