The Complex Work of Translating Liturgical Texts


Dear Friends in Christ,


Four years have now passed since the introduction of the third edition of the Roman Missal in English, with revised translations of the prayers and prefaces at Mass, as well as the responses and the addition of a selection of penitential rites.


Though not without some degree of controversy as with any proposed change, as was evident in sections of the Catholic press, my own experience from going around parishes in this part of the north-west of England, is that our people have, after some work of preparation in the Diocese, adapted very well to the new translation. At least in this Diocese, the responses at Mass are louder and clearer than ever and many congregations seem to have little trouble with the simple chants as well!


What is remarkable for Catholics of my generation, recalling the Latin liturgy of their childhood, is just how successfully the whole Church has made the transition from Latin into the numerous vernacular languages spoken around the world. This surely has been the work of the Holy Spirit keeping the Church united in one faith, a faith expressed through her worship and liturgy.


The new English edition of the Roman Missal which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI promulgated was not intended to introduce change for the sake of change, and it is important to grasp this fundamental point.


The language we use to worship almighty God has necessarily to reflect the faith we believe in and have believed in over many generations and across many cultures.  To quote the ancient adage, “We pray in accordance with what we believe.”

The Church is duty bound to pass on to each new generation the Catholic faith in its integrity, as she has received it from the teaching of the Lord himself, taught and transmitted by the Apostles and handed on in turn  to those who came after them, down to the present day.

An indispensable medium for teaching the faith is, therefore, the Church’s liturgy which most affects and influences ordinary Catholics.


The task of translating ancient and venerable Latin texts into good and felicitous English poses an enormous challenge, for the translator(s) has to respect fully the tenets of our Catholic faith enshrined in such a rich treasury, much of which goes back to the earliest days of the Church, while at the same time being aware of the demands of a widely spoken language which is continually evolving.


If at times the outcome may appear unsuccessful in places, it reflects the inherent tension existing between fidelity to our Catholic faith-tradition and finding the appropriate language to express that faith for an English-speaking believer of the twenty-first century. On the whole, however, I feel the Missal translation has been an improvement.


When we gather at Mass to worship God we are heirs to a practice that goes back ultimately to Christ at the Last Supper, when he anticipated his sacrificial death on the following day by sharing sacramentally his body and blood with his closest circle of friends, the Twelve Apostles. This act of worship and commemoration is a most precious gift bequeathed by Christ to his Church, so it is extremely important that we find the right words and correct gestures to engage and participate fully in it.

The riches of our Catholic faith, drawn from the truth that the Word became flesh and lived among us, are intended to be shared and celebrated by all in the Sacred Liturgy.  The elevated tone and language of the third edition of the Roman Missal in English has no other aim than to raise our minds and hearts, and usher us into the presence of God in the name of Christ his Son, when we assemble as a priestly people, gathered in worship.


May the work of liturgical translation in the name of the Church – in which I am privileged to be involved – flourish and continue!

With every good wish and prayer – until next week,

May Almighty God bless you all,


+Michael G Campbell OSA

Bishop of Lancaster & International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) – Editorial Committee Member