America Magazine: The Synod on Synodality called for better liturgy. Will anyone listen?


(RNS) — One of the surprises to come out of the Synod on Synodality (link below) was a call for better-written liturgies. The final report (link below) of the October 2023 session of the synod referred to “the widely reported need to make liturgical language more accessible to the faithful and more embodied in the diversity of cultures.”

 Synod on Synodality 

 final report

The English-speaking church has an easy response to this request: the 1998 translation of the Roman missal done by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, known as ICEl (link below). Its work was rejected by the man who would become Benedict XVI, but the time has come to put it forward again. 


Implementing liturgical translations has often been controversial, both recently and in the long ago past.

The first schism in Rome occurred early in the third century, after Pope Callistus I translated the liturgy from Greek into vulgar Latin — the informal, popular version of the language at the time — so that the common people could better understand the celebration of the Eucharist. Hippolytus, the first antipope and author of Eucharistic Prayer II, led a revolt to keep the Greek liturgy. The dispute became so bitter and violent that pagan soldiers arrested both men and sent them to the tin mines of Sardinia.

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church began translating liturgical texts from Latin into contemporary languages for the same reasons Callistus put the liturgy into Latin: so that people could participate more fully and actively in the liturgy. The translations were supposed to be made by episcopal conferences and were subject to final approval by Rome.

ICEL’s 1998 translation was supposed to replace the translation that had been done quickly after the council. The group, which comprises 11 bishops’ conferences from the U.S. and the United Kingdom to India, the Philippines to New Zealand and Australia, employed experienced translators, liturgical scholars and even poets. They also added new prayers — for example, presidential prayers after the Gloria that picked up themes from the Sunday Scripture readings.

The 1998 translation followed the 1969 Vatican instruction, “Comme Le Prévoit” (link below) which stated, “The language chosen should be that in ‘common’ usage, that is, suited to the greater number of the faithful who speak it in everyday use, even children and persons of small education.”

Comme Le Prévoit

The 1998 translation was well received by English-speaking episcopal conferences, who approved it and sent it to Rome for final approval.

However, by the time the translation got to the Vatican, the rules were changing. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, preferred a word-for-word translation of the Latin rather than one that was easily understood when it was proclaimed.

At first, the English-speaking conferences fought for their translations, but the Vatican was not interested in listening. In one instance, the American bishops asked to send a delegation to Rome to talk about the translation, but the Vatican agreed only on the condition that Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk not be part of the delegation. Pilarczyk had a doctorate in classics and could run circles around Vatican officials.

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    “Eventually, under new leadership, ICEL followed Ratzinger’s directions and produced the flawed 2010 translation that we are now using in church. Thus, one cardinal in Rome, whose native language was German, was able to overrule years of work by the English-speaking bishops and tell them how they should pray their own language in worship.”

    Lest we should ever forget the scandal of the liturgy that we are now inflicted with every time we go to Mass is directly due to Ratzinger’s obsession with literal translation. What an awful place we found ourselves in in those dark days of Wojtyla and Ratzinger!!

  2. All they needed to do following the Council was to keep all rubrics (ad orientem, use of railing etc…) but simply use the vernacular as was written in the missal. Then the liturgy would appear reformed and not ruptured from its ancient past!!

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    The changes in the Japanese liturgy, which nobody likes, have the same feel as those in the English translation — just cringeworthy ugliness, totally unidiomatic. In the Agnus Dei, the word “nobis” ends two of the three lines in Latin, so the new Japanese version ends with “watashitachi ni [to us]

    “et cum spiritu tuo” has not been translated (as feared) by something like “and with your ghost”; but the previous “mata shisai to tomo ni” (and also with the celebrant) has become “mata anata to tomo ni” (and also with you) which sounds ugly (the 5 a’s in a row) and rude: “anata” is appropriately used between husband and wife, not in polite public exchanges.

    “Kyrie eleison” used to be “Shuyo, awaremi tamae” ‘Lord have mercy’ (mercy please). Now it is: ‘awaremi wo watashitachi ni” (mercy to us) — this dangling “watashitachi ni” (“to us”) is a strange sentence ending in Japanese, which comes up in the Gloria and the Agnus Dei as well. It sound awful.

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