ICEL’s Executive Director: New Missal Translation ‘Long Overdue’

Pope Benedict XVI discusses a new catechetical resource for the third translation of the Roman Missal with (from left) Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, Australia, Bishop Denis Browne of Hamilton, New Zealand, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., and Msgr Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of ICEL (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy.).
Pope Benedict XVI discusses a new catechetical resource for the third translation of the Roman Missal with (from left) Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, Australia, Bishop Denis Browne of Hamilton, New Zealand, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., and Msgr Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of ICEL (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy.). (photo: Courtesy ICEL)

Although Catholics have become accustomed to the current translation of the Roman missal and some may wonder why a new one is being introduced, Msgr.  Andrew Wadsworth, who is executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy — which prepared the   forthcoming translation that debuts in Catholic churches in the U.S. on the First Sunday of Advent — says it was high time for a revision.

“When our current translation of the Roman Missal — the first English version — was implemented in 1973, it was recognized that it would need revision in time. Many people thought it would be only five years before it was revised,” he said. “That was over 40 years ago, so such a revision is long overdue. 

Msgr. Wadsworth, an English priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster, spoke to the Register at ICEL’s headquarters, a modest suite of offices in downtown Washington, D.C., that includes a small chapel with simple wood furnishings.

“Although we have become accustomed to the prayers at the Mass as we currently have them,” Msgr. Wadsworth continued, “many people would identify a number of serious limitations in the translation we have been using.”

One limitation, in his view, is that the current translation often fails to convey as full a sense of the sacred as worship requires. Everyday idioms have, in many instances, been used in place of the more lofty language appropriate for addressing God. The new Missal, he notes, does employ a “more formal language suitable for worship.”

Many ancient prayers added dignity and gravity through the use of repetition, and this will be restored in the new version. In the general confession, for example, Catholics will find themselves saying that we have sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” The current form is “I have sinned through my own fault,” said once.

Furthermore, a rubric in the new version reminds Catholics to strike their breasts on these words, a custom partially lost in recent decades. The new translation affords the worshipper an opportunity to get out of the way and concentrate more on God than on self.

The current translation has the First Eucharistic Prayer begin “We come to you, Father ...” In the new version, the attention shifts to God; the prayer opens: “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ …”

At present, Catholics acknowledge their unworthiness before receiving Communion with the words “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” But with the new translation, Catholics will begin to say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The second is closer to the words attributed to the centurion in the New Testament. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of the new translation of the Missal is that it was translated under a different set of rules from the earlier one. In 1969, a document entitled Comme le Prévoit authorized a form of translation for liturgical texts known as “dynamic equivalency.” The idea was to convey the meaning but not to translate literally. This is also known as “free translation.”

In 2001, an instruction called Liturgiam Authenticam stipulated a more literal form of translating known as “formal equivalency.” Formal equivalency frowns on paraphrases and glosses. And the composition of new prayers, though based on ancient texts, a feature of the dynamic-equivalency method, are strictly forbidden.

The new Roman Missal was prepared under the guidelines set forth in Liturgiam Authenticam. It therefore provides a more literal rendering of the original texts. In the view of Msgr. Wadsworth and others, this literal translation restores certain theological concepts that were obscured when Comme le Prévoit set the norms.

Aside from the impact of the new translation on English-speaking Catholics, accuracy is important for another reason: With the decreasing number of people who know Latin and Greek, the English version has become the standard from which translators in all languages work. “The English translation then becomes the portal for the meaning of the original texts in relation to other translations,” Msgr. Wadsworth said.

Some parts of the new missal may appear more difficult at first glance because of its stricter adherence to these ancient texts. For example, in the new translation of the Nicene Creed, Christ is “consubstantial with the Father,” a formulation that may sound harder to comprehend than the current and seemingly simpler “one in Being with the Father.”

Father Michael Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle and one of the most vocal critics of the new translation, regards this as one of the prime examples of why the current version is better. Ryan has a website urging that the new translation not be adopted until a “grassroots review” is conducted in selected parishes, an idea he originally put forward in an article for America magazine entitled “What If We Said ‘Wait’?”

Father Ryan told the Register that he finds the use of the term “consubstantial” “stilted” and argues that the word is unknown to most Catholics in the pew, adding that what it means is “one in Being with the Father” — the current translation. Others argue that “consubstantial” opens the door to a more accurate and deeper theological understanding — and that, when really considered, “one in Being with the Father” is not actually any easier to understand; both require study.

The Seattle priest also objects to “and with your spirit” because it is addressed to the priest and the spirit refers to the Holy Spirit received by the priest in ordination. “We are all a priestly people,” he said, arguing that the new greeting sets up “a division” that should not be there.

But Msgr. Wadsworth notes that “and with your spirit” is correct: It is the way et cum spiritu tuo is rendered in English. It was already a greeting in the early Church. St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century acknowledged that it referred to the gift of the Holy Spirit the priest received in ordination. The monsignor says that there is a “rich understanding” of the ancient greeting that is lost by merely saying “and also with you.”

While many Catholics may not immediately know the meaning of “consubstantial,” Msgr. Wadsworth emphasized the importance of a “recovery of a theological vocabulary” that will be helpful in teaching Catholics about their faith, noting that there are many “ideas that didn’t make it into the current translation” that will be present in the new one.

“This is important not only for the liturgy, but for catechesis,” he said. “It is a fuller expression of the content contained in the original text.”

As for Father Ryan’s idea that the new missal be test-driven in parishes, that is not going to happen. It has already been extensively studied and vetted by scholars and members of the English-speaking hierarchy and the Vatican. It also has been through a number of versions. Bishops, some with a talent for translating, have reviewed and re-reviewed preliminary versions.

Still, Father Ryan is not convinced. He finds the vocabulary “awkward and stilted,” adding, “Presiders will have to study long in advance because the sentences are almost Ciceronian. If it’s not actually going backwards, it’s certainly a reinterpretation of the Council. Many regard it as a retrograde step.” 

Helen Hull Hitchcock strongly disagreed. “It is fulfilling what the Second Vatican Council intended, and nobody has a better understanding of this than Pope Benedict,” said Hitchcock, whose website,, has long been a liturgical watchdog. Hitchcock has written on Adoremus of the new missal as “a great gift — a new translation of the Roman Missal using language that is accurate, reverent and beautiful. This gift — the culmination of many years of prayer and labor — means that our words of prayer will now conform more closely to the universal language of the Church. The new texts will express more clearly the truth we celebrate, and this will elevate our spirits and deepen our faith and understanding.”

Father Rick Hilgartner, executive director of the the Secretariat for Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops, stressed that many Catholics have grown up with the current Missal and know no other version.  “For better or worse,” he said, “there are a lot of things in the current missal that aren’t the best translation, but people know it. “The new missal will require people to relearn what they have known habitually. Will people be cheering on the first Sunday of Advent? Some will. But there will also be confusion. We’ve got to be patient with people as they learn the new missal. It’s not so much that people are wedded to the old translation, but they know it, and it has served well.”

Although Msgr. Wadsworth anticipates an adjustment period, he urges Catholics to remember the important thing — it’s still the Mass: “The Mass remains the same, although it will sound different, and we shall all have to apply ourselves to receiving this gift from the Church.”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.