St Jerome, by Caravaggio.

English-speaking Catholics like us have never given up hope that we may be able, one day, to celebrate Mass in our own native language. Despite our efforts, we have never been able to take to our hearts the halting, clumsy word-for-word translation from the Latin imposed by the rulings of a peremptory 2001 Vatican document—titled Liturgiam authenticam—that overturned thirty years of meaning-for-meaning creative work.

Until that point, we had felt that ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) was getting there, as it tackled the huge job of translating hundreds of liturgical texts from the Latin. The translators had proceeded in accordance with the 1969 “Instruction on the Translation of Liturgical Texts,” issued in six languages and named Comme le prévoit after the original French edition. This instruction specified that “the ‘unit of meaning’ is not the individual word but the whole passage.” Hence “a faithful translation cannot be judged on the basis of individual words.” Pope Paul VI had read the instruction and made minor corrections to it.

Of course, translators have to be faithful to the words of the text on which they are working. But as Pope Francis has now underlined, true faithfulness in translation goes further. It must include faithfulness to the language into which the translation is being made—the receptor language. And it must be faithful to the cultural sensibilities of the congregations that will use it, so that they can participate fully with understanding as Vatican II and Paul VI prescribed.

Translated texts will fulfil these functions if they have cadence and rhythm—if they sing. These qualities are not optional extras. They are essential if a translation is to fulfil Francis’s wish that it should become the voice of the church in its time and place. Measured against these criteria, the 1998 translation approved by all the eleven bishops’s conferences of ICEL but spurned by the Vatican succeeds; the 2011 Missal, in use today, fails. Here are sample passages for comparison, chosen at random:

The Christmas Day “Prayer over the Gifts,” from the 1998 rejected Missal:

on this solemn day accept the offering
which has brought us reconciliation and perfect peace
and is the full expression of our worship.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, the Lord.

Compare this with the “Prayer over the Offerings” from the 2011 Missal:

Make acceptable, O Lord, our oblation on this solemn day,
when you manifested the reconciliation
that makes us wholly pleasing in your sight
and inaugurated for us the fullness of divine worship.
Through Christ our Lord.

Another example: “Prayer over the Offerings” from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

First the version from the 1998 rejected Missal:

In your goodness, Lord, receive the sacrifice of salvation which we offer on the feast of the immaculate conception. We profess in faith that your grace preserved the Virgin Mary from every stain of sin; through her intercession deliver us from all our faults.

Now the version from 2011 Missal:

Graciously accept the saving sacrifice which we offer you, O Lord, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.

English-speaking Catholics who felt discomforted by the 2011 Missal therefore felt hopeful when they learned early in 2017 that Francis had established a commission to revisit Liturgiam authenticam. And they breathed a sigh of relief when Francis issued his motu proprio Magnum principium last September. The “great principle” of the title led the pope to give the bishops back their prerogative over the Mass texts that Liturgiam authenticam had removed. Now at last, perhaps, the hugely superior 1998 Missal could be taken off its Vatican shelf and put to use. This missal was dumped because Rome had moved the translation goal posts. With consultative revision, and some additions, such as celebrating recently canonized saints, it could surely therefore now be brought forward as a new text.

A letter to presidents of bishops’ conferences sent from the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) in September under the signature of the undersecretary, Corrado Maggioni, advised that the pope’s motu proprio “does not have retroactive force.” But the motu proprio itself says nothing of the sort.

The bishops of England and Wales concluded too hastily that the CDW letter meant that the 1998 translation could not be revisited. The U.S. bishops, on the other hand, took time to consider, then in December released the text of their response to Magnum principium through their committee on divine worship. Twice the committee stated, without any ambiguity, that the U.S. conference “has the right to propose revisions to the translation of the Missal.” The CDW letter, the committee said, means that bishops’ conferences do not need to make changes to texts prepared according to Liturgiam authenticam, such as the current Missal; but it does not forbid them from doing so if they think it opportune (see Rita Ferrone’s column, “What Did I Just Pray,” Feb. 9).

Can Francis’s objectives be achieved without a rewriting or withdrawal of Liturgiam authenticam?

The prefect of the Vatican congregation is Cardinal Robert Sarah, whose attempt to interpret Magnum principium as changing nothing was quickly and publicly corrected by the pope himself. It is clear that he and Sarah are not on the same page.

Yet only the New Zealand bishops have so far taken a public lead. In a joint statement last October, they welcomed Magnum principium. “Like many priests and parishioners,” they said, “we share in the frustration concerning some aspects of the current translation of the Roman Missal and we reiterate our desire for beauty, comprehensibility, and participation in and through the sacred liturgy.”

