Most Massgoing Catholics happy with new Missal

We must find a way that acknowledges problems with the Missal while appreciating its fruit says Tim O’Malley

Tim O’Malley

Not everyone loves the recent English translation of the Roman Missal. Among those involved in liturgical scholarship, teaching, and ministry, the reception of the translation has often been frigid. Not simply because these scholars, teachers, and pastoral ministers have objections to the poetics or translation principles of the text.

  • The website, Misguided Missal, assembles many of these concerns in one place. A summary of the objections that one hears relative to the adoption of the Missal include:
  • Prayer texts, which too often sound clunky not simply to the presiding minister but to those assembled that day in prayer;
  • A process of translation and editing, which did not widely consult beyond bishops and priests;
  • Inattention to the ecumenical implications of adopting translations not used by Protestant churches;
  • The adoption of what is perceived as overly sacral vocabulary including the words oblation, consubstantial, chalice.

If one only attends to the voices of those who have objected to the Missal, then one might surmise that the translation of the Missal is the most polarising liturgical issue of our day. But, at least to those who participate weekly in the Eucharistic worship of the Church, it does not seem to be the case that these translations are quite the breaking point that liturgical theologians and practitioners have surmised.

Not positive

Catholics who attend Mass weekly were the most likely to be satisfied with the new translation, according to a report prepared for the Catholic University of America by Georgetown University’s Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Eighty-four percent said that the revised Mass was a “good thing.” Just over 60% of self-identified Catholics who rarely or never attend Mass, however, were not positive about the changes.

The new survey also found that regular Mass attendance levels remained the same, compared with a similar study conducted in 2011. Both polls estimated that about a quarter of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly or more often. Last year’s survey reported that only one in four adult Catholics were aware of the then-impending changes to the English-language liturgy, which began to be used during Advent 2011. This is part of the reason why this year’s apparent level of general satisfaction is of interest.

What then is one to believe? Is the Missal a poetic disaster and a radical abuse of power, dialling back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council? In reality, the truth about the Missal is most likely somewhere in the middle of total wonder at its poetic genius (and doctrinal fidelity) and an abject failure, which was nothing more than a covert war upon the principles of the Second Vatican Council.

Thus, is there a way forward where we can offer an objective (and at times critical) assessment of the Missal, while also recognising that its promulgation has in fact been fruitful? I think so.

First, the process of translation itself may benefit from closer attention to how English itself functions as a poetic language. Now, it must be emphasised that liturgical prayers are not English poems. But, it is also the case that there is a power and beauty in the Latin text that one must ‘translate’ into English. Are there ways that some of the genius of the English language itself might inform future translation projects?

Second, the actual process of releasing the text as it presently functions (from ICEL down to the bishops back to Rome back to the bishops back to Rome, while the English-speaking Church waits) needs to be reformed. There is no particularly good reason why the translation of liturgical texts needs to occur as some entirely secretive process. Texts can be tried out in local assemblies, and if found wanting for good reason, then an adaptation of the translation can occur.

Third, it also must be admitted that the present translation is better than the previous one and many in the Church do find the translation a source of beauty. To simply get rid of the present Missal will lead to discord not from those who object to the text; but those of us, who have learned to love it.

Fourth, there are ecumenical implications of the new Missal, which have not presently been explored. We should reflect on why Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists were not invited into a dialogue with the Church about this new translation. But, it may go too far to say that ecumenism is dead because we do not pray the same texts from week-to-week. I don’t pray the same texts as Orthodox Christians from week-to-week.

I don’t even pray the same words as Spanish-speaking Christians at Mass. My toddler son prays no words at all. But, I do long to be one. I do long to be one with Anglicans and Lutherans and Methodists alike. I long to be one with all of humanity for that is what Christ promises in the Church. Perhaps, the Missal rather than serve as an obstacle to ecumenism can open new avenues for common dialogue and prayer alike. A recognition of difference need not forestall a desire for unity; it can jump start it.

Fifth, too often those involved in liturgical and sacramental theology and ministry have taken on the habit of dismissing the Missal as an abject failure. As a grasp for clerical control and power. Such language, while reflecting a specific experience of liturgical reform, could lead to even deeper polarisation in the Church. For, it is often assumed in such circles that reasonable persons will all agree that the present Missal is a failed project, nothing but a display of raw, clerical power. But for those who have learned to pray this Missal, to encounter Christ as mediated through these words, such statements are polarising.


They function in such a way that the one who encounters these assessments of the Church (yet disagrees) is the one who is placed on the outside. A line is drawn, and such a student or parishioner (who loves the Missal) learns that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ (and I belong to the group of ‘thems’) An us, who is right. And a them, who is deadly wrong (and selfish and power-hungry and clerical).

Perhaps, it is then fair to say that the new translation of the Missal is the greatest source of polarisation in the Church today. But it is not the Missal itself that polarises. Instead, it is ‘we’ who polarise.

  • We who dismiss anyone who has a problem with aspects of the Missal as some ‘liberal, heretic’ rather than someone who has an ear for what proper poetry might sound like or a concern for openness in the Church or an ecumenical spirit.
  • We who dismiss anyone who loves the Missal as some arch-conservative, who seeks to dial back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council;
  • We who dismiss those in the pews, who just continue to do their prayer and celebrate the ritual, not yet aware of how “dreadful” the text is.

In each case, perhaps it is the prayer of the Eucharist itself that can be healing for us (I know, ironic):

“Humbly we pray

that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ,

we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.”


Dr Timothy P. O’Malley is Director of the Centre for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.