Preparing the Way for the Roman Missal 3rd Edition, Part 2: Constructing a Solid Foundation


I’m sure that you’re anxious to explore the new prayers and responses contained in the forthcoming English translation of the Roman Missal, but before we delve into the text itself, it’s important for us to take the time to construct a solid foundation upon which our understanding may rest, and it is easily constructed of just three simple building blocks:

– First, it’s going to be very helpful for us to review just a little bit of background on the Roman Missal; to see how we moved from the 1st Edition to the 3rd Edition that we now await in English, what kinds of changes (beyond just matters of translation) can be found between them, what motivated the changes in the first place, etc…

– Secondly, catechesis has been so severely lacking over the last 40+ years that we desperately need to take some time to consider exactly what Holy Mass truly is. The poorly translated liturgical texts that are soon to be replaced, as well as the often misguided approach that has been taken to promote “active participation” in many places (topics we will address in some detail later), have also contributed to an environment in which many Catholics simply lack an awareness of what liturgy truly is, and it’s important that we rectify the situation in preparation for the newly translated Missal.

– Lastly, St. Pio of Pietrelcina put things in perspective as well as anyone when he said, “The world could better survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass!” This being the case, we really need to give some sober and humble consideration to what “active participation” in Holy Mass as Holy Mother Church understands it truly means, so we might be properly disposed to receive all that the Lord wishes to give us therein.

After we’ve constructed this solid foundation using these three building blocks, we will then be well prepared to examine the new text found in the Missal itself. Specifically, we’re going to be taking a close look at all of the forthcoming changes to the people’s parts of Holy Mass. Yes, there are changes coming to the priest’s parts as well, but in order to prioritize, we will focus our efforts here on those parts of the Missal that are specific to the laity.

Let’s begin with a brief look at some background:

The first edition of the Roman Missal for the Ordinary Form of Holy Mass, or the Novus Ordo Missae (Latin for “new order of Mass”) as it is sometimes called, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969.

Some minor revisions were made in 1975 (the 2nd edition) and the typical edition (or the official Latin text upon which all other translations are based) for the 3rd edition – the one that we now await in English – was approved by Pope John Paul II in the year 2000. That’s right, a full decade ago!

Wow! There must have been a whole lot of changes between the 2nd and 3rd editions, right?”

Well no, not really. The actual changes between the most recent editions of the Missal – in their official Latin form – are rather small in number. Among them we will find more opportunities for Communion under both species, and prayers that acknowledge the some three hundred Saints that were canonized between 1975 and the year 2000.

OK, so why on earth is it taking so long?

Well, the previous English translations were carried out using a method called “Dynamic Equivalence,” an approach that sought to translate the Latin text into the so-called “language of the people.” Even though the intentions may have been good, it soon became clear that this approach stripped away critical theological significance from certain texts.

You see, similar to Sacred Scripture, the prayers and responses that we offer at Holy Mass often have multiple layers of meaning. In their purest form, they serve to elevate the hearts and minds of the faithful toward God fostering union with the Divine. They should, in other words, move us beyond ourselves and the present world in a way that draws us ever more deeply into the realm of sacred mystery.

By bringing the language of the Mass “down to earth,” so to speak, as in the previous translations, the text was often “made flat” as Cardinal Francis George, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops described it. This caused the richly layered content of the Missal to be obscured at times, while in some cases the translations were just plain incorrect.

As a result, we as a People – clergy as well as laity – began to lose our grip on something very, very valuable: our sense of the sacred.

Recognizing the need to recover what had been lost, Holy Mother Church called for a more literal and faithful translation of the Latin text to be carried out in the Missal’s third edition. This made it necessary for English speaking bishops and liturgical experts to re-examine the entirety of the Roman Missal, not just those parts that had changed between the official versions of the 2nd and 3rd Editions, so improvements and corrections could be made where needed.

To say the least, this was a substantial undertaking!

At great cost we had learned a valuable lesson over the last forty years; the Latin prayers and responses in the Roman Missal – drawn as they are from a rich liturgical tradition that includes texts that are often hundreds and some even more than a thousand years old – must be treated with the utmost care when attempts are made to translate them into the vernacular. To say the least; much is at stake.

With this in mind, guidelines for the new translation were clearly established by the Congregation for Divine Worship in a 2002 document (Liturgiam Authenticam) the full name of which includes the title, “The Fifth Instruction for the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.”

This refers, of course, to the first document that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in which the Council Fathers outlined their vision for liturgical reform, and it tells us something very important; the forthcoming new English translation of the Roman Missal is directly related to Vatican II!

This means that in order to prepare for the new Missal, both pastors and their people need to discover and embrace what the Council Fathers actually taught; because apart from this, the new translation will lack vital context and we will be hard pressed to receive all that it has to offer.

Even those Catholics who are largely unfamiliar with the Council’s treatment of the sacred liturgy as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium are well aware of at least one crucial fact; namely, there is a great deal of confusion over the Council’s true intentions.

While this is not the place to cover in great detail the many misconceptions surrounding the matter, consider just the following handful of changes to Holy Mass since Vatican II:

– Turning the priest around to face the congregation

– Constructing free-standing altars to accommodate the practice

– Removing altar rails and giving Communion in-the-hand

– Eliminating the Latin language

– Introducing popular music and the “Folk Mass”

Many more examples exist, but what do all of these things have in common? None of them, not one, was even remotely suggested much less encouraged by the Council, and yet most Catholics simply assume that Vatican II is the author of each!

And so the point is this; if we’re really serious about living in the light of truth and recovering our sense of the sacred, it’s time to put an end to the confusion. We simply must explore Holy Mass anew to rediscover (for some, for the very first time) the true essence of the sacred liturgy. We must be humble enough to look at Holy Mass through the eyes of Holy Mother Church as expressed in the words of the Council Fathers, so we might come to understand their vision for the liturgy’s renewal, preparing ourselves well for the great treasure that is offered in the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

This is where we will pick up the discussion  in Part Three of our series.

* Excerpted from the book: And with Your Spirit – Recovering a sense of the sacred in the English translation of the Roman Missal – 3rd Edition. (© 2010 Salve Regina Publications – available at


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.