Change is nothing new…

This coming Advent we will be welcoming the third edition of the Roman Missal, featuring a new English translation of the Mass. I’d like to put this new translation into context before we take a look at the translation itself. We’ve already discussed the Mass of the early church. In those early days before the printing press, when everything had to be meticulously copied by hand, there were not large bound volumes containing the entire Roman Rite in every parish across Europe. What they likely had were smaller collections of prayers used at Mass, and these may have indeed varied depending upon your geographic location.

At one point in the past there was a plurality of Rites in the West, just as there are today a plurality of Rites in the East; the Byzantine Rite, Maronite Rite, etc., all Catholic, but with different cultural variations in the specific way in which they pray the liturgy. Long ago, however, the Western Church moved towards the dominance of a single Rite, the Roman or Latin Rite. That Rite is contained in a book called the Missale Romanum, which we call in English the Roman Missal. The first book to be published called the Missale Romanum was published in 1474, not long after the invention of the printing press. At this point, though the Roman Rite was dominant in the West, there were still other Rites being practiced in various locations. In 1570, after the Council of Trent, Pope Pius V promulgated an edition of the Missale Romanum which was to be obligatory for use throughout the Western Church. As it came from the Council of Trent, this is commonly called the Tridentine Mass.

Since 1570 there have been numerous updates and revisions in the Roman Missal to accommodate the ongoing development of the liturgy, including the addition of newly canonized saints to the calendar. Pope Clement VIII issued a new edition in 1604. Urban VIII did so in 1634. In 1884 Pope Leo XIII issued a new Missal, as did Benedict XV in 1920, and John XXIII in 1962, which was the last edition of the Tridentine Mass to be promulgated before the Second Vatican Council. That Council, as we all know, called for a revision of the Roman Rite, which despite all the various editions I just mentioned, had not seen a major revision since the Council of Trent. That New Mass, or Novus Ordo, came in 1970, promulgated by Pope Paul VI. Paul VI also promulgated a second edition of the Novus Ordo in 1975, and then most recently Blessed Pope John Paul II promulgated the third edition of the Roman Missal in 2000. That third edition is the one we are preparing to welcome this Advent.

Now, you may be wondering, if the third edition of the Roman Missal was issued by John Paul II in 2000 why are we just now starting to use it in Advent 2011? When John Paul II approved of the third edition, the liturgical texts he was promulgating were in Latin. And if Masses were all celebrated in Latin everywhere, then we would have seen these changes long ago. But Vatican II opened the door for the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular, and this means that the Roman Missal must therefore be translated into many, many different languages, only one of which is English. And as anyone who speaks more than one language can tell you, translation is not an easy business. Often there are not direct equivalents between one language and another, or there may be several possible words or phrases, depending upon what nuance or emphasis the translator desires. It is far from an exact science.

As we mentioned in our very first installment, words do really matter — especially in our liturgy, when we pray together as a Church. So the Church authorities are very careful, as they should be, to ensure that the translation of the Mass we will use is an accurate and good translation that does justice to the original liturgical text. And that original is in Latin, which remains the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.

Soon after the third edition of the Roman Missal was promulgated in 2000, John Paul II issued a document, in 2001, called Liturgiam Authenticam, which gave guidelines for how liturgical texts ought to be translated into vernacular languages. That document says that the guiding principle for translation is “formal equivalency.” It states: “While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.” This may seem like common sense, insofar as you want a translation to be as accurate as possible. But it was important for the Vatican to state those principles because much of the translation that had been done of earlier editions of the Roman Missal, into English particularly, were not made following these guidelines.

Following the issuing of Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican established a committee of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2002 called Vox Clara which means “clear voice.” That committee’s express purpose was to assist and review the English translation of the Mass to be done by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). The ICEL presented its first drafts of an English translation of the Missal to the Vatican in 2004. This began a long period work involving many drafts and revisions. A translation was ultimately confirmed by the Holy See in 2008, with the final approval of the third edition of the Roman Missal in English, to be used in the US, coming in 2009.

In order to give the faithful time to prepare for the new translation, it was decided that the third edition of the Roman Missal would go into effect on the first Sunday of Advent, 2011. And so finally, for the first time since we have been able to celebrate the Mass in English, we will be celebrating it with an English translation which follows the ideals set out in Liturgiam Authenticam.