The Missal That Never Was: the Suppressed Translation of 1998

Australian Academy of Liturgy, Victoria Chapter

- Contributed by Dr. Kieran Crichton, convenor:

Tonight's AAL Victoria Chapter was graced with a presentation by Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ, titled The Missal That Never Was: the Suppressed Translation of 1998.


In opening his paper Fr O'Collins reflected a question that might be put to him as a systematic theologian -- "What's O'Collins doing in liturgy? Well, I've been there discreetly all along!" Fr O'Collins recalled a conversation he enjoyed many years ago where Archbishop Guilford Young challenged him to engage with liturgy. The fruit of this is clear from several of Fr O'Collins's recent publications where liturgical texts inform his exploration of liturgical topics and issues, and where the theology leads back to its expression in liturgy. Some of his latest books enter the arena of liturgy: Lost in Translation, Inspiration, and Revelation.

Fr O'Collins's questions about and critique of the 2010 Roman Missal centre on six points. He began by pointing out that the texts of the Mass are to proclaimed and understood. Many clergy have trouble with the long sentence structures of the current translation, which flows through to difficulties of comprehension by many people in Catholic congregations. The effect produces mystification rather than a pathway to encounter the mystery of God's presence in worship. The vocabulary makes use of a lot of words that don't reflect good English usage. An example of this is a post-communion prayer for the feast of the Immaculate Conception that speaks of prevenient grace. Fr O'Collins argues that while this is a very important term of theology, and it certainly has its place in theological discourse, it is unclear how this makes for good liturgical language. The abandonment of common texts has been a great loss for ecumenism, and steps away from the principle of the churches praying together in words that are shared. For many Catholics the most ecumenical time of year is Christmas, since many of the familiar carols have texts sung across the range of traditions. It makes one wish Christmas could be celebrated all year!

Non-inclusive language is a significant problem of the usage of the 2010 Missal, and can bring discomfort to clergy and people alike. This is a product of an alteration of translation principles from Comme le Prevoit, the document that guided the original English translation of the 1970 Missal to Liturgicam Authenticam, which laid down the guidelines of the present translation. The difference can be summed up as moving from translating the sense of a passage into the receiving language, a process strongly commended by Jerome and Thomas Aquinas, to demanding verbal equivalence between Latin and English. Translation is an art rather than a science, reflected in Ronald Knox's view that a translated text should sound thoroughly like a good original piece in the receiving language.

Finally, there are many points where the 2010 Roman Missal tends towards a Pelagian view, with prayers speaking of our meriting heaven. This tends to cut against the grain of orthodox Christian understandings of grace and gift, and risks promoting a strong negative view of the believer's self. One unintended result is that the priest ends up proclaiming prayers that speak of the sinfulness of the assembly -- often the holy people who come to daily mass.

These issues were traced through an exploration of collects from the Latin of the 1970 Editio Typica of the Roman Missal, and followed through comparison with the 1998 and 2010 translations. At many points the differences in style were palpable, with the easy flow of the language of the 1998 texts standing in very stark contrast to the complex and sometimes baffling 2010 versions. Fr O'Collins mentioned the expansion of the body of collects through the inclusion of alternative thematic prayers that gathered the themes of the readings in the three year cycle.

Fr O'Collins noted that he does not intend to say that liturgy stands or falls by language alone. There are many other factors that contribute to how worship unfolds, including the placement and adorning of the altar as the primary priestly symbol of Christ, the architecture of a church or chapel, and the body language of the people when they come together for worship. These non-verbal signs have a power into which the language fits. A strong non-verbal sign can be experienced in the making of the sign of the cross, whether it is done rapidly or as a slow-moving gesture of love. Language can be used to bring these signs to life, or to undermine their significance.

This meeting was easily the biggest gathering of the AAL Victoria chapter in quite a long time, and was well-supported by a broad audience including chapter members and the general public. Having such a large group presented the opportunity to road-test a method of peaceable engagement for reflections, questions, and discussion. With the help of a live Q&A website people were encouraged to submit questions in real-time during Fr O'Collins's presentation, and this led to some quite fascinating discussion.

The finest reflections came at the end of the meeting, and both addressed the issue of a desire for a sacral language.

Colleen O'Reilly remarked on the similarity of tone and syntax between the 2010 Roman Missal and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and wondered if there was a desire on the part of the translators of the Missal to defend or preserve a style of liturgical piety that was perceived to be in danger or risk of loss.

Fred Shade wondered if a sacral language is helpful, commenting that his tradition still worships with texts composed during the Victorian era. Fr O'Collins reflected that the use of courtly Byzantine Greek or legalistic Latin reflected high uses of these languages that were nevertheless clearly understood at the time they were composed. But this is not how English-speaking people should be encouraged to pray in the current day, and may not be helpful in the end. He invited everyone to consider the language of the Psalms, the original prayer book of Christians, and Jesus's command to pray using simple and direct language.

While preparations were under way for this meeting news arrived that Lost in Translation was given a prize by the Catholic Press Association Awards. The judges stated: ‘This is a well-reasoned, concise argument for a truly vernacular translation of the Roman Missal. The argument is based on principles as old as those proposed by St. Jerome and on recent ecclesiastical history from the Second Vatican Council to the most recent translation of the Roman Missal into English.’ Participants in tonight's meeting would surely endorse and echo these sentiments.