New Translation of Liturgical Texts

Apparently the new liturgical texts were introduced prematurely in South Africa in 2008.

This article is interesting, in that it gives some idea of how they were received in that country.

Would it be an indication of what is to come here?


Passions are running high in South Africa over the introduction of the new English translation of the liturgy. But now it appears that the bishops’ conference may have jumped the gun, according to the editor of the country’s only Catholic newspaper

A war of- and over — words has erupted in South Africa since the bishops’ conference there implemented the first phase of the newly translated Missal on 30 November 2008. The Southern African Church, which also includes Botswana and Swaziland, is the only region to have introduced the new English wordings to prayers and responses in the Order of the Mass, apparently prematurely so.

Much of the action has taken place on the letters pages and website of the country’s sole national Catholic newspaper, The Southern Cross, which I edit. The new translations have sparked an unprecedented number of letters, most of them critical on linguistic, theological, liturgical or ecclesiological grounds.

Many rejected phrases in the new translations such as “and with your spirit”, “enter under my roof ”  and  “ he descended into hell” (in the Apostles’ Creed); the use of words such as “incarnate” and “consubstantial” (in the Nicene Creed); as well as perceived gender-bias (the bishops of Southern Africa have appealed against the use of “man” and “men” in the Creed and the fourth Eucharis-

tic Prayer). Critics have described the new translations – which in line with the 2001 instruction “Liturgiam Authenticam” are closer to Latin scriptural formulations than the 1973 revision — as lacking in elegance and even undermining the dignity of the Mass. Some have questioned theological implications conveyed by the translations, for example in the Confiteor, which now reverts to breast-beating and emphasis on “grievous sinning”.

Some critics are also concerned that the revision of the ordinary form of the Roman rite represents a reversal of what they discern as the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and about a perceived arbitrary imposition of liturgical values that are foreign to them by officials in distant Rome. Some noted that the Vatican’s recognition of what they believe to be a retrogressive translation coincided with the revival of the preconciliar Tridentine Rite.

Pretoria-based Comboni Fr Efrem Tresoldi warned that the new wordings may estrange Catholics from the liturgy: “I’ve heard it said that younger people are leaving the Church because, among other things, the language used in our liturgy sounds foreign to them. I think this new version of the order of the Mass is even more alienating.”

Jesuit Fr Russell Pollitt, whose multicultural parish serves Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, warned that “the pastoral consideration of simplicity and clarity seem to be missing from the new translations”. He questioned how third-language English-speakers might understand the more abstract concept in the new translations.

Comboni Fr John Converset of Johannesburg, a liturgist, wrote: “This massacre of English phraseology is the diametrical opposite of the legitimate ‘inculturation’ which the hierarchy say they want to pursue.”

Some commentators reject the notion that liturgical English needs to be based on Latin. In his blog on the newspaper’s website (, the Jesuit academic Fr Anthony Egan pointed out that “Latin was not in fact the original language of the Church”, while in a letter to the paper English professor Colin Gardner wrote: “’The new text seems almost to imply that there is something inherently holy about Latin and inherently unholy about proper English.”

At the same time, a number of correspondents welcomed the changes. Some suggested that liturgical wording should not detract from the celebration of the Eucharist or cause divisions within the Catholic Church.

Unlike the Church in Europe, Mass attendances in Southern Africa’s 3.2-million-strong Church remain healthy, even among English-speaking Catholics who tend to be culturally close to their counterparts in the West. While debate in the letters pages of the Catholic press is rigorous and open, South Africa’s faithful are not known to be assertive in their relations with the hierarchy. The debate over the revised missal has changed that.

Public opposition has come not only from the laity, Religious and priests, but also from a bishop.  Writing in The Southern Cross, Bishop Kevin Dowling CSsR of Rustenburg acknowledged the legitimacy of what has been called “liturgical anger”. Noting that “some people, including bishops” would validly welcome the new translations, “it cannot be presumed that thinking lay faithful, priests and Religious are simply going to accept what is imposed on them from above when it makes

no sense to them   I am concerned that this latest decision from the Vatican may be interpreted as another example of what is perceived to be a systematic and well-managed dismantling of the vision, theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II during the past years,” Bishop Dowling said.

However, Bishop Edward Risi OMI, the episcopal head of the liturgical department of the Southem African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), said that the public reaction in the newspaper differs from his experience. “We did expect certain opposition and it seems that people with positive reaction felt more free to communicate with us directly.   Those who chose to write directly to me or on the SACBC website discussed more what they had discovered in the new texts,” Bishop Risi said in an interview.

