Overview - What is the Roman Missal and why did it change?
As of the First Sunday of Advent in 2011, all the prayers of Mass sounded a little different for all English-speaking Catholics around the world. The Roman Missal, the book the priest reads from at Mass and which includes parishioners’ responses, changed.
The Roman Missal takes its name from what we are celebrating -- Mass. It is called the “Roman” Missal because the prayers it contains, those said by the priest alone during Mass, are taken from collections of prayers used over the centuries by the Christians of Rome at Mass. Some are very ancient, dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries. Of course, these prayers first existed in Latin, the language of the ancient Romans. Since the Second Vatican Council, Mass and the other sacraments have been celebrated in the vernacular. However, the original versions of all the liturgical books which bishops, priests, and deacons around the world have been using since the Second Vatican Council exist first of all in Latin. The Latin versions of the books are then translated in the various languages around the world. We hear those Latin prayers spoken in English after a process of translation.
The Mass revised according to the decrees of the Second Vatican Council first appeared in an edition of the Roman Missal published in 1970. Immediately, translators set to work translating that Roman Missal from Latin into English. They were under tremendous pressure to get their work done quickly so that Mass could begin to be celebrated entirely in English. Also, they were very concerned about making the translation as comprehensible as possible since the prayers at Mass until then had not been very comprehensible to most people. What we have been hearing at Mass until now is the result of this process of translation. But even those who worked on the first English version of the Roman Missal in the 1970’s knew that their work would have to be revised in time. After all, it was the very first attempt in the Church’s history to recast its Latin prayers in English. Our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion around the world had 400 years of translating Latin prayers into English. But the Roman Catholic Church had only a few decades of experience of expressing its Latin prayers in English.
Why are we changing it now?
In the course of the 1990’s, it became clear that it was time to take a second look at the English translation of Mass. The Catholic Church had 25 years of experience using the English texts. Scholars had had time to look more closely at the original Latin prayers and compare them to the English versions. Ultimately, Pope John Paul II thought that it was time to take a renewed approach to translating Latin prayers into the vernacular languages. In 1997, he issued new rules to guide translators in their work. In that document, he asked them to try their best to translate the Latin prayers more closely, almost word for word, rather than be satisfied with general paraphrases of what the Latin prayers said. This began a long process of evaluation, study, and re-translation. That process involved scholars and bishops from around the world. It was conducted by translators in all the English-speaking countries of the world. The Vatican asked for the advice of English-speaking bishops from around the world. In the end, a new English translation for Mass was approved by the Vatican last year. With a very few minor exceptions, the same English prayers will be used by all the English-speaking countries of the world for the first time since the Second Vatican Council.
Who decided what would change?
The translation was the job of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. The ICEL was established by English-speaking conferences of bishops in 1963 (during the Second Vatican Council) for the purpose of translating Latin liturgical books and texts into English. Similar commissions exist for other languages. Eleven conferences of bishops are currently full members of the ICEL: Australia, Canada, England & Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Scotland, South Africa, and the United States. Translations must be approved by each of the Conferences of Bishops and by the Vatican.
How often does the Roman Missal change?
The first Roman Missal was promulgated by Saint Pius V in 1570 following the Council of Trent. It was the first official attempt at providing uniformity in the celebration of the Mass in the Church’s history. Since then, seven popes have promulgated eight revisions, some with only minor changes; others with more significant revisions.
• 1604 — Pope Clement VIII
• 1634 — Pope Urban VIII
• 1884 — Pope Leo XIII
• 1920 — Pope Benedict XV
• 1962 — Pope John XXIII, Second Vatican Council convened
• 1965 — English Translation of 1962 Roman Missal
• 1970 — Pope Paul VI, 1st Edition of Roman Missal after Second Vatican Council
• 1974 — English translation of 1st Edition
• 1975 — Pope Paul VI, 2nd Edition of Roman Missal after Second Vatican Council
• 1985 — English Translation
• 2002 — Pope John Paul II, 3rd Edition after Second Vatican Council
• 2011 — New English translation
What changes occurred?
In some cases, there were no differences at all. For example, the Our Father did not change. The English version of the Our Father originated in England at the time of King Henry VIII and has been in continuous use by English-speaking Catholics since then. Other familiar prayers, like In the Name of the Father, Lord have mercy, and Lamb of God will not change either.
Other prayers changed ever so slightly. For example, we now say Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, instead of saying Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of power and might. The translators and the English-speaking bishops decided to use the word hosts (meaning the heavenly hosts or armies of angels) for the Hebrew word Sabbaoth, which appears in the Latin version of the Holy, Holy: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominius Deus Sabbaoth. That is not a big change in itself, but we should also keep in mind that it caused us to have to find new musical settings to the Holy Holy in order to accommodate the new word. Try singing the words Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, to any tune with which you are familiar and you will see that that there was no choice.
