National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 23, 2004

New Mass translation said to be 'elegant,' closer to the Latin


A new English translation of the Mass would in a sense carry Catholic worship back to the future, employing vocabulary and syntax closer to the original Latin and thereby fostering a liturgical style reminiscent of the era before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

While Rome has repeatedly insisted on more traditional texts in recent years, the new translation, produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy -- ICEL -- is the first application of these principles to the Order of the Mass, the key prayers in the preeminent Roman Catholic act of worship. For this reason, it has been much anticipated by liturgical experts and church officials.

If the process of seeking approval from English-speaking bishops’ conferences and the Vatican does not hit any snags, the new translation could be in use in American parishes by early 2005.

Early reaction from church officials, both in Rome and the United States, is upbeat. Speaking on background, several officials praised the new draft as aesthetically satisfying and theologically precise.

Critics, however, complain the translation is unsuitable for public prayer and creates negative ecumenical implications.

NCR obtained a preliminary copy of the draft in mid-January, which had not been released to the public but circulated informally in liturgical circles. That draft was revised during a meeting of the bishops who make up the international commission’s board in mid-January. Though NCR’s copy of the draft is therefore out of date in some particulars, sources indicate the following elements survived the editing:

  • Gone is the familiar “And also with you” response to the priest’s greeting, “The Lord be with you.” According to the draft translation, the congregation would respond, “And with your spirit,” a more literal rendering of the Latin.
  • In the Creed, the congregation would begin each section by saying “I believe” rather than “We believe,” a shift to the plural seen by some critics as part of an excessive post-Vatican II emphasis on the communal dimension of worship.

These two changes were mandated by a May 2001 Vatican document, Liturgiam Authenticam.

  • In the penitential rite (often known by its Latin opening word, Confiteor), the congregation would recite “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” while striking their breasts, a custom that hearkens back to the mea culpa from the Latin Mass prior to Vatican II.
  • In the “Glory to God,” an extra phrase is added: “We praise you, we bless you, we worship you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory.” This restores Latin phrases originally dropped from English translations in order to avoid what was seen as redundancy.
  • In the eucharistic prayer, when the priest says, “Let our hearts be lifted high,” the people would respond, “We hold them before the Lord,” rather than the familiar “We lift them up to the Lord.
  • In the fourth eucharistic prayer, use of the word “man” to mean “human being,” which had been largely eliminated by an earlier draft rejected by the Vatican in 2000, is restored in a few places. On the other hand, there are instances where the text currently in use says “man” that the new draft uses “men and women.”

The buzz from church officials seems largely positive.

“I have not seen the whole text, but what I have seen is certainly consistent with Liturgiam Authenticam, both proclaimable and precise,” said one source close to the U.S. bishops.

The draft will be submitted to English-speaking bishops’ conferences this week for initial reaction. The ICEL bishops will meet in July to review the text in light of these responses, and then will submit a finished document to the bishops’ conferences. Each conference will individually petition the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship for final approval.

Auguring well for favorable Vatican reaction is the fact that the Vox Clara Commission, a body of English-speaking bishops created to advise the Congregation for Divine Worship, responded positively to samples of the translation during a November 2003 meeting.

“The Vox Clara Committee was delighted by the elegance of this translation and its fidelity to the Latin,” Cardinal George Pell of Australia, chair of Vox Clara, told NCR Jan. 13. “It accorded with the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam, which are no longer in dispute, at least at ICEL. So far, so good. Indeed, excellent.”

Some liturgical experts, however, say the translation is flawed.

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, a liturgist at the Gregorian University and author of Dynamic Equivalence: The Living Language of Christian Worship (Liturgical Press), worries about ecumenical consequences.

“After 40 years of work, today the major Christian churches use the same texts for the Confiteor, the Gloria, the Creed, and so on,” Pecklers told NCR Jan. 12. “If that changes, it would be a very unfortunate development.”

Fr. Bruce Harbert, executive director of the international commission, rejected the criticism.

Harbert said that producing texts faithful to the original Greek and Latin is itself an ecumenical contribution. For example, Harbert said, an English translation of the Greek Orthodox liturgy currently used in the United Kingdom influenced the ICEL translation where interpretation of Greek was involved.

Moreover, Harbert told NCR Jan. 12, the shift to “And with your spirit” brings the English-speaking Catholic world into line with the French, the Spanish, the Italians, and other language groups, making it a sort of intra-Catholic ecumenical gesture.

Fr. Mark Francis, superior of the Viatorian fathers and a former professor of liturgy at the Catholic Theological Union, told NCR the draft he saw is in parts “impossible to pray.”

Francis was referring to the draft prior to the January editing.

“We just don’t speak this way in formal English rhetoric,” Francis said. “In places this reads like a schoolboy’s translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, where everything in the Latin is accounted for.”

Harbert said, however, there had been “constant concern” to public proclamation. The ICEL bishops, he said, had repeatedly read the texts aloud.

Harbert told NCR that the secretaries of the liturgy commissions for English-speaking bishops’ conferences will meet Feb. 8-10 in Spain, and among the topics for discussion is how people can be educated for the transition to more formal modes of speech implied in the new translation.

Finally, Francis warned that the use of “man” for “human being” will cause priests not to use the prayers, judging them unsuitable for their congregations.

Harbert said the issue of “man” generated much discussion, and that the new translation reduces the number of instances in the currently approved text where “man” is used rather than “men and women.”

A Vatican official who has seen portions of the draft text told NCR Jan. 12 he is upbeat.

“I think we’re in business,” the official said. “I’m very encouraged.”

In terms of how quickly the new translations may be implemented, sources say much depends on the individual bishops’ conferences. Another variable is whether the Order of Mass will be approved and issued as a self-standing product, or whether it will have to await approval of translations for the rest of the Roman Missal, the complete book of prayers for the Mass. While the Order of Mass represents the core prayers, the rest of the Missal includes other elements such as prefaces, opening prayers, prayers after Communion, and votive Masses.

The bias is normally in favor of preserving the integrity of the liturgical books, one source said, but there is precedent for issuing the Order of Mass separately. After the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, a self-standing Order of Mass was published. It will be up to bishops’ conferences to request, and the Vatican to approve, such a separate issuance this time around.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2004

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