Yesterday’s language: The new words of the Catholic mass

August 22, 2011

Because I affirm the unity of the body of Christ, I consider that the health of one arm affects the entire body. Thus I am either strengthened or weakened by the worship style of other Christians. For decades I've worked as a lay Lutheran toward making the words of Christian worship communally approved, biblically inspired, theologically alive and masterfully crafted. Given these convictions, I say with sadness that the new English translation of the Roman Catholic Order of Mass, mandated by the Vatican to be inaugurated this Advent, wounds not only many of my Catholic friends but also me.

Let me apply these four goals not only to the forthcoming Roman Catholic rite but also to texts used by many Protestant churches.

Words communally approved: Communal approval, as I see it, is achieved by means of a decadelong process involving open questionnaires, diverse committees, scholarly input, theological scrutiny, trial rites, genuine review, prudent revision, a concluding convention vote and denominationally supported education. Yet the new Roman Order of Mass has been smashed down upon the heads of dozens of eminent and skilled wordsmiths who since 1966 have labored to translate the Latin rite into English. The promised communal process was replaced by hierarchical control. Nobody claims that the words of the newly authorized translation are communally approved.

In countless Protestant churches also one finds that the staff or a single minister will compose texts for Sunday. Worshipers are expected to speak with their whole heart words that they have never laid eyes on.

Any new worship text embodies some reform agenda. Was the agenda communally approved? The 2001 Vatican document "Liturgiam Authenticam" describes some of the Roman agenda—and far from being communally affirmed, the Vatican's literalist theory of translation has been criticized by many linguists. Furthermore, much of the Vatican agenda is an unspoken conservative rejection of some recent theological and liturgical developments, a counterreform that recalls the Council of Trent.

And then I wonder: have those ministers who construct their own liturgies clearly articulated their several agendas, and do at least their congregations approve these directions?

How wide is the envisioned Christian community? Much 20th-century liturgical renewal resulted from ecumenical cooperation in which different traditions learned from each other and collaborated on common projects. I am particularly saddened that the new Roman translation reflects a recent Vatican decision to heighten its denominational distinctiveness by rejecting use of ecumenical translations of shared texts such as the Lord's Prayer and the creeds.

Yet all Christians should be concerned when their narrow denominational identity or preferred personal piety outshouts an emerging ecumenical consensus. I think, for example, of those Protestants who, tediously repeating what the 16th-­century Reformers said about the medieval Roman canon, refuse to pray a biblically rich Great Thanksgiving at the eucharistic table, even though a century of ecumenical scholarship concurs that eucharistia, the "thanksgiving," is best served by a substantial prayer in which God is praised for the Earth, for centuries of the beloved stories of salvation, for the meal of Christ's body and for the continuous infusion of the Holy Spirit.

Words biblically inspired: That Christians assemble around the word of God as found in a perpetually retranslated Bible raises many issues. Which biblical terminology is necessary for the proclamation of the mystery of Christ? In each language, which words and images best express that biblical vocabulary? How much biblical literacy ought we expect of worshipers? When is a biblical reference inaccessible and thus merely mystifying?

The new Roman translation of the prayer before communion, "Lord, I am not worthy," now adds "that you should enter under my roof." The text assumes that worshipers know the story of the centurion in Luke 7. The intent is noble, the educational task enormous.

In the new Roman rite, the second option for the eucharistic prayer asks the Spirit to be sent down "like the dewfall." In the Hebrew scriptures, I count more than a dozen instances of dew as a metaphor for divine blessings (e.g., Hosea 14:5). Yet I doubt that most of the students I taught at a Catholic university know what "dewfall" is or, since their terrain does not rely on dew for fertility, would find it a powerful image of divine transformation.

And how do all of us cast, for example, the New Testament imagery of becoming slaves of Christ, beyond softening the noun to servants? And have we enriched our liturgy with the countless images for God and the sacraments that we can borrow from the Psalms?

