The Art of Pastoral Translation, Part Six

Implementation: Counsel from our Examination

  1. My last remarks above are about a judgment call, a disagreement between the majority of American Bishops and the Holy See. Noting this fact is a good way to lead into one of the important things we all should keep in mind as we begin to become familiar with the new translation of the Roman Missal. Translating, while it is not whimsical but rather governed by objective principles, is not a science. Translating is an art. This is the reason that at a number of places LA qualifies its norms with such phrases as "in so far as possible." At a different time, with different people in charge, some things would be other than what we will, in fact, be hearing and saying. Many very talented people, with generous good will, have worked hard to produce the vernacular texts we will hear and say. And finally, this whole long effort is going forward by the authority of the bishops of our country and then will be confirmed by the See of Peter. We can accept this new translation with serene confidence. It is, as I have hinted in the title of my presentation, the fruit of a "pastoral art." It is done by the pastors who have their authority from God, and so we should accept it as the result of God's grace and love for his Church.

  2. Secondly, we should be patient with the new translation of the Roman Missal. For reasons we have considered above, reasons that seem eminently wise to me, this translation will take work to get used to. First of all, simply because it is new, and most of us generally resent the effort to change. And moreover, this new translation is, by an explicit decision of the Church's pastors, harder to understand, less consonant with our day-to-day forms of expression. I hope that my presentation will have helped you see that the goods to be secured by this approach are of such significance that the trouble to be caused by the new translations will be worth it.
While Cardinal Dulles spoke of the good which LA looks to as a more apt vehicle for the transmission of Revelation, I would like to express the point a bit differently. As I see it, the good to be achieved through the implementation of LA is a deeper communion.

First, a deeper communion with the Church spread throughout the world in this time. In so far as our American English vernacular version of the Roman Rite is not an American Rite based on the Roman one, but the Roman Rite in English, we are confirmed in our communion with all those particular Churches that use this Rite.

Second, this new translation aims to strengthen our communion with the Church not only in our own time, but with the Church through all time. The Roman Rite has been built up over centuries. Its texts are a thick tapestry of what many great hearts and minds, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have been led to articulate about God and his saving mysteries, made present through the words and the signs of the Liturgy. Through the presentation of the same Roman Rite in a faithful English translation, we will be able to be of one mind and one heart with St. Leo, St. Gregory, St. Thomas Aquinas and so many others of our forbearers who have reported with profound insight the Revelation handed on to us in the Liturgy.

These two dimensions of ecclesial communion – communion in space and communion in time, made possible through the medium of the Roman Rite given to us in English translation – are themselves means for a more final and ultimate communion: a deeper sharing in the communion with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit which is ours by grace. Yes, the Mass celebrated in a deficient vernacular translation, one which falls short in accuracy and reverence, is a vehicle of divine grace, as long as it is valid. However, such a medium is like a cloudy glass; it obscures the presentation of what is disclosed. It lets in only part of the light which shines out from its source. And in that deficiency the effectiveness of the sacramental signs is impeded. Ultimately, then, the aim of the art of pastoral translation is to make the words of the Liturgy as transparent as possible for the fullest possible presentation of God's saving self-disclosure.

All of us know that the Second Vatican Council called the People of God to a full, conscious and active or actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy. My argument today has been that without a Roman Missal that is the same in English as it is in Latin, this basic goal is unachievable. Without an apt translation, how can our participation be full, since what is presented for us to participate in would be narrowed and made partial unnecessarily? Without an apt translation, how can our participation be really conscious, since in this case we would be only vaguely aware of what is manifested much more clearly in the original texts of the Roman Rite? Without an apt translation, how can our participation be active, since the saving activity of God, which is made present through the words of the texts, would be hampered when those texts are deficient in accuracy and reverence?


To conclude my presentation today, I want to make my own these words of Pope John Paul II written on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of Sacrosanctum concilium: "The time has come to renew that spirit which inspired the Church at the moment when the Constitution [on the Sacred Liturgy] was prepared, discussed, voted upon and promulgated, and when the first steps were taken to apply it. The seed was sown; it has known the rigors of winter, but the seed has sprouted, and become a tree. It is a matter of the organic growth of a tree becoming ever stronger the deeper it sinks its roots into the soil of tradition."22 The English vernacular text of the Roman Missal newly translated according to the norms of LA, along with our ready acceptance of this translation, is, I am convinced, part of that renewal of spirit to which the late Holy Father summoned us.


  1. Apostolic Letter Vicesimus quintus annus on the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Conciliar Constitution "Sacrosanctum concilium" on the Sacred Liturgy (4 December 1988), n. 23. The text is available on the Vatican website.