S. African Jesuit argues against the new liturgical translation

A reader alerted me to the following from Jesuit magazine America, which I share with my emphases and comments.

The Good Word
A Blog on Scripture and Preaching

South Africa & Liturgical Change
Posted at: 2009-01-27 11:08:00.0
Author: Chris Chatteris, S.J.

In many ways South Africa is a laboratory of social change. Most unexpectedly, our little Catholic community has become an experiment in the minor religious department of that laboratory. I refer of course to the new English texts of the Mass which have generated such surprising friction. [Let’s think about this.  Which sort of friction, and who did it come from?  People who understood that the lame-duck ICEL translations were terribly deficient, even harmful, were barely noticed for decades.  Finally, "friction" brought the changes.  On the other side, "friction" is coming from the nay-sayers, though who resist the Holy See’s change of norms for liturgical translation.] It appears that the South African church has jumped the liturgical gun and we find ourselves well ahead of the rest of the anglophone Church in the process of implementation. [?] Our experience seems to be providing some valuable food for thought.  [Apparently new translations are in use ad experimentum?]

There are some unintended outcomes worth noting. One is that for those people for whom English is a second language this change is simply not their first priority, [Will we be told what their "first priority" is at some point down the line?  Any guesses as to what it will be?] and therefore they are unlikely to assimilate it easily. I was in Zimbabwe recently to give a short retreat to a group of young male religious from all over Africa. When I asked them whether we would be using the new texts, they looked completely blank. Many had never even heard of them. On reflection it was of course obvious that in a country where in some places the sign of peace has been discouraged because of cholera, liturgical language is way down on their present scale of concerns.  [Hmmm… why?  I wonder if this isn’t an echo of the old dichotomy so cherished among progressivists, the division in their world-view between "pastoral" and "traditional" and even "intellectual".  If you make too many distinctions (distinctions which bring you into alignment with Rome, that is) you are somehow not "pastoral".  "Pastoral" people toss the rule-book, or shy from careful distinctions.  They are "pastoral" while others are… well… "mean".]

So it would seem likely that because this second-language group is less concerned about the issue than native speakers, they will keep the old ICEL text as a kind of ‘default’ version. [So, then the new texts fo into force they will break the rules.  See what I mean?] Most probably won’t have enough practice to get the new texts into their heads [Is this suggestion that they aren’t very smart?] even if they think it worthwhile printing the leaflets. [Printing leaflets is a practical concern I can understand in a poor country.] We are actually talking about a lot of people – countries like India, the Philippines and Nigeria where there are substantial populations of second language English-speakers who sometimes do celebrate in English. [Time and again, I have heard from bishops and priests from the countries mentioned that the people appreciate LATIN.  Would that be a good approach?  Use Latin and let people in the pews have whatever translation they want?]

In similar vein, I recently led a workshop for some religious sisters in Johannesburg, most of whom were second-language English-speakers. We didn’t have any leaflets available so we decided to use the old ICEL version with the exception of including the response ‘And with your spirit’. It was an awkward hybrid, and probably not the first or last!  [So… the hybrid was "awkward".  Who decided to do it that way?]

Another potential force for liturgical division lies in the recent permission given to celebrate the Tridentine rite. [Okay… this writer seems to interpret developments through a hermeneutic of rupture.] Among native English speakers I have heard several people remark wryly that if the Latin Mass Society has the right to use the Tridentine version, what is there to stop a ‘Vatican II Society’ claiming their right to stick to the old ICEL Mass[Ehem… the Church’s law?  Summorum Pontificum is the law of the Church.  Right now using the lame-duck ICEL version is the law of the Church, except apparently in those places where the new texts are used ad experimentum.] If the Church was unable to resist the demands of a small group like the Latin Mass Society, it’s unlikely to be able to say no to the much larger numbers that might to want to celebrate in the old ICEL version[Slick, huh?  Will he suggest, as he did above, that you should be able to get your way by breaking the rules… so you can be "pastoral"?]

I cite these examples point to the possible unintended outcome of a kind of Protestant fragmentation[Look how slyly he worked that in.  Instea, couldn’t we consider Original Sin as a reason for fragmentation, as well as the sloppy ministry of shepherds who should have done a better job?] We could end up with four versions of the Roman rite in the English-speaking world – Tridentine, Vatican II Latin, old ICEL and new (Vox Clara) ICEL. Plus hybrids.  [Not if pastors of souls do their jobs properly.]

