Ecumenical Affirmation and Admonition Revisited

By Gordon W. Lathrop

In 2000, as part of a festschrift for Fr. Anscar Chupungco, OSB, Liturgical Press invited and published an article from me titled, “The Revised Sacramentary in Ecumenical Affirmation and Admonition.” It was an article I was glad to write, honored to write, believing as I do that honest ecumenical relationships involve both strongly affirming the gifts one sees the other holding for us all and, at the same time, carefully and humbly admonishing what appear to be failings that may hurt us all. What I said then about the new missal translation of that time, the translation that had been developed by ICEL over the preceding seventeen years, was mostly affirmation. For example:

The Eucharist exists in the local church before a revised liturgical book reaches that assembly. But, in this case, the new liturgical book would come to that assembly representing the combined wisdom of persons who have arisen in a whole range of other local churches — scholars and teaching bishops, priests and praying poets — who pass on the ordo of the Eucharist in new clarity, accompanied with new insight into its tradition, new translation and adaptation of its editio typica texts, and new proposals for the lively combination of the ancient “genius of the Roman rite” with the genius of the contemporary English-speaking cultures (Mark R. Francis and Keith F. Pecklers, eds., Liturgy for the New Millennium, Collegeville; 2000, page 130).

The proposed new sacramentary seemed like a tangible manifestation of the church as a communion of churches. It seemed an international mutual gift-giving such as then only the Roman Catholic Church could accomplish.

Not now. Not with the current “new translation” that is waiting to be imposed upon Roman Catholic parishes a year from now. Combined wisdom, achieved in a gracious public process, seems now to be missing. So does the knowledge that the Eucharist exists already in the local assembly and a book comes only to help, to be one sign of the wider communion. Missing also is any new clarity about the mutual engagement of the genius (and the failings) of the Roman rite and the genius (and the failings) of the several contemporary English-speaking cultures. In regard to this new translation what I mostly want to do is look the other way, embarrassed that such a thing exists. But when I actually read it, when I force myself to face it, remembering that Roman Catholic sisters and brothers will really have to deal with this text, what I want to do is weep. What happens to you, happens to me, as both Tertullian and St. Paul would say. In Christ, it would be wrong to think that what you do in assembly and at Mass does not concern me.

But I must do more than weep. As I said ten years ago, in a far happier way, “whatever happens with the Roman liturgy is important to those of us who also share in the inheritance of the Western rite and in the work of that rite’s continual cultural contextualization” (op. cit., 132). Then I have a responsibility to state, carefully, I hope, but honestly, my admonitions, even if I have no chance of being heard.

My principal concern is this: the new missal translation has simply and unilaterally abandoned what had been our shared ecumenical texts. Amid all the other furor — about awkwardly Latinized English, for example, or about the re-introduction of yet more gendered language for the church and for humanity and God — I wonder if most people who have thought about this new translation have even noticed this loss. The now widely known English missal translation, the 1973 ICEL translation, made use of those texts of the “prayers we have in common” that had been hammered out earlier in the ecumenical International Consultation on English Texts and in ICEL itself, thus with widespread and significant participation in the hammering by Roman Catholic liturgists and linguists. The very same texts — of the Creeds, of the Gloria, of the Preface dialogue, of the Sanctus, of the Agnus Dei, of the Lord’s Prayer — were used in the book of my church: the Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978. They were also used in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, as also in many other liturgical books prepared throughout the churches of the English speaking world in the 70’s and 80’s. The list of those books is long. Then, in 1988, the English Language Liturgical Consultation, the successor to ICET, again with significant Roman Catholic leadership, published Praying Together, an important and helpful revision of all of these texts, based on years of common use and on further scholarship. The revised sacramentary on which I was commenting in 2000, the one that was still waiting for Roman approval, utilized these 1988 revisions. So did the the American Presbyterian Book of Common Worship of 1993. So did the recent revised book of my church, Evangelical Lutheran Worship of 2006. So did many, many other books throughout the English speaking Christian world.

Not this new book. The common Gloria, Sanctus and Creed translations are gone here. So is the common translation of both the full Preface dialogue and the briefer presidential “Lord be with you” exchange. The ecumenical Lord’s Prayer has never been given much of a chance among Roman Catholics, but this new missal does not even give it a nod by providing it as an alternative. No. None of them. We do still more or less share the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, albeit with differences even there. I will take those two shared texts nonetheless as signifying a plea for mercy amid this loss.

For this absence is a huge loss. The sense of common prayer, the sense that our commonly recognized baptism has incorporated us into a common confession of faith and common acts of praise, the belief that these foundations do give us a ground on which to stand as we continue in dialogue toward fuller communion and more manifest unity — all of this is significantly eroded. The sense will be, rather, that what happens in Roman Catholic worship is qualitatively other than what happens in the worship of other communities. If this is what you think, then this missal will serve and reinforce your conviction. If it is not what you think — if the Creeds we share really are shared confessions, for example, and if the ordo of the Mass is recognizable to you in the patterns of the service in many other places — I hope you will lament with me.

