The New Missal: The Process and Principles of Translation and the Catechetical Implications

Authored by Msgr. Andrew R. Wadsworth in Issue #32.3 of The Sower

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I am delighted to have this opportunity to give an account of the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) as we move towards the implementation of the translation of the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum, the Latin text of which was issued by the Holy See in 2002 and amended in 2008. In this article I would like to explain the principles of translation that underpin the new Missal in English, and explore some of the catechetical implications facing us as we begin to celebrate the Mass using this translation.

ICEL and Vatican II

ICEL is a commission of eleven Bishops representing the eleven largest territories where English is spoken. Since 1963, ICEL has produced liturgical texts in English, translating the Missal, The Liturgy of the Hours and all the Sacramental Rites. Its work is coordinated by a secretariat which has been based in Washington, DC since its inception.

In considering ICEL’s work, I would like to set my account in the broader context of the evolution of the English translation of the Missal and the use of the vernacular in Catholic liturgy. Any discussion of Catholic liturgy in English is inevitably linked to the Second Vatican Council. In the first decree to issue from the Council, the Fathers wrote:

‘In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the Sacred Liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself.’i

The statement of this intention essentially implied two distinct processes which would consequently result in a liturgical revolution for Catholics of the Roman Rite: a radical revision of the liturgy of the Roman Rite resulting in new liturgical books which were not merely redactions of their predecessors but included ancient liturgical texts together with texts of more recent composition and subsequently the translation of these texts into vernacular languages.

I think it is vitally important to consider these two issues together, as from the time of the Council they are virtually inseparable in the experience of the majority of Catholics. More than forty years later, if asked what liturgical changes resulted from the Council, many Catholics would simply state that in the celebration of Mass the priest began to face the people and that Mass was said in English rather than in Latin. It comes as a shock to many people to realize that both of these developments have a much longer history and that neither of them was explicitly mandated by the Council or its decrees, although some, perhaps most, would argue that they are implicit in its formulations.

Mass in the Vernacular

The idea of liturgy in the vernacular is as old as the Church herself, just as the parallel notion of a hieratic or sacred language used in worship is considerably more ancient than Christianity. The complex relationship between the use of both Latin and Greek, in the little we know of the earliest forms of Catholic liturgy, bears witness to the juxtaposition of these two ideas in the development of that liturgy through the centuries.

Towards the end of the first millennium, the missionary experience of the Church in the East led reformers such as Saints Cyril and Methodius to advocate the liturgical use of vernacular languages as a means of deepening comprehension of the celebration of the sacred mysteries. The Council of Trent considered the issue of vernacular celebrationii in its sessions, largely although not exclusively in response to the Protestant Reformation. Its resistance of the notion at that stage led to the clarification and codification of Latin as the sole liturgical language of the Roman Rite.

In many places the use of the vernacular, in liturgical song and devotional prayers for private (and sometimes public) recitation during the liturgy ensured that the idea of a vernacular element in liturgy was kept alive in the experience of many Catholics. This was particularly true in Germany where metrical settings of German texts of the Ordinary of the Mass were frequently sung from the seventeenth century onwards. In an increasing number of countries where English was spoken, English hymnody and devotions were also greatly in evidence. Out of this popular culture, there grew a movement for increased use of the vernacular, a movement that gathered momentum in the years immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council.

In the fall of 1962, with the Second Vatican Council still in session, several English- speaking Bishops met in Rome to discuss the production of the vernacular translations that they anticipated would be authorized by the Council. These Bishops envisaged forming a committee which would produce uniform translations for all English-speaking countries. Their deliberations led to the formation of the International Committee (later, Commission) on English in the Liturgy. The first formal meeting of ICEL took place on October 17, 1963, and included representatives of the following English-speaking national Conferences of Bishops: Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa and the United States of America. In 1967, The Philippines would become the eleventh member Conference.

Assisting the Bishops was a second body, the Advisory Committee, composed of liturgical experts appointed by the Episcopal Board to oversee and carry out the work. As it was the primary body engaged in the work, the members of the Advisory Committee had great influence in determining the style of translation and the gradual evolution of that style and the approach to translation over the first thirty years of ICEL’s history. In 1967, ICEL produced its first official English translation of a liturgical text, the Roman Canon.

