Back to the beginning: Changing the Sacramentary

This weekend I will observe a little ritual which it's been my pleasure to carry out now for some 37 years. I will move the ribbons in the Sacramentary to the collects and preface for the First Sunday of Advent. The ribbon for the collects brings us back to the front of the Sacramentary such that the left hand page will not easily lie flat but will buckle up a bit against the right hand which holds a year's worth of pages yet to pray through.

This is, I know, a small task but one which never fails to remind me that the Church is beginning a new year, another year of celebrating our life in Christ and the saving events that bind us together as the Body of Christ: a new Year of Grace.

I've moved those ribbons in suburban and city parishes and in campus chapels. The ribbon-turning began when I wasn't altogether sure of where the ribbons were supposed to go. And I moved those ribbons in years when I wondered if I would remain in this ribbon-bound priesthood. I changed the ribbons in years early on when I found the Sacramentary to be somewhat limiting but later, that same book became an old and reliable friend. I've actually worn out a Sacramentary or two and even before trading in for a new copy, the ribbons themselves have sometimes needed to be replaced.

I've turned the ribbons back to Advent in years of the Church's grace and in years of its disgrace. Those ribbons and the book they mark have been with me for coming close to four decades and I thank God for the grace of all those years born of the prayers and rites the Sacramentary offers us. 

And now a new Year of Grace is about to begin and I will find myself at 5:00 this Saturday evening, witnessing the lighting of the first candle on our parish Advent wreath and then opening the book to where the ribbon will lead me to pray these beautiful words yet again:

Father in heaven,
our hearts desire the warmth of your love
and our minds are searching
for the light of your Word.
Increase our longing for Christ our Savior
and give us the strength to grow in love,
that the dawn of his coming
may find us rejoicing in his presence
and welcoming the light of his truth.

But this will be the last year I'll have an opportunity to pray these words of the alternative Opening Prayer.  Beginning with Advent 2011, we'll be using a new Roman Missal with a new translation of the ordinary parts of the Mass and those parts (like the Opening Prayer) which the priest prays.

There's been much controversy over this translation and the theory of translation from which the new texts will derive.  I've not paid a lot of attention to these matters on this page although there is a link on the sidebar to the USCCB site dealing with these concerns.  For an in depth look at all of this go to the always informative Pray Tell Blog which provides this helpful summary link to its coverage of the translation and development of the new Roman Missal.

No one defends the translation we've been using as perfect.  I'm not unaware of its problems but neither am I ignorant of its value.   Regardless of my opinion of the coming new translation, I understand the need for a corrective review of the current texts.  Even with its imperfections, however, the present Sacramentary is not the danger to souls that some make it out to be.

Following the story of the translation controversy it comes to mind that over some 37 years, I don't recall one person ever approaching me to question or to complain about the translation of the ordinary parts of the Mass or the prayers in the Sacramentary - with the exception of comments about texts that rely on masculine pronouns to stand for both genders of the faithful.  Of course the average worshiper is unfamiliar with the Latin text and thus unlikely to offer a critique of its translation.  But neither have any parishioners in my own experience complained that the texts are banal, trite, uninspired, or somehow lacking in reverence for all that is holy - as some in the thick of the debate like to claim.

My purpose here is not to enter the fray and take one side or the other.  I'm a pastor and between now and Advent 2011 I will need to find ways to prepare for and introduce my parish and myself to these changes - that's the given. My point in this post is simply to acknowledge the anticipated passing of an old friend, the 1975 Sacramentary.

The most important ministry I offer as a priest is my work in leading the people of God in the celebration of the sacraments.  All other elements of my ministry flow from the liturgy and lead back to it.  The ritual books for individual sacraments not withstanding, the Sacramentary is a pastor's constant companion in the liturgy: at the chair, at the altar, at the doors of the church.  And what pastor could even prepare to celebrate the liturgy without the Sacramentary close at hand?

The Sacramentary has served the Church well in spite of its flaws.

As Advent begins and we pray from the current Sacramentary for one more year,  I'll likely notice its weak points more readily and enjoy its fruits more fully one last time.  And I'll pray that we who minister with the new Missal and all who are served by it will find in its pages and language a faithful companion and voice for our prayer in the decades ahead.