Words matter.

Among these texts is the much discussed “and also with you/and with your spirit.” I think that the former response is the better one, more in accord with biblical anthropology, with pastoral truth, with the nature of presiding, and with contemporary ways of beautiful English speech. Besides, after decades of the use of such an important phrase in liturgy — a phrase readily and deeply in the mouths and hearts of the assembly — it is surely wrong to make such a change without very, very good reasons. And the argument from Chrysostom seems to me to be forced, unhelpful, arcane. Do we always follow Chrysostom’s etymologies? Is he always right? And what about the charism that is given in baptism? I am willing to talk about the question, however, to hear the arguments for another translation. I am quite aware that many other modern languages, including the Swedish and Norwegian and German used elsewhere in Lutheran liturgies, translate with their own versions of “and with your spirit.” It is simply that I long for the use in English to be what it has been: a common use arising out of mutual study and conversation. Now it will not be so. There has been no conversation.

And that leads to my second major concern: the process toward this missal translation has been imperious and even abusive. I know this mostly by watching the deep sadness of some of the best liturgists in the world, gracious and holy Roman Catholic men and women, with whom there has also been no conversation. I know it by having observed the remarkable work of the second ICEL translation simply be swept aside, the scholarship and informed opinions of its many drafters from many nations simply ignored. Peter Jeffrey has elegantly taught us that this was not the ancient way of the Roman rite (see his Translating Tradition), but now the process itself seems to represent the worst Protestant nightmare about the Roman church imagining itself to be a monarchical empire, rather than a communion. Such was not the case with the process toward the translation I was praising in 2000. And process does matter. The fruits of imperial coercion will never be love. As the first letter attributed to Peter says, “As a presbyter myself . . . I exhort the presbyters among you to tend the flock of God . . . not under compulsion but willingly . . . Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3).

There are yet other matters of content that deeply concern me. For one thing, “for many” may literally represent the Latin of the Institution Narrative, but it is simply wrong as a translation into English of what we find first in the Markan and Matthean forms of Jesus’ words. Polloi there points to the crowd, the hoi polloi, the great unwashed mass of humanity, the whole needy world, indeed, to all. Then, of course, I still wonder about the overwhelmingly sacrificial character of the texts in and around the various canons of the Mass. That is, I know, an old Lutheran/Roman Catholic disagreement and one that I would not expect to see solved simply by English translation. But when the more understandable and theologically defensible plural (“our sacrifice”) of the orate fratres prayer falls back to the literally correct but liturgically appalling “my sacrifice,” I would think that Roman Catholic pastors and liturgists themselves would object. Then there is that matter of gendered language. Does it work in the ears of current hearers to heighten the masculine references for God, to ask the brothers to pray for the male priest, and then continually to make references to the passive church as to a “she?” No matter how literally correct these translations, are they not the result of a kind of linguistic archaism, reinforcing a older and unjust view of social roles, and are they not a contradiction to the baptismal dignity of the assembly? As Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). Should not our language reflect that baptismal truth?

But is there anything I can affirm about this translation as an observer from afar who nonetheless must pay attention to what is happening? Well, the missal translation does follow the classic western shape of the rite. That is not nothing. And it does offer the possibility (which was there before) of using the Kyrie unencumbered with the penitential rite. Coming in together, singing an extended litany, probably provided the origin of the Kyrie in the West, an origin borrowed from the East. It is an origin worth recovering and the translation makes this possible. Furthermore, the translation does provide some good dismissal texts. But, I am sorry to say, that is about it.

I do not mean to offend. But I do mean to say that the loss of the ecumenically shared texts matters profoundly and that the process I observe being used is not an innocent one. I also mean to encourage Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to resist, to join those who say “wait,” to appeal for review and conversation, and even to refuse to use this translation, maintaining thereby an older, more diverse and more faithful Roman tradition.
But, if this translation actually comes into use, I do also mean to weep.

Gordon W. Lathrop is Professor of Liturgy Emeritus, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and Visiting Professor of Liturgical Studies, Yale Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music


  1. While I share many of the sentiments of my
    fellow Lutheran shared above, I take a different
    approach to the response.

    Perhaps because I hail from the more conservative
    and traditional Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,
    and perhaps because I was nurtured from Baptism
    to adulthood in the Roman Catholic Church, I
    actually like some of the language recovered in
    the “new” Ordo. While the American in me laments
    the fact that there was no input from the American
    Church, the reality that this is the ROMAN Catholic
    Church makes the current action less surprising.

