Bishop Conley's Writings

Reflecting on Transcendence in the Liturgy: The New Translation of the Mass and What Will it Mean for Us

Most Rev. James D. Conley, S.T.L., Auxiliary Bishop of Denver, delivered the following address at St. Boniface Church in Lafayette, Indiana.

It is great to be back, my friends!

From all that I hear, since I was last here St. Boniface has become a kind of national role model for how a parish should be preparing for the new translation of the Mass.

I would expect nothing less from your pastor! As most of you know, Father Tim is a dear friend and our friendship goes back a long way. So I am honored to be in such distinguished company.

In the past year, I have been thinking and writing a lot about this new edition of the Roman Missal. Let me tell you why: Because in this new translation, I think we have a once in a lifetime opportunity — as a Church, and as believers.

This implementation process opens a window of spiritual possibility — through which we can really contemplate what it is we do in our worship in the Holy Eucharist. Not only the “mechanics” of the Mass, but also the meaning of the Mass.

This should be exciting to every one of us. Because, when you think about it, the Eucharist is what we “do” as Catholics. Liturgy forms the heart and soul of our Catholic identity.

We are all accustomed to the beautiful expression — that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our Catholic lives.  But there is such thing as being “too accustomed.” We can repeat the words, we can even “assent” to them as Blessed John Henry Newman might say, but we can become insulated from their deeper meaning.

So let me begin this afternoon by echoing some words that our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI said about ten days ago in Rome. The Pope said:

The new translation of the Roman Missal, which is the fruit of a remarkable cooperation of the Holy See, the bishops and experts from all over the world, is intended to enrich and deepen the sacrifice of praise offered to God by his people. … The sacred liturgy and its forms are written deeply in the heart of every Catholic. Make every effort to help catechists and musicians in their respective preparations to render the celebration of the Roman Rite in your dioceses a moment of greater grace and beauty, worthy of the Lord and spiritually enriching for everyone.ii

That’s the “big picture.” That is what all your efforts here at St. Boniface are intended to support. Helping the people of God here to be able to deepen the sacrifice of praise that you offer to our God. Making the celebration of the Roman Rite here a moment of grace and beauty that is pleasing to God and sanctifying for his people.

So these are some of the things I want to talk with you about this afternoon. I want to concentrate on what, for me, is a decisive dimension of this new translation — the desire on the part of Mother Church to restore the sense of transcendence to our experience of the liturgy. This new translation renews the vertical dimension of the liturgy — as a spiritual sacrifice that we offer in union with the sacrifice that our heavenly High Priest celebrates unceasingly in the eternal liturgy.iii

But before we consider this, I think it is appropriate to revisit the reasons why we need this new translation. The changes are not superficial ritualism. There is a deep liturgical and theological aesthetic at work. And we need to grasp the “spirit” and “inner logic” underlying these translations.

As a starting-point, I thought it would be useful to return to the “scene of the crime” so to speak — that is, to the introduction of the Novus Ordo.

Let me say up front: I’m joking here, sort of! I know that some people still talk about the Novus Ordo as if it was a crime. I have close and dear friends who feel this way. I can understand their frustration. And I’ll talk about that more in a minute.

But I want to be clear: I was ordained a priest and a bishop in the Novus Ordo. I have spent my entire priesthood praying this Mass with deep reverence. Although I have a great love and appreciation for the Tridentine Rite and I am called upon to celebrate this form of the Mass from time to time, I believe the Novus Ordo is a result of the ongoing organic development of the Roman liturgy.

I do think it’s important for us, however, to recall the “culture shock” caused by the Novus Ordo back when it was first introduced. That helps us better understand the concerns and purposes of this new edition of the Missal.

To illustrate what I mean about “culture shock,” I want to recall the experience of Evelyn Waugh, the author of Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honor trilogy, among other memorable works.

Waugh was a brilliant novelist and essayist. He was a convert to the Catholic Church and he was not bashful about speaking his mind on what he thought was wrong in the Church. We converts can be like that!

