The Language of Worship

Wow, these two excerpts are really critical of the current ICEL texts of the sacramentary/missal. Guess who published this? Guess who wrote this? (Answer below, don’t look right away.)

1. “By abandoning the functional variety of sacral English and rendering public worship in the colloquial variety, modern translators have destroyed the power of English to intensify religious experience. In so doing, they mistakenly deny not only the developed Catholic tradition of cultic language but also the religious experience of the human race at large. Human beings, Catholics or Protestants, Christians or non-Christians, have not in the past worshipped in the contemporary colloquial idiom of their own vernacular. Sometimes, as we know, they have not worshipped in their own vernacular at all, but when they have, there has always been a stylized functional variety of their vernacular which they have used.”

2. “[L]iturgical English is presently a pidgin form of the language possessing all the stylistic flair of a wet potato chip. No ritual system in the world, so far as I know, has ever couched its language in a merely accurate vernacular; after eleven years of using ICEL English, I think I now know why. To do so is to trivialize – not to secularize, but to trivialize – the object of worship and, in doing so, to patronize in the most condescending way the illiterate and the uneducated.”




1. Worship, November 1978, by Richard Toporoski.
2. Worship, July 1976, by Fr. Aidan Kavanagh, OSB.

So they’ve been critical of official translations before in Collegeville, I see. PrayTell welcomes the precedent. And reserves the right to critique anything which might be unworthy in the coming official translations. We vote for accurate, sacral, comprehensible, beautiful English in the liturgy. Since we won’t be getting that next year, we’ll be waiting anxiously for the revised translation of the coming texts, whenever that happens. And we’ll be critiquing the coming translations, you can count on that.



  1. Would that there were people like Father Kavanagh involved in the current translation. This man understood the power of words and certainly knew how to use them in cutting, articulate, and sublime ways. To recall a characteristic phrase, I am sure he would tell us that the new translation “did not fall from heaven in a Glad bag”!

  2. Setting aside the issues of the process of the new translation, and the rejection of the 1998 version, and granting that there may be significant flaws, does PrayTell at least concede that the 2010 translation is superior to that of 1970?

    1. PrayTell is not a single-speaking group. Our contributors and our commenters have their own opinions, and we support their dialogue.

    2. John;

      I’d say it’s a somewhat irrelevant question. For some, nothing can ever be either “right” or “wrong”, but instead everything is subject to dialogue and discussion… you would no more get anyone here to concede that the 2010 translation is superior to that of 1970 than you would get them to concede that female ordination is wrong or that chant actually IS the most appropriate music for the Mass.

      “How do you mean wrong?”

      “What do you mean by most appropriate?”

      “Let’s have a dialogue about this..”

      That’s all you’ll get.

  3. I do wonder if a lot of trouble could have been avoided had they simply translated the Mass into the sacred vernacular that the People of God had been used to using up to that time (and still use for a lot of private prayer and devotion).

    The 1973 translation is perfectly described by the two commentators above – it is neither beautiful nor accurate. The upcoming translation is more accurate – which, IMO, makes it better than the old ICEL one by default – but probably could be more beautiful.

  4. I have serious questions about the accuracy of the coming translation. First, individual words and phrases are not all all accurate, they’re simply wrong. But apart from that, and much more important, I think we have to look seriously at the rest of it, even where it is translating all the Latin words with accurate English words.

    The big question is this: who is the accuracy for? For God, who knows all things? Or for the gathered people who hear the presidential texts? If you have a collect with ever Latin word accounted for in the English, God will be able to recognize the accuracy. But if the syntax is uncharacteristic of English, if the pronouns are unclear because our nouns aren’t gendered like in Latin, and if the result is that the people don’t grasp the meaning at all, and aren’t getting the content of the Latin, is this really accurate?

    I think much of the accuracy in the coming translation is purely formal and external. In terms of the whole point of the liturgy, the whole point of the words used in the liturgy, it’s not accurate at all from the perspective of the gathered congregation.


  5. “The big question is this: who is the accuracy for? For God, who knows all things? Or for the gathered people who hear the presidential texts?”

    Wow… that is indeed the million dollar question, but I fear that the answer is not as obvious as you are supposing. Many would say that the prayers are addressed to God, and as is the case in Latin liturgy, comprehension by the faithful is not a primary objective, but rather form and substance of the prayers themselves. I would say that this is a main point of departure for the two views of the new translation… content vs. comprehension.

