This will be the most significant change in the public prayer of the Church in the United States in nearly 50 years. It is my hope that we who serve the Church as priests will come to appreciate this new translation as an opportunity to be embraced rather than a burden to be borne.
Prayer is the fountain that sustains the life and ministry of the followers of Jesus Christ. Public prayer and communal prayer sustain the life and ministry of the entire Church. The Mass, the Celebration of the Eucharist, is the source of the renewing waters of this fountain. From the Eucharistic Celebration flow the living waters that every Catholic needs for spiritual refreshment and nourishment.
One of the great liturgical, pastoral and catechetical achievements of the Second Vatican Council was the renewal of the Mass and the translation of the prayers of the Mass into the languages of the People of God all over the world. The English translation, which Catholics in the United States have been using in the current “Sacramentary,” has been an important vehicle for our prayer and growth in holiness for more than 40 years.
The Long Perspective
From the long perspective of Church history, this now familiar translation is actually something quite new. However, from the perspective of many priests and people, especially those who are young, this translation is one with which they feel very much at home. It is the only translation they have ever known.
Most of the people we priests and bishops serve do not know that almost immediately after the English language “Sacramentary” was published, discussions about the adequacy of the translation began to take place. Parishioners, priests, bishops, Latin language experts, Post-conciliar commentaries and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments raised a variety of questions:
- Is the translation faithful to the Latin? (e.g., why is “Et cum spiritu tuo” translated as, “And also with you,” when it really means, “And with your spirit”?)
- Has the translation lost some of the dignity and formality of the original Latin text?
- Have some fundamental expressions of faith been diminished by departing from the exact meaning of the Latin original?
- Does the current translation adequately convey the sense of mystery, the sacred and the transcendent?
There emerged an energetic debate over whether the translation of Latin prayers should be rendered in a manner that approximates the Latin as closely as possible, or should the translation be more dynamic, approximating contemporary English language expressions.
During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, it became clear that the Holy See favored principles of translation that would result in prayers adhering closely to the full expression of the Latin text. This position was formalized with the March 2001 publication of Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican instruction on the proper way to translate Latin prayers for public worship. This document superseded Comme le Prévoit, the January 1969 Vatican instruction on the same topic.
The guiding principle of Comme le Prévoit has been described as “dynamic equivalency,” which focused on translating the basic thoughts contained in the Latin text into idiomatic English without attempting to translate every word. The guiding principle of Liturgiam Authenticam has been described “formal equivalency,” which places a greater emphasis on the faithful translation of the complete Latin text without omissions or paraphrases.
In the past decade the bishops of the United States have participated in lengthy discussions and debates on the translation of various passages of the Mass. These discussions took place in various committees of our episcopal conference and in the general meetings of the entire conference. We shared representative texts with consultative bodies in our dioceses, such as our presbyteral councils, offices of divine worship, liturgical commissions, language experts and representatives of the faithful.
We were very aware that, for many of our people, the new translation would come as a surprise. We also knew that the priests in our dioceses would have a variety of opinions about any change in the translation. Some would be very pleased with the new translation. Others would have some concerns about explaining the new translation to their parishioners, who might ask what was “wrong” with the old translation.
A small group of priests, displeased with what they perceive as an unnecessary formality and the introduction of unfamiliar words, might ask for permission not to use the new Missal. Many other priests would accept the new Missal in obedience for the good of the Church, since it has been promulgated by the same legitimate Church authority that promulgated the Sacramentary now in use.
Working with the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and communicating directly with appropriate persons in various Vatican congregations, the American bishops made sure that the Holy See was aware of the conflicting responses we were hearing from our people. As a result some adjustments were made as the translation process unfolded.
Our Conference completed its work on the Mass texts at our November 2009 meeting. The final text was submitted to the Apostolic See for review and for the needed approval (recognitio). On March 25, 2010, His Eminence Antonio Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, released the required letter of approval. The official date for the introduction of the new English language Roman Missal (no longer a “Sacramentary”) has been set for the First Sunday of Advent 2011. This is more than half a year from now.
While a great deal of preparation has already been done in most dioceses, these final months will be a time of intense catechetical and spiritual formation. This will be needed for the effective and positive introduction of this significant change in our own liturgical lives and in the prayer lives of our Catholic people.
We who are priests have a special devotion to and responsibility for the Roman Catholic liturgy. Because of this, it is possible for us to think of the implementation of these changes as a burden in our lives and ministry — one more thing that we have to do when we are already overburdened. However, rather than thinking of the preparation for the new translation as a burden to be borne, I hope we will think of it as an opportunity to be embraced.
It provides us the occasion to reflect and think about what we are called to do as celebrants of the Eucharist and as presiders at other liturgical rites. As a priest and as a diocesan bishop, I would like to make the following suggestions, which I hope will be of assistance to the dedicated, faithful priests who serve the people of God in thousands of parishes around the United States.
1. Please begin with prayer. Pray to the Holy Spirit for the gifts and the guidance we will need in making the transition to the new Missal. Pray for patience with ourselves and with others, for flexibility, humility, a spirit of openness, and a positive attitude in the face of change.
2. Carefully reread the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, which now becomes the introductory text to the Missal itself. We should be mindful that all Masses we celebrate are to be celebrated in accord with this Instruction. We should reread the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium). This will renew and deepen our understanding of what the Church wants us to be doing when we gather for Divine Worship. We should avail ourselves of the many resources online and take advantage of workshops or seminars that are being provided to assist us in the praying of the new texts.
3. We should renew our “liturgical spirituality,” beginning with meditation before the Blessed Sacrament. When we priests preside at the altar table of the Lord in the name of Christ, we are not only leading public prayer, we are also praying publicly in a manner that calls the whole assembly to prayer. Each of us has developed a certain style or persona in our liturgical celebrations due to our ongoing efforts “to put on the character Christ.” At the altar we are “alter Christus,” another Christ.
