Take This Chalice—Please

Why 'Cup' Is the Right Word in the Mass

The results of a recent survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate indicate that more than half the priests in the United States dislike the new Missal translation. A very large majority finds parts of it “awkward and distracting.” Many believe it urgently needs revision. Fr. Tony Cutcher, president of the Federation of Priests’ Councils, says it’s time to move forward with “constructive criticism” and changes. Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory said much the same thing recently at a conference in Florida.

OK, I’m ready. Can we change “chalice” back to “cup” now?

The new translation retired the word “cup,” and replaced it with “chalice.” “Chalice” now occurs three times in the heart of the Mass, where Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper are described. In Eucharistic Prayer I, the Old Roman Canon, the current translation refers to the cup as “this precious chalice.”

When the word “chalice” first appeared, some people liked it. “Chalice” seemed special and more reverent to them than the simpler and more common word “cup.” Others disliked it because it brought to mind an ornate, bejeweled vessel, fine for princes but foreign to Jesus. What sort of drinking vessel would a Galilean rabbi use?

Supporters of “chalice” stood firm. They said the Latin calix simply means “chalice”—it’s a literal translation; get over it. Sadly, the notion of a “false friend,” an English word that sounds like the Latin word but isn’t quite the same, seems not to have occurred to them.

Is there anything more to be said? Well, yes.

There’s a liturgico-historical argument against “chalice,” and it’s a killer. It was produced in 2006 by an Australian scholar, Fr. Barry Craig. His research was presented at the Western Pacific Rim Patristic Society and published in Worship magazine in 2007: “Potency Not Preciousness: Cyprian’s Cup and a Modern Controversy.”

Craig focuses on Eucharistic Prayer I, and argues that “hunc praeclarum calicem” ought not to be translated “this precious chalice” because such a translation is directly opposed to what the fathers meant by the original Latin phrase. In translating liturgical texts, Latin poetry and patristic usage matter. The Vatican statement Liturgiam Authenticam directs that careful attention be paid to the history of interpretation of words and phrases, particularly those arising from the thought-world of the fathers that shaped our earliest liturgical history and practice.

Craig meticulously researched the historical background according to these principles. He found that the word praeclarus never means “precious.” Noble, outstanding, or potent, but not precious. His research devastatingly reveals that the sense of the English term “precious chalice” only appears a few times in the patristic literature. Whenever it does, it is used figuratively to describe the “precious chalice” of the heretics—i.e., the attractive cup from which false teaching is imbibed.

There’s more, too. According to Eucharistic Prayer I, Jesus took “this” cup in his hands. Why this cup? There was an early controversy concerning whether water might be used instead of wine in the Eucharist. The wine-water controversy provides the key to why the Roman canon says “this potent [i.e. alcoholic/spiritually inebriating] cup”—meaning wine. The vessel is plainly not the focus; its contents are. In English, the word “cup” can refer to both the vessel and what it contains. Not so “chalice.” You can drink from a chalice, but you cannot “drink a chalice.” If you are talking about the contents of the vessel, “cup” is the only word that works.

I think Craig nailed it. He’s certainly right about Eucharistic Prayer I. And once you’ve demolished “this precious chalice” it becomes harder—if not impossible—to justify translating calix as “chalice” in the other, modern Eucharistic prayers, no matter how well anyone likes it. Translators are rightly criticized when they import a faux-antique term into modern compositions.

If “chalice” is not required by the Latin language and it runs contrary to liturgical and patristic tradition, why are we saying it? The International Commission on English in the Liturgy does not account for its decisions, but a clue appeared in a footnote to the 2006 draft that was sent for review to the English-speaking bishops. This footnote explained that at certain points in the history of the English language Catholics favored “chalice” and Protestants favored “cup.” The inescapable inference is that the word “chalice” is preferred in order to perpetuate a dead distinction between Catholics and Protestants. But is this something we want to do today? Most Catholics would say no.

So here’s my constructive suggestion: Just say “cup.” It’s the right word.



Commenting Guidelines

Just wait until the readings for July 25 come around...if you're Catholic, simply change the words in the Bible to match the word Chalice and pretty soon you realize that Chalice is really what Jesus meant to say because now he tells the mother of James and John that they will have to accept the chalice not the cup as the Bible says. We simply change the readings so they match the words we use at Mass. 

The official liturgical readings use the word chalice while the Bible uses the word cup...

Now stupid can we are?

Here's your USCCB official liturgical reading for July 25...what's the big deal...Jesus said the word  chalice.


Oh and by the way he also says the Our Father the way we say it in Mass too. For those keeping ecclesiastical score at home.

I agree with Rita...cup is the right word.

And if we are talking about words.... let's go to the Our Father. The ICEL translation spoke of forgive us our "sins", not trespasses. Original Latin: debita - debt, what is owed.



"Let holy charity mine outward vesture be..."


The beautiful sense of charity can be recovered only by encasing it in equally archaic diction as in that hymn. Calling love charity in modern context just sounds horribly stilted. There is the same nakedness and oddness in the efforts to rehabilitate words like "oblation" in the eucharistic prayers, evidently composed by people with no ear for language or style.

We Episcopalians are more democratic but at least we have our scriptural translations correct.  As to other "democratic" issues, one of the most important is  the laity and clergy have a vote electing our bishop.

Very interesting article. My essay, “A Visitor’s Impressions of the Liturgy,” puts this matter in a larger framework.

 During a visit last year in the U.S., I celebrated Mass at a number of parishes – first having familiarized myself with the new translations. After returning to Nicaragua, where I have been working with Christian Base Communities since 1986, I reflected on my experience in my native country and tried to sort out some impressions….




Joe Mulligan, SJ


It seems that Commonweal has a rather unhealthy fixation on the word Chalice.  How many times have they tried to discredit the translation now?

This whole article is really done in bad faith.  According to the article:

"There’s a liturgico-historical argument against “chalice,” and it’s a killer. "

But the the argument that is then presented has nothing to do with chalice, but everything to do with "precious."  It's a bait and switch that is embarrassingly intellectually dishonest for a publication that claims to be serious.  Perhaps precious is not the best translation, but the article does absolutely nothing to "kill" the argument for the use of chalice.

The reality is that Greek has pretty much only one word for drinking vessel.  The fact that the New Testament uses "cup" is not a statement about the appearance of the vessel used at the Last Supper.  If Jesus had used a Scandanavian drinking horn, a martini glass or one of those ridiculous 3' novelty drink glasses from Vegas, the Greek would have still said "cup."  But context reveals a lot.  Jesus celebrated the Passover in an upper room that had been prepared for the Passover.  An upper room in that time and place speaks wealth.  And history shows us the kinds of cups Jews have used for Passover.  Historically, the Jews have pretty much always celebrated with noble, special vessels, the best their means could provide.  And the wealthy had means to provide quite well.  The vessels used in Passover meals, especially by the wealthy like those whose space Jesus used, look much more like what we call a chalice than the simple earthen cups so popular in certain circles.

Which is why our liturgy says "chalice" in the Latin.  It says chalice because the scriptural context reveals just what kind of "cup" Jesus was using.  And our translation is a translation of the Latin Missal, not the Greek scripture.

This article is crafted backward, Commonweal has taken the conclusion it wants and then casted about for arguments that "support" it.  That is polemics, and very disappointing.  



About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).