Francis, Bishops and the Missal: “Mission Intelligible”

The Tablet recently published an article, “Mission Intelligible,” penned by Michael G. Ryan, rector of Seattle’s St. James Cathedral regarding the translation of the Roman Missal in light of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Calling reconsideration of the translation a game-changer, Ryan argues, “in the wake of the recent changes at the Vatican, the bishops should call for the repeal of the unfortunate Liturgiam Authenticam and the elimination of its handmaid, Vox Clara.”

Ryan believes that Pope Francis would have handled the situation differently were he elected pontiff a year before:

For one thing, I am quite certain that the Missal would not be the one we are still trying to get used to. More likely, it would resemble the one that was painstakingly produced over a period of 17 years by the International Committee for English in the Liturgy (Icel), only to be rather unceremoniously consigned to oblivion by Vatican officials who had got it into their heads that liturgy had become too casual and colloquial.

However, the fix, he contends, is not a revision of the Missal in use currently:

Three years after the new Missal’s introduction, it is hard not to note the serious dissatisfaction many continue to experience with it. It is not all bad, of course – some of it has genuine merit. But the problems are legion. And that emboldens me to suggest, not that the new Missal be revised (it is probably too soon for that and, besides, many priests seem to be doing that on their own) but rather that the 2001 document from the Congregation for Divine Worship, Liturgiam Authenticam, which governs liturgical translations, be revoked. This is something that should be done as soon as possible, certainly before any further translations are made.

I make the suggestion because our public prayers should not be second-rate compositions that would earn poor marks in any secondary-school English (or theology) class. Think, for instance, of all the tortured grammar and syntax in the Missal – not to mention the jerky, whiplash phrasing, which leave priests scratching their heads (or sometimes stifling a smile) and the people in the pews simply tuning out. Think, too, of the tone of the prayers, with their exaltation of merit over mercy, their emphasis on human weakness at the expense of human dignity.

Ryan also notes some shift among bishops on the matter:

Public comments made by two American bishops, Wilton Gregory (of Atlanta) and Robert Lynch (of St Petersburg, Florida), at a national meeting celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s decree on liturgy give some hope. So too does the continuing outspoken opposition of such figures as Maurice Taylor, former Bishop of Galloway (and former chairman of Icel). Could this be the start of a groundswell to change the rules for translations? And, if so, is it possible that, like their confrères in places such as Germany and Austria, who have firmly held the line against translations made according to flawed norms, the English-speaking bishops will now find themselves emboldened to speak up and speak out?

A new moment, such as a young pontificate and the greater lay engagement that has resulted, calls for a “bold, new initiative,” Ryan contends.

Read the article in its entirety here.

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Ryan’s piece received a number of responses. These letters originally appeared in the Tablet, 13 December issue,

I fully endorse Michael G. Ryan’s thoughts on the new translation of the Roman Missal (“Mission intelligible”, 29 November). I do not understand how Liturgiam Authenticam could replace, or still worse, change the basic teachings of an ecumenical council, as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium. Can a document of a Vatican dicastery, or even a papal document, have more teaching authority than that of an ecumenical council? Looking at the ecclesial events of recent decades, the response seems to be in the affirmative though I wonder how doctrinally correct it is.

(FR) Vimal Tirimanna CSsR, Accademia Alfonsiana, Rome, Italy

Michael G. Ryan’s disgusted parishioner who said “Some of those [2010 Missal] prayers might as well be in Latin” was unfair to Latin. The Romans who created the vernacular Latin liturgy stuck to the rhetorical rules that their Roman education prioritised euphony, speakability, sharp intelligibility. The 1975 translators, with those same priorities, got Muriel Spark, accomplished translator of Latin poetry, to recreate that grace and lucidity: in English, though, so that Late Latin’s tautologies, repetitions, prolonged sentences, redundant conjunctions – like its “enim” added purely for rhythm to “hoc est corpus meum” – and fulsome address (alien also to the injunctions of Matthew 6:7-15) all had to go.

But the euphony and lucidity of the fifth and twentieth centuries were not priorities in the twenty-first. The executive secretary of the Curia’s new International Commission on English in the Liturgy was not translating for the speaker or the hearer, but, he told The Tablet, for “the reader”. Bishops and disgusted parishioners can hardly complain then if he faithfully produced a translation that preserved every cultural oddity of the Latin and none of the Latin’s euphony, speakability or clarity for understanding.

Tom McIntyre, Frome, Somerset



  1. Thank you Fr. Ryan for this shove.

    With each translation there is an agenda behind the translator. Can we at least be honest about this. Nuances of meaning, stress in sentence structure, and the desire to bring forth the truest meaning guide the person or committee penning the translation. If the desire is to keep the pure meaning then don’t translate it.

    The recent prayers of December 8’s Immaculate Conception let those who heard them know that the translator did not have the “hearer” in mind as a significant part of their agenda. (I apologize because I do not want to claim that I know the mind of the translator…but I did.)