One also needs to bear in mind here that a widely-spoken language like English tends naturally to break up into dialects[I wonder if that is true.  Languages tend to simplify.  But this is a global age, now.  Languages are becoming more homogeneous.  Perhaps in places where media is less dominant…. I dunno.  Interesting.] So when one has a generally accepted text being used over such a broad language group, one has to think quite carefully about how to go about changing it. Chipping away at the statue, even with the admirable aim of improving it, might just cause it to shatter[Overly dramatic.] The irony of this is that diversification was definitely not the aim – rather the opposite: a universal use was envisaged, which is precisely what we might lose.

It would seem from reaction so far here in South Africa, that there is considerable unhappiness with the texts themselves among first-language speakers. [I think that says a lot about the situation there.] Perhaps this should have been foreseen. It’s hard enough to be told how to speak one’s own language under the best of circumstances. If those circumstances are that the prescribed speech feels like a clumsy, clinging translation (‘faithful, but not beautiful’ as the French would say), [Who really wouldn’t prefer faithful to beautiful?] and that rather better texts have been sidelined, [Not, apparently, in the opinion of those who actually had the authority chose the texts.  Hmmm… an odd approach from a Jesuit who must make a certain vow to obedience to the Roman Pontiff.] one must expect a reaction. But presumably the assumption was that the reception would be a smooth matter.  [Who assumed that?  I don’t think any one thought it would be easy.  But it will be a lot harder if priests and bishops set out to undermine the Church’s efforts through this sort of grousing.] A miscalculation perhaps, and something to be noted by other English-speaking regions.  ["Take warning!"]

I wonder if the memory of the change from the Tridentine to the vernacular rite may have played a part in the forming of this assumption. Because for all the unhappiness caused for a minority by that change, [Huh?  Were people in the pews clamoring for a change?  Wasn’t the problem more one of implementation?  How have things gone since the changes?   See what sorts of things the writer simply passes over?] the move from Tridentine Latin to vernacular English (and all the other languages of the universal Church), went remarkably smoothly and was generally well received. [And things are been splendid in the Church world-wide…because of the ICEL translations, right?]  I suspect that the theological ‘tide in the affairs of men’ was just right for such a shift. The texts themselves had a simple beauty and power, [What planet has he been on?]  we had been prepared by the Council, the change came with the full authority of that Council.  ["full authority of the Counci"…. right.  The Council said that Latin was to be preserved and did so with its full authority.  The Council said no change was to be made unless it was for the true good the faithful.  The Council said Gregorian chant had pride of place.  Look how the writer skips over these details in order to emphases the break with our tradition rather than what the Council said had to be preserved.] Do similar conditions hold today I wonder?

Where to from here? It probably all depends on what happens in the English-speaking ‘big five’ – the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia/New Zealand and Ireland. If the new texts are received with open arms in these countries then fragmentation probably won’t happen or will be limited. On the other hand if there is considerable resistance [Which I assume he is trying subtly to rally.] we could end up with a very messy dog’s breakfast indeed. Any hope of a single international version for the English liturgy could be lost forever.  [I think he is arguing that we should stick with the lame-duck translations.]

It might be prudent, therefore, for the ‘big five’ to do further research to avoid the possibility of worse versions of what is happening here. The liturgical unity of the English-speaking Catholic church might depend on it. [O the drama!] A simple, practical step would be for English-speaking hierarchies to implement the new texts as an experiment in a few selected dioceses and after a year or so gauge the reception. If the new texts get a full and joyful reception among priests and people in those experimental dioceses, all well and good. If not, then there will still be the chance to think again and commission something more suitable.  [Because this is a democracy, and the lowest-common denominator should make these decisions.]

My personal conviction is that the people of God understand that only the best is good enough for the sacred liturgy and that they will recognise that best when they hear it[This is a good line, actualy.  But I think that the writer is sowing discontent about what is good, better and best.]

Chris Chatteris, S.J.