Is the Bible rendered so as to support denominational preferences? Maintaining a traditional translation can inhibit responsibly attending to biblical meaning. That the Catholic Church continues to cast the words of institution in the future tense—"which will be given up for you," "which will be poured out for you"—exemplifies this tendency.

For a Protestant example of this resistance, consider that seminaries have long taught that the Lord's Prayer is a plea for the coming of God's kingdom, and thus the translation "lead us not into temptation" misrepresents the eschatological intention of Matthew's and Luke's reference to the "time of trial" (NRSV), the "final test" (NAB). So why have so few Protestants adopted the more biblically faithful 1988 English Language Liturgical Consultation translation of the Lord's Prayer, which pleads "save us from the time of trial"?

Words theologically alive: In the new Roman text, the theology expressed in the original Latin is the approved belief, and its hierarchical depiction of the church and the Earth is maintained. In a reactionary move, the rubric "the sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds" is to become "if any are present who are to receive Holy Communion under both kinds. . . ." The response to "the Lord be with you" is now to be rendered "and with your spirit," a change that has been defended as appropriately referring to a higher "spirit" conferred on the clergy at ordination. But is it theologically helpful to be reminded of ecclesiastical status at the time when we greet one another in the Risen Christ?

All of us must inquire which century governs our worship. Have the theological gains of the 20th century entered our Sunday speech? Why do preachers who in a postmodern time accept scholarly proposals about the origin of the New Testament preach as if the Gospels are audiotapes of Jesus' ministry?

Words masterfully crafted: Most worship includes various levels of language: elevated, colloquial and somewhere between. With my national church, I maintain that each of these levels of contemporary speech can be shaped to convey the gospel. But in the new Roman translation, the rhetorical style of complex Latinate sentences suggests that masterful English cannot carry the mystery. Perhaps those who craft liturgical texts are often tempted to resurrect the archaic: I recall that the translators of the King James Version of the Bible decided to continue use of thou-thine-thee, even though it was passing out of colloquial use, because they judged that words which sounded laden with piety would lull users into acceptance.

The new Roman Order of Mass is a compendium of the antiquated. Important nouns (e.g., Priest, Order of Bishops, Martyrs) are capitalized, while unimportant nouns (e.g., deacon, people) are not. Common titles (e.g., opening prayer, censer) are re­placed with traditional sacral terms (e.g., collect prayer, thurible). The church is a she. The word soul shows up repeatedly. (I enjoyed asking my students whether they had a soul—most said yes—and if they had one, what it was—big blank.) Does not the choice of archaisms suggest that God is essentially old-fashioned? In the 21st century, what do we mean when we speak about "souls"? The incarnation says to me that our daily speech can carry the presence of God, but perhaps we prefer hiding in our grandmother's attic chest.

For me, the linguistic nadir in the Roman rite is the wording at the cup: Jesus "took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands." Of this, I ask, what is the referent? Of precious, I think of Gollum, or worse yet, Precious Mo­ments. Of chalice, I say that although it is a possible translation of the Latin calix, even Indiana Jones could distinguish the cup from a chalice. Of venerable, the dictionary agrees with me that the English word connotes age. I cannot fathom how this phrasing could have been proposed, let alone approved and required.

This lamentable new rite does not represent liturgical language that is communally acceptable, biblically accurate, theologically helpful or linguistically masterful, and it has impelled some Catholic liturgical scholars to conclude that, well, actually, words don't really matter all that much. This strikes me as a counsel of despair, the sad cry of faithful worshipers who feel themselves helpless. I hope that this sense of resignation is not contagious but that all of us, in our varied Christian assemblies, will tirelessly address these issues, toward the continuously renewed vibrancy of our liturgical language.


communally acceptable, biblically accurate, theologically helpfu

All relative. Language - whose language? We limit G-d always.
Hindus want to communicate in Sanskrit; Jews communicate in Hebrew, Muslim prefer Arabic, Greek Orthodox assume God only understands Greek, Syrian Orthodox think God knows only Syriac, Roman Catholics assume God knows exclusively Latin or whatever the language the bishop of Rome dictates. The old Church of England woman thought Jesus liked the King James version! LOL

Nonsense. When I hit the pillow at the end of the day, I say, "thank God - it was a good day to be around" - what language? I don't care - nor does she.