They promised they would work collaboratively with English-speaking bishops’ conferences around the world “as we seek to explore prudently and patiently the possibility of an alternative translation of the Roman Missal and the review of other liturgical texts.”

A look at the history of translation into the vernacular shows that the 1998 translation shelved by the Vatican was in tune with tradition, whereas the version in use today in the 2011 Missal is not.


World Christianity has known no translator of biblical or other texts who was more significant than St. Jerome (d. 420). He performed a monumental service for Western Christians by translating the Hebrew and Greek Bible into a contemporary vernacular—Latin. Both liturgically and otherwise, his “Vulgate” translation enjoyed an enduring impact. He was deeply aware of the challenges facing any translator. Critics could, he knew, accuse him of “betraying” the original text when, to express its meaning, he had to move beyond a literal, word-for-word translation.

An older contemporary whom Jerome admired for his keen intelligence, Evagrius of Antioch, translated from Greek into Latin a life of St. Antony of Egypt. In a letter to a friend that formed the preface for the translation, Evagrius wrote: “A word-for-word translation from one language into another conceals the meaning and strangles it, even as spreading couch grass strangles a field of corn.” He advised: “Let others go hunting after letters and syllables; do you seek for the meaning.”

In a letter to Pope Urban IV that formed the prologue for Contra errores graecorum, Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of medieval theologians, stated that it was “the task of the good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning but to adapt the mode of expression, so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating.”

In his 1866 Letter to Pusey, John Henry Newman included a passage on Marian devotion and doctrine that contains quotations from Justin, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. He added in a laconic footnote that “I have attempted to translate literally, without caring to write English.” Here, he distinguished between literal translation, which can aid the reader in exceptional contexts, and proper English that he would normally write. What would Newman, himself a master of English style, think of a missal that set out to translate word for word, without caring to write real English?

Another notable, if controversial, translator, Ronald Knox, spoke of the accusation of “sitting too loose to the originals.” Yet he converged with Jerome, Evagrius, Aquinas, and Newman: if “literalness” is “accepted as our rule, dullness is the result.” “In the long run,” he emphasized, “the meaning is what matters.”

George Steiner, the Cambridge University polymath, summed up the task of translation as producing a “faithful but autonomous restatement.” He specified: “The translator closely reproduces the original, but composes a text that is natural to his own tongue, which can stand on its own.”


From Evagrius of Antioch to George Steiner, there is unanimity that a genuine translation must communicate well. This aim was completely ignored by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, a Chilean who was shifted to Rome, in his decree to accompany the third, “typical” edition of the 1970 Missale Romanum, issued in the year 2000. The new vernacular versions of this Missal should be “faithfully and accurately” prepared, he insisted. But Liturgiam authenticam defined that aim too narrowly. Many (not all) English-speaking Catholics felt their hearts sink as the implications emerged. Not a word was said about the translations needing to be intelligible and clear in a way that would encourage a supreme aim of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy: the full and active participation in worship by all those present.

Here and there Liturgiam authenticam did state that translators should produce texts that can be easily understood so as to facilitate the participation of all those assembled for worship. But even these articles heavily qualified such intelligibility with provisos. Article 20, for instance, mandated an exact translation, free of omissions, additions, paraphrases, and glosses. What the instruction called translating “most accurately” (accuratissime) meant a turn toward word-for-word translation. Liturgiam authenticam prescribed retaining from the Latin source as much as possible of the syntax (for example, the relative and subordinate clauses), vocabulary, and even capitalization.

The instruction wanted a “sacral style” (stylum sacrum), which could differ from current speech and even sound strange and “obsolete.” It dreamed of a “sacred language” (lingua sacra) with its own “vocabulary, syntax, and grammar,” which might have its impact on “daily speech.” Where current English and other languages have moved toward “inclusive” speech, the “sacred language” should not follow suit. The gendered language of Latin was not to be altered. “Pray, brethren,” excluding half the human race, is in accordance with the instruction, whereas “Pray, brothers and sisters” would not be.

The combination of the search for a “sacral style” and word-for-word translation produced some disconcerting results. For example, in the 2011 Missal, Jesus does not take a “cup” at the Last Supper, though this is what the word  ποτήριον means in the biblical Greek (Mk. 14:23; Mt. 26:27; Lk. 22:17; I Cor. 11:25). No; he takes a “chalice,” gives the “chalice” to his disciples and says, “This is the chalice of my blood.” The emergence of clericalism at the heart of the Last Supper, distancing congregations from the Hebrew Passover, is astonishing.


