New Mass Translation: Not Stalled, But No Final Text Yet

VATICAN CITY — Reports that a new English translation of the Mass has been delayed beyond a presupposed January deadline are untrue, said the spokesman for the chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

John Grady, speaking on behalf of Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, England, told the Register that there has been no delay because no deadline was ever set.

“Bishop Roche has always been of the view that it's a consultation process and will take as long as it takes, so there could never be a delay,” Grady said.

Suggestions of a dispute over the text arose last month at a meeting in Washington attended by the 11 bishops who govern the commission. There was said to be no agreement on several crucial parts of the Order of the Mass, and therefore no final draft in sight.

But the commission's governing bishop, Ian Murray of Argyll and Isles, Scotland, said the discussions were “fruitful” and that “a good translation” will emerge.

There is a “good working atmosphere,” Bishop Murray said. “We've worked very hard actually (and) there has been great cooperation and insights from liturgical and linguistic experts, Church historians and so forth, so that the result will be a faithful translation that is dignified — and much more.”

Father Bruce Harbert, executive secretary of the commission, told London's Catholic Herald that he was “comforted” by having more time to complete the new draft. He preferred to see the need for longer discussions as a way of “giving time for the project to mature.”

Discussions are reported to have centered around the responses said during the Mass, in particular to the priest's words, “The Lord be with you.” In striving to be faithful to the Latin, the draft contained the response: “And with your spirit” instead of the current “And also with you.” Some critics saw this as theologically rigid and a movement away from natural English expression.

In reply, Father Harbert said “a balance needs to be found between the linguistic, theological and pastoral considerations.” Bishop Murray said the commission is trying to keep the responses as familiar as possible and that there will be “minimal changes” in that area.

Also discussed in Washington were ecumenical considerations. One major ecumenical achievement in recent years has been the adoption of common prayer texts in English by most major Christian denominations, and some bishops are reluctant to compromise these advances.

Msgr. Anthony Sherman, associate director at the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for the Liturgy, said consultations with other denominations are “probably going to take place” mainly because of the “ecumenical atmosphere” that now exists. But, he added, other ecclesial groups have already changed their texts so “not everything remains the same.”

According to Father Harbert, the bishops also want more time to consider the issues surrounding “inclusive” language favored by feminists. In the past, the Vatican has rejected translations that use such language because it often fails to communicate the meaning of the original text.

All these factors represent a “major challenge” to the bishops in devising a new translation, said Msgr. Sherman. The final rendering has to strike a balance, not only as contemporary, comprehensible and pleasant to the ear, but also faithful to the Latin text.

“People are looking for something poetic, but others are looking for something more straightforward — if we had a modern-day William Shakespeare, we'd be in good shape,” Msgr. Sherman said. “It all takes a great deal of patience, but that is not one of our modern-day characteristics.”

Impatience with the process, which began with the 2001 papal instruction Liturgicam Authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy), is reported to be growing in certain quarters. Some clergy have argued that the work was begun far too late, and that it will now be more difficult for the new translation to find acceptance.

Father Allen Morris, secretary for the Department of Christian Life and Worship of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, denied those involved were working too slowly. “No one was sitting on their hands, killing time on this,” he said, “but we're keen to produce a text as quickly as it can be produced.”

He added that too often there is a misconception about the process involved, which is more complicated than most translations because of all the linguistic deviations among English-speaking people. “Each have their own opinion, and we're trying to produce a text equally serviceable in England as it would be in the U.S.,” Father Morris said.

Despite these obstacles, the Vatican is encouraged by the progress that has been made and is said to approve of the general direction of the discussions.

In 2002, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments convened the Vox Clara committee. Headed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, its goal is to monitor more closely the progress of English liturgical translations.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, is a member of both the international commission and the Vox Clara committee.

The Vatican is pleased that the drafts have reflected translations more faithful to the Latin, the key aim of Liturgicam Authenticam. Rome's general attitude, however, to leave the work of formulating a draft to the commission.

What's Next?

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy is thought unlikely to have a revision ready before February, when the next major meeting will be held. Father Morris said he would be “surprised if they haven't agreed to it by then,” adding that, at that time, the commission may send out another part of the Mass for the bishops' conferences to examine.

Another six months of consultations among bishops' conferences will likely occur before the commission approves a text and sends it to Rome. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will then rule if any further modifications are required before giving it a definitive recognitio.

“Be sure not to lose hope,” Msgr. Sherman said. “We have to persevere and be realistic that, 75 to 100 years from now, Catholics will be looking at this new text and asking for it to be improved.

“English,” he said, “is a living language, and as it evolves, it will always need to be looked at.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.