One of the surprises to come out of the synod on synodality was a call for better-written liturgies. The final report of the October 2023 session of the synod referred to “the widely reported need to make liturgical language more accessible to the faithful and more embodied in the diversity of cultures.”

The English-speaking church has an easy response to this request: the 1998 translation of the Roman missal done by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, known as ICEL. Its work was rejected by the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI, but the time has come to put it forward again….

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Catholic Church began translating liturgical texts from Latin into contemporary languages for the same reasons Callistus put the liturgy into Latin: so that people could participate more fully and actively in the liturgy. The translations were supposed to be made by episcopal conferences and were subject to final approval by Rome.

ICEL’s 1998 translation was supposed to replace the translation that had been done quickly after the council. The group, which comprises 11 bishops’ conferences from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, to India and the Philippines, to New Zealand and Australia, employed experienced translators, liturgical scholars and even poets. They also added new prayers — for example, presidential prayers after the Gloria that picked up themes from the Sunday Scripture readings.

The 1998 translation followed the 1969 Vatican instruction “Comme Le Prévoit,” which stated, “The language chosen should be that in ‘common’ usage, that is, suited to the greater number of the faithful who speak it in everyday use, even children and persons of small education.”

The 1998 translation was well-received by English-speaking episcopal conferences, who approved it and sent it to Rome for final approval.

However, by the time the translation got to the Vatican, the rules were changing. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, preferred a word-for-word translation of the Latin rather than one that was easily understood when it was proclaimed.

At first, the English-speaking conferences fought for their translations, but the Vatican was not interested in listening. In one instance, the American bishops asked to send a delegation to Rome to talk about the translation, but the Vatican agreed only on the condition that Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk not be part of the delegation. Pilarczyk had a doctorate in classics and could run circles around Vatican officials.

In 2001, the Vatican issued new instructions about translations of the Roman missal in Liturgiam Authenticam, which directed “the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.”

Eventually, under new leadership, ICEL followed Ratzinger’s directions and produced the flawed 2010 translation that we are now using in church. Thus, one cardinal in Rome, whose native language was German, was able to overrule years of work by the English-speaking bishops and tell them how they should pray their own language in worship.

Times have again changed. In 2017, Pope Francis revised canon law to emphasize that the main responsibility for liturgical translations lies with episcopal conferences. According to Francis, the Dicastery for Divine Worship should no longer impose a given translation on episcopal conferences. Nor should it be involved in a detailed word-by-word examination of translations.

Under these new procedures, the 1998 ICEL translation would have been easily approved by the Vatican….

First, since it takes years to do a new translation, ICEL should begin by resurrecting the 1998 translation and reviewing it for minor improvements. This translation, the fruit of years of work, is much better than the one currently used. There is no need to start from scratch….

ICEL should begin by resurrecting the 1998 translation and reviewing it for minor improvements. This translation, the fruit of years of work, is much better than the one currently used. There is no need to start from scratch….

If the United States is going to experience a true eucharistic revival, then it needs liturgical texts that promote the full and active participation by all people in the liturgy. The current text does not do that. The 1998 ICEL translation is a step in the right direction.

From Father Thomas Reese, S.J. in the National Catholic Reporter