    We could argue all day that their are “comprehension” problems with the new translation (although they haven’t been actually put to the test yet, so we’d be guessing), and there has already been considerable discussion about the “content” problems with the old translation… those we already know about. But in the end, the failures in comprehension don’t matter as much in one view, and the failures in content don’t matter as much to the other. In short, there are differing views about the “purpose” of translated liturgical texts to begin with, and so there are differing views about what kind of translation will fit the bill.

    It might be a broad generalization, but those who are at home with the liturgy prayed in Latin have alreay overcome comprehension and so for them, it isn’t an issue. To those for whom Latin is anethema, comprehension is THE issue.

    1. And for those who do not comprehend and yet Latin is not anethema? I’m not sure that it’s accurate to characterize the People of God in such a polar way. I comprehend the Latin, I regularly even pray in Latin, but there is apower in praying in the language that rises most easily to my lips – English.

      To pray in two languages is, to take a cue from Quintus Ennius, is to pray with two hearts. To pray with greater love?

  6. Wow! That’s quite a task you’ve taken on Fr Anthony. Good luck. Keep warm and well fed. I’ll keep reading and trying to figure out how to make the best of a difficult situation.

  7. It is unfortunate that both Richard and Aidan caricature the 1973 translation to make their points. I suppose we all do that, but it is neither “colloquial” nor “pidgin”. It is what it is: a dynamically equivalent translation in formal, modern Anglo-American English. Compare … (With apologies for the presumptions I make and fun I have in writing this).

    1973 ICEL translation
    your love for us surpasses all our hopes and desires.
    Forgive our failings,
    keep us in your peace
    and lead us in the way of salvation.

    colloquial version
    we’re not ever gonna live up to your love
    but give us a smile
    to forgive our blues
    and bling us with blessings
    beyond our dreams.

    made-up pidgin
    we not wordy ya luv
    but show dem teeth
    to scat our shame
    make us da dinkum men
    we no earn.

    And, of course, there’s always the CDW-rejected 1998 translation to compare them all to, which I think Aiden and Richard would approve…

    1998 ICEL translation
    Almighty and eternal God,
    whose bounty is greater than we deserve or desire,
    pour out upon us your abundant mercy;
    forgive the things that weigh upon our consciences
    and enrich us with blessings
    for which our prayers dare not hope.

    but, that’s another discussion!

    1. The 1998 version is actually quite lovely on its own. I do wonder as to how it compares to the original Latin (or more specifically a literal translation). I’d be curious to know how accurately it expresses the content of the original. I’ve heard that the 1998 version was rejected in part because it used a lot of gender neutral language for God – and comparing the 1998 snippet you posted with the 1973 ICEL (which mentions “Father”) would seem to confirm this.

      1. NO, this isn’t an example of that. 1973 translated “Deus” as “Father,” so both 1998 and our coming translation will translate it as “God.” There are cases of gender inclusive language introduced in 1998, but this isn’t one of them.
        1998 expresses the content very accurately, in general. The slight deviations (which, remember, we’ll also have in the coming translation) could easily have been adjusted while preserving the beauty and proclaimability of 1998.

      2. It’s good hear that the example given was indeed accurate as well as pretty.

        I was finally just able to download the file of the 1998 Missal from that Worship and Power website. Compared to the 1973 ICEL, the propers seem like an improvement, but the ordinary of Mass seems worse. I must admit that I much prefer the Missal we’ll be getting next Advent – at least when it comes to the ordinary of Mass.

        I guess I was really expecting to be floored by the 1998 Mass since folks here seem to think it is vastly superior to both the 1973 translation and the Liturgicam Authenticam translation.

      3. Jack,

        One of the basic principles of the 1998 translation was to change the people’s parts as little as possible, thus no major changes to the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, etc. The one exception to this general principle was the “inclusivizing” of some texts. Thus these texts resemble much more closely the 1973 text, which is probably why you are not particularly impressed by them.

        The great gain was in the Eucharistic Prayers and the orations.

    2. Just to advance the conversation yet further, here’s the Latin from MR 2002:

      Omnípotens sempitérne Deus, qui abundántia pietátis tuae et mérita súpplicum excédis et vota, effúnde super nos misericórdiam tuam, ut dimíttas quae consciéntia métuit, et adícias quod orátio non praesúmit. Per Dóminum.

