They are the most important words Catholics speak every week. They are the words that the ancients never dreamed nor dared to utter, and they are the words for which the martyrs shed their blood. 

They are the words of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the words the Church offers in love, honor and praise of God. And one year from this weekend, these holiest of holy words will suddenly sound a whole lot holier. 

Beginning the first Sunday of Advent 2011, English-speaking Catholics around the world will pray the Mass according to a brand-new translation of the Roman Missal — the 1,500-page tome that includes all the prayers and responses for Sunday and weekday Masses, as well as feasts, sacramental celebrations, funerals and more. 

That doesn’t mean the Mass itself will change. On Nov. 27, 2011, the priest won’t face a different direction, say Mass in a different language or try to consecrate cookies. The seismic shift Catholics witnessed in 1970, when the Pauline Mass was introduced, will not repeat itself. 

“If 1970 was a 10.0 on the liturgical Richter scale, 2011 will be like a .5,” explained Msgr. Kevin Irwin, dean of the school of theology at The Catholic University of America. “There won’t be major changes.” 

But there will be important changes. From the first prayers of the Mass to the last, subtle differences in the words spoken by both the priest and the laity will give English-speaking Catholics a liturgy that is more poetic, more reverent and, above all, more faithful to the original Latin rendering of the Roman rite. 

Reasons for change 

If you’re looking for the reason behind the new translation, the easy answer is that in 2000 Pope John Paul II promulgated a new Roman Missal with additional feast days and Vigil Masses, as well as a few small changes in the parts of the Mass proper to priests. Those additions and changes, understandably enough, needed translating out of the original Latin and into the vernacular. 

The easy answer, however, isn’t usually the best answer. And this is no exception. 

Had the Church so desired, she simply could have translated the additions and changes and left the rest as is. 

“The new Latin edition of the missal didn’t have substantial changes, but rather added a number of new options and prayers,” explained Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship. “If not for the new translation, most people wouldn’t have noticed anything different.” 

But the Church didn’t opt to just translate the additions. She commissioned an entirely new translation of the Roman Missal in English — a translation that took almost a decade to produce and that required the labors of a veritable army of Latin scholars, liturgists and Church historians, as well as 11 bishops’ conferences around the world. 

So, why begin again? 

Answering that question starts with the briefest of history lessons. 

Forty-seven years ago, seeking to renew and strengthen the faith life of Catholics, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,Sacrosanctum Concilium, called for the revision of the texts of the Roman-rite liturgy. That was in 1963. Four years later there was a draft of the revisions, and by 1970 the Church had an approved Latin text of what would come to be called the Mass of Paul VI. 

Because the Second Vatican Council permitted the celebration of the Mass in languages other than Latin, however, the Latin text wasn’t enough. There also needed to be translations in English and Spanish and French and German and any number of other languages. Which there soon were. And therein lies the problem. 

Lost in Translation 

According to Father Neil J. Roy, who teaches liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, partly in the interest of getting the new Mass into parishes as soon as possible, a translation was green-lighted that fell far short of the Latin original. 

The problems in that translation, as outlined by Father Roy, included passages that “failed to give proper regard to the sacred.”  

For example, instead of Christ taking bread in his “holy and venerable hands,” the wording of the Latin original, he just took the bread in his “sacred hands,” and rather than taking a “chalice,” he took a mere “cup.” 

There were also passages in the English translation that dropped biblical allusions and opted for paraphrases of the original text.  

Case in point: In the Communion rite, the phrase “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” which referenced the centurion of Matthew 8:8, became the more prosaic, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you.” 

Then there were more passages still that missed the point of the Latin translation entirely, such as the oft-repeated phrase, “And also with you,” which is an inaccurate rendering of the Latin, Et cum spiritu (literally, “And with your spirit.”) 

As Father Roy explained, the “spirit” part of the Latin phrase is a direct reference to “the sacramental character of the ordained.” The Latin purposefully seeks to draw attention to that character, reminding clergy and laity alike that the priest acts in persona Christi. The English translation of 1970, however, failed to evoke that, thereby “ignoring and potentially undermining the distinction between the ordained and non-ordained members of Christ’s faithful.” 

Throw in some passages that were just plain inaccurate (in the Gloria, “You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us,” somehow managed to become, “You are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our prayer”), and a few more passages prayed differently depending on which English-speaking country you happened to be in (Australia and New Zealand pray a slightly different version of the Our Father), and it starts to make sense why many, including the Vatican, were less than thrilled with the first English translation of the Pauline Mass. 

