Initial Thoughts About the Revised Roman Missal

This fall, the revised English translation of the Roman Missal — the big book of procedures and prayers used at Mass in Catholic churches — will take effect in most dioceses of the United States. The Missal has generated some small degree of controversy, but the translation protocols used in this document mark a substantial improvement in liturgical fidelity compared to today’s Sacramentary.

The fault lines in the Church that broke most cleanly over the revised Missal reflect the divide between inclusiveness and permissiveness, under the guise of “the Spirit of Vatican II,” and the more traditional elements who favored elevated language that reinforced orthodoxy and orthopraxis. 

Some historical context is in order. In the immediate years following Vatican II, the bishops largely abdicated their liturgical leadership to various lay liturgists who, more often than not, adopted the 1960s-era attitudes of “modernization” and “non-judgmentalism.” This led to the introduction of translation protocols from Latin into the vernacular that occasionally raised eyebrows. This left-leaning tendency of the liturgists reached its apogee with the 1970 Sacramentary, which used the “official” version of the Roman Missal as more a source of inspiration than a document to be faithfully and literally translated.

Thus, Catholics in the English-speaking world were subjected to additional Eucharistic prayers than the rest of the Catholic universe experienced. The language of various prayers, too, was changed.

The most significant, and most illustrative, translation deviation occurred with the Creed. The Latin version begins, “Credo in unum Deum,” which in English translates to, “I believe in one God.” The Sacramentary, however, lists the English as, “We believe in one God.” No one with more than two weeks’ Latin study would translate “credo” as “we believe” — and that’s the point. The liturgists who wanted to take the Church in a radically different direction took ample liberties with official Latin texts under the theory of “lex orandi, lex credendi” — “the law of worship is the law of belief.” If you make people pray using certain words and images, then they will eventually believe those words and images.

The tide against the Mighty Liturgists started to turn in the 1980s. Rome slowly and carefully started to require more orthodox modes of translation, which effort culminated in a document that set clear norms for liturgical translation. Given the hue and cry from left-leaning Catholics, you’d think the Church decided to reconstitute the Inquisition, bonfires and all.

But at long last, the Roman Missal was revised in Rome. The various liturgical conferences then shepherded the translation of the Latin version into the vernacular of the conference. The first go-around in the English-speaking world met with a rejection in Rome — even under the new translation rules, the liturgists took too many liberties. But at long last, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a translation that earned Roman approval.

The major points of departure from the Sacramentary to the newly revised Missal include:

  • Greater fidelity to the words and phraseology of the original Latin. For example, the current call-and-response greeting at Mass — “The Lord be with you”/”And also with you” — will more accurately reflect the traditional formula of “The Lord be with you”/”And with your spirit.” 
  • Various phrases in the Creed have changed. “One in being with the Father” is now more accurately, “Consubstantial with the Father.” “Born of the Virgin Mary” is now “Incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” Etc.
  • The rules about music have tightened, although whether this will have a direct effect on most parochial music from the outset is unclear.
  • The rubrics have been updated to reduce the temptation to lay clericalism that often derails parishes with weak priests.

From my perspective, these are welcome changes. They help to correct some of the abuses of a more permissive mindset that gave us the infamous “Wonder Bread Masses” of the 1970s and hokey folk-music repertoires for worship.

The changes may be hard for some, but they are a necessary and salutary corrective to an unbalancing of liturgy and theology that developed in the last half-century. AMDG.