      And, because I’m a snarky Episcopalian, let me drop in the collect that was based on this prayer for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

      Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

      1. Thanks, Cody
        That’s much richer than ICEL 73 but still in keeping with its modern style. It would fit right in with the rest of the current Sacramentary.

        I like Maria Boulding’s translation too, which Paul Ford brought to us in March.

        Maria Boulding OSB’s translation

        Almighty, everliving God,
        in your overflowing love for us who pray to you,
        you go further than we deserve,
        further even than we know how to desire.
        Pour out on us your mercy,
        forgiving those things our conscience dreads
        and heaping upon us what our prayer does not venture to ask.

        (from “A Tapestry, from the Wrong Side” in “A Touch of God: Eight Monastic Journeys”, London, SPCK, 1982)

  8. Accuracy is an over-rated value. Beauty, however, is not. That the former is elevated above the latter, then dispensed with clumsily erodes confidence in leadership across the board. Liturgiam authenticam and the new regime seems to be more about ideology than good liturgy. It will be a miracle indeed if something fruitful emerges from those very old wineskins.

    1. Todd;

      Indeed, accuracy may be over-rated, as may comprehension since there remain many who feel that a translation need be at a third grade reading level to be “comprehensible”, but that’s another matter. But I would have to say that while accuracy (and I assume we’re talking about accuracy in terms of the theological content, not grammer, punctuation etc…) may be over-rated by some, it certainly isn’t indespensible for anyone, so it becomes a matter where the translations would ideally be firstly accurate, and secondarily beautiful. On the other hand, some might say ideally they would be firstly beautiful and secondarily accurate. Again, it comes down to what one sees as the “purpose” of a liturgical translation…at the very least, a translation that is more accurate but still not beautiful is an improvement over one that is neither accurate nor beautiful. But at that point we enter into opinions about beauty, and that will really go nowhere fast…

      1. “Again, it comes down to what one sees as the “purpose” of a liturgical translation…”

        Exactly. And where do we find this purpose? Not in the opinion pieces of theologians, even the ones who become pope. But in the fourfold purpose of the Council desribed in SC 1: increase vigor in the Christian life, adapt to the needs of our own times, promote Christian unity; and evangelize the world. Everything we do in liturgy needs to to be lensed through the basic principles, not the pet peeves of bloggers, liturgists, or even popes.

        Pat has a good point below. There should be accurate but non-liturgical translations in English, German, or whatever major world vernaculars will assist the praying of the Roman Rite in languages in which Rome has little or no competence.

      2. I agree strongly with Todd. It is said that the Holy See is especially concerned about English liturgical translations because they are used for many other vernaculars by translators who don’t know Latin and work instead from English. If so, this is a perversion of the purpose of English liturgical translations of a fairly high order, and it’s shocking that the Holy See would countenance such a theological misunderstanding.

        The liturgy is the highest act of the Church, the fount and summit. English translations should serve the purposes of the English-speaking Church at worship. Period. To pervert our liturgical language for other purposes is completely inappropriate.

        It would not be difficult to create an overly literalistic base translation in English as a resource for other languages to use. In fact ICEL does this as the first step in every translation they elaborate. It can’t be too difficult to make this available to others for their reference.

        Please, let our worship be our worship.


    2. Todd, what is the point in having beautiful language if the meaning of the words is not an accurate portrayal of the theological content of the mass? It may be pleasing to the ears, but can it really be as pleasing to the soul?

      1. Brad,

        Why can’t it both be beautiful and accurately portray the complex cognitive and affective content of the Mass?

      2. It a perfect world, it would be both beautiful and accurate. My question pertains to the idea that some of us would choose beauty OVER accuracy, since accuracy is an “over-rated value and beauty is not” (as was stated earlier in this thread). I don’t think you can choose one as being more important than the other, since the words we say at mass cannot not only appeal to our ears, but affirm what we know is true and accurate.

      3. “Accuracy” can also mean many things, depending on one’s theory of translation. Given the translation theory of Liturgiam Authenticam, formal equivalence, it is pretty hard to reconcile accuracy and beauty. A somewhat more flexible translation theory — perhaps somewhere between formal and dynamic equivalence — makes it much easier to produce translations that convey pretty much the full meaning of the original in a way that preserves the beauty of the receptor language.

