Open letter to English speaking bishops – Gerald O’Collins SJ

One of the great blessings in my life has come from teaching (and learning) from many of you when you were seminarians or young priests and took courses with me in Rome (1973-2006) and elsewhere. Some of you came to me for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many of you have invited me to lecture or lead retreats in your dioceses and welcomed me when I came. I have treasured our friendship and have been encouraged by your example.
My hope is now that you will act quickly to help English-speaking Catholics participate more effectively in the liturgy- a central recommendation in Vatican II’s very first document. You all know that your Episcopal conferences approved a revised translation completed after 17 years of work by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy,. You also know that this 1998 translation, when sent to the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW), was simply rejected without any dialogue. Roman authorities set up a committee called Vox Clara (“a clear voice”) which was largely responsible for a “revised” translation in 2010 that came into force in November 2011. Ironically, the results produced by Vox Clara were too often unclear and sometimes verging on the unintelligible. This 2010 translation regularly sounds like Latin texts transposed into English words rather than genuine English. Mgr Ronald Knox, like many others before and after him, wanted translations that “read like a first-rate native thing.” Who could say that of our present Missal?
Those who prepared the 2010 Missal aimed at “sacral style” – something that is alien to the direct and familiar way of speaking to God and about God practised by the psalmists and taught by Jesus. He never encouraged us to say: “graciously grant, we pray, that you give us our daily bread”, or “may thy will, we pray, O Lord, be done through your prevenient grace.” He asked us to pray simply and directly to God: “thy will be done; give us this day our daily bread.”
What would Jesus say about the 2110 Missal? Would he approve of its clunky, Latinised English that aspires to a “sacral” style which allegedly will “inspire” worshippers?
Many of you have copies of the “Missal that wasn’t,” the 1998 translation summarily dismissed by the CDW. It’s easily available on the internet. Set it alongside the 2010 Missal and there should be no debate about the version to choose. Like the Lord’s Prayer and like the Psalms, which fed the prayer life of Jesus, the 1998 translation is straightforward. As an example of genuine English, it is incomparably better than that imposed on English-speaking Catholics in November 2011.
Remembering the blessing of your long-standing presence in my life, I yearn for a final blessing, a quick solution to our liturgical woes. The 1998 translation is there, waiting in the wings. Please pass on now to English-speaking Catholics the 1998 translation that you or your predecessors originally voted for only a few years ago.
Gerald O’Collins SJ (Parkville, Australia).

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  1. The current New Missal and Liturgy of the Eucharist have generated widespread concerns. This situation has also implications for Ecumenism. At a Colloquium in 2013 dealing with the subject of ‘Remembering Vatican II -Some Anglican Perspectives’, the Anglican Theologian, Kevin.J.Moroney stated “Regarding the revised Roman Mass, the decision to use more liberal translations of the Latin rather than continue to use ecumenically approved texts strikes many Anglican liturgical theologians as an expression of retrenchment rather than either ressoucement or rapprochement” and “It is also worth noting that one cannot easily separate the concerns of Anglican liturgists from those of the ecumenical community generally, including many Roman Catholic liturgists”.
    It is worth noting that the Colloquium was address by both the Roman Catholic and the Church of Ireland Archbishops of Dublin.
    In the current world situation where Christianity is being viciously attacked and individual Christians, irrespective of denomination, are being tortured and murdered for their Christian Faith, there is a pressing need for Christians of all denominations to support each other. Any obstacle to this Christian cooperation must be seriously examined and avoided where possible. Alas, the new Mass Liturgy may well be a factor militating against the development of Christian cooperation.

  2. Chris McDonnell says:

    We should welcome Gerald O’Collins’ willingness to state unequivocally, from a position of reputation and knowledge, the problem we face. This new translation has affected us in various ways. A first concern must be for our priests who have been asked to lead our Eucharistic prayer in a language that is uncomfortable and does not lend itself to such public proclamation. Many is the email or spoken comment I have received from priests who have experienced such difficulty and their exasperation has increased with the passing months, not diminished. Individually they have resorted to making their own adaptation to the text in order that they can pray it and the people understand it. In some parishes the regular use of the Apostles’ Creed has replaced the Nicene Creed, thus avoiding textual difficulties. I have seen very little by way of public statement from Bishops in appreciation of their real difficulty.
    For those of us who share in the celebration of the Eucharist, the language offered in this translation has not been a comfortable experience. Too often our attention has been drawn to the awkwardness of a stilted phrase rather than its prayerful meaning. Priest and people pray the Eucharist together, yet we are in danger of moving back towards the pattern of people listening to the priest who is himself uncertain how to handle the inadequacy of the text. We have paid a high price for ignoring the dynamic equivalence principle of translation.
    A problem enough for those of us in our later years who have grown use to the texts offered post-Vatican II, but what of younger people, our teenagers and children for whom going to church is a challenge in itself. When we do get them inside the door they are now offered a language diet that is both complex and archaic. Those of us who are older have often adopted a silent non-acceptance in respect to new responses and Eucharistic prayers of this translation and so our presence is that only, a presence, rather than an active prayerful involvement. Yet the Eucharist is about sharing.
    Will our Bishops listen to this open letter addressed to them? I only hope so

