Second Graders Can Understand This!?

A regular reader of Pray Tell (OK, I admit, he’s a confrere in my monastery) writes the following:

I recently had a conversation about how hard the new translations will be for the laity to understand. So, as an experiment, I downloaded the 4 new Eucharistic Prayers into four separate Word documents. I deleted all of the rubrics, so that it was only what the people hear and then did a grammar check.

Word provides the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaide Grade Level. The Reading Ease goes from easiest at 100 to hardest at 0. 100-90 is easily understandable by an average 11 year old student. The Grade Level measures both the complexity of the sentence structures and the difficulty of the vocabulary. It then estimates what grade a student must be in to understand it. I put both at the Standard setting so that the measure was for neither informal writing nor academic writing.

The results:
Eucharistic Prayer 1: Reading Ease 89.9  Grade Level: 1.9
Eucharistic Prayer 2: Reading Ease 92.6   Grade Level: 1.6
Eucharistic Prayer 3: Reading Ease 90      Grade Level :2
(It has the most passive sentences).
Eucharistic Prayer 4: Reading Ease 92.2   Grade Level: 1.6

So, by these estimates all of the prayers can be easily understood by an average 11 year old and, indeed, is not beyond a normal American second grader.

Since, we are told that the current generations of Catholics are the best educated in our history, one hopes that they can manage these translations!


  1. Dom Anthony:

    Please ask your confrere to run the test again, but this time also to remove the sense lines.

    When I read this, and having wrestled with these texts and their translations, I was unwilling to believe it. So, incredulous Anglican that I am, I ran the test as described above on Eucharistic Prayer 1. Sure enough, I got the same results. But then I wondered whether or not the sentence fragments of the sense-line structure weren’t skewing things. When the fragments were pulled into whole sentences, Eucharistic Prayer 1 yielded a reading ease of 61.0, a grade level 11.0.

    Rather farther along in reading comprehension than second grade!

  2. Cody – you’d need to run them for II-IV also to see the differential between all four based on such removal. If they stay around their original mark, that may be significant. If they all move to 60 or so, less so.

  3. Sounds just fine to me! Why not? The workforce alone places extensive demands on each employee to pay attention to detail. The pace of learning in a basic office situation is incredibly demanding. Why should our liturgical life, which lasts forever, be less demanding–that is to say, less elevating–than Word 2007?

    1. But the demands should be those of Gospel discipleship, not of comprehending syntax or vocab just to get what the discipleship demands are.

  4. Using the celebrant’s texts only — invitation to the Memorial acclamation, but not the acclamation itself; no rubrics — here were my results for the four prayers:

    Eucharistic Prayer 1: Reading Ease 61.0 Grade Level: 11.0
    Eucharistic Prayer 2: Reading Ease 68.0 Grade Level: 10.5
    Eucharistic Prayer 3: Reading Ease 56.5 Grade Level: 13.8
    Eucharistic Prayer 4: Reading Ease 65.5 Grade Level: 11.0 (with invariable preface).
    Eucharistic Prayer 4: Reading Ease 66.3 Grade Level: 10.6 (without invariable preface).

  5. The problem with all of this is that the people will be listening, not reading, won’t they? I know I can comprehend a lot easier when I’m reading the text than I can when I’m hearing it spoken. (Just ask my Hebrew professor!)

    1. I think one of the great unspoken fears is that the release of the new translation will spawn another 20 years of heads buried in paperback missalettes (or hard-bound hand-missals: makes no difference) — and just at a time when attentive listening was becoming the norm in so many places.

      But then, in the Episcopal world, there are people who wouldn’t dream of going to church without following every word in the Book of Common Prayer, even though they know the liturgy from memory: their own parts and those of the celebrant — and there’s no way around that when the Prayer Book is in the pews. (And don’t even think about trying to get rid of them — you’ll have everyone from the president of the vestry to the directress of the flower guild down your throat before the words ever come out your mouth!)

      1. Well, there are plenty of people whose FCAP is better served by reading than listening in a large public space with a PA system. We’ve made great strides in recent years learning not to privilege one form of comprehension over the other. The fear of people reading instead of listening betrays an inability to imagine that reading may assist listening.

  6. Fr. Ruff, I don’t think a neat separation can be made between the elevation of the mind and becoming a disciple. (That’s my closet Dominican speaking!)

  7. Good point Kathy, they are connected for many or most people. But not for all, and not in the same ways. If the liturgical text is beyond the comprehension level of a given person – say, an adult of low IQ or lacking in education – I don’t see how it will elevate their mind and help them be a better disciple. (NOTE: I’m not saying this is the case with the upcoming missal!) Wouldn’t such people do better at discipleship if they understood the text, until such day as they maybe do or maybe don’t get their mind elevated?

  8. Yes, and there should be catechesis and even alternate liturgies to help develop the faith life of adults and children with low IQ. Organizations such as NAFIM
    work to make sure that there is not just a place but a very meaningful place for persons with disabilities in our parishes.

