The Crisis behind the Missal Translation

I have long grown bored by discussions of the now not-so-new translation of The Roman Missal. In my opinion, the energies of those who criticize the new translation are misguided. We all seem to be content treating the symptoms and not the problem which the new translation makes manifest. All sides have been misguided in their approach and have been talking past one another.

Anger and frustration over the new translation itself is not fundamentally where the frustrations of the faithful lie; rather, the problem is much deeper. The problem is the lack of communication between the bishops and the faithful. Pope Francis with his new questionnaire is aware of this.

In the United States, our bishops are experiencing an unprecedented crisis of credibility. This is manifest in flash points such as the new translation (the credibility crisis is also seen in the reactions of a significant part of the faithful to the bishops’ statements on religious liberty, family values, and sexual ethics, just to name a few, but that is not my concern here).

That the deeper crisis is one of credibility can be seen in the preliminary results of the CARA survey. The most problematic number of all is that only 23% of respondents feel that the view of priests will be taken seriously in future translation decisions, with 60% disagreeing that priests’ views will be heard. I would imagine that the statistics for the faithful on whether they feel they will be listened to – on the missal or on anything else – would be even more abysmal.  The preliminary results for the translation itself are worrying enough, but the results for this particular question are shocking and alarming.

Whether they like it or not, our bishops need to acknowledge and work on the clear disconnect between themselves and the priests, deacons, religious, and laity in their dioceses. Who is “right” or “orthodox” and who is “wrong” or “unorthodox” is of secondary concern to whether people feel they are being heard. A shepherd can only shepherd his flock when he walks alongside his flock, not from afar.

It is bad enough that our church is so polarized today. It is important that the actions of the church’s bishops not make this polarization worse. The role of the bishop is to facilitate dialogue and to keep the flock moving together. When the Church fails to move together, it is ultimately the bishops who have failed, not the faithful.

One of the most momentous things about Vatican II – and Pope Francis is following the same spirit – has less to do with teaching than with tone and approach. Our bishops are in desperate need of a change in tone and approach. While real substantive questions must be asked concerning the pressing issues of our own time, the answers do not lie in a single ideological camp isolated from the whole Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is calling us all to the high ground of a new middle which is a new and life-giving synthesis and not a mere compromise between extremes. This at the very least requires honest, open, and charitable dialogue with one another.

Our bishops would best be served if they reached out to all of the faithful, those who agree with them and those who do not, and hear what they have to say. Restoring the credibility and honor of the bishops of the United States, something which ought to be synonymous with their office, begins with a willingness on the part of the bishops to listen to all the faithful. This requires that they enter their parishes and actually meet with people.

When a shepherd is cut off from his flock, his flock goes astray. Jesus makes this point time and time again in when he says things like “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (Jn 10:14). Being a good shepherd requires honest dialogue and conversation. Our bishops should not be afraid to go out and search for the lost sheep who has wandered astray.

I have faith in our bishops that, guided by the Holy Spirit, they will enter into dialogue with the faithful and that their credibility will be restored. But it is important that they move quickly in order to prevent further damage. Ultimately, we the faithful must also be willing to see in them the work of the Holy Spirit even when we disagree with the things they say and do. Just as dialogue between the bishops and the faithful should be a two-way street, we too must bear some of the responsibility for the lack of trust placed in our bishops.

It is time that we all take more seriously the bond between a bishop and his diocese.  This bond, like its parallel in the sacrament of marriage, requires loving communication in order to stay strong.  And in the end, no one should ever feel that their voice is not being heard.

Nathan Chase, age 23, is a graduate of Boston College now studying Liturgy and Systematics at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary. He is the student assistant for Pray Tell blog.


  1. Personally, I think the new translation is really cool. People often criticise the word “dewfall,” but it is, in fact, an actual word. Quite poetic, methinks. But, alas, hear I am doing precisely what you care encouraging us not to do: “discussing” the new translation. Perhaps the change in tone that Pope Francis is demonstrating will help the Church in terms of PR. But, I wonder if it will really result in more conversions to Christianity. That is, after all, what we are all about.

  2. The crisis is much more than the fierce individualism of consumer Catholics who want to buy or don’t want to buy the new translation. Many, and quite vocal, don’t buy revealed truth in Scripture, Tradition and natural law. The loss of faith and the individualism of a personal paganized form of a kind of catholicism is what many want to consume. No amount of information or even dialogue can address this kind of loss of faith but only the Holy Spirit Who leads to authentic conversion to God through the Church comprised of sinners and saints whose focus is on the true God of the Catholic faith and His perfection and not focused on purely human foibles and the ensuing politics.

    1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #2:
      The *usual* again – “many don’t buy revelaed truth in scripture, tradition, and natural law.
      BTW – natural law is neither dogma nor doctrine; Tradition (PTB commenters have frequently shown how Tradtiion has developed and changed over the centuries (my guess is that what you think is Tradition has, in some cases, not been the core or heart of the matter but how it was expressed in a given time period – this is why folks don’t buy it e.g. based upon this black and white approach, some of the great thinkers of Vatican II would have never been rehabilitated by John XXIII leading to the insights of the council; same goes for *revelaed truth* in scripture (some see revealed truth because they read scripture literally; you question the historical-critical methodology of exegesis, etc…….and you end with *loss of faith*… it *faith* you are talking about or your version of religion? How do you know when someone loses *faith* – do you count something; is it the absence of the rosary, pieties, what? oh, and the latest insight….SC was a *rush job*…did you get that from Fr. Z?

      1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #15:
        And still hiding your blog from your fellow colleagues at the NA Seminary – how interesting?
        What bothered me the most is your first sentence – “The crisis is much more than the fierce individualism of consumer Catholics who want to buy or don’t want to buy the new translation.” Sorry, this is cheap judgmentalism, opinion masquerading as truth, and ad hominem towards many who have both valid and well reasoned critiques of the new translation, LA, etc. This continues the *lazy* references to relativism or the consumer/individualistic culture of the western world (why; using the same argument approach, can’t we say that about those who hang on to the EF – consumer catholics with a fierce individualism?)

  3. I am sorry that Mr. Chase is impatient with discussion on the English Missal. Perhaps it is the impatience of youth.

    I disagree with him inasmuch as I think that the details of the translation are very much a matter for discussion and critique. Many of the comments relayed on this blog come from people who are well-informed contenders. They, together with many comments from users, indicate discomfort with aspects of the text.

    Those like myself who support the new translation in general but wish to see it improved welcome the opportunity to make such views public.

    I do subscribe to Mr. Chase’s view that the Missal is one of several things which reveal great concern for the health of the Church body as a whole, the quality of the relationship between bishops and their people and, just as important in these centralised times, between bishops and the ‘competent’ (sic) dicasteries of the Holy See.

    Alan Griffiths.

    1. @Alan Griffiths – comment #3:
      There certainly isn’t any reason why the new translation can’t be refined and those in the business of this should certainly suggest this in whatever new editions of the Missal there are, just leave the congregational parts as is. The greater issue might well be a revision of the more difficult words or parts of the Latin text–start there first.

  4. The role of the bishop is to facilitate dialogue and to keep the flock moving together.

    I don’t remember reading that in the New Testament. In fact I don’t remember reading anything about “dialogue” as some sort of virtue to be aspired to.

    And this is my main issue with this article. I agree that the bishop should walk alongside his flock, smell like the sheep, if you will. But I disagree entirely that an authentically lived episcopal life involves things like, e.g., making sure everyone “feels heard”. Such an idea may be nice, but it is certainly not biblical. One only need read the pastoral epistles to see that (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-5, for example).

    1. @Matthew Hazell – comment #4:
      Down with dialogue: very good, Matthew. Great reading of the “signs of the times.”
      You might want to look at the various statements of bishops and church leaders over the past 50 years affirming the importance of dialogue – for example, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he affirmed the “Dialog für Österreich” some years ago.

      You might also reflect on basic Christian imperatives like love, charity, life in community, and what the implications might be for our cultural and ecclesial situation today.



    2. @Matthew Hazell – comment #4:

      The idea that everyone “feels heard” comes part-and-parcel with our culture that highly values the Democratic process.

      And we do well to ensure not only that everyone “feels heard” but also actually IS heard. The Bishop cannot properly lead when he has no idea what goes on in his household — and that goes straight back to the Pastoral Epistles you reference.

      But where the system breaks down today is when those who want to “feel heard” assume that being heard is equivalent to the Bishop doing as they desire. The Bishop is called not only to lead, but also to rule. And so sometimes the decision that the Bishop (or the Pope) makes may be drastically different than the prevailing opinion (even the prevailing opinion among clergy!). We saw this with Humanae Vitae in the 1970s — as well as with the Arian Controversy in the 370s — and in many situations in between.

    3. @Matthew Hazell – comment #4:
      Couldn’t agree more. In Scripture the sheep are to hear the voice of the Shepherd, not the other way around.
      Is it important for the pastor to know the sheep, their lives, their concerns, their disagreements, their weaknesses, their strengths? Absolutely. But the Church – even the Church in the USA – is not a celestial reflection of a democratic system.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #16:
        That’s reading back into history…..elders, presbyters (not bishops in the way he was using it). Jerome Biblical Commentary – Raymond Brown as my reference point. Yes, Brown suggests that both Titus and Timothy are speaking about *designated* authority (Brown uses the term *legate*) or a type of apostolic succession – but this refers to how Paul used the term *apostle* as servant of God.
        Let’s at least be balanced – Mr. Hazell uses the term bishop as it is understood today and you won’t find that in the NT anywhere. And to his statement/reply, Brown would show that Paul and his *delegates* did listen and dialogue with their communities. We can all pick up the greek, episcopal, but to take that and use it to support his argument in his reply is really stretching it…..and, yes, Mr. Hazell, Charles Day does a more than adequate job in replying to your incorrect generalization.

      2. @Bill deHaas (#13): Actually, listening, being heard, etc. are truly biblical themes.

        But when you look at the biblical text, who are the ones doing the listening? And who are they listening to?

        Regarding episkopos, Deacon Bauerschmidt has covered that.

    4. @Matthew Hazell – comment #4:
      Perhaps you don’t recall specific words about the function of the bishops facilitating dialog, and they don’t exist if you insist on being hit over the head with such words. But there are lots of examples of just that, such as this from Acts:

      The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
      because their widows
      were being neglected in the daily distribution.
      So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said,
      “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
      Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men,
      filled with the Spirit and wisdom,
      whom we shall appoint to this task,
      whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer
      and to the ministry of the word.”
      The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,
      so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit,
      also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,
      and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
      They presented these men to the apostles
      who prayed and laid hands on them.
      The word of God continued to spread,
      and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly;
      even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith. (Italics are mine)

      1. @Charles Day (#18): Just a quick quibble – of the Bibles I have access to right now, only NABRE translates the start of Acts 6:5 as “the proposal was acceptable to the whole community”. Pretty much every other translation seems to go for something variation of “what they said pleased the whole multitude” (RSVCE). E.g. “what they said pleased the whole gathering” (ESV); “everyone liked this idea” (NLT); “this proposal pleased the whole group” (NIV).

        I think the NABRE, in translating ēresen (Gk. lemma areskō) as “was acceptable” rather than “pleased”, subtly alters the way in which the text can be interpreted by modern audiences. “Was acceptable” chimes more with the democratic spirit in a way that “pleased” doesn’t quite manage to.


        What I will mention here, in partial reply to others, is that, in my experience and in my opinion, most people’s idea of “dialogue” does not match up with the Church’s idea of what that same word entails. I agree with what Mr Morelli in comment #8 said: where the system breaks down today is when those who want to “feel heard” assume that being heard is equivalent to the Bishop doing as they desire. The word “dialogue” is oftentimes used as a cover for lobbying, attempting to get one’s own way – and, in certain circumstances, it is even used as a pretext for disobedience. The scriptures have far more to say about obedience than dialogue, though as “truth” is not a popular word in Western culture, “obedience” is hardly going to be top of that list either.

        No, we’re on much safer territory using the inoffensive, squishy word “dialogue”, lest we offend anyone by making them “feel that their voice is not being heard”!

      2. @Matthew Hazell – comment #22:
        Well, your ‘quibble’ isn’t with me, it is with the USCCB: the cited portion is copied and pasted directly from the translation they use and which comprises the readings in the Lectionary. Besides, do you really believe there is a substantive difference between ‘acceptable’ and ‘pleased’?

        If other ideas of dialogue don’t match with the Church’s idea, what is the Church’s idea? What do you suppose Pope Francis means by dialogue? Is he using it as a cover for lobbying of some sort?

      3. @Matthew Hazell – comment #22:

        καὶ ἤρεσεν ὁ λόγος ἐνώπιον παντὸς τοῦ πλήθους […] (Acts 6:5 NA 28)

        et placuit sermo coram omni multitudine […] (Acts 6:5 Nova Vulgata, Weber-Gryson)

        The 2nd aorist indicative active main verb of Acts 6:5a, ἤρεσεν (ēresen), is translated as “pleased” because of the nature of Greek aorist verbs. ἤρεσεν does not necessarily require a time aspect. A translation into the English simple past, pleased, is a good accommodation for a language where all verbs have time aspect. ἤρεσεν would usually has a dative object, but no object is stated in this verse.

