Words matter: The missal mess that won’t go away

A fairly negative reading of the missal translation situation from Bryan Cones: “Words matter: The missal mess that won’t go away.”

Cones refers to the CARA survey commissioned by the Diekmann Center:

The lack of commitment to these texts is telling; I suspect in the years to come we will begin to see more and more blends of the new translation and the old one until we can generate the will to attempt another effort worthy of the people of God.

I would only add that the 1998 translation is much better than the old translation from 1974 in place until 2011, so I hope that that important work doesn’t get lost in future discussions. – awr



  1. The New Missal is unlikely to go away because many priests and many bishops support it.

    Francis wants increased not decreased power to bishop’s conferences. While if he put Marini-1 in charge of the CDW, the rules for translation might be changed and Vox Clara might be abolished, it will be a long time before the composition of members of bishops’ conferences changes.

    The best solution is to give everybody what they want, i.e. authorize the Old Missal and the 1998 translation along with the New Missal as all being approved by the bishops conferences at some time and therefore all likely to be pastorally useful for some parishes just like the EF is.

    The key however to being pastorally effective is to involve the laity in the evaluation of its pastoral effectiveness, not leave it up to individual bishops or individual priests.

    That evaluation should involve behavioral not just poll data, i.e. requiring priests to track attendance at each Mass in all parishes: is it increasing or decreasing? what people are coming more? what people are coming less? who are the new people coming? who are the old people leaving? are they going elsewhere?

    Parishes need to become very serious about increasing Mass attendance. Our new Pope is giving us wonderful publicity. Are parishes really going to take advantage of this by seeing what liturgies attract people and retain them? Are they going to take advantage of the publicity by seeing what non liturgical aspects of parish life attract and retain people?

    The avenue to the Pope’s mind and heart on this is for pastors and pastoral staff to go to the people, especially those who are alienated from the church and discover what they need.

    Unfortunately many priests and laity would rather in the words of John Allen “play church” rather than be church, i.e. spend their time cheering or complaining about the actions of Popes and Bishops.

    We need to make one of Francis “healthy messes” in the dioceses and parishes by being upset and unsatisfied with the status quo and do real evangelization that serves people not the phony evangelization which continues the culture wars.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #1:
      You suggested: We need to make one of Francis “healthy messes” in the dioceses and parishes by being upset and unsatisfied with the status quo and do real evangelization that serves people not the phony evangelization which continues the culture wars.

      Okay. You first. What specific actions are you suggesting?

      Your new polling data ideas are nice, but not implementable. Our church has 4 doors, 6 weekend Masses, and 1000-1500 people per Mass. How do we track who’s new and who’s missing? Short of borrowing from the NSA, how do we decipher where and why they’ve gone?

      The suggestion about new liturgies is good, but they task resources. The one liturgy that has shown specific growth for us has been a “retro” All Souls Day memorial Mass with music by Mozart, Faure, etc. Begun 4 years ago, participation has doubled each year; next year will be SRO. But it has come at the expense of a Lessons and Carols service in Advent. Choirs have only so much to give.

      Your suggestion of opening the floodgates to a multiplicity in translations bothers me. Who decides which one is used? The pastor? The celebrant? The parish council, aka, big donors? Can Fr. A mingle, add, delete, modify at will? And in 10 years, how many variations will we have of our Book of Common Prayer? (And how will the OCP and other profit makers respond?)

      For Fr. Ruff: Can you give a specific, concrete example of what should be introduced from the 1998 translation, what it should replace in the current, and why? It’s unsettling to hear the drumbeat from some that “this stinks” but without demonstrated improvements. It would be wonderful to hear serious recommendations from one who knows! Thanks.

  2. Cardinal Raul Silva Hernandez (Santiago, Chile) at the Council: ” the liturgy should have appropriate room for the living language of the praying community.”

  3. It’s unlikely to “go away” because all the other rites are slated to be translated in a like manner. And where the effects of doing this with the Missal were, believe it or not, limited, the effects of doing this with other rites will be far more intrusive. Particularly the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

  4. There are some lay people who, for whatever reasons, care desperately about the liturgy translations. But I suspect that the great majority of churchgoers care hardly at all except for the fact that changes are very distracting, especially for older people who have said the prayers in one way for many years, and especially when we must speak the words with the other churchgoers.