    With Professor Lathrop, I lament that on Sundays and
    other days we gather around the altar, we will no
    longer be sharing the same texts…there is very
    considerable amount of folks from ours and the
    Roman communions in each others sanctuaries
    any given Sunday. I occasionally bring out a
    Eucharistic Prayer developed by members of our
    Commission for Worship that never made it into
    our Ordo and the Preface dialogue contains the
    congregational response “and with your spirit” and
    those in the congregation react with no wailing or
    gnashing of the their teeth.

    Unlike my more liberal brother, I cannot counsel
    “resistance” as that is contrary to your Tradition, while
    it plagues ours to the point of promoting the
    kind of action that Professor Lathrop’s Church
    passed in their Churchwide Assembly last year in
    Minnesota regarding same-sex relationships.
    From that, spare us O Lord!

  2. Glory to Jesus Christ!

    I think that, in the midst of Dr. Lathrop’s lament about the loss of the “common texts,” it must be noted that the ICET texts have been in the process of being modified for the past fifteen years or so. The 1979 ECUSA “Book of Common Prayer” already had modified the text of the Nicene Creed in several places. The current ELCA “Worship” shows even more changes in those texts.

    Yes, I am sad that we no longer have the ability to vocalize these prayers in the same way. But that’s not the whole story.

  3. +JMJ+

    I may have mentioned this before, but there’s a difference between sharing words in common and sharing meaning in common. For example, “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” I don’t know how many Christians have adopted an ecumenical text of the Nicene Creed, but do all of them understand “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in the same way… or are they just saying the same words, but with different meanings?

  4. an eloquent statement, highlighting one of the most appalling aspects of the whole sorry business. Thank you.

  5. I lament with you, Gordon.

    We don’t usually advert to the world context, but sometimes I think it’s helpful to do so. It’s not Vatican II or its unfinished agenda that’s primarily driving this, it’s something bigger, istm. The advent of postmodernism has provoked a crisis of religious identity that is quite severe. Some resolve this by leaving churches altogether. Others clamor for identity markers which hark back to a former age, when ecumenism was unthinkable. Casualties result from both of these approaches.

    True Christian identity, however, is resilient. It is not a shell. It is the life’s work of a soul and of many souls together. It is surely an irony of the present situation that even as our Church retreats from its ecumenical commitments (which it is doing) the thing that will get some of us Catholics through these grievous times will be a confidence in the core insights of the Reformation – namely, the priority of faith, of grace, and of God’s holy Word. Because we do fail. We mess up. We get it wrong, and the fact of having gotten some of it right in the past is no guarantee of getting it right in the future. Yet our hope reposes in the One who cannot fail, and who even now succeeds in ways unknown to us. At least that is my hope.

    Alas, it does not make the present situation any less distressing.

  6. Rita – like you, after reading this, my breath was taken away.

    If I may add to this discussion, here is a link to an article about the upcoming Southwest Liturgical Conference in San Antonio, TX on the theme of immigration and eucharist.

    Not well thought out but allow me to link this article to the pending conference. On the one hand, you have a liturgical direction that has established joint, shared language among the various Christian churches. This provides a unity within our diversity.

    At the same time, one can here justifications for MR3 that run along the line of – “need a common language and rite especially with english speaking conferences that is based on one solid latin root.

    Yet, liturgy is an expression of various cultures, churches, etc. The unity is the meaning and structure of the liturgy, our baptism, the sacraments. Diversity are the various vernaculars; cultural expressions via music, art, vestments, etc.

    We face the same challenge with immigrants – ” At the heart of the debate over immigration reform is the issue of social and racial inclusion that challenges the dominant culture’s sense of security and superiority.”

    We have values that clash – security with current identity vs. inclusion. Yet, our shared Christian liturgy can be the answer. But, liturgy that is expressed in diverse ways.

    Does uniform translation (security) trump inclusive…

    1. Bill, I always enjoy watching you make connections linking a variety of big concepts, and I intuit that you are onto something valuable here, but I don’t think the full thought is yet articulated in what you’ve written above. Or at least so it seems to me. I hope you will come back to it and clarify a little more what you mean, because I think it’s worthwhile following this thought out to its conclusion. I see some of the text didn’t make it into your post — which was abbreviated on a most tantalizing note!

  7. As a Catholic who has experienced parts of the new translation in practice (in South Africa) I can only heartily concur with you, Professor Lathrop.

  8. This article seems to come from an odd angle.

    Ever since the Reformation, Anglicans have answered “The Lord be with you” with “And with thy spirit”. The posting even accepts that “And also with you” is an English peculiarity; but to underline the point, correct translations are found beyond the German and Scandinavian communities. Today, French Catholics respond to “Le Seigneur soit avec vous” with “Et avec votre esprit”. Spanish Catholics respond to “El señor esté con vosotros” with “Y con tu espíritu”. Could it be that the Catholic Anglophone world is finally reaching out in ecumenical harmony with its Anglican brethren, and its Catholic brethren in other countries?

