What Should a Sixth Instruction Contain?

In an earlier post, Andrea Grillo suggests that it is time for a sixth instruction on the right implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium — an instruction that would get us past the pitfalls of the fifth: Liturgiam authenticam, on the translation of liturgical texts.

Because Pray Tell readers have considered the issues of liturgical translation with some attention over time, I thought it would be interesting to open the floor for brainstorming suggestions as to what this new instruction ought to contain.

* * *

For myself, I can identify material in both Liturgiam authenticam and Comme le prevoit (the document it supplanted) that is true and valuable. Occasionally a point that looks innocuous on the page has turned out to be disastrous when actually implemented, and so demands qualification. And then, there are some provisions that just need to be edited out: either as mistakes or overblown claims, or tending too far toward paranoia or idealism. Peter Jeffrey’s critique of LA as “ignorant” takes up many of its assertions as incoherent and historically fictive.

* * *

Here are the two texts:

Liturgiam authenticam


Comme le prevoit

The floor is open. What provisions would you add, keep, strengthen, revise, or throw, and why?

[Nota Bene: If you want to argue that Vatican II did not really want vernacular liturgy in the first place, please make that case somewhere other than this thread. Thank you.]


  1. I would like to underscore a few issues neither document addresses well:

    1. The difference between a text as proclaimed versus as read with the eye, and the corresponding importance of rendering texts for living worship rather than as a master formula.

    2. The related difference between texts that are heard frequently/regularly by congregants and those that are much less frequently heard, and to avoid treating all comprehension simply and as a matter of immediacy (not uniformly flattened by the exigencies of conversational speech) without distinction. A text that is more frequently heard has the opportunity to percolate, and therefore it can bear greater complexity.

    3. A prioritization of euphony in, and respect for the genius of, the received tongue. This cannot be emphasized enough. The importance of seeking out the gifts of those who practice the arts of language (not Strunk & White).

    4. Greater openness to original texts composed in the received tongue.

    5. A process for trial reception of proposed new translations to gather the feedback of the faithful (not just priests and lay ministers, but the entire flock, broad and deep). (Of course this assumes that the whole bad relationship between Curia and Conferences gets reformed as well.)

    6. A multi-year window for rolling out approved updated translations of the Ordo Missae so that *sung* settings thereof can be grandfathered for a period of time at least. (I have as my inspiration for this the apt and prudent US adaptation in the GIRM of permitting formerly approved translations of the Psalter to continued to be used in sung form, which is designed to avoid requiring Catholics to dump their musical Psalter each time a new translation comes out, because musical repertoire is not as readily replaced on the spot.)

    7. And a regularized (rather than ad hoc) process for reviewing translations perhaps no more frequently than in advance (let’s say, 5 years) of each ordinary Jubilee to consider updates to them, for release in conjunction with such Jubilee, for example.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      As a footnote to Liam’s #2, while I think it is good if the people’s parts of the Mass be the same for all speakers of a language (recognizing that this might not be entirely possible with some languages), I think that other parts of the Mass could be translated in a way that fits the idiom of different forms of a language (e.g. English as spoken in the US, England, and India).

    2. @Karl Liam Saur:
      With reference to KLS’s first point (the need to be sensitive to the difference between text written to be read and text written to be heard), Stephen Sondheim has a pertinent observation regarding the challenges facing a theatrical lyricist:

      “Poetry seems to exist in terms of its conciseness: How much can be packed in. Lyric writing has to exist in time. The audience – the listener – cannot do what a reader of poetry does: He cannot go at his own speed; he cannot go back over the sentence. Therefore, it must be crystal-clear as it goes on. That means you have to under-write: You have to lay the sentences out so there’s enough air for ear to take them in.
      Also, what has to be considered – and what not enough people who write dense lyrics consider – is that there’s a great deal going on besides lyric: There’s music; there’s costumes; there’s lighting. There’s a lot of things to listen to and look at and therefore the lyric must be, in that sense, simple. It can be full of complex thought; and it certainly can have resonance. But it must be easy to follow.”