“Accuracy, beauty, and careful attention to sacred language — in all those areas, the translation, produced in haste, fell short,” said Father Roy, summing up the problems with the earlier translation of the Mass. “And not just in one or two instances, but across the whole constellation of collects, antiphons, acclamations, dialogues, prefaces and even the eucharistic prayers. Scarcely a component of the book was spared.” 

Rabbit holes and ripple effects 

That, of course, raises the question: Why was an inaccurate, less reverent, less beautiful translation drafted in the first place? 

But that’s a question you don’t want to ask. 

Pose it to a liturgist and you’ll soon find yourself lost down a rabbit hole of rumor, innuendo and Church politics. Depending on the source, the translators were either a) wisely valuing the sense of the text over the letter of the text; b) innocently overzealous in their efforts to make the Mass accessible; or c) maliciously determined to strip away all that was holy and good from the Sacred Liturgy. 

Separating fact from fiction in the tales behind the original translation process is a near impossible feat, with shards of truth in nearly every reason and theory. 

Nevertheless, regardless of why the problems were there, problems were indeed there. And because that translation was a translation of the Mass, not a newspaper story or a pulp fiction novel, those problems were no small matter. 

“The Constitution on Sacred Liturgy calls the Mass the source and summit of all we do,” explained Father Paul Turner, a facilitator with the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). “All that we do comes from the Eucharist. Everything starts there and ends there.” 

Which means that what happens in the Mass has a ripple effect throughout the Church, Catholic life and the culture at large. Hence, many scholars and theologians, Father Roy included, believe it’s no coincidence that a translation that fails the test of accuracy, beauty and reverence has gone hand in glove with a decline in the practice, knowledge and love of the faith among Catholics. 

“In the original Latin, the prayers of the Mass reflect a very rich, spiritually profound world, full of the visible and invisible,” said Father Roy. “We’re missing that when we eliminate the spiritual, the hieratic, the divine, and focus exclusively on the human endeavor or reduce prayers to wishes and ignore the power of God to transform us at the very deepest levels of our beings. Ultimately, that renders us less faithful as Christ’s body in the world.” 

And that is why the translation needed fixing: Not simply to make Latin scholars and liturgical purists happy, but because God deserved more and the Catholic faithful needed more. 

From idea to reality 

Talk of that fixing had been in the air for decades. But not until Pope John Paul decided that the joy of the Jubilee Year (and the bevy of new saints he’d added to the Church’s calendar) merited a new missal did the right mechanisms get put into place for that talk to become reality. 

The pope announced the new missal in 2000. Two years later, the Latin text was issued. That same year, Pope John Paul established a new committee, Vox Clara, to oversee the translation of the missal into English. 

In the seven years that followed, scholars, bishops conferences, Vox Clara and the Vatican prayerfully and care-fully labored over the translation process. That process was slow and painstaking. But for good reason. 

In addition to the problems raised by internecine political squabbling, theological disputes and competing schools of translation philosophy, translators weren’t simply reworking a few prayers. They were re-rendering 1,500 pages of text into English. And the words that filled those 1,500 pages needed to not only be accurate in word and spirit, but also stand up to constant repetition, day after day, decade after decade, in nearly a dozen different countries, all of which speak English with a slightly different twist. 

“Pick the wrong word, and it gets complicated,” explained Father Hilgartner. “Every word had to be appropriate for the liturgy — not be open to misconstrual — and lead people into prayer.” 

It was, in many ways, a Herculean task. But, as of this fall, it’s nearly complete. 

The final text of the English translation of the Roman Missal has been approved by both the Vatican and individual bishops conferences, publishers are gearing up their printing presses and preparations are under way for the coming transition (see story, Page 12). 

Objections and opportunities 

Preparations are also underway for the inevitable confusion, frustration and misunderstandings that changes to the liturgy always bring. 

“Some will find the changes in the language disconcerting,” admitted Father Hilgartner. “Change is always difficult, especially with something like the liturgy, where familiarity is so important to ritual.” 

Grumblings along those lines have, in fact, already started. 

At the seminars for priests and diocesan liturgical leaders that the USCCB sponsored this past summer and fall, there were complaints about foisting too many changes on the laity all at once, as well as the amount of time and energy it will take to prepare parishioners for the change. For many, the memories of the early 1970s and the liturgical chaos that ensued in the wake of the introduction of the Pauline Mass are still fresh. Others fear that the renewal sought by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council is being undone. 

Some of those are valid concerns. Others less so. 

Far from being a reversal of Vatican II, the new translation is actually more faithful, not less, to the council. 

“We’re not going back,” said Msgr. Irwin. “This is simply a midcourse correction to make the translation more accurate.” 