Meanwhile some bishops objected to the dissenting chorus on grounds of competence.  In a Southern Cross article explaining the reasoning behind the translations (in brief, the philosophy of literal equivalence has “gained  the upper hand” over dynamic equivalence), Cardinal Wilfrid Napier OFM of Durban said: “Just as not every priest or bishop can, or for that matter would, claim to be qualified to comment on the merits of translated liturgical texts, so I believe not every lay person is qualified to criticise the work done by hand-picked experts in a variety of fields, ranging from liturgy, church history, biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic), patristic theology, anthropology,  and so on. I would therefore strongly challenge the assumption that a free-for-all on the quality of the Icel [International Commission on English in the Liturgy] translation is fair.”

Some English-speaking parishes have implemented the new translations while others have not. There is a concern that international visitors will be confused by the liturgical phrases that are still subject to implementation in their countries. “At every Mass we will have to hand out leaflets to foreign visitors and explain to them why the words we use in the liturgy are different from those they use at home,” said a Cape Town priest, who asked not to be named. “This places a big burden

on us.”

It might not come to this. In mid-February the SACBC received a notice, dated 4 February and signed by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, instructing the conference to “put an immediate end” to the use of the new translations. These, the letter said, “may not be resumed until the entire Roman Missal in English has been granted recognition and been published in a suitable and dignified format.”It is understood that the SACBC’s liturgy department planned to appeal against the instruction. By the time of going to press, the SACBC had made no comment.

It seems evident that Southern Africa’s implementation of the first phase of the revised missal was premature and based on misunderstandings, hinging on a reportedly misplaced letter by Cardinal Francis Arinze. Dated 23 June 2008, and written while Cardinal Arinze was still prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, it accompanies the Holy See’s official recognitrio of the Ordo Missae, but notes that “the Congregation does not intend that these texts should be put into

liturgical use immediately”.

The reason Cardinal Arinze gives for that – “to provide time for pastoral preparations of priests, deacons and for appropriate catechesis of lay people” as well as facilitating “the devising of musical settings” – mirrors that given by the Southern African bishops for the early implementation.

“From the outset we had been under the impression that once recognition was granted, we could implement,” said Bishop Risi. “We planned accordingly. I heard only afterwards through a Icel member that implementation was to be delayed.”

He said he received Cardinal Arinze’s letter only in January, almost two months after the translations were introduced in Southern Africa. “So unaware of the letter’s contents, I and the department went ahead with the bishops’ conference’s decision to implement”. The SACBC reasoned that early implementation “would provide time to get used to the texts and devise new music for them”, Bishop Risi said.

The South African experience will doubtless have put other English-speaking bishops’ conferences on notice that the much more assertive clergy and faithful in their regions may want to have their say when Missal III is introduced in around 2011. The South African protest is unlikely, however, to have an impact on Icel’s work.

“The texts have gone through a laborious process to reach this point. The way the process goes now, Icel has entirely completed its work on the missal, and it is up to the conferences of bishops and the Congregation for Divine Worship to finish the task,” Fr Paul Turner, an American facilitator for Icel, said in an interview. “If a change to the order of Mass were to happen, it would have to come directly from the Congregation. It has the authority to make further changes, but I cannot say how keen they would be to do it.”

Gunther Simmermacher is editor of the

Catholic weekly The Southern Cross, based in

Cape Town, South Africa.

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  1. Chris Manning says:

    It’s what you WANT to happen. My local parish priest is very positive about the changes and so will the majority of the people when they realise what they’ve been deprived of for the last 40 years – an accurate and Biblically sound translation. The new translation is a gift to the Church.

    SO much for clericalism: we are priests and we know best – better than the Church and to hell with the people – why care what Holy Church desires to give to the people – you priests can make the decision for them. What a joke.

    1. Association of Catholic Priests says:

      Wow!! What a load of assumptions you make there, Chris.
      Take it easy!!
      We are hoping that this site will be a place for rational discussion and exchange of varying views on a topic.
      Not for abuse.
      Unless we respect each other’s opinions, whatever our state in life, we will get nowhere.

      Tony Flannry

  2. I have been using the new translation of the eucharistic prayer for the past year. I have received nothing but praise for the corrected translation. I explained that the missal had been very quickly translated in the 70’s so that people could have a vernacular and that after forty years we had seen the many mistakes in the translation. i explain that this is not a new translation but a corrected one. As I said the experience has been positive.

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