Original Principles of Translation

It is now widely accepted that much that is ascribed to the Second Vatican Council was in fact the work of the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (hereafter, Consilium), a curial committee charged with the task of implementing the provisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium by making concrete proposals. The Consilium rapidly identified the use of the vernacular as a key to increased participation on the part of the laity, hence the emphasis on vernacular translation and the speed with which the English translation was prepared. The Consilium eventually outlined its guidelines for the translation of liturgical texts in its Instruction, Comme le prévoit (January 25, 1969). Concerning the principles that need to govern translation, the document says:

‘The purpose of liturgical translations is to proclaim the message of salvation to believers and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord: “Liturgical translations have become…the voice of the Church” (address of Paul VI to participants in the congress on translations of liturgical texts, 10 November 1965). To achieve this end, it is not sufficient that a liturgical translation merely reproduce the expressions and ideas of the original text. Rather it must faithfully communicate to a given people, and in their own language, that which the Church by means of this given text originally intended to communicate to another people in another time. A faithful translation, therefore, cannot be judged on the basis of individual words: the total context of this specific act of communication must bekept in mind, as well as the literary form proper to the respective language.’iii

The Instruction goes on to underline the necessity of taking great care in the translation of Latin terms and idioms that are difficult to render in vernacular languages or present obstacles in a contemporary context not foreseen in the original text. The central maxim of Comme le prévoit expresses it thus:

‘The accuracy and value of a translation can only be assessed in terms of the purpose of the communication.’iv

Looking Forward to Further Revision

At the time of the production of the 1973 edition of the Missal, it was envisaged that a revision of the translation would in time be both necessary and desirable. In order to facilitate the implementation of the liturgical renewal desired by the Council Fathers, the Holy See published five documents of special importance, each successively numbered as an “Instruction for the Right Application of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council.”

With Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Vicesimus quintus annus, issued on 4 December 1988 to mark the 25th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, there began a gradual process of evaluation, completion and consolidation of the liturgical renewal.v On

25  January  1994,  the  Congregation  for  Divine  Worship  and  the  Discipline  of  the Sacraments carried this process forward by issuing the Fourth Instruction, Varietates legitimae, concerning difficult questions on the Roman Liturgy and inculturation or adaptations for local churches.

A draft revision of the Missal was prepared by ICEL and submitted to the Congregation in 1997 after a long and scholarly process of preparation. The translation was prepared in accordance with the provisions of Comme le prévoit but with a stricter approach to the demands of fidelity to the meaning of the original Latin text. During this same period, the Holy See was carefully considering a fuller statement of the principles that should govern the production of vernacular translations. This process of reflection resulted in the suspension of the approval of the draft Missal text approved by the eleven ICEL member Bishops’ Conferences in June 1997 while the clarification of the principles of translation was in progress.

The Congregation for Divine Worship published its clarification of the principles of translation in the Fifth Instruction “Liturgiam authenticam on the Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy”. It was approved by Pope John Paul II on 28 March, 2001, and came in to force on 25 April of the same year. The press release issued by the Holy See gives a clear indication of the significance of this Instruction:

‘The Fifth Instruction begins by referring to the initiative of the Council and the work of the successive Popes and the Bishops throughout the world, recalling the successes of the liturgical reform, while at the same time noting the continued vigilance needed in order to preserve the identity and unity of the Roman Rite throughout the world. In this regard, the Instruction takes up the observations made in 1988 by Pope John Paul II calling for progress beyond an initial phase to one of improved translations of liturgical texts. Accordingly, Liturgiam authenticam offers the Latin Church a new formulation of principles of translation with the benefit of more than thirty years’ experience in the use of the vernacular in liturgical celebrations.

‘Liturgiam authenticam supersedes all norms previously set forth on liturgical translation, with the exception of those in the fourth Instruction Varietates legitimae, and specifies that the two Instructions should be read in conjunction with each other. It calls more than once for a new era in translation of liturgical texts.’

The most far-reaching consequence is that the Instruction embodies an entirely different approach to translation. In order to illustrate this, we must consider several important aspects of translation theory which are pertinent in this regard.

Dynamic Equivalence and Formal Equivalence

Dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence are two  quite different approaches to translation. Dynamic equivalence (also known as functional equivalence) attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text (if necessary, at the expense of literalness, original word order, the source text's grammatical voice, etc.), while formal equivalence attempts to render the text word-for-word (if necessary, sometimes at the expense of what might be considered a more natural expression in the target language). The two approaches represent an emphasis, respectively, on readability and on literal fidelity to the source text. There is, however, in reality, no sharp boundary between dynamic and formal equivalence and elements of both approaches will often be evident in most translations. Broadly speaking, the two represent a spectrum of translation approaches, each approach having its own integrity and resulting in a translation that demonstrates characteristics in marked contrast to each other stylistically.

