Lost in Translation — How the New Mass Translation Will Affect You

The old joke goes something like this: The pastor couldn’t get his early Sunday morning congregation to respond when he noticed that the PA system was on the blink. “The Lord be with you,” he said several times, only to be greeted with blank stares from the parishioners in the big suburban church. “There’s something wrong with this microphone,” he said, and his remark crackled through the speakers as a loose wire suddenly connected. “And also with you,” came the dutiful if somewhat perfunctory reply.

The PA system isn’t the only thing wrong with the way the Mass is coming across. The Holy See recognized this and, in response, published Liturgiam Authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy), a new set of norms and principles for translating the liturgy into the vernacular. The instruction aims to fix less-than-inspiring Mass translations by requiring that they be more faithful to the Latin text promulgated by Rome.

Depending on how the bishops’ conferences of the United States and other Anglophone countries implement Liturgiam Authenticam, Catholics may be hearing some radical changes at Mass—changes that could wake up a Church that has in many ways been lulled to sleep by mundane language.


What We’ve Lost

Issued May 7, 2001, by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), the 35-page document was the cause of much joy among Catholics who are frustrated with the translations produced by the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the agency employed by the bishops’ conferences of eleven English-speaking countries. Many of these critics have been dreaming of a day when “high Church” language would be restored to the liturgy, a language like that used in the translations found in pre-Vatican II missals.

But the new instruction has occasioned grousing from progressives who insist that the Mass be in a contemporary language and that any gender-related references not ignore the reality of women in the Church and the world.

Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, a member and former chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), the standing committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that oversees all matters relating to liturgy, told Catholic News Service that the new norms are “confining and not realistic in terms of present standards used by translators.”

“The way we pray should be the way we speak to God in an ordinary way,” he says. Nathan Mitchell, associate research director at the Center for Pastoral Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, complains, “Jesus did not say, ‘I come to bring you authentic liturgy.’ He said, ‘I come to bring you life. It’s time for us to return to the things that matter—people and their lives.”

Mitchell, addressing a conference in June 2001 at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, a center of the progressive liturgical movement for many years, said that wars over the liturgy and translations are “really a debate about aesthetics” and are “peripheral to the heart of the gospel.”

But several experts have insisted that much more is at stake—namely, the faith itself. Lex orandi, lex credendi, they point out: The way we pray affects the way we believe.

The Roman rite is a “treasure” that “has to be translated correctly,” says Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky, director of Credo, a society of priests dedicated to faithful translation of the Mass. Father Pokorsky cofounded the group in 1992 in reaction to what he and others regarded as the poor translations being produced by the ICEL. Credo limits membership to clergy, but the organization has a roster of 2,000 priests.

If the Mass is not translated correctly, essentials will be lost, and the liturgy will be used as a means to deliver “popular ideologies” such as feminism and “pop psychologisms,” Father Pokorsky says.

Susan Reilly, the U.S. delegate to the International Center for Liturgical Studies (CIEL), agrees. She points to a recent survey the group conducted showing that only 30 percent of Catholic Americans believe in the real presence. What was frightening, she says, is the much lower percentage of belief for those under 40—the generations who have grown up since the Second Vatican Council. The survey shows a corresponding drop in belief as age decreases. “Most people attend the Novus Ordo Mass, so it’s important” that the translation be accurate, she says.


A Change of Mood

Liturgiam Authenticam replaces Comme le Prevoit, a 1969 document that promoted “dynamic equivalence,” the principle that one must translate the thought, not the text, even if that means changing the words. From now on, those entrusted with translating the liturgical books, including the Lectionary, Sacramentary, and Psalter, no longer will be able to do free translations or paraphrases, omit key phrases, or add made-up ones. The new norms have engendered all kinds of responses about how far translators will be able to go.

“In the area of liturgical change, it will not be business as usual,” says Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake outside Chicago. “It calls for a fundamental shift away from literary-critical principles of translation derived from the academic world to a framework derived from the tradition of the Church. So the good translator has to be very familiar with the language and vocabulary of the Church fathers and the Catholic doctrinal and spiritual traditions.”

