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Blog: Catholic Social Teaching Watch

Lost in Translation: The new Catholic Missal

* See afterward below. 
Mark E. Rondeau
The Bennington Banner Religion page

Saturday March 20, 2010

Most Catholics, even those active in their parishes, are unaware that major changes are coming -- and sooner rather than later -- in the wording of many prayers they say during Mass.

In November, the U.S. Catholic bishops approved the third translation of the Roman Missal, and observers expect the Vatican to finalize the changes in the near future. This will be followed by an effort to introduce the changes into everyday Catholic worship.

Many see the new Roman Missal as a step back from the vision of the Second Vatican Council of church liturgies spoken in the language of the people, conducted with the active participation of the laity. At the time the Catholic bishops of the world by a vote of 2,147 to 4 overwhelmingly approved the groundbreaking Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963, priests around the world said the Mass in Latin with their backs to the faithful, who were much more solitary observers than participants in a worshiping community.

Over and against this, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy set clear priorities for future worship: "Texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively and as it befits a community." (No. 21)

The liturgical texts now in use in the U.S., dating from 1973, have served the Church well. Commentations have criticized that some of the usages are flat and uninspiring, but I would argue that the language is direct, consistent and aids rather than detracts from participation and devotion in worship.
The new Roman Missal relies on translations from the Latin master texts done in accord with a 2001 document issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, which was produced without any collegial or collaborative effort.

In general, the new missal tries to produce more reverential language through choosing longer, Latinate words, with less specific nouns, and using more elaborate syntax that ranges from merely stilted in some places to downright tortured in others.

However, trying my best to keep an open mind toward the translations, I find the results mixed. In Eucharistic Prayer II, where the intent was to incorporate a phrase from Psalm 133, "sending down your Spirit·like the dewfall," the result is somewhat stilted, but the dewfall image is Biblical and it has grown on me.

* (1973 Missal) "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ."

* (New) "Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ."

Less appealing is the Prayer over the Gifts for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time:

* (1973) "Lord God, in this bread and wine you give us food for body and spirit. May the Eucharist renew our strength and bring us health of mind and body."

* (New) "O God, who in the gifts presented here nourish with food and renew with Sacrament the twofold nature of the human race, grant, we pray, that their sustenance may not fail us in body or in mind."

What is gained by changing "body and sprit" to "the twofold nature of the human race" is beyond me. Why is "sustenance" preferable to the word "food?" I find rather disturbing the introduction of the possibility in the new text that the "sustenance" of the Eucharist might "fail us in body and mind." Is this a thought of reverent faith?

For me, however, the new missal reaches a sorry lowpoint in the revised words of the consecration at Mass. Here is the section where Catholics believe that the wine is transformed into the blood of Christ:

* (1973) "When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said: ‘Take this, all of you, and drink from it: This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.’ "

* (New) "In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice into his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying: ‘Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant; which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.’ "

I cringe at the thought that this archaic language and Baroque imagery might mar the most holy part of the Mass.

It is also un-Biblical. Undoubtedly, Christ used a "cup" at the last supper, not a "precious chalice." And why the particular focus on his "holy and venerable hands?" The 1973 language focuses on the actions of Jesus as a unified whole, without creating a dominating image of a big gold chalice in "venerable hands" in the mind of the hearer.

Simply put, I am afraid that here, as elsewhere, the new language will throw up a roadblock to devotion. I agree with the words of Bishop Donald W. Trautman, of Erie, Pa., a liturgical expert and one of the few U.S. bishops outspoken about the new missal and the way it has been produced. In 2007 in America magazine, he wrote: "If the language of the liturgy is inaccessible, how can liturgy catechize and convey the reality of the living, risen Son of God in the Eucharist?"

Vatican II was supposed to usher in a new era of collegiality (open cooperation and shared decisionmaking) among bishops and even active input from the laity on church decisions. However, as has been widely reported, the U.S. bishops had little say in the production of the new missal, unlike those in the past. Liturgical experts also were largely shut out. Rome has managed this process with a heavy hand. Laypeople had no say or input at all, and the Church will soon present the new Roman Missal to them as a fait accompli.

One priest, however, is trying to slow the process down and introduce more input on the new Roman Missal from clergy and laypeople alike.

The Rev. Michael G. Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, has started a Web site (, urging that some time be taken to get the changes right. As of Thursday, the site’s online petition had almost 20,000 signatures from concerned Catholics.

What could possibly be lost by taking more time and seriously considering the input of the Catholic faithful, both for and against the new missal? After all, we likely will be using these new prayers for a long, long time.

Mark E. Rondeau is the Banner’s religion editor. The official U.S. bishops’ Web site for the new Roman Missal can be found at
* My attitude toward the translations has changed somewhat, though I am still not thrilled about either them or the process which produced them. For a balanced and constructive approach, I recommend the article "Our Living Liturgy: Understanding the Coming Changes" by Fr. Edward Foley in the November 2010 issue of Liguorian magazine,

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