    I like some of the RMIII changes but I believe that the regular Joe “hearer” of the prayers was not a high priority in the execution of the translation. Those US Bishops that may have taught English in their former lives spoke clearly and forcefully when the new words came out.

  2. “Think, too, of the tone of the prayers, with their exaltation of merit over mercy, their emphasis on human weakness at the expense of human dignity.”

    Methinks the ‘problem’ noted here is with the typical edition, not the translation. One of the complaints leveled against the old translation was that it simply failed (refused?) to translate words or even whole phrases. A case in point – the 5 verbs leading off the Gloria (laudamus, benedicimus, adoramus, gloficamus, gratias agimus) were ‘simplified’ to three (we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory). Thus, elements of the Roman Missal could easily have been ‘hidden’ behind the ICEL rendition.

    In this particular case, while I am aware that some folks quibble about translating mereor, mereri as “merit,” it remains a perfectly legitimate (and standard) translation of the term that has been in the Novus Ordo collects since their inception. This emphasis on merit is often noted by traditionalist critics of the reform of the collects because they claim it is evidence of a rather semi-Pelagian overhaul of our euchology; it just happens to be an emphasis that is in the prayers no matter what language you pray them in.

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #2:

      A case in point – the 5 verbs leading off the Gloria (laudamus, benedicimus, adoramus, gloficamus, gratias agimus) were ‘simplified’ to three (we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory). Thus, elements of the Roman Missal could easily have been ‘hidden’ behind the ICEL rendition.

      Just to be clear about facts: this Gloria is not an ICEL text. It was produced in 1970 by ICET, the International Consultation on English Texts and is used by all the major English-speaking Christian denominations (except Roman Catholics, now). It was adopted by ICEL for use in the 1970 Order of Mass.

    2. @Aaron Sanders – comment #2:
      “spiritual credit held to be earned by performance of righteous acts and to ensure future benefits” Webster’s Dictionary

      It may be a good translation of the Latin. But I do not believe it is quibbling to suggest it misleads the hearer about our Catholic faith.

  3. Perhaps the way to persuade Francis that this would be beneficial is to argue that it will better allow the church to fulfill its mission.

  4. Aaron has an excellent point. The Latin MR3 is rife with problems, particular, structural, and more. We need an MR4 that looks not to the little monsters, the simmering elder siblings, but is a real hospital manual, a working document that is less concerned with beautiful pastel walls and beautiful shiny equipment for their own sake, but one that is focused on restoring God’s wounded children to wholeness, and yes, beauty.

    We’ve had a good Lectionary for forty years now. I think that needs a serious examination, too. More passages on healing–like the healing of a withered hand. We need more images of compassion and mercy. Looking to New Testament letters for pericopes on evangelization and mission would be another thought. If we’re not going to bother with a better harmonization with the other readings and the psalm. I’d give the Lectionary a solid B. But that’s not good enough anymore.

    I’m also of a mind to jettison most of the Communion propers for more mission-oriented material. Enough of Psalm 34, already! A little more imagination, please.

    And yes, let’s jettison Liturgiam Authenticam. Wrap it in a cappa magna and send it down the Tiber on a pyre.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #5:

      We’ve had a good Lectionary for forty years now. I think that needs a serious examination, too. More passages on healing–like the healing of a withered hand. We need more images of compassion and mercy. Looking to New Testament letters for pericopes on evangelization and mission would be another thought

      Todd, the lectionary cycle comprises the call to mission and the loving and merciful Christ of miracles. And yet, the miracles point to the cross, upon which the full power and revelation of the Man-God is revealed to souls. All of the Gospel points to Triduum and Easter. In every word of the gospels and epistles is evangelization. A cut-and-paste of the unexpurgated gospel messages, even the inconvenient messages, is not a call to true evangelization but a path to therapeutic deism.

      At the Christmas day Mass, the Church proclaims puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis, cujus imperium super humerum eius. “A son is born for us; a son is given to us; whose rule is upon his shoulder”. Christ is no est cultist, no Tony Robbins fan. He lifts on to himself the very moral truths, and asks us to follow this regardless of their burdens. No evangelization can shy from this truth.

      Please pray for me Todd, as I will this Christmastide.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #20:
        Well, I suppose I’d also like to see less therapeutic deism in the Lectionary rather than more. Since I didn’t really offer 102 alternate reading sets for green Sundays, I suppose I’ll just have to go with mutual misunderstanding on this point and pay closer attention if you’ve got any more input on this.

        I do think harmonizing Sts Paul, John, James, etc. into ordinary Sundays is a serious consideration. I wouldn’t stake my life on it, but I don’t see it as a modernist trap either.

        I also think my written record on this blog and on my own speaks more to a sense that I’m a minister looking for more rather than less accountability, responsibility, and duty–in myself, the clergy, my colleagues, and Christians who consider themselves committed believers. So yes, as I scratch my head, I will pray for you, and I will certainly appreciate your prayers for me and my family.