Language in General

Does a liturgy that exists meet with your approval? Augustine offered us a way forward with new liturgies, interpretations, and uses of language. As long as an interpretation guides our hearts and minds to the love of God and the love of neighbor it can do little harm. The love that he talks about represents an active servant love.

No matter what imagery we use in our liturgies, Christians will always have to educate others on the nuances intended to enrich the understanding of the sacrament.

You talk of resignation in the end of your article and the limits of language at the beginning. I find the former unacceptable in the light shed by the later. Our language for God can never fully describe or represent God, but while "God is difficult to talk about, and impossible to know" (Gregory of Nazianzus) human beings make the attempt with the aide of grace. With that aide we manage to say meaningful things about God. In the same vein we manage to say meaningful things about the sacraments without saying them in an transcendent (and nonexistent) perfect language.


"compendium of the antiquated?"

"linguistic nadir?"

"lamentable new rite?"

This article is pompous, hyperbolic dissertation.


Good to see you "graciusly grant" a reply.

I, for one,

found this to be a very thought provoking response to a current event, with wonderful applications to a high-church pastor serving a low-church congregation. Thanks!

Excellent analysis

The new English translation does indeed represent the nadir of Catholic translation prowess. Very unfortunately, the Vatican hijacked the translation process away from the English-speaking Catholic world about a decade ago, and has produced a mangled, pompous and fruity translation that manages to sound pretentious and cringing simultaneously: a very poor effort, totally unworthy of the Roman Catholic Mass.

We are Catholic not Lutheran

Gail responds from her own narrow denominational and personal perspective. She is not ecumenical at all. I find her comments redolent of anti-Catholic bigotry. The Lutherans didn't ask us about their own liturgy or whether or not to ordain homosexuals. The Liturgy of the Roman Rite belongs to the community of the Roman Rite. We believe in a hierarchical church and are not Protestants. Our liturgy reflects that fact. She doesn't like the new translation because it is orthodox and Catholic. She is neither. That sums it up. To which I reply, too bad here we stand and can do no other.

Mistaken assumption

I thought charity was a Christian virtue, shared by even Catholics. Guess I was wrong.

Ineptitude is neither orthodox nor Catholic

The ineptly prepared texts of the new Roman Missal do not represent the best that orthodoxy or Catholicism can offer. Rather than serving God's people at prayer, the new Missal is all about an arrogant power play by Roman authorities who wish the 2nd Vatican Council, with its renewal of Catholic liturgy, never happened.

Good Translation

On the contrary they are orthodox and that is the reason so many on the religious left despise them, including the author of this article. The Council actually asked that Latin be maintained, why not read the documents? Yes, the Pope and Bishops have power to ensure that we have an accurate translation of the liturgy. That is a GOOD thing.

Doctrinal Correctness and Orthodoxy are not Synomous

The imposition of doctrinal correctness as a way of imposing orthodoxy
is not useful to the nurturing of faith.  Jesus says that God is the
Lord of the Sabbath and not vice versa.  It is the responsibility of
those crafting the language to find the ground upon which those who
receive the words to receive the Word, not to struggle to understand the

Just as Jesus comes to the people, liturgy, as the work of the people should come to the people and not force the people to either struggle to understand or "put up with" doctrinal correctness.


Charity goes both ways. This article is extremely uncharitable toward Catholics. Objecting to a Lutheran lack of charity is not uncharitable. She is demand that Catholics submit to her personal views and that Lutherans have veto power over the Catholic liturgy. Did Lutherans ask our permission when they ordained women? No, they didn't. I am insulted by this article and the assumptions that it represents.

On the other hand

As a Lutheran, I suppose you may be using the new ELW book. This represents the other side of the current liturgical crises within the American churches.