“Everyone has to try to translate into the receptor language according to the genius of that language, but following these rules,” Archbishop Justin F. Rigali of St. Louis says. The instruction is meant to help people have a greater participation in the liturgy, says the archbishop, who is a member of both the BCL and the CDW. Fidelity to the original does not mean a “slavish translation,” he says. But “we can’t reconstruct things as we view them at a given moment.”

Rev. John H. Burton, executive director of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, suggests that “the reality needs to be between” literal, word-for-word translation and translating the “unit of meaning.”

“Language keeps changing, and so does our understanding of words,” so translations need constant adjustment, says Father Burton, who sits on the BCL.

“The question comes down to, how do we pray in the living language?” says John Page, executive secretary of the ICEL in Washington, D.C.

The new instruction states: “The greatest prudence and attention are required in the preparation of liturgical books marked by sound doctrine, which are exact in wording, free from all ideological influence and otherwise endowed with those qualities by which the sacred mysteries of salvation and the indefectible faith of the Church are efficaciously transmitted by means of human language to prayer, and worthy worship is offered to God the most high.”

If Liturgiam Authenticam is implemented faithfully and enthusiastically, it will have far-reaching effects. Edward T. Snyder, former U.S. delegate to CIEL, speculates that the sublime language that could be produced would appeal to both young people and non-Catholics and lead them to a deeper embrace of the faith. And if the text is sung, “it will blow people away,” Snyder said, adding that he hopes Rome is encouraging the development of a “classical” form of the liturgy that could last unchanged for centuries.

His hope finds expression in the document itself, which says that liturgical texts should be “free of an overly servile adherence to prevailing modes of expression” and that texts become memorable when they differ from everyday speech. Observance of the new principles, the instruction states, will contribute to the “gradual development in each vernacular of a sacred style that will come to be recognized as proper to liturgical language.” These principles should “free the liturgy from the necessity of frequent revisions when modes of expression may have passed out of popular usage.”

Monsignor Mannion notes the emphasis in Liturgiam Authenticam on a “sacred” language for the liturgy. “Liturgical language must have qualities of reverence, exaltedness, and humility,” he says. “The terse, businesslike ‘memo’ form of address to God that we have become familiar with will be replaced, if the document is implemented, with modes of address that recognize God’s majesty, power, and grandeur.”

Robert J. Edgeworth, professor of classics at Louisiana State University, agrees, pointing out that ICEL’s translations “habitually address the Master of the Universe in the imperative mood.” He parodies the tendency: “Do this, Lord, and do that, too—and make it snappy.” The ICEL translations are, for the most part, “very pedestrian.” They don’t “lift people’s minds up to God.”


Lost in Translation

Changes specifically called for by the new instruction include keeping the first person singular of the Nicene Creed. Thus, “Credo” will be translated “I believe” rather than “We believe.” It is worth speculating what effect this might have on the faithful. It may well be that Mass-goers, suddenly saying “I believe in one God,” will be jolted into a realization that they are making a personal profession of faith, rather than going along (often unreflectively) with the congregation.

Likewise, “Et cum spiritu tuo,” in the people’s response to the priest’s “Dominus vobiscum” (The Lord be with you), should be translated literally as “And with your spirit.” Reference to spirit makes one think of the soul.

Also noteworthy is the amount of Scripture that will be called to mind with literal translations. Just before communion, when the priest shows the Host to the faithful, the priest says in Latin, “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Beati qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt.” The people’s response is, “Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea.” These lines contain rich scriptural references not found in the ICEL translations. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed is he who is called to the supper of the Lamb,” echoes John 1:29, where the Baptist says at the Jordan, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” and Revelation 19:9, in which the angel instructs St. John the Evangelist to write, “Happy are they who have been invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.”