        Unfortunately, we seem, for the time being, to be stuck with formal equivalence as the (non-infallibly) mandated translation theory. So we will, I guess, have to sacrifice beauty.

  9. Don’t worry. In 100 years this will all be a blip in the history books and we will have the 62′ Mass or something similar to it as the norm. The “New Mass” simply will not make it through the coming challenges the Church is going to face in the coming years.

    1. Matthew – who or what revealed this to you, are you at liberty to say? Or if it’s a prediction coming from your own analysis, on what is this based? I think probably about 2% of Mass-goers are now choosing 1962 as their weekly worship – what makes you so sure this will become 100% so soon?

      I don’t agree with your prediction. I’d put money on it but I don’t think I’ll be here in 100 years. 🙂


      1. Its just a hunch Father. Since the inception of the “New Mass”, Mass attendance has dropped drastically. Before Vatican II there was 65 to 75% Mass attendance. It has now dwindled to about 25 to 30%. Source: (Index of Leading Catholic Indicators : The Church Since Vatican II) It is quite apparent that Catholics understand less now about liturgy than before the era of the “New Mass.” It is quite obvious that the Church is undergoing serious challenges in the modern age and much of it from within her walls. As the Church suffers from a lack of faith, the Old Mass will return to the forefront. We can see that the youth are taking a serous interest in it, and that is where the true renewal will come from. It won’t come for the dying breed of “New Theologians”, but from the return of tradition and love for the faith.

      2. “what makes you so sure this will become 100% so soon?”

        I think it will become 100% because that is where the priests and the rest of the hierarchy are going to end up taking it. There are many young priests that are willing to either learn the Old Mass, or they want to reform the new to resemble much of what is done in the Old Mass. In the end it will be much easier for them to just learn the Old Mass than to fight for liturgical changes that take years to implement. Since any priest can learn and celebrate the Latin Mass (Extraordinary Form) without permission, it will be easier for them to do that rather than fight to make changes like turning the priest back around to face God with the people, kneel to receive communion, etc. It will be a matter of practicality for those priests who want a reverent Mass that actually proclaims in gesture and prayer what is actually going on. We won’t have to worry about translations being altered by commissions who want to distort the theology of the Mass through bad translations, etc. That is my take on it. I know you most likely will disagree.

  10. It seems to me that this discussion is moving into an extremely useful area. What indeed is the “purpose” of a liturgical translation?
    What relative importance should be assigned to accurate, sacral, comprehensible and beautiful English? Beauty over accuracy and comprehension? Really? I come from a “dynamic equivalence” background. If the original Latin was comprehended by people who knew Latin when it was a living language then a translator must provide a similarly comprehensible English text. Surely beauty is a goal to strive for, but not, I think, at the expense of meaning.
    Beyond the questions of translation, what do you think the process should be? How about a commission (ICEL?) made up of theologians, linguists, poets, musicians etc. to constantly consider small changes? Living languages change. Connotations and even denotations can veer off in surprising ways. What can be done if one English-speaking-country finds a translation unsuitable for that country, while other countries do not have the same problem? Who should be consulted by the commission? – priests, laity in the pews, experts, all of the above? How often may minor tweaking of the text occur? – every year, every ten years? Would it be useful to expect a major revision every twenty years, every hundred years? Should any changes be vetted by other Christian churches? Can we be open to suggestions from non-Catholics?
    Were such questions debated and consensus achieved by English speaking…

    1. Beauty is part and parcel of the Truth. And I don’t mean that in a John Keats Hallmark card greeting kind of way.

      It’s just that, to apprehend the musicality of Scripture and the texts of the liturgy is to understand in Technicolor, rather than B&W.

      When Beauty is subordinated to the (mere) Truth, part of the fullness of the Truth is diminished.

      This is why slavishness and word-for-word correspondence is not sufficient.

  11. Ed – well said. And all these questions were debated and an overwhelming concensus was found at Vatican II – now we have the coup (using Rita’s expression).

  12. Amidst all this angst over the vernacular mass of Paul VI, it might be appropriate to pause a moment and give thanks on this, the third anniversary of Pope Benedict’s great gift of Summorum. May God grant him many years more!