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  1. John says:

    English is a second language for me but I see no difficulty with the new translations. I think they are an improvement. The objections to the better language are hardly linguistically motivated. I smell ideology in this dissent.

  2. Gravitas says:

    Father, I know there’s a specific process for electing the Black Pope, and other heads of orders like “The Way,” but is there any precident or process for the Holy Father to usurp that power and clean house?

    Is there a way for him to put his own people in place and save these historic orders before it’s too late?

  3. TJM says:

    Methinks this priest lives in a parallel universe of reality. If things went so bloody well with the Novus Ordo and its translations, why has
    Mass attendence dropped like a stone over the ensuing decades. One would think there would be more introspection as to what went wrong. Lastly,this priest cherry-picks what he wants from Sacrosanctum Concilium (if he’s even read it). Tom

  4. Tom lanter says:

    Fr. Z.,

    To me priest like Fr. Chatteries should, for the sake of the church, quit and take a secular job.
    The Company was formed to defend the papacy, some where along the line they made a u-turn.

    The question in my mind is why did Rome approve the original English translation for the New Mass? Why did they accept that poor work with an obvious agenda?

    Tom Lanter

  5. Jack says:

    “the move from Tridentine Latin to vernacular English (and all the other languages of the universal Church), went remarkably smoothly and was generally well received”

    I don’t know where the good Father was during this period, but I remember it all too well. The transition was met with concern and pain among the adult population. The only reason it get completed was because, in those days, faithful Catholics DID NOT cause problems for the Church and did what was directed by their priests and bishops. My poor parents and grandparents NEVER understood why the changes and never felt the same about the Church or Mass after.

    Of course the kids, myself included (~ 13 YOA), thought this was great stuff. No more learning Latin, guitars and cool music at Mass, everybody doing something, etc. I guess this is what we get for using 13 year olds as a target audience for worship.

  6. Baron Korf says:

    He completely misunderstands the whole thing. There are 2 forms, OF and EF. Both are in Latin. Translations are allowed at Rome’s pleasure. Mass in the vernacular is not a different form.

  7. Ygnacia says:

    “I wonder if the memory of the change from the Tridentine to the vernacular rite may have played a part in the forming of this assumption. Because for all the unhappiness caused for a minority by that change”

    A minority??? A majority of Catholics have stopped attending Mass since that change, the only ‘minority’ I see is the Catholics that are still attending Mass compared to how many were before.

    “If the new texts get a full and joyful reception among priests and people in those experimental dioceses, all well and good. If not, then there will still be the chance to think again and commission something more suitable.”

    I wonder if he thinks the NO should have been implemented that way?…

  8. dcs says:

    If the new texts get a full and joyful reception among priests and people in those experimental dioceses, all well and good. If not, then there will still be the chance to think again and commission something more suitable.

    Imagine if that had been done in 1969 or thereabouts.

    I wonder what is so beautiful about “and also with you”?

  9. Joe says:

    Did I miss something or was the word “catechesis” not mentioned ? did it happen at all ?

  10. Arthur says:

    Unfortunately, all we really needed to know was that he is Jesuit.

  11. Maureen says:

    It seems simple enough to resolve the problems he imagines. Replace the “liturgical unity of the English-speaking Catholic church” with the
    “liturgical unity of the universal Catholic church”. LATIN!

  12. Mila says:

    Does this man speak any other languages? Does he have a clue? English is a second language for me, but I can recognize ugly when I hear it. And the current ICEL translation is the ugliest thing I’ve heard in English. Besides, I’m also a translator and, professionally speaking, as translations go the current ICEL translation is not very good. I can hardly wait for the new translation. Or for a return to Latin preferably, of course!

  13. Anthony says:

    Where is this concern for the difficulties with a new translation when they are changing the words of some well-known hymns. Also, I did not hear any of this when the Liberals thought that they were still in charge of the translation process and wanted to shove “inclusive language” down everyone’s throats. (I would not be surprised if the good father is still trying to do this on the sly.) He reveals that the real problem is not with the novelty of the new translation when he writes the following:

    “If the new texts get a full and joyful reception among priests and people in those experimental dioceses, all well and good. If not, then there will still be the chance to think again and commission something more suitable.”

    So, he just wants the chance to “commission something more suitable,” rather than spare anyone the grief of learning something new.

