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Will the latest Catholic Mass translation get another overhaul?

A woman uses a missal during a traditional Latin Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Chapel in Farmingville, N.Y., on June 17, 2012. The chapel is administered by the Society of St. Pius X. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

(RNS) A new translation of the Mass has been used in the nation’s Catholic parishes for less than three years, but there are signs that the language — often criticized as stilted and awkward — could be in for another edit.

“We’ve tried it, we’ve lived with it, we think it needs correction,” Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory told a conference on liturgical reform last month in one of the most public and high-level expressions of discontent with the missal, as the Mass text is called.

Gregory was seconded by Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, in an echo of comments last year by Bishop Robert Brom, now retired as head of the San Diego diocese, who said “the new missal needs corrective surgery and this should take place without delay.”

Reopening that process would be a momentous step.

The latest translation was approved only after a tortuous, decade-long struggle between those who wanted words and phrasings that sounded more like the original Latin text and those who thought that the proposed vocabulary sounded pompous and incomprehensible.

“It’s the creed! It’s not the SAT prep,” as comedian and practicing Catholic Stephen Colbert put it.

But with a big shove from the Vatican, which essentially took over the process and mandated the Latinate language, the more formal text won out.

A woman uses a missal during a traditional Latin Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Chapel in Farmingville, N.Y., on June 17, 2012. The chapel is administered by the Society of St. Pius X. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

A woman uses a missal during a traditional Latin Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Chapel in Farmingville, N.Y., on June 17, 2012. The chapel is administered by the Society of St. Pius X. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Words such as “consubstantial” became part of the Mass, Jesus was not “born of the Virgin Mary” but is now “incarnate of” her, and before taking the host Catholics now say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” instead of “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.”

That language dismayed some in the pews but was especially problematic for priests and bishops who have to say Mass every day, and a new survey released this week appears to give further impetus to a reform of the reform.

The national poll of priests and lay leaders in parishes around the country found that more than half of the 444 clergy who responded reject the new missal, by a margin of 52-42 percent.

Just 27 percent said the new translation has lived up to expectations. The smaller number of lay leaders who responded tended to be more positive about the changes.

The study was commissioned by the Godfrey Diekmann Center for Patristics and Liturgical Studies at St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minn., and carried out by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The survey is based on 539 interviews, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

The results were first published at the blog Pray Tell, which is operated by the Rev. Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine and liturgist at St. John’s who has been critical of the new Mass.

Among the other findings of the study:

  • 75 percent of clergy and lay leaders say “some of the language of the new text is awkward and distracting.”
  • 58 percent of clergy say they do not like the more formal style of language in the new text.
  • 39 percent of clergy think the new missal is an improvement on the previous translation.
  • 50 percent of clergy and lay leaders say the new translation urgently needs to be revised.

The Rev. Anthony Cutcher, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, said the data should push the bishops to modify the texts.

“Armed with the latest data, we can take this opportunity to help craft a revision that stays true to the text and at the same time is accessible to all,” Cutcher told Pray Tell.

Critics of the new missal have also been buoyed by last year’s election of Pope Francis, who has shown himself to be far more relaxed about liturgical customs and a big change from Pope Benedict XVI, who was a stickler for old-fashioned rites and a chief proponent of the new English translations.

Moreover, bishops in other countries have in the past year taken advantage of the change of popes to call for a halt to implementing the new translations in their respective languages.

But church officials and experts in liturgy in Rome and the U.S. also cite numerous factors working against another effort at changing the language of the Mass.

One is that Francis has so many other problems and reforms he needs to address that tackling the liturgy — which is always one of the most divisive issues for church officials and Mass-goers — is relatively low on the list. In addition, he has not yet revamped the Vatican congregation that oversees liturgical matters, and the holdovers from Benedict’s pontificate are unlikely to welcome any changes.

Above all, they say, the American bishops are still catching their breath after such a long struggle with Rome, and one that they wound up losing. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of further changes, but (the bishops) are just tired of it,” said one U.S.-based liturgy expert.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • The findings of the CARA study you cite, Mr. Gibson, are not surprising. Had I been asked to respond, that is what I would have said also.

