systematic theology

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.

"More complex than I had previously imagined": Ashley Cocksworth on prayer


Ashley Cocksworth is Assistant Professor in Theology and Ministry at Durham University, and author of Karl Barth on Prayer (2015), of the imminent Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed, and editor of the forthcoming T&T Clark Companion to Christian Prayer. Stephen Burns interviewed him...

SB: How did you get interested in prayer as a theological subject?

AC: As it happens, I can trace my theological interest in prayer to a single moment. I was settling into the first semester of the final year of my undergraduate degree and found myself enrolled on a modern Christology course. One of the questions on the list of otherwise rather conventional essay titles stood out like a sore thumb: it was on prayer. I couldn’t work out what it was doing there. It felt out of place. Intrigued, I set about answering it. I found the process of writing that essay deeply formational: for probably the first time in my degree, I was being asked to connect one of the central, everyday practices of the Christian faith with rigorous, critical theological argumentation. Suddenly prayer came to look massively more complex than I had previously imagined. I was gripped and perplexed by prayer in equal measure. In a sense, I’m still in the process of thinking through the (admittedly more expanded) question of how prayer and theology fit together.

Thinking back on it, that fourth year essay brought me into contact with all sorts of new and exciting literature: the mystics primarily but also neglected areas in the writings of more mainline thinkers and other academic disciplinary areas altogether – sociology, anthropology, etc. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve come to realise that some of the most significant thinkers in the western theological canon (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth)have some super interesting things to say about prayer – and devote large chunks of their writing to the topic. The most stimulating of those discussions, I’ve found, are those that integrate, often with great imaginative verve, discussions of prayer into their systematic thinking and sometimes to such a rich extent that you can’t always tell when theology ends and prayer begins. 

SB: How have you come to understand the relationship between prayer and theology? Who has helped you—in person, with their writing, whatever?

AC: The relation between prayer and theology is fascinating – spiritually and intellectually. John Webster once said that you could write an entire history of western Christian theology on exactly the story of this relationship; and I think he’s on to something. In terms of personal influences, there are several; and the list is growing by the day. Alongside friends, colleagues, family, the cloud of witnesses, initially, I found Barth’s thinking on prayer and theology highly stimulating – at least enough to see me through my doctoral work on the topic. More recently I’ve been interested in tracing the relation between theology and prayer as it is worked out and finds expression in Anglican systematic theology. There is something instinctively Anglican about doing theology in the context of prayer that remains visibly at work in several contemporary systematic theologians – Sarah Coakley, Graham Ward, Katherine Sonderegger: all Anglican, all engaged in the high-octane work of cutting edge multi-volume systematic projects, all (though in very different ways) seeking to integrate prayer into their systematic vision. Together, they present a compelling critique of the construction of thinking and praying as antithetical to each other. Theology ends up, in fact,being more not less intellectually demanding when done in prayer: it braces the mind, soul, and heart and becomes not so much a thing to think about but a life to live. In a sense, systematic theology can be more systematic when routed through prayer while at the same time look a whole lot different too – less systematic, more untidy in an odd sort of way. 

SB: When you turn up to worship, how does being a theologian of prayer complicate, enable, help, hinder, clarify, or muddle, your participation? How does your study affect you as a praying person? 

AC: On one level, prayer is very simple. It’s the thing that makes us ‘us’. But on another level, and viewed theologically, prayer ends up becoming hugely complicated. There’s a reason why the thinkers I mentioned earlier devoted so many words to thinking through the apparent simplicity of prayer: when broken open, prayer becomes endlessly interesting and complex. There’s no such thing as ‘mere’ prayer. Prayer is drenched in meaning, and demands the most rigorous intellectual energy to work out what might be going on, theologically, as we pray. 

Another thing I’ve come to realise about prayer is that prayer is more than a thing I do (or should do). It is more complexly a work of God ‘in’ me. When searching for a definition of prayer, the early church didn’t select an individual practice of prayer (petition, intercession, praise) to sum up the life of prayer but reached for a metaphor. That metaphor was ‘conversation’. They meant, of course, conversation with God: dialoguing with the divine as if you would converse with a loved one – in silence and in speech. But conversation had a deeper, more radical meaning still. It meant more literally the ‘con-versing’, the coming together of the divine and the human in a relation of love and communion. It meant, in a word, ‘union’. In this sense, prayer is more than the thing I do – it’s God’s practice in me – but it also becomes more perplexingly the thing through which I do all things. Prayer is an ethic, a way of life, as Barth knew well.

SB: What kind of liturgy best invites your own prayer? How have you come to think about this? 

AC: For many years, both growing up in a university chapel and then as a student myself, my spiritual bread and butter has been choral Evensong. Theologically, there’s loads going on in the liturgy of Evensong. As part of the church’s daily office, the daily habit of prayer is the way the church breathes: it’s the breathing necessary for life. The more one prays, the more it becomes a habit and by that I mean the more one comes to ‘inhabit’ prayer and the life it involves; and the same is true for the church too. 

Part of my attraction to Evensong is the way it fires on all cylinders: it’s affectively orientated, aesthetically driven, beautiful, it integrates individual practices of prayer – confession, intercession, petition, praise – as well as the reading of Scripture, songs of liberation, the chanting of psalms. The organisation of the liturgy subtly but intentionally takes you through a process of transformation. It’s also something to be received. There’s lots of ‘not-doing’ at Evensong where you are prayed for more than do the praying yourself. One of the other intriguing things about the Evensong liturgy (at least in its original form) is the double saying of the Lord’s Prayer: it is said twice. The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most said prayer in the history of Christianity. It is utterly central. It has inspired theological interpretation and endless improvisation throughout its history – there are extraordinary re-readings of its petitions in new ways for new contexts. I’m with Teresa of Ávila who in her own heady and extended interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer described it as the summing up of all prayer. The best liturgy, in one way or another, is improvisation on the petitions and theology of the Lord’s Prayer. But having said that, as I gestured above, prayer is always more than leitourgia. It is more than the work of the people. It is to be caught up in something far greater: the mysterious presence of God.

 Thank you, Ashley.

Photographs supplied by Ashley Cocksworth. The banner image is also the cover of Ashley's new Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed, which features Gillian Lever's "Embrace": see htps://