    1. John, when you know perfectly well that feelings are very mixed (to say the least) about this disciplinary action, why do you ask all of us to give thanks for it? Do you enjoy being divisive, or are you that unaware (still) of others’ thoughts on this controversial issue?


      1. I guess my enthusiasm over some posts on another blog sorta got the best of me and carried over here.

  13. OnlThe big question is this: who is the accuracy for?”
    Perhaps it’s for those in many countries who are not proficient in Latin and use the English as a de facto editio typica. Why don’t we do the same: use the literal English translation as the basis for developing a truly vernacular liturgy in our different English speaking countries?

  14. Pat – my memory may be hazing but that was the direction ICEL and the conferences of bishops (english speaking and even spanish speaking) were moving until the mid-1990’s.

    LA & SP are both disruptions in the evolution of what Vatican II set up. Later this week at Fordham University, there will be a presentation on interpreting Vatican II by Komonchak, SJ who was one of the primary writers of the 5 volume history of VII with Alberigo. A panel will respond consisting of Peter Steinfels and Mellissa Wilde. Ms. Wilde wrote one of the few sociological studies of the council, “VII: Sociological Analysis of Religious Change”. Based on actual interviews of bishops who were there and recently released secret archives here are some highlights:
    “Culturally, the council changed the very identity of the church.”
    “By the time the first session ended, the curia’s role had been significantly truncated; the council votes had been legitimatized; and the curia’s hold on power greatly weakened.”

    Two remarkable examples – the opening vote was postponed when a couple of leading cardinals spoke out and asked to delay the vote; then the opening vote on the schema was not 2/3rd’s but John XXIII made an exception and allowed a mixed committee to move forward. This was truly a change.

    Link to opening chapters:

  15. Not only is beauty sacrificed, but “English accuracy” (a.k.a. intelligibility) too, which arguably is more important than both beauty and Latin accuracy.

    Question: Who or what is, or are, the “holy sacrifice” and “spotless victim” in the following?

    Be pleased to look upon these offerings
    with a serene and kindly countenance,
    and to accept them,
    as you were pleased to accept the gifts
    of your servant Abel the just,
    the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith,
    and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,
    a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

    (from the new 2010 ICEL/Vox Clara translation of the Roman Canon)

    1. Graham, it would seem at first glance that you need to go to the preceding sentence for that one:

      Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty, from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.

      Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

      But when I translated the prayer for my own use (drawing heavily on Coverdale)… one of the privileges(?) of being an Anglican… I did thus with the paragraphs in question. Note to what the holy-spotless refers:

      And now, O Lord, remembering the blessed passion of Christ your Son, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into glory, we your servants and holy people offer to your most excellent majesty, from your our own gifts and bounty, this pure, holy and spotless victim: the bread of eternal life and the cup of everlasting salvation.

      Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a merciful and pleasant gaze, and to accept them as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the righteous, the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and the holy sacrifice and spotless victim offered by your high priest Melchizedek.

  16. Thanks, Cody. I posed the question for rhetorical effect to illustrate the ambiguity intoduced into English liturgical language by the silly new way of translating litugical Latin.

    The very fact that you had to retranslate the prayer to get to its meaning highlights the problems of formal correspondence quite nicely, especially its inappropriateness for giving effect to the Council’s “uber liturgical commandment” of full, active and conscious participation by all.

  17. First, OUR worship is that of OUR worship, as in the ENTIRE BODY OF THE CHURCH, and it is not limited to each individual culture or territories. We should have the same liturgical experience regardless of the Roman Catholic Church one attends. This means every Mass must have the same prayers, postures and gestures as another. Second, in keeping with this philosophy, it was decided that each language would have ONE translation that was universal to that language. Ie, French speaking countries have one translation. Spanish speaking countries have one translation, and also English speaking countries and territories have one translation. I highly doubt that SC intended for there to be colloquial expressions or idomatic phrases distinct to each territory or country included in the translation.

  18. Tim, if the inferences you draw in your second and third sentences from the statement you make in your first were valid, then the biggest offender against such uniformity would be the existence of a vernacular mass at all. Assuming you concede the principle of a vernacular, it’s illogical to accept that there may be different vernacular languages but not differences within a language. Having (say) separate EN-US and EN-UK versions is hardly more a crime against uniformity than separate FR/DE/EN versions.

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