On this weekend, however, this pastor will be pleased to pray, one more time, that the dawn of his coming will find us rejoicing in his presence and welcoming the light of his truth...

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  1. "I don't recall one person ever approaching me to question or to complain about the translation of the ordinary parts of the Mass or the prayers in the Sacramentary - with the exception of comments about texts that rely on masculine pronouns..."

    And this, Father, speaks directly to the reason the new translation is so needed. With all due respect, the reason no one has ever complained is because your flock has no earthly idea what the essence of the sacred liturgy truly is, therefore, they have no sense whatsoever for what they've been missing.

    And why are they so poorly formed? If you're willing to be plainly honest with yourself and others about it, the primary reason is that pastors such as yourself have utterly FAILED to provide the liturgical instruction that the Council said is necessary in order to promote fully conscious and active participation. As a result, your flock like most others has no concept for the sacred, sacrificial, Christ-centered act that Holy Mass truly is. If they did, they would have recognized the banality of the current text long ago.

    This time of preparation is a gift in that it "forces" pastors to provide (after acquiring it for themselves, of course) the liturgical instruction the faithful so desperately need. Better 40+ years late than never...

  2. Thank you for this.
    It is a unique take and you have a long history of "taking in the word" and "giving it out" so you have a good and fair perspective on it.
    I do find the gender specific stuff in the present liturgy a real pain especially in the creed where I skip the phrase "for us men and our salvation. There is no excuse for that at all!
    Wehave a while before the new words hit us here in The UK.
    Blessings for the new Advent and hopeflly fresh and renewed beginnings

  3. The whole process regarding the translation is so confusing and disheartening. I don't understand the necessity for a literal translation from the Latin. It's not the English we speak and it's not how we wish to pray and worship. It seems protesting or questioning by both laity or clergy are only voices crying in the wilderness. No one heeds the warnings or concerns. Many of us fear the institutional church is forcing us away from the teachings of Vatican II.
    The excerpts that I have read from the new translation appear to be cold and formal. It does not convey to me God's abiding love for us. Maybe I just need more time to study and understand it.
    I'm 60 and have experienced many changes since Vatican II with much anticipation and joy...Not this time.
    I know it's inevitable, so my hope is that along with the instructions and the implementation of the new missal there is catechesis on the the mass. This is a great opportunity to remind parishioners about the different elements of the mass to deepen understanding and appreciation of how and why we celebrate.

  4. You're right. The new translation will come. Period.
    But I honestly don't know how I'm going to feel when the wonderfully simple and melodic...
    "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy..."
    becomes... "Make holy (comma) therefore (comma) these gifts (comma) we pray (comma) by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall (comma)...


  5. Several readers have submitted comments generously testifying that my 37 years of liturgical ministry have not been the epic fail attributed to me by "anonymous" above.

    I very much appreciate the support but have chosen not to post those comments lest the discussion here go off-thread.

    Looking back at my post I see that I wrote about working faithfully with the Church's official prayer book for 37 years. I also acknowledged that the current text is in need of corrective revision and that my task is to prepare my parish and myself for the new Missal. Who'd have thought such a history would be judged as irresponsible?

    With regard to my understanding and appreciation of Mass as the "sacred, sacrificial, Christ-centered act" it truly is...

    For about 25 years I have ended every Sunday homily in much the same way. To tie the Liturgy of the Word with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I end my homilies by linking the day's scriptural message with the Table of the Eucharist and its sacramental gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ. I often verbally reference and gesture towards the large Crucifix which hangs over our sanctuary, noting that the sacrifice of the Cross is the one we celebrate and share at the altar.

    My homily of this past Sunday would be but one example of about 1,300 instances of the same.

    I suppose it's possible that this has had no impact on the people of my parishes. I pray that it has.

    Comments will remain open on this post as long as they address the Sacramentary and the new Missal.

  6. Swapping volumes on the breviary, (and therefore moving the ribbons) tends to provoke similar reflections - particularly when I pick up the Advent volume. All the places I've been with these books, the different communities I've prayed with, the ways certain phrases have worked their way into my heart and soul. Even some banal ones...I rather trust God to work through even the most imperfect of tools.