"Words communally approved"

In the new ELW book, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is an optional invocation with an alternative which uses no gendered words but instead some vague descriptions. Also the Psalms have had all male pronouns which referred to God replaced with God or Lord. This many times requires a serious change in the sentence structure, such as referring to God in the first person rather than describing God in the third, when the _actual_ psalm text includes the latter. My assumption is that this hymnal would sound absolutely insane to a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox Christian... gosh, even wild to your average moderate Episcopalian or Presbyterian. Whereas we had common text agreements with Rome and TEC, we are now left with what, at best, is a strangely composed novelty.

New English translation of Catholic Mass

Very interesting to read your comments. We could distill this down to the question of authority.....which remains a dividing line.....a seeming impossible space between the Prostestant and Catholic sensibilities....

Letter from Paul Westermeyer

In “Yesterday’s language” (Sept. 6), Gail Ramshaw ties together the texts of the forthcoming Roman Catholic rite and those used by many Protestant churches. Six years ago I wrote to Benedict XVI in a similar vein, suggesting that the new English texts approved by his office represent a sectarian attack on his own people and the rest of us, not unlike ones for which Protestants are justly criticized. The tragedy is that he knows better. He knows about the Logos, the importance of words, pastoral care and the catholic nature of the church.

We need to lament the fragmentation of our common life where legalistic fictions, in this case about language, trump theological and pastoral substance. We have here another instance in which the church has allowed the culture to hijack its wisdom and pastoral care. Many of us know better, but we seem incapable of acting wisely or pastorally.

Paul Westermeyer
St. Paul, Minn.


Paul Westermeyer is another one of these "experts."  He'll put up with all kinds of sectarian nonsense and immorality from his own denomination (the ELCA) and then has the audacity to criticize Pope Benedict XVI.  What a joke!

Faux unity

Paul, in fact the language of the new translation is theologically precise. The Pope knows this as did those who write the original texts in Latin in ancient times. The fact that some of it is not congenial to Protestantism tells us what? That there are significant issues that divide us and that it is not our ecumenical duty to become less Catholic. If we have to lose our identity and core beliefs for a faux unity then it isn't worth it. I don't see Protestants agonizing over what they are willing to sacrifice for unity. I am sure the Pope found your letter interesting. I suggest you read a few of his.

Ramshaw Wrong!

Gail Ramshaw has an agenda--the radical feminist inclusive-language agenda.  She and her cronies have done great damage to the liturgy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; you need only peruse the ELCA's new book "Evangelical Lutheran Worship" to see what her agenda is all about.  Father and Son have been largely replaced, male pronouns for God (i.e., He, His, Him) have been completely thrown out.  Ancient liturgical texts have been re-worked or replaced to make them politically correct.  Even the Psalms and the Creeds have been significantly altered to appease Ms. Ramshaw and her feminist gang.  And talk about a top-down project!  This new ELW was shoved down our throats!  There was no ten year trial process, and anyone who voiced concerns over this new book to the ELCA headquarters in Chicago was dismissed as a crank traditonalist who simply didn't understand the "process."   THe ELCA is a dying denomination. Benedict XVI has it right.  He is trying to repare the damage done by the liturgical experts of the 60's, 70's, and 80's.  No one in the Roman Catholic Church (or the Lutheran Church for that matter) needs to take Gail Ramshaw seriously.  She and her fellow "experts" whose shrill voices have dominated the liturgical conversation for the past 30 years are the ones who are using "yesterday's words."  They have become irrelevant has-beens, and they know it.  Her buddy Gabe Huck was justly fired from LTP.  I congratulate the Roman Catholic Church for reclaiming her tradition.  It is sad that we Lutherans in the increasingly sectarian ELCA didn't wait for this new Missal to be completed before we began our new worship book project.  Perhaps we would have a very different end-result; but then again, with Ms. Ramshaw and her gang in charge, faithfulness was not the number one priority.  The ELW is a heterodox book--a triumph of the hippie liturgists of the past.  The ELCA is stuck with it.  However, a new era of liturgical faithfulness has dawned for the Roman Catholic Church with this revised Missal of Benedict the Great.  May that faithfulness positively influence Lutheran liturgy as well.