  14. Pomeroy on the Palouse says:

    One also needs to bear in mind here that a widely-spoken language like English tends naturally
    to break up into dialects.

    All the more reason to say the Mass in Latin. Or to use “Church” or Liturgical English where necessary.
    What are we gonna do to keep him (Fr. Chatteris) happy… have new translations every 20 years so that
    every word we say at Mass is contemporary?

    Pomeroy in the Palouse

  15. Jayna says:

    Maybe I’m being insensitive here, but this is the English translation of the missal we’re talking about, right? Not an English as a second language translation. Should the mindset of translators really be “well, if someone doesn’t speak English very well, this is going to be hard for them”? The entire premise of his argument is absurd.

  16. gedsmk says:

    some clarifications are required:

    1) they are definitely NOT “ad experimentum”. [Oh yah? Prove it.]
    2) The complainers are NOT some group of “nay-sayers” but the people in the pews
    3) The writer is not approaching this from a “hermeneutic of rupture” – that’s Fr Z’s full-time job. [I guess that’s a “no” vote.]
    4) The 1998 texts are far better than the 1970 ones, and are written in English, unlike the new translations. Whoever heard of a sentence “And in the Holy Spirit” which goes on for four lines and has no MAIN VERB. – absurd!
    5) The writer misses out the anger that’s being directed by people towards the SA Bishops. We should all pray for them; they are placed in a horrible position.
    6) I thought you had great faith in the People of God – why turn against them now? Do you think we’re all too stupid? Is the Mass only then for elitists like yourself? [Silly.] Where do you stand on the matter of “Rallying Resistance”. Wasn’t that what “brick by brick” was all about before “SP” came out? [Not when you are trying to get other people to violate the Church’s law. At last… please park your snark at the door if you want to post here. Thanks in advance! o{]:¬) ]

  17. Anthony says:

    Dear gedsmk,

    Where is your concern for the complaints of the people in the pews against the banal liturgy and horrid translations that we have suffered all these years. But perhaps the complaints of some people are more equal than the complaints of others. The reformers have run the show for 40 years and all they have produced are empty churches. I have little patience for what is a very small group of extremely elitist liberals who claim the mantle of “the people of God” and in the name of diversity have demanded that everyone do as they do. None of what we have experience was ever in response to calls from the pews.

  18. Jeff Pinyan says:

    I agree with Joe: there appears to have been no catechesis at all. The USCCB is compiling catechetical resources so that the faithful should be prepared for the new translations when they are permitted for use.

    As for permission to use the new translations already, the CDWDS said this: “[T]he Congregation does not intend that these texts should be put into liturgical use immediately. Instead, the granting now of the recognitio to this crucial segment of the Roman Missal will provide time for the pastoral preparation of priests, deacons and for appropriate catechesis of the lay faithful.” (Prot. N. 1464/06/L, 23 June 2008)

    No date is given for when “immediately” comes to an end. I do not see anything from the Holy See which implies that Bishops in the US can permit the use of the new texts.

    The accompanying letter from Bishop Serratelli says “The text itself is provided now for study and formation only, and will only be promulgated for use in the celebration of the Mass upon the approval of the full revised text of the Roman Missal.”

  19. Simon-Peter says:

    Grr. I just don’t get it. The liberals of the olden days have become so conservative that it threatens the organic development of the Church and the liturgy. I’m only old enough to have experienced the Church at an adult level in this century, and I’m so demoralised that so many of my pastors take such a dim view of progress and the real nourishment needed by their people.

    Why don’t some people in the Church – epecially some of it’s teachers – understand that she is there to fulfil this desire of ours? Can they not see that damage can be done if we stick to the status quo for no reason, especially when the Church is offering something else?

    Now, the Mass is beautiful, whatever form it takes. It is beautiful celebrated in English using the current translations. But how much beautiful could it be with the new words! Why stick with something old when something can be so much better? Many of the new sentences (especially in the Eucharistic Prayers) describe the God of love in such a way that I have not heard before. Should we not reserve our most wonderful words and expressions for the Lord? I don’t know about anyone else, but when I speak to God, I like to speak the best I can, because He truly deserves our reverence!

