Liturgical Leveraging

After 10 years of work, the Holy See has approved the new English translation of the Mass.

WASHINGTON — After a decade of work, the greatest liturgical milestone for American Catholics since the 1970s is right around the corner: The Vatican has approved a new English translation of the Roman Missal, and the U.S. bishops have fixed the roll-out date in the nation’s parishes for the beginning of Advent 2011.

“The use of the third edition of the Roman Missal enters into use in the dioceses of the United States of America as of the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27, 2011. From that date forward, no other edition of the Roman Missal may be used in the dioceses of the United States of America,” stated Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in his Aug. 20 letter to the nation’s bishops.

In addition to the translation work, the U.S. bishops’ conference, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), and other national and international liturgical organizations have devoted the last two years to preparing texts and catechetical materials designed to smooth the transition to the new translation of the Mass and deepen appreciation for the more accurate language of the texts. Now that the entire translation has been approved, those materials will be key during the full year needed to get the published text into the pews.

In late June, the Vatican formally signed off on the translation and issued guidelines for publication. A month later, approval was given for additional prayers for the penitential act at Mass, the renewal of baptismal promises on Easter Sunday, and for American feasts including Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and the observances of saints’ feast days for Damien of Molokai, Katharine Drexel and Elizabeth Ann Seton. A “Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life,” which can be celebrated on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, was also approved.

Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, noted in prepared remarks, “I am happy that after years of preparation, we now have a text that, when introduced late next year, will enable the ongoing renewal of the celebration of the sacred liturgy in our parishes.” 

The fruit of a lengthy — and, at times, contentious — dialogue among bishops in the United States and among bishops’ conferences throughout the English-speaking world, the introduction of the new translation is viewed as a golden opportunity to advance the New Evangelization in the life of the Church.

“From the very beginning, the Church has held to this axiom: The way we pray reveals what we believe. The law of prayer is the law of our faith,” noted Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

Cardinal Rigali is a veteran of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy and the Vox Clara committee established by Pope John Paul II to aid the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in supervising the English translation. He noted that the translation process was closely followed by both the Congregations for Divine Worship and the Doctrine of the Faith.

“If the whole of Catholic doctrine is expressed in our liturgy, it’s fitting that both Vatican congregations collaborated on the translation,” said the cardinal.

Diocesan Preparations

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has launched intensive preparations for educating priests and parish leaders.

“We are planning on a profound catechesis in all of the 267 parishes of the archdiocese,” reported Cardinal Rigali.

To support efforts like Philadelphia’s, Father Richard Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship, noted that the USCCB had developed its own catechetical materials linked to the new translation and organized regional meetings for priests throughout the United States.

“The clergy are on the front line: They are the ones praying and presiding over the Eucharist,” noted Father Hilgartner. “To date, we’ve met with more than 3,000 in every one of the 14 episcopal regions of the country.”

While the Vatican, ICEL and the USCCB have provided guidelines for the transition, individual dioceses still must grapple with the practical execution of catechetical outreach to diverse groups in a variety of settings — from the elderly in nursing homes to inmates in U.S. prisons to second graders in parish-based first Communion classes.

Deepening the Faith

But if the practical hurdles of catechesis pose a significant challenge, longtime advocates of more accurate translations believe it offers a singular opportunity to deepen the faith of ordinary Catholics.

“The Second Vatican Council called for a ressourcement — a return to biblical and patristic sources. This is a step in that direction: Where texts of the liturgy are being drawn from these sources, the new translation — memorable, evocative and biblical — makes the link obvious,” explained Father Hilgartner.

Helen Hull Hitchcock, editor of The Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of the Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, said the goal has been to “transmit the sacredness of the Latin text in the English translation.”

“The new translation is much more dignified and reverent than what we’ve had in the past — in addition to being more accurate,” said Hitchcock.

Discussion and debate regarding the English-language translation of the Roman Missal dates back to the Second Vatican Council, when the document Sacrosanctum Concilium marked a new era of liturgical renewal and proposed the Mass in the vernacular. The current translation was completed in 1973.

Yet, decades later, critics of the English translation continued to argue that it lacked sufficient accuracy and undermined reverence for the Eucharist. The issue took on new relevance with the third edition of the Roman Missal, issued in the Jubilee Year 2000.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued Liturgiam Authenticam (the Fifth Instruction on the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy), which called for more precise translations of the Latin: “in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.”

The new guidelines were applauded by many U.S. bishops, though concerns were also raised that more accurate translations created awkward syntax that rendered the liturgy less accessible to ordinary Catholics.

As a member of the Vox Clara committee, Cardinal Rigali played a key role in that discussion. He seems pleased to bring the fruits of this struggle to his flock.

“The Second Vatican Council described sacred liturgy as the worship of the divine majesty. If what we do on Sunday is the worship of the divine majesty, everything about it must reflect that reality,” he said.

“The translation provides a new impetus in the life of the Church. It’s a moment of hope, progress, joy and faith,” the cardinal concluded. “At a time when many Catholics experience difficulty, sorrow and economic distress, God invites us to come to himself.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.