On Trying to Revise the Missal

by Michael Sharkey

One day, towards the end of 2016, I sat down at my desk and tried to disentangle and rework the text of some of the Masses of the 2010 edition of the Roman Missal, which had been normative since Advent 2011. My aim was to re-order the words and phrases into a more natural English flow, modernise some of the vocabulary (e.g. change wondrous to wonderful), and replace merit with made worthy. When I received an invitation to have supper with my Archbishop, I took half a dozen Masses with me, showed them to him, and received encouragement to continue the task.

I took the 2010 translation as normative for meaning, so with the latin text on one side, the 1998 translation on the other, and the breviary containing the Glenstal Abbey collects at hand, I set to work after the manner of a sub-editor to produce a clear and even elegant revision, with due attention not only to accuracy, but also to the way the words fall from the mouth of the celebrant and land on the ears of the congregation.

For instance, if you introduce each prayer with “Let us pray”, and you bring the divine name – Lord, Almighty God, ever-living God, – to the beginning of a prayer, and drop the merely rhetorical “we pray”, the opening phrase flows without interruption. For example:

1st Sunday of Advent Collect begins:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ…

I suggest:
Almighty God, grant your faithful people the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ…

The Prayer over the Offeringsbegins:
Accept, we pray, O Lord, these offerings we make…

I suggest:
O Lord, accept these offerings we make…

Then some tweaking, e.g. Line 3 of the 2nd Eucharistic Prayer “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray” becomes “Therefore, we pray, make these gifts holy”; 16th Sunday “made fervent in hope, faith and charity” which is the order in the latin text, but we are accustomed to “made fervent in faith, hope and charity”. In the same Mass the last line reads “to pass from former ways to newness of life”, whereas I suggest “to pass from the old to a new way of life.” Lots of little things like that.

In The Order of Saints I suggest replacing “the blessed N.” with “Saint N.” and “the blessed apostles (s), martyr(s)” with “the holy apostle(s), martyr(s)” in accord with our long-standing usage.

There are some oddities to be corrected, though. The Mass in the UK for St Bridget of Sweden, 23rd July, contains the Offertory and Post-Communion prayers drawn from the Common of Holy Men and Women which celebrate “the New Man”. I am familiar with the model of “the Old Man in Adam and the New Man in Christ”, but in celebrating a saintly woman I suggest that “humanity renewed” be more appropriate.

When Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the great philosopher of womanhood, converted in 1922 from atheism to Catholicism she rediscovered her Jewishness. The collect for her Mass on 9th August alludes to that by beginning “God of our Fathers”. I suggest “God of the Patriarchs”, though I would prefer “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, but that might be going too far.

I have included the antiphons in my revision, keeping the sense of the latin, but restoring familiar words and phrases. Also, in a few instances, I have replaced a literal translation of the latin with an established idiom, e.g. “strength of mind” instead of “spirit of fortitude”.

In due course I submitted my proposed revision of the Roman Missal to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and received a warm acknowledgment from the Chair of the Liturgy Commission. The bishops then met in the autumn on 2017. And nothing happened.

 Copyright of the Missal lies with the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). I sensed that if I made my suggestions public in any way ICEL would shut me down immediately. However, I thought that I could send my texts to all the bishops of the eleven founding conferences of ICEL, since they are ICEL’s masters. And so I did.

 Email is a wonderful invention, but I have found that if you copy an email to more than one address, the recipients’ computers often immediately identify it as spam. So while my peers in the priesthood used their spare time for geriatric golf or the contemplation of imminent eschatological realities, I sent my folder of files to each bishop individually, more than 500 of them. It took quite a while to find their email addresses and to attach all the files. I received a number of acknowledgments, a few comments, and some enthusiasm, especially from New Zealand. Then I learned that at the autumn 2018 meeting of ICEL in Washington there had been some discussion and, while there was no great call for a revision of the Missal as a whole, there would be some interest in revising the collects. Accordingly, the ICEL bishops were to meet in Rome in February 2019 during the plenarium of the Congregation for Divine Worship to discuss with Pope Francis the extent of Magnum Principium and then hold their regular spring meeting.

And nothing happened.

I have been told that there are two reasons why my attempt has come to nothing. The first is financial. The production of the 1998 and 2010 translations was extremely expensive, and the bishops are reluctant to commit to further expenditure. The second is the that sexual abuse crisis and the need for safeguarding have rightly taken priority at the episcopal conferences in recent years and have absorbed and even exhausted the bishops’ energies.

When the text of the 2010 translation was presented to Vox Clara (in 2008, I think), Abbot Cuthbert Johnson said that while it was an accurate translation of the latin, it needed to be handed over to a wordsmith or a poet for a final polish. (He actually had Seamus Heaney in mind.) This suggestion was rejected as it went beyond the remit of Vox Clara.