The terms "dynamic equivalence" and  "formal equivalence", as you may know, are associated with the translator Eugene Nida (born 1911), and were originally coined to describe ways of translating the Scriptures, but the two approaches are applicable to any translation.

As dynamic equivalence does not require strict adherence to the grammatical structure of the original text in favor of a more natural rendering in the target language, it is most suited to texts where the readability of the translation is more important than the preservation of the original grammatical structure. Thus a novel might be translated with greater use of dynamic equivalence so that it may read well, while in diplomacy or in some business settings there may be an insistence on formal equivalence because it is believed that fidelity to the grammatical structure of the language results in greater accuracy of translation.

The more the source language differs from the target language, the more challenges it may present in the production of a literal translation. On the other hand, formal equivalence can often allow readers or hearers to see how meaning was expressed in the original text, preserving idioms, rhetorical devices and certain modes of speech. In case it is not already obvious, Comme le prévoit engendered the approach identified as dynamic equivalence whereas in Liturgiam authenticam there is a shift to formal equivalence.

Although both approaches as applied to liturgical translation have their advocates, opponents to Liturgiam autheticam in general and to the new translation of the Roman Missal in particular tend to be rather disingenuous as their clearest motivation would seem to be to scupper the use of formal equivalence for reasons of an ecclesiological rather than a liturgical or linguistic nature. An example of this would be the view that texts should only “arise” out of the local church which should be the sole source of their approbation. The sort of congregationalism militates against any sense of a common identity for the Roman Rite. Given the legitimate diversity of style in liturgical celebration permitted by the norms, a sense of the unity of the Roman Rite remains essentially a textual unity – we all use the same liturgical texts when we celebrate the liturgy.  Frequently critics reach across the experience of the last forty years and claim a putting that same principle into practicevi. There can also be a tendency to ignore the fact that at the time Sacrosanctum Concilium was written everyone in the Latin Rite was still using what we now call the Extraordinary Form and that the new Missal text (Missale Romanum 1969) including both ancient texts and those of more recent composition was yet to be assembled.

The difference in approaches to translation is most clearly demonstrated by comparison. Here we have the Collect of the Mass of Christmas Day, a text from the seventh century Veronese Sacramentaryvii:

Missale Romanum [2002]

The Roman Missal [1973]

The Roman Missal [2010]


qui humanae substantiae dignitatem

et mirabiliter condidisti, et mirabilius reformasti, da, quaesumus, nobis eius divinitatis esse consortes,

qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps.

Lord God,

we praise you for creating man, and still more for

restoring him in Christ. Your Son shared our weakness;

may we share his glory.

O God,

who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature

and still more wonderfully restored it,

grant, we pray,

that we may partake in the divinity of him

who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

New Edition

These changes were immediately followed by the publication of the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum on 2 May, 2002, the new Latin edition of the Roman Missal which would be the first text ICEL would have to translate in accordance with the new directives. For a complex variety of reasons, it was not felt possible that a revision of the 1997 translation would be possible so an entirely new translation was begun. Consequently it is not strictly accurate to speak of the translation as a revision, it is a new translation of the most recent Latin text of the Missal.

This new edition of the Missal contains a revised and expanded version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (increased from 357 to 399 paragraphs). The corpus of texts for the Prayers over the People has been expanded, allowing for a different text of this Prayer to be assigned to each day of Lent. The third edition also provided liturgical texts for the celebration of twenty-two Saints and various other Memorials that have been added to the General Roman Calendar since 1975. The Missal has introduced new Mass formularies for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for Masses for Various Needs and Intentions, and for Votive Masses. The Appendix to the Order of Mass now provides the texts of the Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation and the Eucharistic Prayer for Masses for Various Needs and Intentions. In addition to the provision of additional texts, the third edition also contains a greatly expanded corpus of chants, including the complete settings of Eucharistic Prayers I-IV. The reprint of this Missal in 2008 contained further changes and  additions to liturgical  texts which  now include  Vigiln Masses for the Solemnities of the Epiphany and the Ascension of the Lord and for the celebration of the Vigil Mass of Pentecost in the extended form (in the manner of the Easter Vigil) with additional readings with a prayer following each reading.

Liturgical Language

A frequent observation heard in relation to the new translation of the Roman Missal is that the language is of a more formal character than that of the current translation. This was an intention in the production of the translation and so is clearly identifiable as one of its characteristics. The aim was to reflect features of the original Latin texts, providing a translation which is clearly sacral in character and yet not archaic in style.