Liturgiam authenticam occasioned many negative reactions. The most authoritative and careful critique came from a chant historian formerly of Princeton University, now of the University of Notre Dame, Peter Jeffery, who places himself well on the conservative end of the Roman Catholic spectrum—“as conservative as one can get without rejecting Vatican II.” In four articles in the quarterly periodical Worship in 2004, he accused the people who wrote the instruction of being “seriously misinformed about the historical development of the tradition they call on us to preserve.” Liturgiam authenticam is simply “full of misstatements about the Roman liturgical tradition,” he stated.

For example, the Vatican instruction speaks of a sacral vernacular created in the past by the Roman Rite. Jeffery asked: “When and where did liturgical translation of the Roman Rite create a sacral vernacular that even shaped everyday speech?” On the contrary, “what historical documents reveal is quite unlike Liturgiam authenticam’s picture.”

In translating the Creed, the 1998 ICEL version followed the plural “We believe,” used in the original Greek text framed at the Council of Nicaea and confirmed at the Council of Constantinople. Liturgiam authenticam asserts that this rendering violates “the tradition of the Latin Church.” But, Jeffery pointed out, it is “simply untrue” to claim that “not only the Roman Rite, but the broader Latin Church as a whole shares a uniform tradition in favor of ‘I believe,’ as if ‘we believe’ were essentially an Eastern tradition.”

Jeffery gave examples: “The plural ‘we’ form was cited by Pope Leo the Great, and in early Roman collections of canon law.” For good measure, he added that the Mozarabic Rite of Spain “has always said ‘we believe,’ both before and after Vatican II. Even in the Roman Mass there was a minority tradition that used ‘Credimus’ instead of ‘Credo.’”

Jeffery pressed on to illustrate how other “inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and contradictions abound” in Liturgiam authenticam. As noted above, the instruction, in the name of being true to the patrimony of the Roman Rite, outlaws omissions, additions, paraphrases, and glosses. Jeffery objected that, in fact, the Roman Rite “did not insist on integral and exact textual renditions, while it did make use of omissions, additions, paraphrases, and glosses.”

He sharply criticized the instruction’s tone: “What it lacks in factuality it makes up with naked aggression. It speaks words of power and control rather than cooperation and consultation, much less charity.”

One indication of this attitude is the instruction’s rejection of ecumenical texts—the Gloria, the Creed, and the Sanctus—agreed between the Christian Churches. Liturgiam authenticam warns that “great caution is to be taken to avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or discomfort.” How could it have happened that a Vatican congregation could so disregard Vatican II as to dismiss other Christian believers baptized in the name of the Trinity as “non-Catholic ecclesial communities” and group them with “other religions”?

Jeffery, who subsequently brought his four articles together in a book titled Translating Tradition, believes that Liturgiam authenticam misconceives the true nature of the challenge. The Vatican instruction, he says, talks as though the Roman Rite was like a jewel safely catalogued and stored in the Vatican museum. But in fact, he writes, the Catholic liturgical tradition is more like a huge garden, full of tall trees and beautiful flowers but also weeds, all growing together in rich profusion and bursting with potential. He describes Liturgiam authenticam as “the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation,” and says it “should be summarily withdrawn.”

Other scholars widely criticized the Vatican instruction for requiring translators to practice verbal equality with the original Latin, and to follow its grammar and syntax. Such strict adherence to the Latin original ignores the fact that English—to cite the vernacular we are concerned with—does not have a Latin structure in its sentences. Contemporary English does not indulge, for instance, in the long sentences of Ciceronian liturgical Latin. The guidelines from Liturgiam authenticam would not produce a recognizably English vernacular but Latin texts transposed into English words, which regularly sound more Latin than English.

The conclusion follows that Liturgiam authenticam could never claim to stand in the tradition of Jerome, Evagrius of Antioch, Aquinas, and others who advocate a meaning-for-meaning rather than a word-for-word translation. In his motu proprio Francis told translators to follow guidelines but only where they prove to be “useful” (utilia)—a polite way of implying that Liturgiam authenticam no longer enjoys obligatory status.

But can Francis’s objectives be achieved without a rewriting or withdrawal of Liturgiam authenticam? This is the key question underlying the overdue discussion that is now happening. Weighty judgments about the language of the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life, will rest on the bishops’ shoulders. What will they recommend?

Inertia is a powerful force in human affairs. Many of us English-speaking Catholics will plead: please, bishops, seize the opportunity that Pope Francis has given you.


This essay has been adapted from Lost in Translation: The English Language and The Latin Mass (Liturgical Press) by Gerald O’Collins, SJ, with John Wilkins.​

Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: View Contents

John Wilkins, former editor of the London Tablet, is a regular contributor.

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