Alternative English Texts for Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Alternative English Texts for Mass

ROME, 10 FEB. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have an inquiry about the possible alternative texts for Mass celebrated in the English language. I understand that the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) holds the copyright for the official Roman Missal text for English. As such, I'm assuming that the official English text must come from ICEL. Is it possible for a bishop (or a conference of bishops for a particular country) to approve the use of another English text of the Roman Missal apart from that of ICEL? If so, under what conditions would this be permissible? I ask this because I noticed a parish priest using a very different text for the collect, prayer over the gifts, and prayer after Communion when doing the Mass in English in front of a congregation. This has disturbed me for quite some time since I believe it is not liturgical, especially in light of No. 846.1 of the Code of Canon Law ("In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one's own authority"). — C.B., Quezon City, Philippines

A: Although this question is capable enmeshing us in the legal technicalities of translation norms, I will attempt to simplify it as best I can.

ICEL is an international organ of 11 English-speaking bishops' conferences such as England, Ireland and the United States. Some other conferences, in which English is widely used, are associate members. ICEL is overseen by bishops who represent the conferences, even though it has its own staff who organize its regular activities.

ICEL is an instrument in the hands of the bishops' conferences. It is designed to provide, as far as possible, a uniform and high-quality English translation of the official Latin texts. The idea is to pool resources by selecting highly qualified translators and experts so as to produce reverent and singable English translations that are also literarily and theologically faithful to the original.

It is important to note, however, that ICEL offers its translations to the bishops. It has no authority of its own to officially approve a translation nor produce new texts or modify the official texts in any way.

Because of the number of bishops' conferences involved, the approval process for a new translation is inevitably complex. The process involves each episcopal conference separately examining a first draft and sending suggested modifications back to ICEL, which must then rework the text and send a definitive translation back to the bishops.

When a bishops' conference receives a definitive ICEL text it is once more placed before the body of bishops. A two-thirds majority of each bishops' conference is required for approval. At this stage the bishops may still make further modifications to the text as well as approve any adaptations of the translations. They may also opt not to use ICEL's translations and attempt to produce their own. Any such modifications would apply only within the territory of this particular conference.

Once a bishops' conference has approved the translation it goes to the Holy See, which may confirm the text as it is, but it may also introduce modifications of its own. This would be the case, for example, if some aspect of the translation is deemed unsatisfactory or if the Holy See desires that there be a single common version of a particular formula. The Holy See then sends the definitive text back to each bishops' conference which promulgates the new translation in that country.

The Holy See may also approve any adaptations or new texts composed by the bishops' conference for each particular country. These variant texts will only be printed in the missal issued for that country.

At this moment ICEL has completed its translation of the new 2001 Latin Missal. The text, divided into several sections, is now under consideration by the several bishops' conferences. Part of it, the Order of Mass (the invariable parts said by priests and  faithful), has already received definitive approval from the Holy See but will not be used until the entire missal project has concluded.

From this sketch we can see that it is possible that more than one official English translation of liturgical texts can exist, even though the Holy See and the bishops themselves are striving to achieve a uniform English rendition of the Mass. They have been successful with respect to the future Order of Mass, but it remains to be seen if it can be accomplished for the variable parts of the missal.

With respect to the precise question at hand it is possible that the priest is using a different approved version of the current translation. This would be legitimate if the Philippine bishops' conference have not specified the use of a specific English missal and allow the use of any approved version of the prayers.

These prayers can vary from country to country. For example, the collect of the 21st Sunday of ordinary time in the missal used in the United States reads: "Father, Help us to seek the values that will bring us lasting joy in this changing world. In our desire for what you promise make us one in mind and heart."

In the breviary used in Australia, Great Britain and Ireland, this same prayer is rendered: "Lord, by your grace we are made one in mind and heart. Give us a love for what you command and a longing for what you promise, so that, amid this world's changes, our hearts may be set on the world of lasting joy."

Although both translations are officially approved it is hard to see how the translators could interpret the same Latin original so diversely. Such divergences demonstrate the effective need for the new, improved translation currently being considered.

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Follow-up: Alternative English Texts for Mass [2-24-2009]

Related to our Feb. 10 comments on alternative English texts for Mass, a South African reader asked: "Is it permissible at Mass for the readings to be read from a non-Catholic version of the Bible rather than from the authorized Catholic missal or lectionary? The reason for this is that the non-Catholic version (particularly of one of St. Paul's letters) is couched in a language which is more understandable today."

The short answer is no. All scriptural texts used at Mass must be approved by both the bishops' conference and the Holy See before they can be used in a particular country.

It is possible that a translation toward which both Catholics and non-Catholics have contributed may be approved for liturgical use. For example, in 2006 the Holy See approved a lectionary based on the second Catholic edition of the New Revised Standard Version (published by Ignatius Press) for use in the Antilles.

If they so desired, other bishops' conferences could adopt, or at least allow, the liturgical use of this highly appreciated translation.

Another reader asked about other liturgical books: "I'm a little confused about the Latin and English versions of the Catholic liturgical and ritual books. Post-Trent there was the Roman Ritual, the Roman Pontifical, the Roman Missal, the Breviary, the Martyrologium, and to a lesser degree the Ceremonial of Bishops. What are they now, after Vatican II? Do these books (like the Rituale Romanum) still exist, or have the liturgical books been combined and placed into other books? What about the official Latin version of these books? I can't find them."

The books which retain an identity similar to that of the extraordinary rite, albeit in updated versions, are the missal, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Ceremonial of Bishops, and the Martyrologium. Each one of these is a distinct book.

The new rites developed after Vatican II usually had a greatly expanded selection of Scripture and several forms of carrying out the rite according to different circumstances. For this reason the rites formally contained in The Roman Pontifical (rites pertaining to the bishop) and the Roman Ritual (the principal sacraments and sacramentals) have been divided into several books.

Thus we have a book with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, another for children, another for weddings, another for attention to the sick and dying, and so on.

As far as I know there is no official book which contains all of the rites together in a practical volume. There are some private or semiofficial publications available. For example, there is a two-volume book in English called "The Rites" which gathers all of the rites together; but it is a study version, not designed for liturgical use, and some of the translations have since been renewed. There is a very practical Spanish version which collects the most frequently used rites in a small-sized book ideal for use in places such as hospitals and homes. Similar resources may exist in other countries.

The official Latin versions of most of these books can usually be picked up in Rome or via the Internet using the Web site of the Vatican Bookstore,

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