New Roman Missal – An Introduction

[Added 10-2011]

Jaws drop.  Eyes widen.  A few people in the class or in the audience gasp, groan or grunt.  Then someone pipes up, “Where did this come from?” or “Can’t we do anything about this?”

This scene has been repeated in one form or another in classes, programs and workshops around the world.  The introduction of the new English version of the Roman Missal, scheduled for November 27, 2011, is proving itself to be a crisis moment for English-speaking Roman Catholics.  What happens this Advent and beyond could determine the future of a renewed, balanced, inclusive liturgy according to the principles and the spirit of Vatican II.

What is it?

The English text of the Roman Missal was translated from the most recent Latin base text of the Order of Mass, published in 2000.  This Latin text shows numerous changes from the 1970 version that was used for the words of the Mass we have been using up to now.  The 2000 Latin text replaced words and rearranged phrases in a way that often shifts the emphasis to our human sinfulness and need for God’s mercy, the glory of almighty God, and the sacrifice of the Mass.

At the same time, Rome’s policy on how translations are made from the Latin base text of any Catholic rite into any of the modern spoken languages was drastically changed.  Instead of using the principle of “dynamic equivalence” (expressing the original idea in the natural vocabulary and rhythms of the receptor language, even when the result was not a literal translation), the new norm is “formal equivalence” (keeping as close as possible to a literal translation from the Latin, even when the natural form and syntax of the receptor language are violated.)

The result is a text with a number of changes in the words the people say, and considerable changes in the priests’ texts.  In an effort to create an elevated, sacred-sounding text the translators used a writing style similar to 19th-century upper-class British discourse, with antiquated vocabulary, highly complex sentence structure, and the use of “man” as a generic.  Sentences are broken into small phrases set off with commas that give a breathless, choppy feel.   Flowery expressions replace the noble simplicity of the present text, for example, “When supper was ended he took the cup.” becomes “In a similar way, after supper he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands…”

The return to penitential piety shows up in the Penitential Act which brings back the pre-Vatican II “I have sinned greatly … through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”   In Preface II for Lent we will pray to be purified of our “disordered affections” (in the 1998 version this was “harmful desires”).     

On the other hand, the new texts bring out a number of fine scriptural allusions and poetic images that had disappeared in the current text in favour of simplicity in style.    But these good points had also characterized the 1998 English translation of the Missal that Romerejected out of hand.  That was a time of backlash by conservative Catholics against inclusive language and of charges by Romethat the English translators had changed the theology of priesthood in the ordination rite, which was also rejected.  In 2001 the translation policy was changed according to the Vatican’s Liturgiam Authenticam (LA).  Among its harshest critics is Peter Jeffery, a chant historian and professor at Princeton.  He describes himself as conservative, barely within the scope of Vatican II and sympathetic to Roman desires for a different kind of translation.  But, in a 2004 series of four articles published in Worship periodical, he ripped LA to shreds, naming it “the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation” (Part 4, p. 320).  His conclusion?  It should be summarily withdrawn!


What are people doing?

At this point English-speaking bishops worldwide have no choice but to implement the new Missal, despite thousands of changes that were made secretly between the text they saw in 2008 and the version presented to Pope Benedict in 2010.  Publishers have no choice but to publish and distribute it.  Officially the present text will no longer be used.

Many of the most prominent Vatican II-minded liturgy experts are resigned to using the new Missal until it can be replaced, probably within a generation.  An association of priests in Ireland has spoken out publically against the sexism of the text, as did priests in Australia. 

Reform-minded Catholics are discussing several ways to cope with the new reality.  Some are planning to download the 1998 Missal and introduce it into their small faith communities and parishes.  Some intend to add and change bits of text here and there in the new Missal.  Others declare that they will continue to use the present Missal.

All of these illustrate that liturgy- our communal worship- is literally the work of the People of God.