This is even more the case in a long prayer such as the Glory to God which has a number of significant changes. The former translation of the Glory to God omitted a number of lines for the sake of simplicity and to help in comprehension. But that meant that we were not really getting the entire prayer. We now hear in English the complete prayer Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The same is true with the Creed. The new version is a closer translation of the Latin original. We now begin by saying I believe, not We believe, because Credo is Latin for I believe not We believe. We also are now using English words like consubstantial or became incarnate which we don’t commonly use. In time, these words will become familiar to us, but they may still seem awkward.
When the priest says The Lord be with you, we now answer And with your spirit. Why are the translators causing us so much bother with a change that seems inconsequential? Actually, it is an important change. In Latin, when the priest said Dominus vobiscum, the server or the people answered Et cum spiritu tuo. And so, And with your spirit is really the translation of Et cum spiritu tuo in way that And also with you is not. Moreover, And with your spirit clearly echoes the greetings St. Paul gives in his Epistles to the various Christian communities to whom he is writing. Over and over again, he wishes them his blessing by saying, “the grace and peace of the Lord be with you and with your spirit.” Finally, all the major European languages, e.g. Spanish, French, Italian, German, etc. , translated Et cum spiritu tuo by using the word spirit in their language. English did not and replaced your spirit with the word you.
No doubt we will experience a bit of confusion at first, but I suspect that in no time we will be quite familiar with these new wordings to our familiar prayers. Once we become familiar with them, they will open up new ranges of meaning which we have never heard before. That will be a great blessing to us, and a source of spiritual reflection in the weeks and months ahead!
Why is a new translation beneficial?
The first translating from Latin to English done shortly after the Second Vatican Council was done quickly in order to render the Mass into English as soon as possible. It was also trying to simplify the language of Mass so that it could be easily grasped and comprehended. Sometimes it over simplified and even omitted certain expressions or concepts found in the Latin originals. The new English translation will be more complete and will more faithfully render the thoughts and expressions found in the Latin. That is a good thing, because we will finally get in our language what those prayers were meant to say all along!
The most important advantage in my mind is the way in which the new translation quotes the Scriptures. The original Latin prayers of the Mass are often a mosaic of Bible quotations stitched together to make one prayer. The prayers quote passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the Gospels over and over again. Those echoes of the Bible were lost by the first English translation which was not trying to pay so much attention to the Scriptural references the prayers were making. Since the Second Vatican Council we have been fortunate to hear the Word of God proclaimed in our own language. In addition, we now hear much more of the Scriptures at Mass than we did formerly. Every Sunday, there are three readings taken from the Bible. Over the course of a three-year cycle, we hear large parts of both the Old and New Testaments. With this new English translation, we are hearing more from the Bible -- in the prayers of the priest and in our own responses to him! Those prayers now clearly communicate to us images, phrases, and key words taken directly from the Scriptures. That is a blessing for us, and another way to meet Christ in His Word.
Also, for the first time since the Second Vatican Council, the entire English speaking world will be using the same words for the celebration of Mass, no matter where that might be. Since Vatican II, Mass in English in various countries has had some parts that are the same and other parts that are different. That does not build unity in a worldwide Church! Now, English-speakers will be united by a common language at Mass. Hopefully this will build up our communion with one another in the Church in a new way.
Finally, this new English translation will be a great service to other people in the Church throughout the world who don’t speak English. The Mass is supposed to be translated directly from Latin into a local language. That is easy enough to do when the local language is Spanish, or Italian, or English. There are many scholars in those countries who are proficient both in Latin and in the vernacular language. But think about languages like Urdu in Pakistan or Swahili in East Africa or Japanese? How many people in those countries know Latin well enough to translate the prayers of Mass directly from Latin into their local language? In many cases, translators on other continents look to English (which is rapidly becoming a universal second language throughout the world) to help them translate from Latin into their local language. If the English version is far removed from the Latin original, those countries relying on the English version to arrive at their vernacular version will be missing out on a great deal of the content and meaning of the Latin original. A sound English translation, as this is, will help them discover the depth and riches of the Latin original and it express it better in their own language. That is a great service to the rest of the Church throughout the world.
Because of this new translation we are finally be hearing what we were meant to hear all along when permission was first given to translate the Latin prayers of Mass into English. We are hearing prayers that more clearly quote the Scriptures, which are God’s Word to us in our day. We are now united as never before with all our brothers and sisters around the world who pray in English like we do. Finally, we are offering these English prayers to the rest of the world to help them as they draw from the tradition of the Christians in Rome and from the Bible to pray in their own local language, as removed from Latin as that might be. In another year, I suspect many of us won’t remember what we used to say at this or that point of Mass. We will have become so familiar with this new translation that it will truly have become for us the voice of the Church at prayer.
-Rev. Msgr. Marc Caron