      [from HBO’s “Six by Sondheim”]

      To which I would add one more consideration, namely, the execrable acoustics of most churches.

      If liturgical prayer is something in which the assembly is to participate — in ANY sense of that word — then the words must audible and — to Sondheim’s point — readily comprehensible in some setting that entails at least a few more distractions than a typical Camaldolese hermitage.

  2. The two institutional approaches are very clear. In 1969 the central church government gave general guidance and consulted with bishops’ conferences about the end product. In 2001 the center micromanaged the entire process, leaving no room for the unexpected. Contrast the length of each instruction.

    Which of these will the Sixth Instruction reflect? I predict, in the first place, that there will be no action in this area while the former pope remains among us. But soon after that day, at least in recognition of the twofold goal of preserving the best of our tradition and updating the way we pray, some synthesis will take place. Since both instructions spend much ink on approaching the problem of a Latin original, why not do a radical revision of the Latin template? After all, there have been such periodic revisions over the centuries. A central research facility like the Anselmiano has to be fully involved in this venture.

    Next, restore the role of bishops’ conferences in researching, deciding and submitting. This is not entirely a one-sided advocacy of the stipulations in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the 1969 instruction. After all, paragraph 87 of the 2001 instruction allows an opening for local adaptations that can be greatly amplified. Native speakers of English, Spanish and other widely spoken languages know and chuckle at the regional variations they hear from well-meaning novices. Even though our liturgies have had their lighter side, often deliberately, there is no need for us to perpetuate them blindly.

  3. Do we presume that a Sixth Instruction would be solely about translation?

    I’d think that translation/language as one consideration within a larger instruction about inculturation would be a way to keep the translation topic evolving, but also place it in its larger context.

    It would be great if a Sixth instruction gave concrete final responsibility/authority for approval of newly-translated or newly-inculturated rites to the local/national bishops’ conferences, with a penultimate step of review by the Vatican for suggestion and comment within a specified timeframe prior to the episcopacy’s final approval.

  4. Here’s my list of druthers:
    *The involvement of ecclesiologists, liturgists, historians, linguists, poets, and a few “ordinary” Catholics to provide the others with some down to earth input as they wax eloquent.
    *A provision for input from episcopal conferences in the framing of principles.
    *That serious consideration be given to moving away from the notion that prayers that express the faith of the church must originate in Latin.
    *That translations of the lectionary readings be in language that is easily grasped by assemblies comprised of men, women, and children, including some who may be functionally illiterate.

  5. One small nitpicky point: the CDWDS did not number Musicam Sacram with the other five, but as point of fact, it was released as a post-conciliar “instruction.” Perhaps that suggests music was less of a concern of the curia. Make of that what you will. Or number LA as #6–it was.

    Karl’s 5, 6, and 7 are well-taken. But would require some direction–even examples–on what this would look like. Or what sort of Ignatian discernment could be applied and how. We’ve seen with evangelization what happens when a far-seeing prelate (Paul VI) produces a landmark document (Evangelii Nuntiandi) and nobody pays attention.

    I would see trial reception being distributed to monasteries, cathedral churches, and parishes known for good liturgy. Local oversight of experimentation by a competent professional.

    Some history review is useful as well: illustrative is the shift in tone from 1, 2, and 2a (Musicam Sacram) even to 3–already a skepticism and caution (if not fear) shadowed the curia in 1970 and perhaps that was part of the reason so much time passed between 3 and 4, which addressed inculturation fairly decently. All of these documents, including ClP, were reviewed on my web page years ago, where Karl (and others) added some pertinent ideas and observations.

  6. Issues of translation seem to be settled.

    The only issue of translation that should be addressed is the Lectionary. The beautiful third edition of “The Roman Missal” is now the same for all English-speaking Catholics throughout the world. I would like to see a universal lectionary. “The Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition”, and “The Revised Grail Psalms” would get my vote.