  5. I pray that Pope Francis looks to the CSL, and its emphasis on regional Bishops’ conferences to take responsibility for the translation into the vernacular, and does indeed scrap “Liturgiam Authenticam” and say to the English-speaking Bishop’s conferences: “Here, you translate. I don’t speak English well, so this is your responsibility. Make it beautiful!” And then, he needs to re-strengthen the local Bishop Conferences to make local teachings and decisions. We need to decentralize! But this is only a prayer.

  6. With the arrival in Rome of Francis we may well be moving towards a significant change in attitude and a different way of solvng our problems. We have a new Pope, now all we need is an open Church to join him.

    That will depend on the courage of the hierarchies in English- speaking countries in at least supporting the view that there have been real difficulties with the current translation. They seem to be following the line that we will all just have to learn to live with it and will eventually realise its beauty. In other words, stop moaning and get on with it.

    The principle of collegiality, the un-opened present of Lumen Gentium, were it fully appreciated, would have prevented much of the disquiet of the last three years. Unfortunately language that does not speak to us is more likely to cause the people to go away long before that moment of imagined realisation of beauty is reached.

  7. I have wondered for some time if Liturgiam Authenticam (LA) can really be coinsidered legitimate as it is so contrary to the Council and the work done by the Consilium and ICEL and also Comme le Prevoit of Paul VI. Is it possible that those in the Curia who produced it passed it to JPII to sign when he was not in the best of health and did not even read it to approve it. It is frequently commented that the Curia had a free hand during the pontificate of JPII. LA does is not even consistent with the way JPII celebrated Mass at his various international visits and in St Peter’s, Rome.

    If it is possible for reactionaries in the Curia to reverse instructions of a previous pope with regard to translation then it is surely possble for Pope Francis to request that LA should no longer to be applied.

  8. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the present version, too much money has been invested by publishers and parishes for any major change to be possible.
    I wonder how many priests have kept their old missals “just in case……..”

    1. @Alan Johnson – comment #11:
      The bishops just frittered away $1.1M investigating women religious to get a nice affirmation for 50,000 sisters. Maybe they can hit up the Knights of Columbus for $200 x 18000 parishes. Not too much more.

      Big MR3 editions were already on cut-rate sales this past summer–cheaper than the chapel editions.

      1. @Alan Johnson – comment #13:
        Right … and those bishops left their religious alone. Our Roman Missal, after just three years, is getting pretty frayed.

        I would be fine spending 5-7 years overhauling the MR3 for the next edition. We’ll all be a lot closer to retirement in 2025, but that wouldn’t be a bad date for a next generation. By then, it will all be done in silver-plated tablets anyway.

        Karl’s comments are all worth considering, too. But the interim doesn’t excite me. I’m satisfied with a lack of strict oversight in the interim. No forced retirements, certainly.

  9. If you’re going to revise MR3 in the interim, leave the Ordo Missae alone and focus on authorization of a supplemental edition of better-rendered collects.

    Triage, triage, triage. Undertake a forced sorting exercise to determine what is really most important/problematic. And then ask: Really? Really? Really?

    Also, while putting further implementation of LA on hold, it would be vital to revisit the process by which translation principles are reviewed and revised in the first place. The process has to be changed before the principles can be changed well. And I’d really want to champion (1) euphony in the received vernacular as proclaimed and heard aurally in a public space, and (2) to have a sliding scale of complexity of prosody based on how frequently a regular congregant would hear that text (so Ordo-type text could be graced with greater Cranmerian complexity, shall we say).

  10. I minister to a migrant worker and exchange student community, for not all of whom English is a first language. Even my eyes glazed over as I prayed last Sunday’s Prayer after Communion with words like ‘implore’ and ‘divine sustenance’, and later noted inconsistency in failing to stay close to the Latin as “clementiam” became “mercy”.
    Also in my congregation were two veteran teachers, both with thirty plus years of experience as teachers of English as a foreign language, one at High School level, the other at college level, whose area of expertise is English Literature in the British Commonwealth. They both had some choice comments as usual afterwards.

    1. @Brendan Kelleher SVD – comment #16:
      My wife is a retired EFL teacher who also studied Latin. She uses a Latin/English missal.
      It isn’t unknown for her to replace “Amen” with “Fail” at the end of collects.

  11. The Collects and Prayers used in the ELW liturgy are wonderful. I keep the Bulletin each week and refer to it for prayer at morning and evening. They are beautifully written…just sayin’.

  12. Chris McDonnell :Unfortunately language that does not speak to us is more likely to cause the people to go away long before that moment of imagined realisation of beauty is reached.

    This has been the case with me. Attendance has been sporadic to say the least for the past three years and this is directly attributable to not wanting to hear what is in the new missal and the message it puts across. I have become quite good at doing jigsaws at the back of church with my little nephews out of earshot of what is being said. I shall go to Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral tonight for midnight mass but I know where to sit so the echoes drown out the worst bits.

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