Words fail us: Priests respond to the new Missal a year later

In the Pews
The new missal has made priests watch their language, but after one year most say the meaning of the Mass is getting lost in translation.

There was plenty of chatter in the pews when the new Roman Missal landed in parishes last November, as Catholics fretted about the at times awkward or confusing responses that would replace their old familiar prayers. But the challenges parishioners faced in adapting to the new translations were nothing compared to what was in store for the men on the other side of the altar.

And judging by their responses to a U.S. Catholic reader survey on the new missal, priests are still struggling with the changes one year later. “I still find it very difficult to say the prayers and, because of the stumbling, Mass is less prayerful,” says Father Adrian Fischer of Monroe, Louisiana. “I would go back to the other translation in a minute.”

Fischer is not alone. His feelings are shared by many of the more than 1,200 priests who responded to our survey, designed specifically to gauge how the clergy have handled the transition. Most seemed to relish the opportunity to speak openly—or in some cases, vent their frustration—about the new translations, though nearly half requested that they remain anonymous in doing so. More than a handful even said they would fear for their jobs if their name were to be printed alongside their true feelings on the missal.

“Most priests have just obeyed and did not say what they really thought since they were never consulted beforehand,” says Holy Cross Father Thomas Shea. He touches on a complaint identified by numerous respondents: the fact that priests and the laity weren’t asked for their opinion at any point in the process. “No one asked the presbyterate’s input on the new translations,” says Father Jerome Katz of Syracuse, New York. “Once again decisions came from the top down—no dialogue, no conversation.”


Among the priests who responded, 58 percent indicated that they still dislike the new translations after one year. For priests like Father Charles Shelby of Chicago, having now had 12 months to get accustomed to the new language hasn’t helped. “In the beginning I tried to keep an open mind until I had experience using it,” Shelby says of the new missal. “The more I use it the worse it seems.”

The biggest complaint among priests seems to be that the new missal contains clumsy or confusing wording. Or, as Father Thomas Colgan of Buffalo, New York plainly puts it, “It is lousy English.” Father Bob Cushing agrees, noting that the translators clearly did not have a good grasp on the English language.

“I am an English teacher when I am not a priest and both practices make me deeply discouraged to realize that our language could be so badly abused,” says Cushing, who ministers in Cordele, Georgia. “Vocabulary, syntax, diction, and simple uncompleted sentences are so abundant. It is a tremendously sad experience because the way the bishops publicized this was utterly out of touch with the reality that they foisted upon us priests.”

Clerics like Father Arthur B. Schute of Port Charlotte, Florida point out that the language of the translations is less meaningful for many Catholics. “Theological words are used that make no sense to God’s people,” he says. “Making these translations closer to the original Latin has made them too aloof, flowery, and unintelligible.”


In many cases priests find the same flaws that have elicited complaints from the pews. “Christ used a cup and not a chalice. Christ died for all and not for many,” says Msgr. Robert M. Diachek of Chester, New Jersey. “There seems to be a contradiction in theology here.”

Of all the words or phrases that priests criticize in the new translations—incarnate, oblation, and dewfall, to name a few—the one word they cite the most as one they’d strike is consubstantial. “ ‘One in being with the Father’ and ‘consubstantial with the Father’ mean the same thing. Why use jargon?” asks Vincentian Father Jim Beighlie of House Springs, Missouri. “I’m trained in biblical studies and have never used the word pericope with parishioners.”

Not all the reviews, of course, are quite so negative. Sixteen percent of priests surveyed say that the new translations have had a positive impact on their prayerfulness during Mass and some have even praised the new wording.

“A more accurate and more interesting translation of the missal with richer vocabulary was long overdue,” says Norbertine Father William Fitzgerald of Orange, California. “To be honest, I felt held in bondage to a flawed, inaccurate, boring, and prosaic text since I was ordained in 1979.”


Vincentian Father Milton Fleming Ryan of Perryville, Missouri says that he was “overwhelmed with emotion” by the words of the second variation of the new Eucharistic prayer. “The beauty and simplicity of the texts touched my heart,” he says.

Several clergy, like Father Ken Bartsch of Mount St. Francis, Indiana, remarked that the change has made them focus more on the prayers of the Mass. “I pay more attention to the words and try to pronounce them distinctly,” Bartsch says. “I have come to believe my prayer is in paying close attention to the printed words.”

Regardless of their own views on the new missal, many priests worry about how the translations have affected the people in the pews. For some, like Father Bruce Fogle of Earlington, Kentucky, the transition has been smooth. “My parishioners loved the new translations and remarked at the beginning how much richer and more prayerful the new translations were,” says Fogle.

In Reynoldsburg, Ohio Msgr. David Funk has had a different experience. “This has been totally unnecessary and detrimental to the prayer life of my parish,” he says, adding that parishioners still ask why the changes had to be made. Father William Elliot of San Diego reports that his parishioners have felt a sense of helplessness about the new translations. “They feel it has been imposed on them and they can’t do anything about it,” he says.


Carmelite Father Leopold Glueckert of Washington worries about the implications that such reactions will have for the church. “With the obvious disorder and turmoil in church leadership we don’t need another thing to drive people away,” Glueckert says. “Let’s use prayerful language that people can adopt and make their own.”

Several respondents agree that a different approach is needed. “We should start over and write English texts for U.S. Catholics to use,” argues Jesuit Father Joseph Appleyard of Boston. “U.S. bishops should approve them without meddling from elsewhere, and then they should encourage presiders to adapt them to the needs of congregations.”


Father Robert G. Tamminga of Tucson, Arizona also feels the church should go back to the drawing board on the translations. “But this time,” he says, “listen to and implement the intelligent and urgent criticisms of tens of thousands of laypeople, linguists, scripture scholars, theologians, and pastors.”

Regardless of who is involved in the process, priests like Jesuit Father Neil Ver’Schneider of Philadelphia argue that the goal should be ensuring that the missal serves the needs of the people. “It makes no sense to be more faithful to the Latin rather than to opt in favor of helping all grow in prayer through the Mass,” he says. “The focus should have been on what will help the people and make them comfortable in celebrating the Eucharist together.”


And the survey says…

1. Which of the following responses best describes your current attitude as a priest toward the new Mass translations:

I dislike the new translations and still can’t believe I’ll have to use them for the foreseeable future. – 58%

I don’t particularly like the new translations, but I’ve come to accept them, and they’re not that big of a deal to me. – 17%

I personally enjoy the new translations as much as, if not more than, the old version. – 9%

I was unsure about it at first, but I’ve grown accustomed to the new translations. – 4%


Other – 12%

Representative of “other”:
“Some parts I like more, some parts I like less. But overall it has been much ado about nothing.”

2. If it were an option, I would still use the old translation of the Roman Missal when presiding at Mass.

Agree – 76%
Disagree – 16%
Other – 8%

Representative of “other”:
“There are certainly defects in the older translation; perhaps the best option would be a choice of combining parts of each version.”

3. Sometimes I still slip up during Mass and find myself using the old translations when I’m presiding.

Agree – 84%
Disagree – 10%
Other – 6%

4. The new translations have had a positive effect on my own prayerfulness during Mass.

Agree – 16%
Disagree – 75%
Other – 9%

5. My parishioners have pretty much stopped remarking on the new translations.

Agree – 49%
Disagree – 36%
Other – 15%

Representative of “other”:
“They have just surrendered and recognize that no matter how they feel about it they will not be listened to.”


6. Members of my parish have told me they were leaving to worship in other churches over the changes in the Mass.

Agree – 10%
Disagree – 74%
Other – 16%

Representative of “other”:
“None have specifically said it, but I feel the new texts have contributed to more infrequent Mass attendance. ”

This article appeared on the December 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 12, pages 12-16).

Image: Tim Foley