    1. @Geoffrey Lopes da Silva:
      I’ve seen the argument that the new English translation of the missal means that all English-speaking Catholics are now using the same translation. This argument sort of annoys me as I’m not sure what it means. Prior to the 2011 translation all English-speaking Catholics were using the same translation (albeit with minor modifications). Prior to the new translation most churches in Ireland were using a US edition of the Sacramentary (the Irish version was out of print), today most Irish parishes are using a US edition (the typesetting of the official Irish version is terrible and renders the book almost unusable). There are still minor variations in the translation (e.g. Ireland still has a local option of using “My Lord and my God” as a memorial acclamation and there are different saint’s days). Whatever the merits of the 2011 translation, the notion that prior to its introduction various translations were approved for different countries is wrong. If I’m missing something on this argument would someone please let me know.
      Regarding a common lectionary translation, it sounds like a good idea, but simply we are forbidden from using more than one translation in a given region by Liturgiam authentic (#36). Personally I like the RSV and use it for my own devotional reading and would like to use it in certain Masses I celebrate, Prior to Liturgical Authenticam more than one Biblical lectionary could be approved in a given country but now unless all the English speaking conferences are prepared to jettison other approved translations (The NAM in the US, the NRSV in Canada and the JB in most other areas), we simply can’t adopt a new Biblical translation of the lectionary. I think this is a pity, but if Liturgiam Authenticam has settled all translation issues, then, barring an imposition of a single English translation of the Bible by the CDW, this will simply never happen.

  7. @Karl Liam Saur suggests “A text that is more frequently heard has the opportunity to percolate, and therefore it can bear greater complexity”. This is reasonable, but I found myself thinking about the texts repeated every week which, I suspect, are not ambiguous or obscure only to me.

    An example is the Lord God of hosts in the Holy,holy. “Hosts” was a change from “power and might”, which was clear, but possibly not very accurate. The Latin Sabaoth would need explanation for many. It appears to mean an assembly of angels, for which we don’t have a familiar word. As for “hosts”, this covers everything from Communion hosts (as probably many think, though it is itself a complicated term ranging through victim, guest, and one entertaining a guest or occupant), through a large throng and right up to a Tolkienesque armed force, as is suggested by the corresponding Swahili term majeshi, apparently saying “Lord God of armies”.

    So perhaps the sixth instruction needs to say more about the relation between our best understanding of what was originally meant, and the meanings and contexts of our modern words, which are so different. Sometimes, it might be better to paraphrase the original so that the sense would be understood.

    An afterthought: please could the new instruction engage with the effect on English speaking women today of hearing so much language which literally refers only to male human beings.

  8. ‘Sabaoth’ is sufficiently ambiguous for ancient translators to have left it alone in both the Greek and Latin versions of this acclamation.

    I guess its ambiguity means you can’t translate it ‘straight.’ You have to interpret and choose one or other option. ‘Power and might’ chooses, and then re-interprets, the military sense. To my ear it always sounded ugly. I suppose ‘hosts’ is an attempt to bridge the ‘armies’ and ‘angel choirs’ images. It is also a traditional English liturgical translation.

    Do we have any evidence that RC’s think it refers to the Eucharistic ‘bread?’

    I’d like to know how the Septuagint took it and what the word is in Revelation 4. I don’t have the Greek in front of me.

    ‘Almighty’ seems to me an acceptable paraphrase, as in Reginald Heber’s famous hymn.

    Alan Griffiths.

    1. @Alan Griffiths:
      “Power and might” was, in a word, dreadful. It erased the connotation of the hosts of heaven that are implicated in the lead-in to the Sanctus – a gathering, not just God.

      But, to avoid getting off-topic into particulars, I think that the processes for RM1, RM2 and RM3 were deficient in different ways, and that’s an example of a different kind of deficiency.

    2. @Alan Griffiths:
      PPS: One thing that escapes the attention of many in the post-conciliar rite is that the liturgical purpose of the Sanctus has been developed, eschatologically, to include being a foretaste of assembled Body of Christ in the Supper of the Lamb.

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