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Rising from the ruins of 2010 Mass translation

  • 14 February 2018


In Christian churches the celebration of liturgy is always contentious. Fr Gerald O'Collins' latest book deals with a relatively small and domestic issue: the ingeniously engineered launch and spluttering subsidence of a revised English Catholic Mass translation.

Though small, however, the events he describes carry a large symbolic weight.

O'Collins tells the story succinctly. The Vatican Council made bishops of the various language groups responsible for translations of the Latin Catholic liturgical texts. The bishops of the English speaking world established a panel of Catholic scholars to undertake the work under their direction.

The panel produced a draft and then in 1974 a provisional text of the Mass that won general approval. It aimed to produce a text accessible by local congregations by reproducing the meaning of texts rather than offering a literal rendering.

But some influential critics believed it introduced doctrinal errors and lacked the openness to mystery found in the Latin text. They particularly objected to the avoidance of literal translation in favour of representing the meaning of texts. Their hostility was sharpened by later proposals to reflect common English usage in respect of gendered language.

The panel was also charged to prepare a more definitive text, which in 1998 it presented to the Vatican for routine approval. But by then its critics held key positions in the Vatican set on strengthening central authority. Local bishops, too, had been appointed on the basis of their loyalty to Rome. The Vatican rejected the revised text. It ordered the panel to be reformed, and vested approval for new translations in Rome and not with the bishops. It provided a new set of principles that were to govern revised translations of the Mass. These insisted on a literal translation in a sacral style.

Eventually another translation was prepared and sent to bishops' conferences for ratification. Unlike the German bishops, the English speaking bishops' conferences approved the draft provided them. In 2010 Rome approved a final version, making a thousand or so extra changes.


"What was intended to be sacral is mannered; what was literal is clunky in the reading and hearing; what aspired for mystery yields only mystification."


O'Collins tells this story of the political triumph of central power over local responsibility, reflects on the principles guiding the 1974 and 2010 translations, and compares the quality of the 1974, 1988 and 2010 translations. He makes his case that the principles governing the last translation could produce only a soggy mess;