Our prayerful study and “practice” of the new texts may be an occasion to deepen or even change and improve our liturgical presence in the sanctuary. Our ordination and our day-to-day servant leadership and ministry to our people are sources of the grace we need for our liturgical spirituality. This liturgy-centered spirituality nurtures a love and respect for the Church’s public worship. It reminds us that the Mass and the prayers of the Mass are not “ours.” Nor do they belong to “our” parish, or to various liturgical “experts.” They belong to the Church.
This leads to docility to the Church which orders and oversees our life of worship. Such a spirituality makes it possible to personally appropriate the timeless meaning of the expression, “The Mass is the source and summit of our spiritual lives.” We do well to associate ourselves with others who see the value of a liturgical spirituality.
4. We should not wait until the last minute. We must make time to study the texts of the new translations sooner rather than later. Pray them aloud in our prayer spaces. Become familiar with new words, longer sentences, and differences in cadence and pacing. We may find that the new “orations” force us to pray them at a slower pace. We might record them and play them back for ourselves. Watching videos and listening to recordings of the new translations prepared by priests who have been working with the texts for some time could be helpful. This could be especially valuable for singing the new texts.
We might consider proclaiming the prayers in our support groups. We could provide assistance to one another by offering suggestions and constructive criticism regarding style, pacing, volume and pronunciation. Many of us might find it helpful to celebrate the Eucharist with the new translation with a small community before the first major Sunday celebration.
5. Work with our parish liturgy committees and liturgy coordinators. It is desirable for every parish to have a parish liturgy committee to provide assistance to the pastor in fostering the liturgical life of the parish. If your parish does not have one, the advent of the new Roman Missal would be very a good time to establish one. This committee, which need not be large, could coordinate a timetable of activities that will prepare the parish community for the new Missal.
They could help select informative bulletin articles on the new translation, review materials online that might be helpful to the parish and arrange for study groups during Lent to study the new translation while appreciating the timelessness of the Mass. The liturgy committee might use the months before the new Missal to support renewal efforts, such as encouraging the people to gather closer to the sanctuary when they arrive for Mass, assisting lectors in the effective proclamation of the Word of God, making sure the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are properly prepared, and maintaining clean, attractive and appropriate liturgical furnishing, vessels and vestments.
It can also be a time to renew the music ministry in our parishes by discarding hymns whose words and music lack spiritual substance and selecting musical settings of the Mass texts of the highest musical and liturgical quality. This would also mean avoiding the use of musical settings in which the composers have changed the words of the texts, for whatever reason, without authorization by the Church.
To Stimulate and Sustain
6. Think of good liturgy as being similar to good drama. As we study the new translation, we will see that certain “theological” expressions in the new vocabulary remind us that the Celebration of the Eucharistic Meal is still the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Like good drama, the Mass seeks to involve the congregation in a deep experience of the meaning of life’s joys and sorrows in the light of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The desired impact of the Mass is greater than the catharsis we might experience after a brilliant production of a Shakespearean tragedy. A goal of the Mass is to stimulate and sustain a deep interior religious conversion in the hearts of the priest celebrant and the assembled faithful. In the theater the play comes to life anew each night, thanks to the genius of the actors. However, the script is fixed by the playwright and unchanging, like the unchanging prayers of the Mass.
The “sacred space” of the sanctuary is not unlike a stage. Neither actors nor directors, no matter how distinguished, presume to change even one word in the script. They do not casually alter the costumes and stage decorations because these all contribute to the drama. Before the curtain rises, technicians make sure the lighting and sound systems are functioning as they should. The same should be true for the “drama of the Lord.”
The new translations of the Mass prayers are fixed by the Church. Neither we who are bishops nor those who are parish priests may presume to change these texts. Nor may we alter the vestments, vessels and sanctuary furnishings stipulated by the Church for this sacred drama. They all contribute to the powerful impact of the whole. The hushed silence we often experience in the theater as the curtain goes up should remind us of the reverent silence that is needed if we are truly to pray the Mass.
7. Now that the translation has been approved, we must all remind ourselves that the People of God have the right to experience the liturgy as the Church wants them to experience it. If we have personal opinions and criticisms of the translation, it will not be helpful if we spread those criticisms from the pulpit and in our informal comments. This will only make the process of adjusting to the new translation more difficult for our people.
Now that the official date for the use of the new Missal has been determined, our parishes must all introduce it at the same time. We all know that if we depart from this, the Christian Faithful will be the first to express their concern and confusion to the bishop’s office. Those of us called to serve as bishops must do our own spiritual and liturgical preparation so that we can proclaim the new translations as effectively as possible.
It will be difficult for bishops to defend priests, parishes or institutions that do not prepare the People of God for the new translation in a timely manner and begin the use of the new Roman Missal on the First Sunday of Advent 2011, the date determined by the Church. If we approach the new Missal as an opportunity to be embraced, priests and bishops will work together in harmony and in a spirit of cooperation in responding to this important liturgical and pastoral initiative.
On the day of our ordination to the priesthood, we priests each solemnly promised to the bishop who ordained us that we resolved “to celebrate faithfully and reverently, in accord with the Church’s tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist…for the Glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people.” The Church is now inviting us to demonstrate that resolve by committing ourselves to prepare well for the use of the new English translation of the Missale Romanum. We will do this for our good and for the good of our people. This is essential for the unity and spiritual welfare of our Catholic people whose full, active and conscious participation in the Divine Liturgy we all seek. TP
BISHOP BRAXTON, Ph.D., S.T.D., bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., is a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Divine Worship, which oversees the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal.