Fr. Tony Cutcher, NFPC president, on the new missal: “From condemnation to constructive criticism”

This post is in response to the survey released yesterday at Pray Tell showing that a majority of U.S. priests do not like the new Roman Missal translation.

Fr. Tony CutcherWhen it debuted in Advent 2011, the Third Roman Missal was seen as a “top down” project. The Vatican, rejecting the hard work done by ICEL, the USCCB and others, foisted upon unsuspecting Anglophones a text that was aimed at restoring some semblance of awe and reverence to a liturgy that had become, in the view of some, far too familiar and pedestrian. Setting aside the clunky syntax and ponderous words (prevenient grace, consubstantial) it was seen as a repudiation of Vatican II, a retrenchment. This, I think, is what concerned priests the most – not the text per se, but what it represented.

As pastors, we see our congregations dwindling, our parishioners disconnecting, become less “Catholic” even as they still fill a pew on Sunday. We objected to anything that would make the Mass less approachable for those who did attend. Compared to the Third Missal, the Sacramentary now sounds like “mass for simpletons” – with short, choppy declarative sentences utilizing a sixth-grade vocabulary. In hindsight, maybe the 1970 Sacramentary was a little too “dumbed down.” And so the shift from middle school to college-level texts has been a jarring one.

Meanwhile, our youngest priests relish in the fidelity and conciseness of the third edition Missal, knowing that the words they say are the exact English translation (sic) of Mother Church’s native tongue. For young men, raised in an uncertain world where everyone’s opinion was equally valid, a definitive text linked directly to the Latin with no room for interpretation or opinion is a welcome anchor.

So here we are, 28 months later. The initial shock and wholesale rejection has passed and we have begun living with the text. It is only now that we can to point to what works and what does not. Our response turns from condemnation to constructive criticism.

Enter Pope Francis with his call for us to turn away from a rigorist mentality and exhorts us to go to the margins. How many people in our pews are being marginalized by our use of unapproachable language? What of those people in the pews for whom English is their second language and they struggle to understand everyday words? Armed with the latest data, we can take this opportunity to help craft a revision that stays true to the text and at the same time is accessible to all.

Fr. Anthony Cutcher is president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils.




  1. As someone for whom English is a second language, let me just say how I love how condescending this priest is. As a teenager, I struggled to follow the Mass in English, and what put me off was how what I heard at the English Mass didn’t correspond to what I had always heard at the Polish Mass. Why did Polish Jesus take a “kielich” (chalice) and say “dla was i dla wielu” (for you and for many) while American Jesus took a cup and said “for you and for all.” Why did we say “i z duchem twoim” (and with your spirit) to Polish priests but “and also with you,” to American priests? etc, etc. No, that isn’t off putting at all. It’s really hard for me to treat such concern for non-English speakers as genuine. (let’s not even mention the fact that many non-English translations are more formal than the old ICEL and follow the Latin more strictly.)

    1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #1:
      The big problem with the translation is the poor grammar, clumsy style and lack of smooth sentence structure. There was need for a new translation, but not a transliteration. Respect for the purpose of the celebration requires a text that is dignified, clearly understandable and able to be effectively proclaimed and prayed. My Polish mother would agree.

      1. @Michael OBrien – comment #22:
        I agree with you and your Polish mother entirely, and I think it’s a travesty that the current English missal doesn’t have proper English grammar and syntax, that’s why I think Fr. Anthony’s proposal is very attractive. I’m just pointing out that there is an entire cluster of controversies that are often confused with one another and that for this reason it’s hard to infer conclusions from the CARA study.

  2. Having learnt Polish (after making friends in Taizé over several years), with English as my first language, another take on the various differences between two languages seems appropriate. When I came to understand the Polish phrases, they became translated, in my mind, to what the English said. I always thought the English encompassed a clearer view of the truth that the church was trying to put across. The old dualism of body and soul/spirit was replaced by a better understanding of the person in his entirety. The ‘dla wiulu’ (for [the] many) encompassed everyone. It had to. Polish has no definite article so I could read ‘the many’ into those words and was happy. I remember being glad I had been brought up with the English translation. God was so much nearer. But once that knowledge was with me, the translations in foreign languages had to be interpreted in the light of what I already knew.

    But now the English has reverted to a distant God, a breaking up of the person, the idea that God is for a subset of humanity, what am I to make of it? I don’t like it and I want no part of it.

  3. Speaking from my experience of the new missal and the many priests I have spoken to regarding the new translation, I find Fr. Cutcher’s conclusion that new missal is seen by priests “as a repudiation of Vatican II, a retrenchment. This, I think, is what concerned priests the most – not the text per se, but what it represented” is way off the mark.

    Although the process was poor and essentially a Vatican takeover, “the text per se” is a huge problem. I am amazed how easily Fr. Cutcher puts forth that spin. The other week, I made the mistake of using the “prayer over the people” before the final blessing. Afterwards, the deacon turned to me and said I did a good job reading the prayer but he had no idea what it was trying to convey. This reaction is NOT uncommon among the clergy (who have the text before them) and the congregation who may simply be listening.

    Yes, “the clunky syntax and ponderous words (prevenient grace, consubstantial)” are part of the problem….but it’s also sentence structure and the foreign phrases that add to the problem.

    I stand with the majority of priests who do not like the new translation. It’s more than a retrenchment….it is the text per se.

  4. “Our response turns from condemnation to constructive criticism.”

    I think our response is big enough to embrace both. They’re on the run. Put their feet to the fire.

  5. A Polish friend of mine was very upset when the new “English” translation came in, because she said that the new text was much closer to the Polish she’d grown up with, and she vastly preferred the ’73 English words on the grounds that they, like Jesus, brought God closer to people, rather than hiding him away in awesome majesty.

  6. From the above comments, it seems that some people are more interested in revising the roman missal so that it conforms with what they consider to be a more proper understanding of God and the human person. Silly me, I thought the goal here was translation not redaction.

    1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #6:
      Stanislaus, can you please express your opinions less polemically and with more respect for other people? Everyone here is trying to make a good theological contribution. If you disagree with others, that’s fine, but do it without dismissing or mocking others.

  7. I’m sorry if my words have been offensive, polemical and mocking, and I will tone things down.

    However, having said that, I think that such a tone is very common on this blog. Just look Fr. Cutcher’s statement:

    1. It dismisses younger priests as simply wanting certainty and wanting to eliminate the possibility of multiple interpretations of the text.

    2. The language is very self-righteous in invoking Pope Francis’ urging to go out into the margins which puts people who have difficulty understanding the language of the mass in the same category as the homeless, abandoned, and ostracized solely in virtue of their difficulty with the English language.

    It’s just hard to read that and not come away with the accusation that those who like the new translation and resist the priest’s project are wanting to hide from the world in a mental straitjacket and also have a heart of stone to boot. (I guess i’m overly sensitive here after having come to this country and hearing “pastorally sensitive” priests dismiss the way things were done in my home country as backwards and inferior and then finding out that in fact it was these priests who were deviating from established norms and imposing their own theologies. I know many others who’ve had these experiences)

    In my defense, it’s hard not to be polemical, dismissive and mocking when responding to a post that is just that.

  8. Our Parish is thriving and no one seems to have a problem with the new translation. I was in a different Parish when the translation came out, and everyone was fine it, for the most part. I anticipated having problems in the two nursing homes at which I said Mass, but everyone used their Mass ‘cards’ reverently and enthusiastically.

    What’s wrong with learning a new words, and learning theology in the process? We’ve already lived through homoousios and transubstantiation, after all.

    Growing up, I always wondered why the French and Spanish translations were different from the English. Now they’re not (as far as I know.)

    I think we can handle using our brains at the Mass. We’re supposed to be fully conscious, and actively participating after all.

    1. @Fr. Kenneth Allen – comment #9:
      “What’s wrong with learning a new words, and learning theology in the process?”

      Because it’s not about the words. It’s how they are put together. It is clumsy, poor English and it is more difficult for clumsy grammar to communicate theology.

      Can we please end the canard about MR3 vocabulary? Nobody cares about vocabulary in MR3. It’s the lack of artistry.

  9. Stanislaus Kosala : From the above comments, it seems that some people are more interested in revising the roman missal so that it conforms with what they consider to be a more proper understanding of God and the human person…

    My understanding, I suppose, was that this is what the translation I had grown up with had already done. And it had been done for very good reasons after Vatican II by people who knew what they were doing. If they were so wrong in their approach why was the deception allowed to go on by the church for so many years? Given other people have similar thoughts to me (see the other comment about the Polish person) there has to be a pretty serious failing somewhere, either in the text of the 1970s/1980s/1990s/2000s, or in the text we currently have… My bet is on the latter.

    1. @Mark Coley – comment #10:

      If the difference between the old English and new English is similar to the difference between the old English and the Polish, then by your logic you have to assume that either the English speaking bishops were being dishonest, or the Polish bishops. Neither group strikes me as particularly trustworthy, though at the same time, to make a revision of a text and call it simply a “translation” strikes me as less than honest.

      Though the real question here is what the original Latin text is like and if it presents false notions about God and humanity then it should be revised first and foremost. The problem isn’t with the translation, it’s with the original. As a result, the current debates about the new missal are to a large extent debates between those who want a translation of the Latin text, and those who want a revision of it. As long as this debate is entangled with the debate about the way that the translation should happen, surveys such as that made by CARA are of very limited value.

      1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #11:
        But this is a rather black-and-white way of putting it, and it is slanted tendentiously toward every word in the Latin being sacrosanct. Remember: the Latin has changed in church history, changed much after Vatican II, is a product of human effort, and should not be divinized. I have great respect for the Latin text, but it’s not perfect and can be improved. And the Spirit blows in all the local churches as well as through the authorities in Rome who give us the Latin – I’m pretty sure Pope Francis would agree with that ecclesiology.

        Note also that an absolutizing of the Latin text is contrary to articles 37-40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium which called for and expected adaptations of the official rite.


      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #12:
        I don’t disagree with you, Father. I’m simply stressing that there is a difference between making the prayers of the mass intelligible to people in a certain place and time and in excising certain elements from the missal because they do not agree with one’s theology and anthropology. The former is translation the latter is revision. If one is going to do revision then one should be explicit about it.

        I realize that the Latin text is an imperfect historical construct, however, if the two commentators above are right, then I think that the Latin text should be corrected as well since it is the editio typica and its errors should not be disseminated to other translations as has happened, for example, with the Polish translation (if those two commentators above are correct, of course). The points that the two commentators bring up have to do with the source text and not the translated text. I don’t see why one should be upset with a translation if it simply reflects the content of what is translated, that’s not a defect because it isn’t meant to be a correction.

        As for making things black and white, I think that most people here are guilty of that. Father Cutcher talking about the motivations of younger priests. Father Feehily accusing proponents of the new translation follow Vatican I instead of Vatican II.
        BTW, your position concerning inculturation seems to make Father Cutcher’s proposed care for non-English speakers seeking the impossible since it would mean that the English translation of the Mass should simultaneously:
        1.sound completely natural to members of a certain culture, and fit in with that culture’s sensibilities.
        2. be easy to grasp for people from a different culture who are learning English and used to their own culture’s translation of the Mass.

  10. We have an important principle which states “as the church prays so the church believes.” It makes just as much sense to state that principal in reverse: The law of faith is the law of prayer. No one, to my knowledge, contends that in the distant past church scholars gathered together for the purpose of comprehensively creating a body of prayer in Latin that would be in keeping with this principal. What we have is a record of some Latin texts that found their way into altar missals and were in use over some centuries, though not always in a uniform fashion. To contend that those Latin texts exhaust the ways in which the faith of the church can be expressed is ludicrous on the surface. That they may be regarded as an important reference point is one thing, to turn them into idols is quite another. The National and regional conferences of bishop (and language groups) are perfectly capable of commissioning and reviewing texts which meet the standards of the principal. We have many such texts in various books even now. No, this controversy is really about ecclesiology, that of Vatican I vs. that of Vatican II. Some insist that the Vatican must be the overlord of the whole church and that local churches need to look to the center for marching orders. Pope Francis has now come along and calls for real authority for bishops conferences so that the church can thrive in every region of the world. Without his initiative we wouldn’t be having yet another discussion about righting the wrong of a translation which clearly does not enjoy enthusiastic support.

  11. Fr. Jack, I earnestly ask you this: how does a congregation acquire “enthusiam?” This forum has deconstructed MR3 in quantum dimensions for at least five years, inside/out, upside and down, ad nauseum. Now it’s about artistry rather than etymology, aesthetic than authentic, and so forth until the next consortium’s press release..
    I think we all know what to be enthused means at the GMHopkins’ level, but not everyone who walks into and sits in a nave is predisposed towards responding enthusiastically to any stimulus. Padre Pio, Fulton Sheen and JPII could be apparent around the altar and some wouldn’t evince any response at all much less enthusiasm.
    Marching orders are, indeed, required and administered by the Bishop of Rome and his crew. But, when we march out of the Mass we are led by Christ Jesus, and will be accountable to Him only.

  12. “Our response turns from condemnation to constructive criticism.”

    Perhaps it would be more helpful to realize that you’ve simply moved from the anger phase to the bargaining phase of grief.

  13. Fritz, I suppose two questions that I’ve had about the presidential prayers have sort of come together for me in your last comment. I wonder if the prayers of the Mass are exactly what we would call “prose.” Since the prayers are divided into “sense lines,” that would seem to indicate that they are actually poetry, or at the very least someplace between poetry and prose. For me, that seems to make the analogy with plays very interesting. In a play, the expressions are heightened speech, not everyday, and although they are sensible (when prepared well) at first hearing, they become even clearer if you study them.

    1. @Ben Yanke – comment #18:
      Certainly they are not “prose” if by that you mean “every-day speech.” I don’t think most people who criticize the new translation are advocating that the liturgy be in everyday speech — some do, but I think they are a minority. My problem is not a desire for everydayness. Indeed, when I preach I always read from a complete written text, precisely because it enables me to use a more “elevated” diction than I would if I were, say, speaking from bullet points. I even write my homilies out in sense-lines. But there are lots of ways for diction to be elevated.

      Also, weren’t you earlier advocating the elimination of sense-lines? Just sayin’…

  14. I just think there should be an option. If you like sense lines, fine, but for me, and at least some, I think they aren’t useful, and being able to save paper and weight by going with the traditional layout (which currently isnt even allowed as an option) is a big plus. I didn’t see the need to write things out that way, but when you said, “prose,” it made me realize that these aren’t exactly like paragraphs or anything.

  15. The orations are prayers addressed to God but prayed in the midst of the worshiping assembly. What we need more than sense lines, are words that make good sense when prayed aloud. There is a faction in the church which believes that the OF has been sullied by those who celebrate it without proper reverence and devotion to the Lord who exists “out there”. Their correction for that is to virtually disregard our conviction regarding the Word made flesh which places the Lord squarely in our midst. They advocate a return to the practice of “everyone facing God” (they mean the crucifix on the back wall I suppose). They suggest that the posture of fingers held firmly together facing upwards is clearly more reverent. These are mere externals. Much more is expected of those who worship God in spirit and truth. God is out there and he is in our midst. It is impossible to face away from God while facing his priestly people. The prayers need to be in English, not Latin, word order. Their measure of fidelity is not the preciseness of a literal translation of the Latin, but of words that make clear sense to the ones who pray and the ones who respond Amen. The EF is based on a Christology and ecclesiology that doesn’t require prayers that are either well comprehended or given assent to with Amen.

  16. Fr. Jack Feehily : The orations are prayers addressed to God but prayed in the midst of the worshiping assembly. What we need more than sense lines, are words that make good sense when prayed aloud.

    Can we stop insulting people’s intelligence by saying that no one can understand the collects? This past Sunday, for example, I had no trouble whatsoever understanding the message on the first listen (and it was sung, btw).

    Almighty and everlasting God,
    who in your tender love towards the human race
    sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
    to take upon him our flesh
    and to suffer death upon the cross:
    grant that we may follow the example
    of his patience and humility,
    and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
    through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    When I heard it for the first time, I was able to pull out the meaning very easily (probably because I’m not caught up in the “woe is me, I can’t understand it” attitude). Here’s the meaning I pulled out, which is basically what it says in higher language:

    God, you love us, so you sent Jesus to become human and die for us. Help us to be patient and humble like him so that when we die, we can join him in heaven.

    I didn’t even strain myself, and I was able to understand it. Why insult the intelligence of everyone when it’s clearly not impossible to understand them?

    1. @Ben Yanke – comment #24:

      My apologies , the actual text of the collect (and the one I heard on Sunday) is as follows. That being said, the point still stands, because I’m not basing this off of the text above, I’m basing it off my experience from yesterday at Mass. It made perfect sense as soon as I heard it sung by the celebrant.


      Almighty ever-living God,
      who as an example of humility for the human race to follow
      caused our Savior to take flesh and submit to the Cross,
      graciously grant that we may heed his lesson of patient suffering
      and so merit a share in his Resurrection.
      Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
      one God, for ever and ever.

      1. @Ben Yanke – comment #25:

        Here’s 1998 for comparison:

        Almighty and eternal God,
        when you sent our Saviour into the world,
        you gave us all an example to follow:
        in humble obedience he took upon himself a body like ours
        and gave himself up to death on the cross.

        In your mercy, grant us the grace
        to learn from the example of his passion
        and to share in the glory of his resurrection.

        We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
        who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
        God for ever and ever.

        1998 also has a stunning alternative opening prayer which provides a good entrance into the Holy Week mysteries:

        O God of eternal glory,
        you anointed Jesus, your servant,
        to bear our sins,
        to encourage the weary,
        to raise up and restore the fallen.

        Keep before our eyes
        the splendour of the paschal mystery of Christ,
        and, by our sharing in the passion and resurrection,
        seal our lives with the victorious sign
        of his obedience and exaltation.

        We ask this through Christ, our liberator from sin,
        who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
        holy and mighty God for ever and ever.

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #26:

        And this is the point you lose me.

        If I surveyed 100 people on the street, when presented with your “stunning” alternative prayer, a massive majority are going to say it sounds pretty much like all the others presented here.

      3. @Scott Smith – comment #27:
        This might be an argument in favor of the 1970/75 Missal. But the key element here is context: not the street but within a liturgy inside of a church building. Likewise the lesson for Vox Clara and their sympathizers is that a translation cannot be accomplished in a boardroom with a Latin-English dictionary. It might be that proposed prayers and translations need to be prayed before they can be included. A high bar, but not an impossibility.

      4. @Todd Flowerday – comment #28:

        Well it is a suggestion the 1998 / 2011 argument, regarding English style, might not be as big a deal as some people make it.

        It is also a suggestion that native English prayers might not be that helpful either.

      5. @Scott Smith – comment #27:

        (1) Its theology is noticeably richer than the other prayer;
        (2) it uses striking images that speak powerfully; and yet
        (3) the language is more accessible to the “massive majority” you speak of.

      6. @Paul Inwood – comment #26:
        And how do we call the “alternative prayer” a translation? That’s called composition., not translation. Again I say: if you want to add things like psalm prayers or alternative prayers or don’t like the texts of the new missal, don’t complain to the translators, be intellectually honest and get the latin texts changed first.

      7. @Ben Yanke – comment #31:
        Ben, I think everyone has been intellectually honest about all this. There is reason to critique the Latin text (many want its language to be more Biblical and less drawn from court ceremonial language to address God), reason to critique the current translation (it’s not always accurate, sometimes it’s accurate in a way which doesn’t convey the original meaning or any meaning to listeners, sometimes local adaptation of its content would have been advisable), and reason to advocate for original texts.

      8. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #32:
        Father, you missed my main point: very frequently here, I see people complaining about the new translation, when at least half of their complaints are not at all about the translation, but rather, they are about the original latin text that they are now just seeing. We need to be more honest and not pretend it’s the translators fault in every case.

      9. @Ben Yanke – comment #33:
        It’s quite an exaggeration to allege that “at least half” (50%+) of the occasions when people highlight here the many inadequacies of the current English version of MR3 their difficulty is with the original Latin text. (‘Complaints’ is not at all an adequate term to use to express these shortcomings, because it risks reducing the flaws to subjective taste, when, objectively, the new translation is faulty at so many points, in principle, at more than 10,000.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.