    But by and large, considering the general population, I think we sell folks short. My special concern, as you know, Fr. Ruff, is hymn texts. I don’t think they have to be inaccessible–not by any means. But I think that like all religious language, from the Psalms to the orations, they should have some depth to them.

    Take Wesley’s Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. What’s not to like? Notice, though, the somewhat obscure character of some of the scriptural references. Cast our crowns? “From glory to glory”?

    The meaning reveals itself according to the mode of the receiver, n’est-ce pas? If the receiver has read 2 Cor lately, “glory to glory” means more.

    1. That’s the difference between Wesley, Heber or Alford and more, well….”contemporary” text authors. With the former, I feel there is much that I need to learn and often want to go find out what many of the references mean and how they figure into the meaning of the hymn. With the latter, I feel as though I am describing what I’m doing, or worse yet telling everybody else what we are all doing, and often that’s about it.

      At other times I feel like I am reading the lyrics to a 70’s Rock Ballad….the kind with intentionally obscure references:

      “Blowing, come Spirit through pain, not knowing where, but without unreachable touch leaves us not seeing, not hearing or able to gain…”


  9. I encourage people to read and pray over the texts of Mass as part of their prayer outside Mass during the week. Some (not as many as we would hope) actually look at the readings beforehand. The same should be true of all the texts of the Mass. I hope that the implementation process for the revised translation is an opportunity for everyone (people and priests!) to take a closer look at the texts of the liturgy and increase their awareness and their prayer life.

  10. Dear Cody,
    I am the monk who ran the original Word documents. It seems to me that the sense lines are important since that is what will be given to the celebrant to say. This is how the people will hear the text. In nearly thirty years of proclaiming the current ICEL texts, I have seen that priests normally use the sense lines in their proclamation. To say that they are not relevant strikes me as not factually accurate. That is how they are–and will be– proclaimed during the Mass. Thus, a second grader will be able to understand them.
    Thanks for the continued conversation,

    1. Hi Nathaniel,

      I didn’t mean to imply that the sense lines are irrelevant: I think you’ve proven otherwise — the sense lines obviously increase the intelligibility of the text. But text-qua-text, apart from the intended shape of its declamation, also deserves evaluation, and apparently text-qua-text in this case is written to a fairly high level of comprehension.

      The key to intelligibility will ultimately be found in how the texts are used in the liturgy. As sense lines help that process along — and I know from experience that they do — they are of tremendous value.

  11. I think what so many are missing in all this concern about comprehensibility, of which I am not opposed, is that the Mass is the universal Church’s official prayer and worship to God, through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. No matter what translation or what language, including Latin, it should be worthy of God’s ineffable majesty. If it is complicated, and certainly understanding the nature of the Mass apart from language is complicated, then the clergy and laity should study it, understand it and appreciate it outside of the confines of its actual celebration. The actual celebration shouldn’t be necessarily a catechesis for all or so simplified as to make it childish or inelegant. If I don’t know the meaning of the words, gibbet, ineffable and con-substantial, I should look them up and add them to my vocabulary after Mass. I should not expect the lowest common denominator to be the guiding force to alleviate my ignorance while Mass is celebrated.

    1. Well, while Comme le prevoit made the mistake of aiming for low vernacular in the name of intelligibility by the young et cet., LA has made the mistake of fetishizing Latin syntax: both sets of translation principles make the goal of beauty subordinate to other more practical concerns.

      1. While that may be true, we really don’t have any control over that do we, unless we are disobedient to what we are asked to celebrate when it becomes official. The 1970’s model of doing your own thing independent of the “pigs” or others in authority should by now really be passe. After all, the Catholic ethos really isn’t fierce individualism but corporate unity and in many cases, i.e the Mass, uniformity for the good of the whole.

      2. Well said, Karl.
        I have wondered how the upcoming translate fits in with the rich theology of beauty of Pope Benedict XVI.

      3. “both sets of translation principles make the goal of beauty subordinate to other more practical concerns.”

        Is that unreasonable? It doesn’t seem immediately obvious to me that beauty is the #1 priority.

      4. If beauty is THE priority, wouldn’t that open the whole thing up to a wide range of very subjective criteria? In other words, should it be “beautiful” first, and “accurate” only secondarily? Can texts violate Catholic teachings for the sake of beauty? I hope this isn’t what was meant here…

    2. Insofar as the text-event is integral to the church’s offering of praise and thanksgiving to God, one would think that beauty would be placed on equal footing with accuracy. It is possible to produce a formally equivalent translation that is also richly poetic. That does not seem to have happened here.

      I think this is a major theological question. What does it mean for Christians (broadly speaking or within a particular denominational/confessional tradition) to bring less than our very best before God in the liturgy?

      1. If it is the case that beauty is not subordinate to any other concern and is on an equal footing with accuracy… well, it’s widely maintained that Latin is a more beautiful language than English. Certainly no translation can more accurately reflect the content of the Latin original than the Latin original can itself. If those premises stood you’d not be able to translate it at all. Presumably beauty and accuracy are both being subordinated to some other concern? Call it intelligibility?