        The NABRE derives mainly from the Nova Vulgata. Latin has no aorist; all verbs have a time aspect. The NABRE’s translation of placuit as “was acceptable” is syntactically permissible because the present perfect denotes past completed action. The conformity of the NABRE’s translation to time aspect does not at all imply that “was acceptable” is a good choice semantically. In Latin, “acceptable” is more often a translation for the passive voice, i.e. placitus est. The active voice is better translated, like the Greek, as “pleased” (i.e. in the present tense, mi placet, “it pleases me”; in the present perfect, mi placuit, “it pleased me”.)

        Matthew: The word “dialogue” is oftentimes used as a cover for lobbying, attempting to get one’s own way – and, in certain circumstances, it is even used as a pretext for disobedience.

        You have forgotten that dialogue often involves laypersons and clergy with principled opinions. It is unjust to paint persons with well-reasoned arguments as necessarily disobedient or beholden to purely emotive arguments. Indeed, even in recent times how many bishops have ignored the reasonable pleadings of laypersons and clergy, only to abet crimes which have irrevocably damaged individuals and the commonweal of parish communities?

    5. @Matthew Hazell – comment #4:
      While the referenced texts in 2 Tim 4:1-5 might support challenging the virtue (and perhaps, necessity?) of “dialogue” – I believe an even more compelling justification for “dialogue” – and even “debate” and “listening” – can be found in Acts 15:1-15 (especially vs. 6-13). Recall that Gentile circumcision was a crucial issue that could have led to schism. Similarly, we easily overlook that a strong case can be made for “speaking truth to power” in Gal 2:11-14, where Paul “opposed” Peter “to his face” for hypocrisy in his differential regard toward Gentiles and Jews. I believe these texts also need to be brought into the mix in deciding how the church – as People of God -ought to handle important doctrinal and disciplinary matters.

  5. Thanks Nathan, I enjoyed reading that. But I don’t really agree with you. Yes, many bishops don’t listen, especially to the laity. But I don’t think that is the primary cause of the missal mess.

    To beat a horse to death and keep beating it… the missal crisis is caused by Vatican curial arrogance and isolationism (not listening – and not caring, if you will) manifested by the unilateral imposition of their idiosyncratic translation rules on bishops conferences without any consultation with those conferences. Piled on top of that is a general lack of self-confidence by contemporary bishops, and lack of the theological and intellectual “machinery” and “stomach” necessary to withstand such curial bullying.

    How does a bishop stand up to curial bullying, or bullying by his fellow bishops, when his advancement depends on pleasing these people? By comparison, listening to the clergy and laity in his diocese is easily done. In any case, what good is diocesan consultation, when bishops can do nothing with the fruits of such consultation. The system actively discourages it.

    The system is corrupt. There’s the cause.

  6. Fr Anthony

    Perhaps you might describe how the Benedictine order has understood the role of consultation for an abbot. Many Catholics assume all the dimensions of the office of bishop developed, Athene-like, at once, and they don’t realize how influential the development of monasteries and abbots played in the development of the episcopal role. And vice-versa, of course.

  7. I agree and disagree with Mr Chase. It is true that the process behind MR3 betrays a deeper insensitivity and sinfulness. But the details of how to translate are also very important. I suggest a both-and approach. Even if and when we get the Missal we want, there are important priorities underlying church governance and management that need to be addressed,

    I’m amazed that someone who presents himself as a “faithful/orthodox Catholic,” someone like Mr Hazell would be so shockingly ignorant of the Bible as a whole, as well as the biographies of some of our greatest saints.

    The Church of Pray/Pay/Obey produced believers. Disciples, not so much. The crisis and opportunity is that the world today demands disciples more than believers. These would be mature people who are valued for what they do (orthopraxis) and not just for the sycophantry (orthodoxy) they feed to the powers-that-be.

    “But where the system breaks down today is when those who want to “feel heard” assume that being heard is equivalent to the Bishop doing as they desire.”

    Possibly. But I see more breakdown from the other end. When bishops, priests, and ministers assume that entering into dialogue is congruent to giving in. Hence our administrative gag orders on the issues of the day.

    I think we keep talking, agitating, and entering into dialogue. There’s no stopping it now.

    1. @Todd Flowerday (#11): The Church of Pray/Pay/Obey produced believers. Disciples, not so much.

      See, “pray, pay, obey” is one of those nice-sounding slogans that often gets thrown about in a cynical, condescending manner, as if the combination of praying, tithing, and obedience is somehow laughable, or even antithetical to an authentic Christian life. As if we enlightened (post-)moderns ought to be past all that ridiculous business by now.