    Consider how you would react if even a few words of the Our Father or Hail Mary were changed! “Our Father in Heaven, praised be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done here on Earth as it’s done in Heaven. Give us today our daily bread . . . .” Most distracting.

    However, most people do respond to beautiful language — listen to the language of the Book of Common Prayer. But the RCC doesn’t seem to have genius translators like the ones who were available for the BCP. So, I say leave things as they are until some eminently competent translators are available, even though that might take generations.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #5:
      Actually, there was an attempt to revise the Missal text of the Our Father in that manner, and wiser heads prevailed against it. (It was an option in the 1998 Sacramentary. For all the insistence on not making changes to the key parts of the Ordinary because they had been committed to memory, the proposal to update the Our Father belied that rationale,)

      I certainly remember the effort to update many prayers in the early 1970s. Having had to learn many prayers in the late 1960s for First Communion, within 4 years having to relearn many of them in new guise for Confirmation merely taught me how arbitrary things can be. It was not a good impression, shall we say. There was a pointed Newspeak aspect to it that was obvious to many of the confirmands. And I am otherwise quite enthusiastic about the thrust of the conciliar liturgical reforms in general.

  5. The American Bishops may be having trouble understanding Francis but at least the Orthodox are not having any problem:

    Metropolitan Hilarion, the Moscow Patriarch’s equivalent of the Vatican Secretary of State,:

    The Russian Metropolitan values Pope Francis’ new “ecumenical path”: Unity is not born of an alliance “against someone or something”, it comes from a common apostolic faith


    Real Christian unity cannot be distorted, with unity being formed out of opposition or motivated by “ideological, pragmatic or propagandistic” elements. Eastern and Western Churches “which have their roots in Apostolic Christianity” “have the very special mission of testifying “Christian Christianity” together, “professing the truth of the Cross together.”

    Thankfully the Orthodox are sensitive about the wrong messages that the culture wars may be sending to people, especially the young. When Catholic bishops look like they prefer a Mormon, or an Evangelical candidate to a practicing Roman Catholic candidate and even threaten to deny communion to the Catholic candidate because of their political decisions it simply says that the vast majority of the faith (e.g. the creed, the sacraments) and the practice of the faith mean absolutely nothing to the bishop, only his political views.

    The Russians understand that Francis is going back to the real basics of the faith, on what we have in common as Christians, and of course the Russians see that they and Rome have so much in common. Hilarian particularly noted Francis appreciation of the Orthodox liturgy on the first plane interview, and his appreciation of the Orthodox traditions of synods in the second interview. See the Orthodox don’t have any trouble interpreting those “off the cuff” interviews correctly. They are getting the message as are many others. Everyone recognizes that Francis as a pastor is trying to focus on the heart of matter rather than technical details.

  6. Karl —

    I agree with you entirely. I’m certainly not absolutely against changes in words. What I’m against is making new words an obstacle rather than a help.

    I also think that when the words must be changed, the change would best be done piecemeal unless there are glorious new translations that make the changes worthwhile. If the changes happen bit by bit we won’t feel so aggravated all at once. Changing a ritual is always alienating at least a bit.

    I’m probably just talking from my perspective as an old aesthetics teacher, but the beauty of liturgy is extremely important. Beauty is mute, but it *shows* the truth and goodness of God.

  7. I have heard both complaints and praise from clergy and laity alike depending on what “side” they claim to be. I am confused on some of the translations, esp the “Doxlogy” and “Acclaimation of Faith” which basicly re arranged the words…makes no sense. Many of the ordinary Prayers are a direct translation of the 1962 Missal. I found an old hardback copy of the “People’s Mass Book” that I have on my bookshelf dated 1964. This was the time of the “Transitional Mass” and the Confeitor & Gloria are almost the exact words we are now using.
    Many of the Opening prayers were in dire need of updating but the current Missal now is too wordy.
    I like the 1976 BCP both Rite I & II. It is beautful and the words flow well. Rome needs to consult with our Anglican friends to help us with future translations.
    By the way, why are we calling this a Missal again? A missal contains both the lectionary readings and the Prayers unless i am mistaken. It is a Sacramentary!

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