    The problem, however, is that those findings are neither representative nor generalizable, given the extremely low response rate: just 539 parishes responded, out of 6,000 that were sampled from about 17,000 parishes in the U.S. That’s not even 10%.

    That’s Survey 101.

    And to report, as you and PrayTell did, as if these results could be generalized to the whole population is to mislead and misinform.

  • Based on my personal experience, the new translation has provided great and many catechetical moments. by allowing me to expound on the uniqueness of Christ mystery (i.e. His incarnation and relationship to The Father); and this is a good thing. In a world used to 30 second news clips, one must value such moments.

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”

  • Marie, I wouldn’t presume bad intentions by anyone. Yes, a 10 percent response rate can be problematic, but it can also be completely legit, as research in recent years has shown. The sample is what is key. And the researchers at CARA are top notch.

  • Perhaps you misread my comment, Mr. Gibson. The question isn’t whether the CARA results are “legit” or not. The question is, whether these results can and should be interpreted as representative of the whole. And the answer is NO, because of the considerably low response rate. Any self-respecting researcher doing social inquiry would know this. The “top notch” researchers at CARA, as you say, would and should know this.

    So again, the problem I see lies not with CARA researchers, but those who are reporting their findings, such as yourself. Your article, at the very least, should have started with the clear statement of the limitation of the findings, but you did not do that. I find that extremely problematic, and to be honest, quite disappointing.

    Then again, perhaps I should have expected it, since most everyone “spins the facts” to advance his or her particular agenda these days.

    By the way, Pope Francis spoke about “misinformation” as one of the gravest sins of the media, which involves reporting only “half of things, those that are most convenient for me” and therefore, keeping readers from arriving at a “complete judgment.”

  • Marie, your question with the response rate does not square with social science research. That’s all I’m saying. As for misinforming, I wrote what was reported, and I don’t see the original researchers as trying to deceive. But in any case, I provided the stat on the statistical reliability as well as a link to the original study so people can check it out for themselves. hard to see how that is misinforming.

  • I don’t often go to mass in English (my parish and diocese operate in French), but when I have, I’ve found the new English translation to be completely absurd and unnecessary. Even saying “and with your spirit” rather than “and also with you” sounds stilted and awkward, even though the former is an exact translation of what we say in French (“et avec votre esprit”).

  • Actually, Survey 101 says that any concerns are covered in the margin of error. It’s a bit higher than some, but certainly not all, of other national surveys. Had they talked to just 10 people the results wouldn’t be completely invalid as long as the margin of error was correctly calculated.

    More here:

  • Darn those accurate translations!

    Et cum spiritu tuo.

    Et = and

    cum = with

    spiritu = spirit

    tuo = thy/your

    What the reformers seems to be arguing for is a re-do of the official Latin text. If so, then please don’t call your proposal a “translation.”

  • “Actually, Survey 101 says that any concerns are covered in the margin of error.”

    Actually, it doesn’t say that. The margin of error refers to the sampling issue, and it does NOT account for the response rate.

    A survey study such as this with low response rates should be interpreted with much caution. Saying things like, “The findings of the study say…” and then giving numbers, IS problematic.

  • I find it hard to believe that there are people who hanker for the dreadful “translation” of the Mass that preceded the current one. It was inaccurate and had all the beauty and splendor of an instruction manual. The new translation was an enormous improvement and brought the English translation into line with the Latin and with the rest of the world. This report is completely one-sided, quoting only critics of the current translation, among them that dubious authority on the subject, Stephen Colbert. For a different, informed, and literate view seen Anthony Esolen’s review at

  • Colbert had it right. I add: “The Lord be with you,” and “Also with you,” made more sense culturally. But, the Portuguese translation–which strangely went through no change–is best: “The Lord be with you.” “He is in our midst.”