    Concerning the “for many” in the words of institution: these occur in Holy Scripture. How would the Lutheran churches regard a translation “for all” in English translations of the bible? Is there in fact a Lutheran bible which renders these words as “for all”? If not, could there be?

    If different English translations of the original are enough to provoke tears, perhaps we should recognize that vernacular translations are more of a curse than a blessing. Vernacular languages change almost from year to year. A word that was perfectly OK ten years ago suddenly acquires hideously unacceptable connotations. How is a common international English translation ever going to be a practical project?

    Perhaps we should learn the lesson of history: vernacular liturgies can never serve unity!

    1. In point of fact, since 1979, Anglicans who use Rite Two of the American Book of Common Prayer and, since 1985, Anglicans who use the Canadian Book of Alternative Services have responded to “The Lord be with you” with “And also with you.” There are other examples elsewhere in the Anglican world.

  9. Thanks, Rita. Yes, the last phrase was cut off (emergency at work; then taxi driver for the kids + dinner).

    Not sure exactly how to best flesh this out but it seems to me that much of our polarizations is around shared values but values that clash.

    Thus, VII laid out principles that the liturgy could articulate – inclusion, signs of the time, cultural adaptation, ecumenism, etc. Specifics were left to committees and bishops’ conferences after the close of the council.

    So, my thought is that these principles seem to be the highest values – inclusion, ecumenism, cultural adaptation. Over the years we also know that issues have arisen to highlight other values e.g. consistent translation methods; use of one latin translation root; shared order of liturgy among language groups or even across all languages, etc.

    Sadness and tension seems to occur when these values are either re-ordered or when some place greater emphasis on a lesser value that then trumps a higher value. For example, in order to have all language groups say, “and with your spirit”, the value of inculturation for english speakers is trumped by a literal latin translation. Another example, the value of ecumenism and shared liturgical translations esp. key commons, etc. is trumped by a literal latin translation.

    Immigration can be an arena where the value of security trumps acknowledgement that we all share the same baptism.

    Anyway, it seems to raise questions about values, their…

    1. How does “and with your spirit” trump the value of inculturation for English speakers? That phrase was used by virtually every English-speaking liturgical church prior to the 1970’s. If anything, “and also with you” trumped centuries of accepted English usage.

      English-speakers had developed a form of liturgical language that was very much part of the culture and which still remains in our culture today in the form of well-loved hymns, memorized prayers, and well known Biblical passages. The liturgical translations introduced in both 1965 and 1970 seemed to ignore this – it seems that they shaped culture rather than conformed to it.

    1. “Absolutely?” Do you absolutely believe that, Mr. O’Leary? The new Order of Mass is not correct in some places – are you absolutely opposed to the coming inaccuracies?

      1. Fr. Anthony, who told you that the new translation is absolutely “perfect” in every particular? Who is claiming this? I’ve never heard this theory before. Please do explain who is claiming this. Thanks!

  10. James, I think it’s disingenuous for you to say it’s “absolutely necessary to have a corrected text” and then dodge his question about the inaccuracies in the coming text. It’s even more distasteful when you put words in Fr. Anthony’s mouth. He never asked that the text should be “perfect”.

    Your defensive sarcasm neither answers his very fair question nor helps the overall discussion.

    If you truly believe that the upcoming text doesn’t need to be “perfect”, then you shouldn’t have used the modifier “absolutely” in your previous comment. Words mean things.

  11. This is not surprising for two reasons. First, it is the Roman Catholic Church – a denomination which does not allow for decisions to be made on the local level, or the level of laypeople. Second, they have been working on these translations for years now. Samples have been widely available. Why is it only in the last year before the implementation that we suddenly throw up our hands, when we could have been publicly challenging the bishops and Rome for the last 10? years?

  12. >> I also mean to encourage Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to resist, to join those who say “wait,” to appeal for review and conversation, and even to refuse to use this translation,<<

    thanks, Jaeger, for bringing this string to my attention! It doesn't set well with me when a Protestant encourages me to rise up against my Church.

    Professor Lathrop seems to be saying he would just like for us to stay with the 1973 version. That is asking for a lot! You all, cheering him, I thought we agreed it's not 1973 anymore!

    btw, Professor, or anyone who cares to answer. Since it seems to be a sticking point – Please show me one other Catholic version of the Liturgy used in some corner of the world that doesn't have the response 'and with your spirit.' I think Professor L wants us to be more like American Protestants than like our Catholic sisters and brothers.

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