In order to appreciate this feature of the text, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that the sole purpose of language is communication of information. This idea has a tendency to inculcate minimalism in the use of language, as it would argue that clarity of communication is best achieved by using the fewest words possible. This tendency is immediately evident in two widely spoken languages, English and Spanish as the demands of a world language have understandably led to a simplification of vocabulary and structures in an effort to ensure comprehensibility for the greatest number of those using these languages. The result is inevitably an impoverishment of the language, as the registerviii of everyday conversational language becomes the norm  guiding not only spoken but also written forms of the language. These considerations of register and vocabulary are particularly important in relation to liturgical texts as we use vernacular translations of texts originally in Latin or sometimes Greek or Hebrew – languages which often seem far removed from our everyday use of English.

In later Antiquity, as Latin developed into something of a world language, the breakdown of its syntax and morphology followed rapidly. The Latin of the majority of the orations of the liturgy, however, belongs to an earlier period when the purity of style and economy of expression were distinctive features. The vocabulary of these prayers is necessarily rich as it reflects the various mysteries of salvation, conveying concepts which do not always occur in everyday conversation. Radically to simplify the language is often to dilute the concept, frequently omitting a distinctive feature communicated in the original. A procession of such simplifications often leads to a paraphrase of the original or a complete change in meaning from that which was originally intended.

Many have lamented the lack of real catechesis which accompanied the implementation of the Missale Romanum of Paul VI in 1969. We have to hope that the implementation of the new translation will not be a missed opportunity in this regard.

The Necessity for Catechesis

Wherever liturgical vocabulary is unfamiliar in a pastoral context, there is a clear need to engage in catechesis. In this way, familiar concepts are broadened and unfamiliar ideas are explained so that the quality of our liturgical celebrations is enriched not only in its constituent elements but also in the depth of participation of those who engage in its celebration. For this reason, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy contains the following exhortation: “with zeal and patience, pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful, and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally.”ix Failure to do so does not diminish the need to carry out such catechesis. Many  have lamented the lack of real catechesis which accompanied the implementation of the Missale Romanum of Paul VI [1969]. We have to hope that the implementation of the new translation will not be a missed opportunity in this regard.

Our liturgical language not only has the purpose of communicating the content of our belief, but it also needs to express that belief by giving voice to the mind of the Church in celebrating a particular mystery and the heart of those engaging in the liturgical celebration. In this, text is often wedded to liturgical song which heightens its proclamation and shows a commonality of characteristics with poetry and song in other contexts. The single most readily identifiable source of our liturgical texts is Sacred Scripture whose own textual features owe much to the devices of poetry and exigencies of song.

It has been a particular goal of the new translation that allusions to Scripture will be more clearly evidenced. In this way, it is also rendered possible to make all liturgical catechesis a means of further deepening a spirituality which is rooted in the Church’s reading of the Scriptures.

The process of widespread catechesis which must prepare and accompany the implementation of the new translation of the Missal is an example of a primary work of the Church, teaching the faith and helping people to a richer, deeper experience of that faith particularly in their celebration of the liturgy. Obviously the implementation of a new translation after 40 years of using the current text necessitates careful preparation. Most people have a natural reticence in relation to change of any sort and the reception of the Missal can be greatly assisted if the process by which it was prepared, the features of the text, a general catechesis on the nature of the liturgy in general and the celebration of the Eucharist in particular are undertaken on the widest possible scale. Priests will certainly need assistance and encouragement in adapting to the demands of a text which initially will be unfamiliar.

It is natural that this catechetical opportunity should not be missed. To this end, ICEL has produced a multi-media catechetical resource entitled Become One Body, One Spirit in Christ. This interactive DVD contains much video footage of those who were most intimately involved in the production of the new translation, interviews from all over the English-speaking world, together with a vast quantity of text files that offer an in-depth exploration of the riches of the text and the process of creating the Missal across the centuries. It is hoped that this and other similar initiatives will help us all to explore the treasures of the Missal for many years to come.

The whole purpose of the production of the English edition of the Missal and the guiding purpose in all of ICEL’s activity is that a dignified celebration of the liturgy in which due attention has been given to each of the constitutive elements will enable all the People ofGod to come to a greater knowledge and experience of the saving mystery which we celebrate. In that respect, the goal of ICEL and this Liturgical Institute is essentially the same.

This article is originally on pages 6-9 of the printed edition.

This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact

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