Praying With New Words

Sunday, November 27, 2011 will mark an historic moment in the lives of Catholics in Canada. On the First Sunday of Advent this year, the revised English edition of the Roman Missal will be used in parishes in Canada and in many other English speaking countries throughout the world. In this first of four articles, we will explore the reasons behind the changes. In the subsequent articles, we will explain the translation process, identify the changes in the words everyone will say during the celebration of the Eucharist, and point out what to listen for as the priest proclaims the presidential prayers at Mass.

Older Catholics will be aware that until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) Mass was celebrated universally in Latin. The Roman Missal that was used by the priest until Vatican II was substantially the same book that was published in 1570 by Pope Pius V, following the Council of Trent. Although prayers for some new feasts were added in the course of time, the texts of the Mass remained the essentially the same for approximately four hundred years.

From Latin to English

At the Second Vatican Council, the Bishops of the Church expressed their desire that all the faithful would participate in the liturgy “fully, consciously and actively” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #14). Such participation, the bishops declared, is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy and is a right and duty of all Catholics by virtue of their Baptism. At the same time, the bishops established a committee of bishops and liturgical scholars to reform the rites of the Mass so that this goal might be achieved. This committee was aided in its work by the availability of newly discovered liturgical texts from the early Church, the fresh insights of biblical scholars, and the permission to translate some of the prayers of the Mass into the vernacular, the language of the people.

Faced with the daunting task of translating the Roman Missal into English, and mindful of their limited resources and lack of experience in doing so, the English speaking bishops at the Council established an international committee to undertake the work. And so, the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) was formed in 1963. It was this body of bishops and scholars, representing 11 English speaking countries, which assumed the responsibility of preparing the English translation of the Roman Missal.

Shortly after the establishment of ICEL, the Holy See issued an instruction to assist the translators in their challenging task. The instruction, Comme le Prevoit, (1969) directed the translators to provide faithful and accurate translations of the Latin text which would convey units of meaning, not just word for word translations. This principle for translation has often been referred to as “dynamic equivalence”. Following the instruction, several provisional or experimental texts were prepared and used until the final English translation was approved and promulgated in 1975. This is the text we have been using until today.

The Beginning of Revision

An important point to note is that the Roman instruction (Comme le Prevoit, #1) anticipated that the translated texts of the Missal would eventually have to be reviewed and revised. In 1980, ICEL began a consultation on the 1975 texts with a view to revision. At that time the responses indicated a desire for more accurate and literal translations, a more formal style of language, and the use of the Latin sentence structures wherever possible. In 2001, the Holy See issued Liturgiam Authenticam, a new instruction on translating liturgical texts, which demanded a complete, accurate and faithful translation of the Latin texts, the use of a more formal style of language, and careful use of the Latin sentence structure, so as to accurately convey the theology expressed in the prayers.

In 2000, the year of the Great Jubilee, Pope John Paul II issued a new edition of the Roman Missal, containing additional prayers, especially for new feast days of recently canonized saints. And so, as a result of a new edition of the Roman Missal in Latin, and a new approach to translation of liturgical texts, the work of revising the English edition of the Roman Missal began. After over ten years of painstaking work, the revision is now complete and we will begin to use the revised Missal in November of this year. In the next article in this series, we will look at the importance of words in our liturgical celebrations and trace the process of revision which led to the new Missal.