In the Vatican, a Victory for the Vernacular

Catholics, especially those of us who’d like to see changes to much accepted as “Gospel” over the centuries, have always been informed that if changes in church doctrine or practice happened at all, they would not happen “in our lifetimes.”

Of course, many changes followed Vatican II – altar rails dividing clergy and laity were removed, priests were allowed to say Mass facing the people, lay readers (even women) were permitted to proclaim the Word of God (and to do so without wearing hats); nuns were allowed to trade in their habits for more fashionable outfits (well, mostly the same polyester dress in a variety of colors); lay Eucharistic Ministers were introduced and choirs, where feasible, were moved down from their lofts to lead congregations in song – in other words, very significant changes to the liturgy.

Grand procession of the Council Fathers at St. Peter's Basilica during opening of Vatican II. (Photo by By Peter Geymayer, own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Grand procession of the Council Fathers at St. Peter’s Basilica during opening of Vatican II. (Photo by By Peter Geymayer, own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most important results of Vatican II was the translation of the Roman Missal from Latin into the various languages of the people around the world (the vernacular), but the process, which began in 1969 developed into “the most controversial and acrimonious” in the Catholic Church since “the end of the 1962-65 council,” according to Joshua J. McElwee, writing in The National Catholic Reporter.

The rules for translation, spelled out in 1969, had encouraged translators “to adapt the original Latin to contemporary linguistic and cultural conditions in their countries.” In the case of the “Sacramentary,” the prayer book used by both priests and congregations, a group of liturgical experts was formed to take on the monumental task of translating it in 1969. The group’s guiding principle was to be one of “dynamic equivalence,” which meant that each phrase of the English translation should be composed of “intelligible words of noble simplicity” and mindful of “the full, conscious and active participation” of the people. In 1973, the translation, approved by all the conferences of English-speaking bishops, was promulgated by Rome.

Not surprisingly, “it became apparent that a more polished version would be necessary,” and 15 more years were devoted to producing the second translation, once again approved by all the same conferences of bishops, only to be rejected by Rome in 1997. So back to the drawing board — only now under new rules. In 2001, the Liturgium Anthenticam (the Vatican’s “worship congregation”) specified that translations from the Latin be made “in the most exact manner, without omissions or additives in terms of their content,” a move McElwee characterizes as a “major reversal” of the 1969 rules.

The resulting translation was introduced in 2011, and I recall disliking much of it, including the response “And with your spirit” instead of “And also with you” to the priest’s opening greeting, “The Lord be with You.”

Another translation I refuse to use is in The Creed – “He descended into hell” rather than “He descended to the dead.” But the words that I truly dislike are those in the Confiteor, in which we are called upon to say (and no doubt beat our breasts as we do), “I have greatly sinned” and further along, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” (Grave sinner that I am.) Interestingly, at many liturgies, the Confiteor is not said as often as it once was. I imagine this indicates a reluctance, even on the part of the clergy, to include it, and good for them.


But here’s the thing: on 3 September 2017, comes this new edict from Pope Francis (the moto proprio “Magnum Principium“) which goes into effect on 3 October 2017 and changes two clauses of Canon 838, “decentralizing the authority over how the texts used in the Catholic Church’s liturgies are translated from Latin into local languages, moving more of the responsibility for the matter from the Vatican to National Bishops’ Conferences.”

Pope Francis wants Vatican II’s call to make the liturgy more understandable to people more clearly “reaffirmed and put into practice.” Heidi Schlumpf, writing in The New Catholic Reporter, says a US poll in 2014 found “widespread disapproval of the [2011] translation.” So this is an instance where the Church, led by the Pope, has actually responded, in our lifetimes, to a problem created by the hierarchy.

Large Roman Missal with inlaid gold. (Photo by Ad Meskens, own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

Large Roman Missal with inlaid gold. (Photo by Ad Meskens, own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

Schlumpf spoke to retired Bishop Donald Trautman of the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, who, as chair of the American Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, led an effort to stop or delay the new missal (referred to by some, apparently, as the “misguided missal”), saying it was “full of grammatical errors and unproclaimable texts.” Trautman called the Pope’s move “a victory for collegiality and a victory for the [Second Vatican] Council Fathers.”

I recall hearing at the time of the launching of the new Canadian version of the Roman Missal that at least one member of the translation team had walked away, unhappy with the final version. While I have yet to see any Canadian reaction to the changes outlined by Pope Francis’ edict, I would hope ours would mirror the response of American Catholics.

Granted, it will take some time for any changes to the missal to be completed (hopefully not another 10 or 15 years, by which time many Catholic seniors will have passed on). But the fact that Pope Francis was brave enough to change the system is a good step forward.

Will he show the same bravery when the commission set up in 2016 to review the history of women deacons in the early church finally comes through with its report? Will he allow that yes, they did exist; yes, they did much of what the male deacons do today; yes, they are capable and worthy of serving in this capacity; and yes, certainly they should be ordained to do so again?

Let’s just say, I’m not holding my breath that it will happen in my lifetime.



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.




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