It is a long time since the Constitution on the Liturgy was published at Vatican II, 4th December 1963. Paragraph 34 states, “The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free from useless repetitions. They should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.” I do not claim to have produced a perfect revision, but I do think that I have made a start. To that end I have now sent my folder of files directly to ICEL in the hope that it may be of service to someone in the future.

Monsignor Michael Sharkey
St Michael’s, Sonning Common
South Oxfordshire
Archdiocese of Birmingham, England


  1. For Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), why not “God of Abraham and Sarah” at the beginning? It is my understanding of scripture and biology that it took the two of them to launch the whole enterprise.

  2. And observers wonder why so much hope has been sapped from those who aspire to church service. Traditionalists claim to be disheartened over guitars and post-conciliar Scripture-based songs. So they tossed a spanner into ICEL and they still flock to backwater Latin Masses, singing what they want to the words they want. Or listening to choirs and clergy do it for them.

    1. Considering many of those most disheartened by the new translation would happily discontinue all celebrations of the Latin Mass tomorrow if they could, I can’t say I feel too bad about Traditionalists getting a say in what words their former tormentors (pre-SP) would force them to use 🙂

      And pretty much all the traditionalists I know attend the OF at least sometimes. Last time I went, they still sang the “Scripture-based songs” I remember growing up with. I also know for a fact there are churches still using guitars.

  3. A listener’s response to this:-
    “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ…”
    Shouldn’t we want to run “first” to meet, rather than run what sounds like fourth?
    Or just “run?”

    1. Onward(s)? [depending upon whether local usage distinguishes adverb from adjective]

      Great example of evaluating proclaimed vs read texts. Euphony as a (currently missing-in-action) translation standard should include that dimension.

  4. This is a wonderful effort. When the 1970 missal appeared. there were “alternative” collects included. Perhaps your work could be approved as an optional alternative. This would relieve concerns about the expense of re-issuing the Missal.

  5. My suspicion is that, apart from the significant financial considerations, the Bishops of England and Wales at least are not minded to open this pandora’s box again in their lifetime.

    Monsignor Sharkey is to be congratulated on trying to import a little good order and common sense into the Missal texts. I am sure that an attentive ear will hear some of his, or similar, emendations in some churches. This ought to be a lengthy process. The only way to work towards good language is to try it out repeatedly.


  6. Any improvement would be gratefully appreciated.
    Of course we could just use the ’98 version.
    What would be the great cost? And don’t the US bishops get a kickback on every misal sold in the US?

    1. The US bishops get a pro rata royalty payment for each Missal on a very small number of scripture texts used in the Missal and the particular adaptations made for the U.S. By far, the majority of the royalty paid on each Missal (10% – 15% of purchase price, I’m not sure of the contracted amount) goes to ICEL.

      From this point on, I’m guesstimating numbers out of thin air, and would be happy to be corrected…on a $75 Missal, from the $7.5 – $11ish royalty payment per book, the bishops probably get a max of around 50 cents. Given the number of Missals purchased in the U.S. that’s not nothing, but probably not enough to sway the conference to undertake the work with ICEL and the local p.r. management of producing a new Missal translation.

  7. Am I the only person who likes the new(-ish) translation?

    We of the Anglophone world put up with a mediocre–dare I say defective–paraphrase of the Missal for almost half a century, one in which numerous theological terms were deliberately, consistently mistranslated or even omitted because the translators/editors (apparently) didn’t like the doctrines reinforced in the Latin original? (If I were reviewing the ’74 Sacramentary for a Latin translation grade, I’d give it a C-.) Here we are with a self-appointed translator who would move us back–even if only somewhat–to those (bad) “old” ICEL days. Granted, the new, more literal translation is in many places “clunky” and could certainly stand a little “BCP-style” polish. But what I see proposed here is an not-so-veiled attempt to dilute the vigor of revealed truth and piety as expressed in the language of liturgy. Again.

    1. My former bishop, Daniel Pilarczyk, who had an earned doctorate in Classics from the University of Cincinnati once remarked that he would fail any student who submitted the latest translations to him as part of a course. The unsubstantiated accusations against the 1970 translators verge on defamation. As for ICEL, the Maronites had them do the translation of their liturgy into English and have found it quite satisfactory. As we try to build each other up in love, perhaps we should remember that love is built on truthful relationships.

      1. Wasn’t there an earlier translation before the fellow whom Xavier used to excoriate by his judicious use of capitals got involved?

        He told me it wasn’t Blessed Thomas Cranmer’s but at least it was correct. Of course for him the 1998 version was the best.

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