  • There may be many reasons to criticize this survey, but the response rate is not a valid one. Unless there is a reason to think that the response rate is biased in the direction of people disliking the new Mass (people who dislike the Mass responded at a higher rate than those who like it) then the response rate is not a legitimate basis for questioning these results. FWIW- I have a PhD in the social sciences (quantitative dissertation) and I get paid to conduct surveys.

  • Funny to see the traditionalists bend over backwards to defend the new translation. The point critics are making is simply that the new translation is bad English. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to have translated the “Domine, non sum dignus…” as “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, speak but the word and my soul shall be healed.” This would have sounded more melodically in the ears of those who love the English language than the translation bureaucratic, brown-nosing, bishops accepted.

    The translation of the Collects from a single Latin sentence, replete with participial phrases, into a single English sentence, is simply atrocious. The Latin and Greek languages both love the use of participles, whereas their use in English is much more sparing. More often than not, their rendition into English should have made more frequent use of circumstantial clauses with definite verb forms.

    Then there’s the translation of the Nicene creed, which may be a more accurate translation of the Latin, but which itself mistranslates the Greek, which has “pisteuomen,” “we believe,” not “I believe. “Consubstantial” works, perhaps, as a translation for “homoousion to patri” for those traditional Catholics, used to bowing down before plaster images, who may think of their god as a rock, a thing, but “one in being with the Father” or “sharing the same being as the Father’s” conveys the dynamic sense of the Greek–and its theology–much better.

  • Pisteuomen, are you sure? When was last time you attended a Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic Mass? The text says “Pisteuo”, which means “I Believe”. Thus the new translation is more faithful tonthe Greek as well.

    If the point were to make it sound more understandable to the vernacular, then we should get rid of the Vulgate and the Septuagint, since they translate Hebraisms to a point where native speakers of those languges would have had a really hard time making sense out of it, eg “Pater Misericordiarum” is just bad and “stilted” Latin and it has a weird English phrasing as well, “Father of mercies”. The point is to render, as best as possible, the most sublime sense of the original text. Not words you’d use for People magazine.

  • Sorry, Bob, use of the singular reflects an evolution of the liturgical tradition in both east and west, but the texts approved at Nicaea and at Constantinople in the fourth century used the first person plural: pisteuomen. While the translation approved by Benedict XVI and his “very good friend” Georg, his counselor in things liturgical, does have a long tradition of usage, there were also sound historical grounds for the translation approved by Paul VI.

  • I think that the previous translation with its simplifying of text was actually beautifully written from a musical standpoint. As a Liturgical Musician for the last 24 years, I can say that the new translation just does not flow beautifully with the music as did the previous. It leaves a lot to be desired from a musical standpoint, and most of my colleagues agree that the average parishioners miss the old way of singing the mass. Is that reason enough to revise things again? Probably not, but the new language stumbles a bit in certain places making it difficult to sing. Going over the new music beforehand, teaching the congregations has only been partly successful. It will take a decade before the new translation catches on. In the meantime, so many once a year Catholics, who are already distanced from the Church, come for special masses and we lose them completely. The new translation to me seems to have isolated people even more instead of provide a way to make people feel comfortable with coming back to church. Who wants to go to mass where you don’t know the responses and prayers and feel like a fool if you open your mouth. Those people now have even more reason to not want to come back. I also do like parts of the new translation, but I think in the end, there should be some compromise in certain places to allow the text to flow just a little bit better than what is currently being used, as close to the Latin as it is. Just my humble little opinion from the Organ Loft.

  • Are Americans really too ignorant to understand “consubstantial”? The Orthodox have always used that in English…and many only speak English as a second language!
    And “incarnate of the Holy Spirit”? Really? That bothers folks? No wonder people think of Catholics as lower class!
    Ok, let’s just keep dumbing down. We’ll keep having clown masses, pompom girls doing dances in church, stupid “hymns” that sound like a cheesy supper club, and just slouch around the church because, as we all know, reverence is so two centuries ago.
    You know, this is why I’m looking into the Orthodox Church!