The people’s response, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou should come under my roof, but say only the word and my soul shall be healed,” calls to mind Christ’s meeting with the Roman centurion who asked him to heal his dying servant. Jesus recognized the great faith that officer had, and we imitate that faith as we pray these words before communion. ICEL’s obliteration of the biblical connections here seems all the more strange considering the renewed emphasis on Scripture since the Second Vatican Council.

Those who have hoped for more accurate translations have often been criticized as promoting a “slavish literalism,” while ICEL and its defenders argue that its translations have been conveying the proper meaning through dynamic equivalence.

But some would argue that dynamic equivalence has left the door open to theological errors. Liturgiam Authenticam remedies those. For example, a literal translation of the “pro multis” clause at the consecration of the Precious Blood would render: “Take and drink this, all of you: for this is the chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Covenant, which shall be poured out for you and for the many in remission of sins…” (emphasis added). Edgeworth says that translating “pro multis” as “for all” encourages the Universalist heresy, the idea that Christ’s salvation is extended to all. “We are losing people to the Lefebvrists over that phrase,” he said. “‘Muitis‘ never means ‘all’ in Latin.” (The line above is taken from a translation that Credo commissioned in 1993 and offered to the bishops as a worthy alternative to the ICEL translation.)

Edgeworth also points out that the beautiful phrase in the Roman Canon “hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam,” with its triple repetition, is boiled down to “this holy and perfect sacrifice” in ICEL’s translation. Not only are the three adjectives reduced to two, but if the celebrant is not careful, the phrase comes off sounding like “this wholly imperfect sacrifice.” Credo translates it as “a pure victim, a holy victim, a spotless victim.”

Edgeworth cringes as he remembers Catholic students once arguing that transubstantiation is fine for Catholics but not for anyone else. After all, they point out, the priest during the preparation of the altar and gifts says that the hosts will “become for us the Bread of Life.” Because the celebrant says “for us,” the students reasoned that the bread does not become the Bread of Life for non-Catholics. Nor, by extension, does the wine become the blood of Christ if you don’t believe it.

Liturgiam Authenticam prohibits glossing texts—adding anything that is not in the original—but here Edgeworth would call for a gloss, translating “ex quo nobis fiet panis vitae” with “Let it nourish us by becoming the Bread of Life.” That explains the true meaning behind the words and safeguards the transmission of the faith, he says.

As for the debate over inclusive language, Liturgiam Authenticam insists that the word “fathers” be kept in the masculine when referring to patriarchs, kings of Israel, and fathers of the Church. And, of course, the Christological term “Son of man” must be kept as is. The document calls for catechesis and homilies to explain that the word “man” in some cases means “all people.”

Rev. James Moroney, executive director of the BCL, told Catholic News Service that Liturgiam Authenticam permits some inclusive translations like “Happy the one” instead of “Happy the man.”

But Michael Waldstein, a Scripture scholar who directs the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, said that the Church fathers understood Psalm 1, which begins, “Happy is he who follows not the counsel of the wicked…but delights in the law of the Lord,” to refer to Christ. Therefore, it is necessary to retain the word “he.” And, Waldstein adds, the original Hebrew is ha ish, which means “the man.”

Application or ‘Adaptation’

Scholars are being challenged to be faithful to the original and “come up with beautiful translations,” says Archbishop Rigali, who as a former translator in the Vatican Secretariat of State knows how difficult the job can be. Critics are wondering whether his fellow bishops will open the way for truly beautiful renderings that will lift the minds and hearts of the faithful to God. Though Liturgiam Authenticam was issued with the express approval of Pope John Paul II, some fear the bishops will stall or water down the new instruction with some sort of “American application,” as was the case with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican’s directive on Catholic higher education.

After all, the bishops in June 2001 approved of American “adaptations” to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the preface of the long-awaited third “typical edition” of the Roman Missal. The adaptations included standing as the “norm” for reception of Communion.

Bishop Trautman seemed to suggest the need for such an application for Liturgiam Authenticam. “The [CDW] had a monumental task in developing principles for all languages,” he said in an interview. “But we have to examine the instruction for our language.”