      2. Samuel,
        I think we can obviously eliminate from consideration unorthodox translations. Then, from say 10 or 15 possible orthodox translations, all of which are within reasonable bounds of accuracy (I know that’s possibly a controversial wording), the right kind of translation guidelines should encourage the most beautiful translation of all those. Critics are saying that the impending text comes from guidelines which fail in this regard, and it would have been possible to have a text which is orthodox and accurate, and also considerably more beautiful than what we’re getting. So my point is, let’s not play off accuracy against beauty.

      3. And, might I add, Fr Ruff, that by “beauty” I would specifically include the more specifically dimensional attribute of musicality (be it prosody or poetry).

  12. When the fragments were pulled into whole sentences, Eucharistic Prayer 1 yielded a reading ease of 61.0, a grade level 11.0

    Rather farther along in reading comprehension than second grade!

    OK…so shouldn’t the average adult in a Catholic parish be able to comprehend (eventually) texts at an 11th Grade level? It’s not as though they need to immediately understand them in depth upon the first hearing. Give them a few years….I think the vast majority will be just fine.

  13. To argue now on the other side, there is also the element of repetition innate to ritual. Let us hope that hearing the eucharistic prayers dozens and dozens of times will bring a type of ‘liturgical comprehension’ (this is not just rational comprehension) which will be richer than the first time one hears something which is at the 11th or 12th grade reading level. As Gabe Huck once wrote, “Liturgy is repetitive for a purpose. You aren’t meant to get it the first time around.”

  14. It strikes me (as it has long struck others, to be sure), that the postconciliar effort to merge the populism (Low/Broad) and enthusiastic energy (Broad/Low) of devotions into liturgy (High) properly speaking remains a contentious enterprise for the Roman rite.

  15. The MS Word values are flawed (as several others have pointed out!). I put in a chunk from a PhD thesis I’m in the process of reading, which it also rated as a 2nd grade level. I assure you, it’s not.

    I don’t expect (nor wish) to grasp it all the first time, but one hopes that it is not so tangled that I can never engage it as it should be. A text that requires a post-graduate education (17+ years is the Gunning Fog Index for the new translation of EP I) to be understood at the first reading is a bit much. There will be people who never understand the words.

    I highly recommend the correspondence about the changes in the translation of the Anglican liturgy between CS Lewis contained in “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer”. You’ll recognize the debate. It’s nothing new.

    1. There will be people who never understand the words

      I would say this needs to be challenged. That there will be people who never WILL understand I have no doubt. What I doubt is that those people are “unable” to ever understand. My suspicion is that they would not have put in the necessary “work”….if they did they would be able to eventually grasp the meanings of the texts, and probably far deeper than they were able to with the old translations. If someone is somehow unable to grasp the meaning of the texts after some study, then I would equally doubt their ability to “understand” the old translation as well. Knowing the meanings of the individual words is not the same as understanding the meaning of the whole.

  16. It seems to me that the new translations are not that bad. People are a bit too pessimistic, the opposite of Catholic optimism. These translations are a vast improvement over what we’ve been praying for the last 40 years in English. I’ve prayed them and studied them and they are better. Are they the best? Maybe not. We’ve had too many chefs and not enough cooks with this process of translation that has taken now more than 20 years!
    We’ll have to get use to praying these prayers aloud, but we will get use to them and these new translations will assist those of us in the Latin Rite to make more beautiful not only our celebration of the Mass, but also our lives. The perceived holiness of the Mass should lead to a perceived holiness of life. The two walk hand-in-hand. The law of prayer is the law of belief and hopefully the law of discipleship.

  17. The Eucharistic Prayers will become habitual in time, for the priests to pray and the people to hear. What worries me are the week-by-week and day-by-day collects, prayers over the offerings, and prayers after communion. As Louis-Marie Chauvet suggests, we may have to decode them in the brief invitations to pray them, before the presider actually prays them.

  18. Any immediate intelligibility that is lost from the orations will be more than balanced by the re-established causal connection between the qui clause–the saving mystery–and the petition.

    The orations should (and do, with study and care) make sense to us. But much more importantly, the prayers should be true to our religion. The new translation expresses our dependency upon God and the saving mysteries much better.

  19. I think Cody’s response (number 22) is an important one: “It is possible to produce a formally equivalent translation that is also richly poetic. That does not seem to have happened here.”
    My impression is that we will still be in need of a beautiful translation! Perhaps that could be the subject of a new thread.

  20. Arriving late to thread…Word relies on sentence length and number of syllables per word – without real analysis of vocabulary or complexity. As Cody noted (#1), it is essential to remove sense lines lest lines appear as brief sentences. I got different results, but offer grade levels here to compare with current EPs:
    I current = 7.4 New = 13.9
    II current = 5.6 New = 11.9
    III current = 7.5 New = 13.7
    IV current = 7.7. New = 10.4
    So, current prayers were not overly simple to begin with; and new translations do have characteristics that result in even higher reading levels. Of course, this is one factor and does not speak to beauty, proclamation, repetition, as others have noted.

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