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    We want children and teenagers to come to Mass and we use language that ensures it is a chilling and meaningless experience for them. Thanks, Chris McDonnell, for signalling another evil and destructive aspect of what the bishops have done. The liturgy is the principal means of transmission and nourishment of faith. The new translation is undercutting people’s faith in an insidious and ongoing fashion. (DOM, there is a misprint — “liberal” should be “literal”.)

  4. At long last this vital issue is receiving the attention it deserves. I`m heartened by the number, forthrightness and intensity of people`s contributions recently on the translation we`ve been saddled with, though I can`t believe it makes an whit of difference any longer to our bishops. Too many of its victims, priests and laity, have already seen its purpose and the sort of church it defends and expresses: passive, silent congregation, magic-man up front. Too long to wait until the Vatican juggernaut turns, too many decades to wait until a human-loving spirit is the active one in the church again.

  5. Thank you Joe O’Leary @ 3.
    That was a serious ‘typo’ of mine which needed to be corrected, as it changed the whole meaning of that quotation.
    LITERAL TRANSLATIONS OF THE LATIN is what appeared in the published account of the Colloquium which appeared in the Journal, SEARCH, Volume 36, Number 2, Summer 2013.

  6. Mary Vallely says:

    Well said, mjt @4. (Good to see you back!) I am in total agreement with you especially in hoping that “a human-loving spirit is the active one in the church again.”
    I do wish that the passive and silent majority of priestly ACP supporters would break their silence on this issue and get involved. What is there to fear in expressing honest opinions? The Irish Bishops have recently urged people to listen with respect to others’ opinions. I sense a new tone or is it just wishful thinking?

  7. Willie Herlihy says:

    I think you,  Gerard and you peers cannot see the wood for the trees.
    I would like to make a couple of points:
    Communion and Confirmation are just pageants,the kids go to church on the day and never return.
    The 20-30 somethings do not go to church.
    I have a little grand son, he is six months old and if the church cannot entice his father and mother to return to church, he will never go to church,then talking about translations is simply just talk.
    Do you not see that the Catholic Church in Ireland is dying.

  8. Michael C. says:

    The kids who attend ‘the pageants’, the 20 -30 somethings who never go to church; if they ever again come to a Mass in church will the language of the current missal help them participate and encourage them to return or will it totally turn them off? Will it invite them back or confirm that this institution is totally out of touch with life?
    In my opinion it is a total block. Sadly, I see it as being deliberately so in the miserable attempt to establish “a smaller purer church’.
    Maybe the greatest mercy that will happen in the year of mercy would be a doing away with the current missal entirely and thereby showing some mercy to all of us and to the English language.

  9. Younger people are tired of the relaxed, comfort-oriented worship that seeks neither to inspire nor to challenge. Worshipping in 12 year-old level English in a church where the “sacred” art is not sacred, the “sacred” music is not sacred, and the theology is geared toward maximizing the realization of your own dignity….all of this leads young adults to seek some other avenue of experiencing the Divine. People want to be drawn up into Heaven, not drag Heaven down to earth.

  10. Michael C. says:

    RichR; People’s taste in art and music are very subjective things. Does the fact that I prefer a certain type of music make it somehow “sacred” and another type not.
    Please don’t confuse personal preference for sacredness or superiority.
    The same with language. You may like the language of the new missal. I find it worse than ’12 year old level’ English as its grammar is incorrect, its structure faulty and it’s not an accurate translation of the Latin.
    Your final sentence astounds; what was Incarnation if not heaven coming down to earth? The Word WAS made flesh and lived (dwelt, if you think the word more sacred) among us.
    Joe O Leary has a very good letter on this topic in another part of this site.

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