Text Size:
  • A
  • A
  • A

A New Translation


Cardinal Justin F. Rigali

A Fourth Degree honor guard lines the center aisle at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., during the opening Mass of the 128th Supreme Convention in August 2010.

Forty-seven years ago, the Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of the sacred liturgy that would recognize and promote the "full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14). Such participation was seen as essential to recognizing the liturgy as "the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit" (14).

In fulfillment of this vision, the council fathers called for a number of reforms of the liturgical rites, including the translation of the prayers of the sacred liturgy from Latin into the languages spoken by Catholics all over the world. The purpose of the more widespread use of the vernacular was to help the people of God understand the prayers of the Mass with their hearts and with their minds.

This was first attempted with Comme le Prévoit, the 1969 document that was used in the translation of the first generation of liturgical books for 32 years. These first translations, however, used principles that have since come to be seen as less than adequate for the important task of effectively rendering the beauty, tone and doctrinal content of the prayers of the Roman liturgy in English.

There are few tasks as important as assuring such authenticity in liturgical translations, for the liturgy, in many respects, defines who we are as the Catholic Church and what we believe. The ancient axiom lex orandi lex credendi ("the law of prayer is the law of belief") reminds us that the way we pray directly impacts the way we understand the faith that has been handed down to us by the Lord Jesus through his Church.

For these reasons, we should joyfully anticipate the new English translation of the sacred liturgy, which will be implemented in parishes throughout the United States on Nov. 27, 2011, the first Sunday of Advent.


Pope John Paul II addressed the numerous conferences of bishops in 1988 with an apostolic letter marking the 25th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The pope called upon the bishops "to reflect upon certain difficulties [in translation] that have subsequently emerged, to remedy certain defects or inaccuracies, to complete partial translations, to compose or approve chants to be used in the liturgy, to ensure respect for the texts approved and lastly to publish liturgical books in a form that both testifies to the stability achieved and is worthy of the mysteries being celebrated" (Vicesimus Quintus Annus, 20).

In response to the Holy Father's call, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published, in 2001, the fifth instruction on the implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy under the title Liturgiam Authenticam. This instruction called for a revision of the entire corpus of the first generation of vernacular translations. Having benefited from more than three decades of experience, the instruction sets forth principles to be applied in all translations of Latin liturgical texts.

Following the completion of the third edition of the Roman Missal in 2000 and the publication of Liturgiam Authenticam a year later, the Vox Clara Committee, consisting of bishops from throughout the English-speaking world, was formed to advise the congregation regarding the English translation. This committee, with financial support from the Knights of Columbus, worked to correct and improve the translations of the prayers we use at Mass. The purpose was to produce translations that are both rendered in "a flowing vernacular ... suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer" and also "translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses" (Liturgiam Authenticam, 20).

online version of Columbia

One such text is the popular greeting between the priest and the people that takes place before every important liturgical action. The priest says to the people, "Dominus vobiscum," which is currently translated in English: "The Lord be with you." The response of the people is "Et cum spiritu tuo," which is currently translated: "And also with you." A reading of the Latin text ("et cum spiritu tuo") reveals, however, that the word "spiritu" was never translated. The new translation will accurately translate the phrase as: "And with your spirit."

Why is it important to translate this dialogue correctly? Because it has been used in the liturgy as an important dialogue between the priest and people for almost 2,000 years and also has profound theological meaning. The "spirit" to which the people refer is the spirit that the priest received when he was ordained.

A more precise translation of this greeting and its response reveals the true nature of this exchange. The priest prays that the Lord, into whom this holy people have been baptized and who has constituted them as a royal priesthood, be with them before an important prayer or ritual action takes place. In turn, the people pray that the Lord be with the priest as he, by virtue of his ordination, acts in the person of Christ, exercising the spirit he first received in the laying on of hands.

A second example of enhanced precision in the new translation is found in the restoration of the triple mea culpa of the Confiteor. Now, we will once again find ourselves expressing sorrow for our sins by striking our breasts three times as we say: "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."

Likewise, where the priest has invited us to pray "that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God," he will now invite us to pray that "my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God." This closer reading of the Latin reminds us that while the sacrifice of Calvary is offered at Mass principally by the priest acting in the person of Jesus Christ, each of us, by reason of our baptism, can also join in offering the sacrifice through the hands of the priest and in union with him.


During his address to the Vox Clara Committee in April 2010, Pope Benedict XVI stated that through these "sacred texts and the actions that accompany them, Christ will be made present and active in the midst of his people."

Indeed, one of the goals of the revised translation of the Missal is to increase our awareness of Christ's presence in the sacred liturgy. An example of this can be seen in the opening prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The translation of this prayer in the present Sacramentary is rather stark: "Lord, fill our hearts with your love, and as you revealed to us by an angel the coming of your Son as man, so lead us through his suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection."

The new translation is not only a much closer reading of the Latin, it is also recognizable as the prayer that is used every day during the Angelus: "Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection."

Thanks to the principles of translation provided by Liturgiam Authenticam, this richer translation provides us with a greater opportunity to reflect on the indispensable connection of the crib and the cross, which can bring so much spiritual benefit in the days before the great feast of Christmas.

When Pope Paul VI introduced the first vernacular translations of the new Roman Missal to the Church in 1969, he noted that the use of the translations "is an act of obedience, a matter of the Church being consistent. It is a step forward in the Church's genuine tradition. … We would do well to welcome it with joyous enthusiasm and to put it into practice exactly and with one accord."

What Paul VI said of the first translations may be said of these newest translations as well. Their purpose is “to unite the assembly of the faithful as closely and effectively as possible to the official rites of the liturgy.” May that same vision take life once again.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, served as treasurer of the Vox Clara Committee, the Vatican-designated commission responsible for overseeing the translation of the new Roman Missal into English. He is a member of Bishops Council 10490 in St. Louis.

Editors Note: The new English-language translation of the Roman Missal will be effective in the United States beginning the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27. On Sept. 3, 2010, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) noted that the proposed adaptations and liturgical calendar for Canada were still pending Vatican approval, and a date of implementation has therefore not been set. While French- and Spanish-language translations of the third edition of the Roman Missal are also pending, the text will not differ as greatly from the current translations, which already closely follow the Latin.