“You’re still going to hear the voice of Vatican II,” added Father Turner. “The Church has taken all the work done after the council, looked it square in the face, and tried to do a better translation of it.” 

Similarly, the coming changes aren’t intended to produce more liturgical upheaval, but to help end the liturgical confusion that has dogged the Church for a generation. 

“Historically, after a significant moment like Vatican II, it takes a while for things to settle,” said Father Hilgartner. “But given how much work has gone into this process, the intention is definitely that we’re going to have this for a good long while.” 

As for the work involved in preparing people for the transition, there’s no denying it or getting around it. But as soon as people become familiar with the new words, Father Roy thinks the difference people will experience in the Mass and their understanding of the faith will make all that effort more than worthwhile. 

“We’re not changing things for the sake of doing something old,” he said. “But for the sake of the good, the true and the beautiful.” 

“The cathedrals of Europe weren’t built with leftovers,” Father Roy concluded. “They were built with the best designs and materials that the cultures and people had to offer in order to proclaim the glory of God and to exalt his holy name. The same should be true of the Mass. It’s time for excellence to return to the Catholic liturgy in the Anglosphere. We can do better than we have been doing for the past 40 years. And indeed we will do better beginning with Advent 2011.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Read "U.S. parishes prepare for Roman Missal changes"»

The Roman Missal, Yesterday and Today (sidebar)

The tradition of collecting the prayers of the Mass in booklets, or “sacramentaries,” dates back to the earliest days of the Church. As the Christian faith spread throughout the Roman Empire and heresies rose up against the Church, these sacramentaries were one way to ensure consistency and authenticity in the liturgy, while at the same time safeguarding it from error. Nevertheless, with no printing presses or easy channels of communication, liturgical uniformity was only an ideal, never a reality. 

By 1570, however, that had changed. In the previous century, Johann Gutenberg’s invention took the work of transcribing the prayers, biblical readings, chants and rubrics out of the hands of monks (who were wont to make mistakes or take liberties with the text) and entrusted it to less innovative machines. That in turn made it possible for Pope Pius V to promulgate one uniform Roman Missal whose use was obligatory (with few exceptions) throughout the Latin Church. 

In the four and a half centuries since, new Roman Missals have been promulgated no fewer than eight times to accommodate changes and additions to the Latin-rite liturgy, with by far the most significant of the changes occurring in 1970, with the introduction of the Pauline Mass. 

Actual typical editions of the Roman Missal since 1570, include: 

1604 – Pope Clement VIII 

1634 – Pope Urban VIII 

1884 – Pope Leo XIII 

1920 – Pope Benedict XV 

1962 – Pope John XXIII 

1970 – Pope Paul VI 

1975 – Pope Paul VI 

2002 – Pope John Paul II 

The Roman Missal: From Sacrosanctum Concilium to Advent 2011*

*Adapted from a timeline provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 

1963 The Second Vatican Council issues Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). 

1964 The Consilium for the revision of the Roman rite is formed. 

1964 The International Commission on English in the Liturgy is created. 

1969 The Roman Missal of Paul VI is promulgated; The Order of the Mass is approved. 

1970 The Order of the Mass of Paul VI is confirmed. 

1975 The Roman Missal is reissued with additions and corrections to the Missal of 1970. 

1973 The U.S. Sacramentary is approved. 

1974 The U.S. Sacramentary is confirmed. 

1987 Revisions to the U.S. Sacramentary begin. 

1996 U.S. Sacramentary revisions are approved. 

2000 Pope John Paul II promulgates the Roman Missal, third edition. 

2001 The Congregation for Divine Worship, under Pope John Paul II, issues Liturgiam Authenticam, establishing the guidelines for future translations of the liturgy and specifying that vernacular translations of the Roman-rite Liturgy must be translated “literally and exactly without paraphrases or glosses.” 

2002 Vox Clara is established to oversee the translation of the new Roman Missal into English. 

2002 The General Instruction of the Roman Missal is approved. 

2004 The first draft of the new translation of the Order of the Mass is submitted. 

2006 The translation of the Order of the Mass is approved. 

2008 The Order of the Mass is confirmed. 

2009 The English translation of the Roman Missal is approved. 

2010-2011 Catechesis on the new translation of the Order of the Mass begins. 

Advent 2011 Scheduled implementation in the United States of the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

Sneak Peek (sidebar)

Can’t wait until next spring to learn what the new English translation of the Roman Missal will look like? Wondering how the prayers you say every Sunday will change? Then visit www.usccb.org/romanmissal

There, you’ll find select portions of the revisions, along with additional background material on why the changes were made and what the changes mean.