Every once and a while an issue surfaces in the Church that challenges Catholics in their acceptance of her teaching authority. The year 1967 brought one such challenge, when Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, taught that the use of the contraceptive pill within marriage was morally wrong.

Missal OpenAnother challenge came during the pontificate of Venerable John Paul II, when in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he taught that the Church did not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood – a teaching that was to be held ‘definitively’, he said, by all the faithful. Now under the Pontificate of Benedict XVI a new issue has emerged; a decidedly liturgical one that is eliciting strong reactions both for and against from Catholic clergy and laity. The issue in question is the planned introduction on the first Sunday of Advent this year of the English translation of the third ‘typical edition’ of the Missale Romanum or Roman Missal.

Already the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) here in Ireland has indicated that they find this new translation ‘unacceptable’ and have called on our Bishops to defer its introduction for at least five years. Their concerns about the new texts for the Mass have already received a broad and sympathetic hearing from a media who are only too happy to give air-time and column inches to those groups whose views put them at variance with the Vatican. And with one priest already indicating that he couldn’t ‘in conscience’ use the new translation, this looks set to be an issue that will run and run. But of course we shouldn’t expect otherwise - the path of authentic liturgical renewal never runs smooth.

Liturgical Respiration!

Much has been made by the ACP at their recent press conference about the language of the new translation. The more accurate rendering of the Mass prayers from the Latin into English is something that has clearly irked them. So too has the retention of words such as ‘mankind’ and ‘men’ which they regard as sexist and non-inclusive. Then there is the issue of the length of some of the sentences which apparently are a minefield of clauses and sub-clauses with not a full-stop in sight for seventy or eighty words! This prompts the question: should the laity be concerned about their priests dropping dead on the sanctuary due to the lack of the intake of oxygen during the recitation of these sentences? The possibility of this happening is causing me great anxiety. Much as I would love to be a martyr for the liturgy, I just would prefer not to ruin the Mass for my congregation by, like, dying on them in the middle of it. Imagine what a liturgical downer that would be for people, especially if it happened before Communion time and they didn’t get to receive. I have already started a novena to St. Bernadine of Siena who is the patron saint of lungs. I recommend all priests to do likewise. May his heavenly assistance promote respiratory health and strength in all of the clergy (especially asthmatics) as we prepare for the (apparently) oxygen-draining, heart attack inducing, alveoli obliterating new translation of the Missal.

ICEL and the Linguistic Gaps.

The issue of language, and specifically, the liturgical translation of texts from Latin into the vernacular and the principles that should guide this endeavour, is always a process fraught with difficulties. No translation can ever capture the depth, richness, nuances and often layers of meaning to be found in the text of another language. There is always some falling short of what is expressed in the original; an uncomfortable discrepancy, a linguistic gap that we are forever trying to bridge. This awareness of the ‘falling short’ in the work of liturgical translation has been most keenly felt by many orthodox Catholics in this part of the English speaking world since 1975. This was the year when the first edition of the Roman Missal in English was introduced into parishes here in Ireland. The group responsible for producing this translation was the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a body constituted by a number of Episcopal conferences in the English speaking world in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Its remit was to provide English translations of the liturgical books of the Roman Rite. In approaching this important work, ICEL favoured what is called a ‘dynamic equivalence’ approach to translation whereby instead of producing a literal and accurate translation from Latin to English, they sought instead to capture the overall meaning of the Latin, often through simply paraphrasing the source text. The result, needless to say, was a translation that was unfaithful to the original Latinand in the opinion of many commentators, quite simply banal. 

Liturgicam authenticam

While many liturgists still favour the ‘dynamic equivalence’ theory of translation and are content to sacrifice fidelity to the Latin on the altar of ‘creative’ translations that favour inclusive language, this is not the approach advocated by Rome. The awareness there (and indeed shared by orthodox Catholics) is that the renewal of the liturgy in the English speaking world and elsewhere, has not been well served by the translations we have been given. It was with a view to improving matters in liturgical translation, that the Venerable Pope John Paul II promulgated the document Liturgicam authenticam on April 25, 2001. As the fifth Instruction on the implementation of the Second Vatican Council's liturgical reform, this document established new guidelines for the use of vernacular languages in the books of the Roman Liturgy. It mandated that from now on liturgical translation is to be ‘exact in wording and free from all ideological influence’ and ‘creative innovation’. The fundamental purpose of translation, it said, is to render ‘the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language . . . without paraphrases or glosses’. In other words, ‘dynamic equivalence’ has had its day.

The Re-Sacralisation off the Liturgy.

The promulgation of Liturgicam authenticam was clearly a watershed moment and the norms of translation it mandated have guided the work on the new missal. Behind these norms is the desire to recover what has been lost in our liturgical celebrations over recent decades: solemnity in our worship; a sense of the sacred; awe and respect before God; a sacral vocabulary; beauty and richness in linguistic expression, and yes, greater formality of style, syntax and grammar. For far too long the liturgy has been subject to a programme of ‘de-sacralisation’ whereby under the misnomer of ‘renewal’, liturgical celebrations and places of worship were stripped of their sacral character. Even the focus of liturgy became distorted: from honouring and worshipping God, we were encouraged to honour and celebrate ourselves.

But this era is clearly drawing to a close. A ‘re-sacralisation’ of liturgical celebrations is already well under way and the new missal will certainly become a lynchpin underpinning and promoting this development. Many of the keenest implementers of this ‘programme of re-sacralisation’ are the younger clergy, whose love and respect for the liturgy and commitment to the liturgical vision of Pope Benedict XVI stands at the core of their priesthood. They value the liturgy highly because growing up they witnessed its ritual abuse. They do not regard themselves as its master but only as its servant. They are keen to celebrate the Mass according to the established norms and do not experience the freedom, as some do, in discarding these norms. As a result, some accuse them of narrow-mindedness and liturgical fundamentalism. They prefer to see it as fidelity.


There is a time when issues emerge within the Church for raising one’s concerns and enunciating objections. The ACP has used this recent time well in this regard. They have articulated their objections and spelt out their position on the new Missal. But a time also comes when nothing less than a response of fidelity and obedience will do. Many Catholic priests in 1973 had serious misgivings about the new missal they were given, but despite these misgivings, in a spirit of fidelity and obedience, they implemented that missal in their parishes. Let us hope that the ACP in the coming months will follow their example and do likewise.





Cardinal Burke Synod







corpus christi

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