    I also feel not enough is being done to let the people of God know about the changes around the corner. Only people in the know understand what may be coming, even some highly educated Christians are unaware of this process of re-translation still! I feel the change will be so profound, significant catechesis is required and the study texts should be made freely available to all the faithful – not just those with a keen interest and the internet. That is not enough, and is a sign that some in the Church likes to keep their cards too close to the chest.

    I really feel that these new translations can edify the faithful in ways perhaps unseen in places, especially as the Mass is the only way many people meet God. Well, that’s just my view; I really hope this happens, and I am praying that God’s Will is fulfilled by His Church.

  20. Trevor says:

    Well, I don’t expect that much “fragmentation” in the US. Sure some older priests will be opposed, but I think the younger ones are more open to changes and tend to be more “liturgical savy”. I think the current delay in releasing the ICEL translations (2012 is the earliest estimate if I recall), will have some benefits. Many of current seminarians will have been ordained, and will start giving their parishes “liturgical prep”.

  21. Joe bis says:

    for goodness’ sake. First, if it is wrong to have a universal English translation now, wasn’t it wrong in 1970? He can’t argue against imposition by arguing in favour of a previous imposition. Second, where does he expect people who speak English as a second language to get their English from, Mars?
    Arthus, uncalled for and unfair to many Jesuits.

  22. Frank H. says:

    Every priest who I have ever asked about the current English translation acknowledges it is bad. I think the new translation will be readily accepted, and probably be met with enthusiasm. It certainly can’t be as disruptive as were all the changes from 1965 to 1970. These folks facing the new English with trepidation may now get a taste of how our parents felt about the liturgical disruptions post VII.

  23. joe says:

    “One is that for those people for whom English is a second language this change is simply not their first priority.”

    It bears noting that for those people for whom English is a second language, they invariably have ACCURATE translations from the Latin.



  24. peregrinus says:

    in greatest charity to you, I can only detect the anger of a single Jesuit priest towards the new translations in the entire article. When he did attempt to talk about the “reaction” of the native speakers, he was unusually vague. To speak of anger by the general South African laity on the strength of one priest’s words is a little childish and naive.

  25. TerryC says:

    I guess I’m just too stupid to understand how celebrating Mass in English fulfills the pastoral needs of people who have English as a second language. Isn’t the pastoral purpose of using a vernacular language to increase the comprehension of the faithful? Wouldn’t that mean that it is only a pastorially meaningful activity when the language used is the vernacular, that is native, language of the faithful? Otherwise wouldn’t the GIRM require that Latin be used? So wouldn’t the canonically correct thing be to celebrate the Mass in Latin and do the homily in the native language of the Mass attendees?

  26. Gedsmk says:

    1. Bishop Edward Risi OMI says it’s permanent and not ad experimentum and he should know.
    2. Not all the bishops went along with it http://www.scross.co.za/2009/01/why-the-liturgical-anger-is-fair/

  27. kd says:


  28. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Here is Bishop Risi’s column from November 30th concerning the use of the new translation in the Mass: New Words at Mass. I can’t help but think it a bit imprudent to rush into these new translations. Catechism-on-the-fly is not ideal.

  29. Tim says:

    The new translation is definitely not “ad experimentum” in South Africa.

    However, the introduction of the new ICEL/Vox Clara translation has been very poorly handled. There is a lot of resistance to it from the normally docile English-speaking lay minority. Several parishes in the major metropolitan dioceses of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town have no plans to use the new translation. And their bishops have turned a blind eye to their disobedience, probably because they themselves are not enthusiastic about it — most do not have English as their first language.

    The confusion continues. Already the SA bishops have changed their minds and decided to ask the Holy See to alter the wording of the Nicene Creed and 4th Eucharistic Prayer to include gender-inclusive terms. Who knows what else they will decide to change as time moves along.
    See http://www.scross.co.za/2009/02/bishops-on-mass-changes/

    The priests of the Archdiocese of Cape Town at their AGM two weeks ago decided to write a collective letter of complaint to the bishops conference, pointing out theological and pastoral problems caused by the second rate English used in the new translation. I fear that what we are seeing is just the start of a prolonged rupture of the English-speaking Church. I agree with Fr. Chatteris that the 1970 translation will live in usage, not because it is great, but because the new is just so problematic.

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