Sunday Assembly

Understanding the pope’s new apostolic letter on the liturgy and its texts

Pope Francis issued document Sept. 3

By M. Peggy Lovrien
Special to The Witness

Almost six years ago, we saw some adjustments to the texts we use in the Mass. The Latin phrase, “Et cum spiritu tuo” had been translated in 1965 as, “And also with you.” In 2010, a revised translation was implemented in the English-speaking parts of the world so that the same phrase was changed to, “And with your spirit,” a more literal rendition of the Latin phrase.

This is an example of only one among many texts we use for the Mass that were adjusted or changed since 2010. For those of us in the assembly, it seemed we had rather minor changes to adjust to such as the revised text of the “Glory to God” and “Holy, Holy” that required a few different words, but also generated different musical settings of the text.

At issue were the way words and phrases were translated from Latin to what we call the vernacular, the language of the people; in our case, English. This affected not only the United States but also other nations of the English-speaking world including Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Scotland and South Africa. These nations belong to a group called the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

ICEL has been in existence since 1963 when bishops from these nations who were at the Second Vatican Council set up the commission to help us to make the transition from celebrating the liturgy in Latin to celebrating it in English. They called together many experts from around the world to work on the trans­lations that served the English speaking nations.

Then, in 2001, a document from Rome, called “Liturgiam Authenticam,” changed the principles for translation and gave Rome centralized authority over translations. The adjustments it called for were consequentially published in English in the revised 2010 Roman Missal and handed on to us.

Recently, on Sept. 3, 2017, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter titled, “Magnum Principium” (the Great Principle), and it proposes greater respect for the authority of the episcopal (bishop) conferences, whose “right and duty it is to translate the liturgical texts for the sake of their conference.” This statement is based on paragraph 22 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which says, “Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See (the Pope) and, as laws may determine, on the bishop. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.” (There are many bishops’ conference groups throughout the world. Instead of using the word, “council” of bishops, the term “conference” is used to indicate the group is not a legislative group but a collaborative, consultative group of bishops.)

Pope Francis begins his statement that “The great principle, established by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people so that it might be understood, required the weighty task of introducing the vernacular language into the liturgy and of preparing and approving the versions of the liturgical books, a charge that was entrusted to the Bishops.” (Cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, paragraphs number 14, 22.2, 31, 34, 36).

In the letter, the pope states that he will return authority to approve liturgical translations to the conferences of bishops as articulated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 36.4, by means of a change in canon law. Pope Francis does not disregard the importance of central authority and its unifying function but he acknowledges that the relationship between Rome and the bishops’ conferences needs to be clarified for the sake of fruitful collaboration.

The translation of liturgical texts affects our understanding of our relationship to God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit. The pope says that it seems, “opportune that some principles handed on since the time of the Council should be more clearly reaffirmed and put in to practice.”

Some priests will welcome this papal statement as hope for better translations of what is called the “propers” or set of prayers for each Mass as well as texts of the eucharistic prayers. Some of the prayers of the present Roman Missal of 2010 were rewritten from various sentences into one sentence that sometimes turned into one long paragraph. This can make it difficult to offer the prayer and, at times, confuse the intent and comprehension of the prayer.

The pope cites articles 36, 40 and 63 from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and states, “Likewise I order that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments modify its own ‘regulations’ on the basis of the new discipline and help the Episcopal Conferences to fulfill their task as well as working to promote ever more the liturgical life of the Latin Church.”

The pope states that the contents of the apostolic letter will be put “into force on 1 October 2017.”

We do not expect immediate change in the texts we use in the liturgy. However, in the coming years, experts might review current English translations to arrange texts that could flow more easily and reflect poetic elements that make sense to the English speaker.

Peggy Lovrien is director of the Archdiocesan Office of Worship. She is available for parish-based presentations on liturgy, RCIA and sacraments of initiation, and liturgical music in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.   


An altar server holds a copy of a Roman Missal during Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va., in this 2011 file photo. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)