He objected to what he sees as a centralizing tendency on the part of the Vatican. He regards the “lack of consultation” in the preparation of the document and the Holy See’s insistence that translators receive a nihil obstat before commencing their work as contrary to the principles of collegiality and subsidiarity—though Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the USCCB, said there was consultation. Archbishop Rigali doubts that an American “adaptation” of Liturgiam Authenticam is possible because it is an instruction of the Holy See.

Page and others were not eager to make any predictions as to what changes in the liturgy might actually occur, preferring instead to see what the bishops come up with first. That being true, the arguments over inclusive language are bound to continue. Indeed, the proposed changes are already meeting resistance. Bishop Trautman warns that changing the phrase “and also with you” would be a step backwards, ecumenically, because it is the response used by mainline Protestant churches and in ecumenical services.

“The majority of bishops in the English-speaking world are deeply, deeply committed to the work of the ICEL and its false principles,” Edgeworth said at a recent convention of the Latin Liturgy Association in Chicago.

The instruction gives bishops’ conferences five years to come up with an “integral plan” for making sure all the liturgical books used in their territory are in conformity with Liturgiam Authenticam. Archbishop Rigali points out that there have already been changes in accord with the instruction in the new Lectionary, the second volume of which the Holy See approved in June. It is closer to the Neo-Vulgate. Instead of “Israelites,” for example, the phrase “children of Israel” is used, and Christ asks his disciples, “Can you drink the chalice [not cup] that I am going to drink?”

But will Catholics in the United States be saying “I believe” and replying “And with your spirit” by 2006? Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., editor of Ignatius Press and a member of the executive committee of Adoremus, a society founded in 1995 to promote “authentic reform” of the liturgy, thinks so. Father Fessio said he wouldn’t be surprised if the new Mass translation sounds like the one Adoremus commissioned.

In the meantime, we must continue to use the texts that are approved. Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, the U.S. representative to ICEL, warned against anyone making any changes on his own before they are adopted by the bishops’ conference and confirmed by Rome.

Better translations are a must. But other issues need attention. Mannion, speaking in Collegeville, said the Church must “take the rites we have and celebrate them with a deeper spirituality.” That can happen by removing impediments to worship such as consumerism, individualism, and apathy, he said.

And as Edgeworth points out, liturgical abuses, such as priests failing to genuflect before the Host at the prescribed times, have to be corrected. He also believes that Communion in the hand while standing and catechesis that emphasizes meal symbolism for the Eucharist rather than the language of sacrifice, have “nearly destroyed faith in the real presence.” Other problems, such as churches without kneelers or communion rails (which serve to demarcate the sacred space of the sanctuary) and tabernacles that are hid¬den away in a corner all have an effect on the faithful.

Susan Reilly of CIEL worries that the Church lacks the credibility to enforce the new translation norms. Rome has gone along with formerly forbidden practices, such as the use of female altar servers and reception of Communion in the hand. Local churches ignored the rules; ordinaries and the Holy See seemed to turn a blind eye. But after the practices spread, Rome finally said it was OK. On the local level, more and more people seem to have the attitude that the liturgy is “our thing, and we can do what we want,” Reilly said. “Rome has to assert itself more.”

She predicted that any faithful implementation of Liturgiam Authenticam might run into obstacles in parishes with “liturgy committees” and pastors who continue to base their renovation decisions on discredited documents such as Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, published in 1978 by BCL to provide principles for those preparing liturgical space.

But, as if to reinforce the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam, Pope John Paul said in September that a translation “does not represent an exercise in creativity, but a commitment to keeping the sense of the original without changes, omissions, or additions.”

In a message to the CDW, the pope said that priests and laity must show attitudes of humility before the mystery of the Mass. He held up the example of the Tridentine Mass, which he said contained “very beautiful prayers with which the priest expresses the deepest sense of humility and reverence before the sacred mysteries; these reveal the very substance of any liturgy.”


  • John Burger

    John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

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