      Yet many Christian saints lived during the time(s) caricatured as such. They even – shock horror! – prayed, tithed and obeyed the teachings of the Church at the same time as caring for the poor, spreading the faith, educating people, etc. Were they somehow not disciples? Did they not make disciples?

      In short, what exactly is wrong with “praying, paying and obeying”?

      1. @Todd Flowerday (#21): It’s not enough. It doesn’t respond to the Great Commission.

        In your somewhat narrow opinion.

        I’ll point out that the age of “pray, pay, obey” didn’t seem to have too many problems doing missionary work. Obedience covers Mt. 28:18-20. And one’s prayer life enables the Great Commission to take place, as does providing for the earthly, financial needs of the Church by tithing.

      2. @Matthew Hazell – comment #23:
        That is rich… obviously haven’t read much about the, at times, sordid history and debates on missionary activity – try picking up and reading the church’s debates in central/south america and anything by Bartolome de las Casas. (Rev. Stafford Poole, CM is one of the foremost experts on the church debates on evangelizing natives peoples) – an exerpt:

        Bartolomé de Las Casas championed the rights of the Indians of Mexico and Central America, disputing a widely held belief that they were “beasts” to be enslaved. In a dramatic debate in 1550 with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Las Casas argued vehemently before a royal commission in Valladolid that the native inhabitants should be viewed as fellow human beings, artistically and mechanically adroit, and capable of learning when properly taught.

        In Defense of the Indians, Las Casas’s classic treatise on the humanity of native peoples, had far-reaching implications for the policies adopted by both the Spanish Crown and the Church toward slavery in the New World. This carefully reasoned but emotionally charged defense addresses issues such as the concept of a just war, the relationships between differing races and cultures, the concept of colonialism, and the problem of racism. Written toward the end of an active career as “Protector of the Indians,” the work stands as a summary of the teaching of Las Casas’s life.

      3. @Matthew Hazell – comment #23:
        It’s not about “someone” doing “missionary work.” It’s a call to every believer. A call that went unheard for the most part, and a deafness we still struggle to transcend.

        And to be clear, I wasn’t denying the value of prayer, generosity, or teamwork in a hierarchical structure. I was saying it wasn’t enough.

  8. It reminds me of a three-panel “Animal Crackers” cartoon I snipped from a newspaper about 30 years ago, and which I still have filed away:
    1: Antelope to Turtle: “Excuse me, I have a bit of a problem … I’ve become separated from my herd …”
    2: Antelope: “Did you happen to see approximately 5000 head of antelope, wildebeest and zebra go by?”
    Turtle: “No … where did the leader say he was heading?”
    3: Antelope: “Well, actually, I’m the leader …”

  9. On the place of dialogue in Christian faith and life, one indispensable reference is Pope Paul VI’s first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Dialogue is one of the primary themes of that document. The Pope insists that “the whole history of man’s salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which He prolongs with men in so many different ways.”

  10. Matthew Hazell : The role of the bishop is to facilitate dialogue and to keep the flock moving together. I don’t remember reading that in the New Testament.

    I’m not sure, either, that the N.T. has much in it about bishops, as they appear today, at all. Not of course that I’d want to make mischief!

    Alan Griffiths.

  11. I have several good friends who are bishops – good men, pastorally gifted. However, I no longer expect the US bishops, as a body, to provide significant leadership. I find that very sad. Some continue to provide good leadership in their own dioceses, but as a body, they are as ineffective as the American Congress.

  12. I’m with Mr. Chase in the fundamental point that the Mass translation issue has become as irritating as the “all Latin all the time” and “gays/priestesses” battles.

    The difference with the translation issue is that there’s something that can be done: SHUT UP AND START TRANSLATING! Are there problems with what we say? Of course. So fix them and present a fait accompli and ask if it’s not better.

    (But leave the “dewfall” alone! As a lover of camping, there is true mystery just how/when it forms its beauty in the night, which I find quite fitting to the Mass.)

    As for Bishops, I see little that they do that is useful. In nearly 10 years in my diocese, I’ve seen not a single publication from ours dealing with anything aside from “this week’s second collection is for…” and the odd USCCB-directed letter, always prefaced by “The USCCB has directed…” His spine is slightly less than al dente.

    In our parish, I doubt 10 people have even opened any V2 or later documents. Give us an amusing sermon, feed us crackers and juice, and get us out of here in 60 minutes or less. We can go visit mom in the cemetery with our heads held high. That’s us.

    Personally, I hope the new Pope’s message will reach the folks at ALL points on the spectrum and remind them it’s not about syntax or stubbornness but about service to God and to others.

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