Many Catholics are only now waking up to the fact that the language of the Mass will be very different come the end of November 2011. A new translation of the Roman Missal—the book of prayers used for the Mass—will soon be put into use in all Catholic Churches in the United States. Some who have read the new prayers are happy about the changes. Others are gravely concerned. In recent months, priests in Ireland, Australia, the United States and elsewhere have voiced objections, saying this translation is not what the Church needs—and that it will be divisive.

How did we get to this moment? What follows is a timeline on translation changes, to help you understand how we got to where we are today.


The Second Vatican Council opens the door to using the vernacular in the Catholic liturgy. The use of “the mother tongue” is part of the mandate of the Council to adapt the liturgy to modern times.

Bishops’ conferences from around the English-speaking world prepare to translate texts of the Mass into spoken English. They establish an organization called ICEL, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

The Second Vatican Council entrusted to bishops and conferences of bishops the task of overseeing translations into their native languages. The Vatican would then review the translations and grant them approval.


The first complete translation of the Mass texts (the Missal) prepared by ICEL is granted approval from Rome and put into service for English-speaking Catholics around the globe. The 1973 translation is clear and simple. The bishops had requested a translation that would be easily understandable. This was their primary goal.

The translators who produced the 1973 translations were guided in their work by a Vatican document called Comme le prévoit, published in 1969. The theory of translation followed in Comme le prévoit is called “dynamic equivalence.” Dynamic equivalence is a standard theory of translation. It is often used for poetic and literary writing and spoken texts. The goal of dynamic equivalence is to convey the overall sense and meaning of the text in idiomatic English.


Following a lengthy process of consultation and retranslation, ICEL completed a new translation of the Roman Missal in 1997, as part of its regular work. In 1998, all the conferences of English-speaking bishops from around the world vote to approve the text.

The bishops wanted a new translation that would be richer and more beautiful. They also wanted it to hew more closely to the Latin, without sacrificing clarity or intelligibility in English. The 1998 translation fulfilled these criteria.

When this translation was sent to Rome, however, it was not approved. The authorities in the Vatican decided that dynamic equivalence was no longer acceptable. Furthermore, they decided it was unacceptable to have an agency that was not directly under their control preparing translations in the first place. (ICEL reported to the bishops of the eleven conferences of Catholic bishops who founded it.) Rome now wanted control of the process.

The 1998 translation was shelved. ICEL was reorganized so that it would answer directly to Rome and not to the conferences of bishops. New personnel were appointed and a new constitution for ICEL was written. Another translation was started from scratch.


The Vatican issues the instruction Liturgiam authenticam, unveiling a new set of principles to be used in translations from this time forward. The theory of translation used in Liturgiam authenticam is called “formal equivalence.” Every Latin word must be accounted for in all future translations of liturgical texts into the vernacular.

Liturgiam authenticam also directs that the vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, and capitalization patterns found in the Latin original must be reproduced as much as possible in the vernacular languages. These rules apply not only to English translations, but to all other languages as well. The rules aim at creating a new language used only in church, a “sacral language” different from ordinary speech.

An extraordinary outpouring of criticism arises in response to this instruction.


A new committee is formed to advise the Vatican on the approval of translations into English. It is called Vox Clara. It is made up of bishops chosen by the Vatican. It reports to the Curia.


After much discussion and over numerous objections, a new translation prepared by the new ICEL following the new norms laid down in Liturgiam authenticam is approved by the English-speaking bishops’ conferences. Critics call this translation clumsy, wooden, difficult to proclaim, and likely to create confusion and misunderstandings. Supporters praise the translation for its “elevated register” and fidelity to Latin. The text is sent to Rome for approval.


Vox Clara introduces an estimated 10,000 changes into the text approved in 2008. Sources close to ICEL say that the changes impair the text and display no consistent pattern. Critics of the 2008 translation find nothing in this rewrite to ease their concerns.

The altered text is returned to the bishops for implementation. This text is scheduled to be introduced in the United States on the weekend of November 26–27, 2011.

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Related stories on Pray Tell:

And for all the developments in the Missal story over the past year, with a complete set of links to our coverage, see Missal Translation Directory

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