  7. Just a note of thanks from someone who has never been to your Mass father and whome you will never meet.

    Thank you for saying Mass for us. Thank you for praying for us. Thank you for doing pennance for us. Thank you for praying the liturgy seven times a day for us.

    So the new translation will come and the old one will go. Christ will remain, made physically presnet by the hands of our priests.

    Thank you.


  8. Thanks, Tim. While I don't celebrate the Eucharist every day it still often ends up being seven times in the course of a week. And this Christmas, with Dec 25 on a Saturday, many priests will be celebrating many more than 7 Masses that week(end)!

  9. Father, you write that parishioners have not complained "that the texts are banal, trite, uninspired, or somehow lacking in reverence for all that is holy." I can tell you, having grown up after 1975, that until very, very recently it never occurred to me at all that there was such a thing as a "Collect" or "Prayer after Communion," still less that those were ancient and important prayers. I could never quite figure out why they always went to the trouble of having a server go up with the book just to read a short, bland, flat sentence that conveys almost no meaning, like "God our Creator, may this bread and wine we offer as a sign of our love and worship lead us to salvation." (OT8 Prayer over the Gifts).

    For comparison, that prayer, which I picked at random, reads in the new translation: "O God, who provide gifts to be offered to your name and count our oblations as a token of devoted service, we ask of your mercy, that what you grant as the source of merit you may also bestow upon us as a prize." Say what you want, but I can at least see why a person would bother expending breath to pray that prayer.

    For me, then, it would never have dawned to me to complain about the trite, uninspired translations of prayers like this, because they were such nonentities that I didn't even understand them to be prayers. That's what my experience was like, at least.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Tom. As I noted in my post, the current texts are in need of corrective revision - I don't think we disagree on that point.

    In addition to the text the priest prays, there is the question of the manner in which he prays it. If he prays it in an uninspiring fashion, it might well be heard by the people as uninspired.

    With any translation, I think an on-going challenge is to help priests understand that they're not "reading texts" but rather that they're "praying prayers." I'm sure you can see the difference those two phrases might make in what priests do and what the people hear.

    And... as it is with short scripture passages so it is with short prayer texts: the shorter they are, the more challenging they are to communicate well.

    A new challenge will be to pray aloud texts that are, in some instances, complex or even convoluted - but a good deal of that will depend on what text finally falls into our hands.

  11. @anon:

    If you put the word "comma" in the translation it makes it difficult to read, but the comma in that translation is not meant to be a pause or breath in the sentence. If you read it smoothly, "Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your spirit upon them like the dewfall" the sentence becomes more beautiful than, "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy..."

    Even though I prefer simple sentences, the sentence needs to be correct. The second is the better.

  12. "a short, bland, flat sentence that conveys almost no meaning."

    And that's from a young person?

    I wonder what Mark thinks of:

    hallowed be thy name
    thy kingdom come
    thy will be done
    forgive us our trespasses
    lead us not into temptation

    That's alright. I knew a lot more when I was young, too!

  13. Christ Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Translations come and go throughout our history, but the Eucharist calls us each and every day to oneness with Him and our community of faith.

  14. This was a beautifully-done post, CP. Timely both to the liturgical year and a current issue.

    Are we really losing all of the alternate opening prayers?

    If so, I will miss many of them. I will miss their poetry and love.

  15. Paul wrote:

    "Are we really losing all of the alternate opening prayers?"

    Every. Single. One.

  16. I have followed the story of the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal for quite a long time. I continue to think that Fr. Michael Ryan has the right idea. whatifwejustsaidwait.org

    The Roman Catholic Church is comprised of 1% clergy and 99% laity. We all are being asked to go along with this despite not having been given the opportunity to lend our input to something that effects all of us. In my view, this is simply not right.

    I do not care for many of the new translations of prayers we know so well. I do not like the idea of having to stick my nose in a missal to read these new versions rather than looking towards the altar while saying the prayers by heart, as I have done for so many years. But most of all, I think the process, by not including the input of the clergy and laity, is terribly flawed.

    I do not think that we should simply accept that this will go forward without being allowed to give our feedback.



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