And make no mistake: Waugh thought the Church had a made a wrong turn at the Second Vatican Council.

In his correspondence and writings in the Catholic press, Waugh was most disturbed about the Council’s plans for liturgical reform. The reformers, he complained, were “a strange alliance between archeologists absorbed in their speculations on the rites of the second century, and modernists who wish to give the Church the character of our own deplorable epoch.”

Waugh certainly had a way with words, didn’t he? And here, as in so many cases, he was razor-keen in his insight.

His worst fears came to pass when the Mass was finally introduced in the vernacular. In early 1965, he wrote to a friend: “Every attendance at Mass leaves me without comfort or edification. … Church-going is now a bitter trial.”

He complained often — as did many others — that the Novus Ordo stripped the Mass of its ancient beauty and destroyed the liturgy’s contact with heavenly realities. Waugh for one, never recovered from the shock. He would say things like: “The Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me,” and “I shall not live to see things righted.”

Waugh’s end reads like something out of one of his novels.

On Easter 1966, he asked a Jesuit friend to say a Latin Mass for him and a handful of his friends and family at a private chapel near his home. People later remarked that Waugh seemed at peace for the first time since the Council. About an hour after the Mass, he collapsed and died.iv

It was a dramatic ending to a fascinating and complicated life.

The lesson I want to draw here is this: Evelyn Waugh was on to something. He sensed that something had gone awry.

But he was wrong not to trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Pope, the Church and the Council fathers if, in fact, he did begin to despair with the direction the Church was headed. God in his kind providence spared him the experience of much of the post-conciliar silliness and the gross liberties taken with the liturgy.

The Novus Ordo is an organic development of the Church’s ancient liturgical rites and traditions. It is a genuine sign of Christ’s faithfulness to his promise — that his Spirit would guide the Church into all the truth and would glorify him in all things.v

But the new does not replace the old in the Church. There is always continuity and not rupture when it comes to the authentic development of doctrine — and also when it comes to the authentic development of the liturgy.

I believe our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, like Blessed John Paul II before him, has given us a healthy way to think about the relationship between the Novus Ordo and what Benedict calls the forma extraordinaria. They are not two distinct liturgical rites. They are two expressions of the one Roman rite.

As I said, I have a great love and appreciation for the Tridentine, or “extraordinary form” of the Mass. But I also see how the ordinary form, the Novus Ordo, has nourished and sanctified the spiritual lives of countless souls over the past 40 plus years. It has helped the Church to rediscover the Eucharist as the source and summit of our lives. And we cannot forget that this Mass nourished the spiritual lives of two great figures of our generation — Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Blessed John Paul II.

And yet.

And yet I think many of us would agree with Waugh on this point: Something has been lost. Something of the beauty and grandeur of the liturgy. Something of the reverence, the mystery, the sense of the transcendent. This has been a persistent criticism since the Council — and not only from so-called traditionalists.

But I can’t agree with those who blame the Novus Ordo or the vernacular. This answer is too facile.

The problem has been with the way the New Mass has sometimes been understood and implemented.

I, along with not a few friends, have had the unfortunate experience that Pope Benedict has described in his 2007 Letter to the Bishops of world when he issued his Apostolic Letter, Summorum Pontificum, on the use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the Reforms of 1970:

“In many places celebrations were not faithful to the prescriptions of the new Missal, but the latter actually was understood as authorizing or even requiring creativity, which frequently led to deformations of the liturgy which were hard to bear. I am speaking from experience … I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”

Again, the problem is not the Novus Ordo — but the license that people sometimes take in celebrating it.

I would add that another big part of the problem has been the translations we’ve been using.

There is a banal, pedestrian quality to much of the language in our current liturgy. The weakness in the language gets in the way and prevents us from experiencing the sublime spiritual and doctrinal ideas woven into the fabric of the liturgy.

The translators had well-meaning pastoral intentions. They wanted to make the liturgy intelligible and relevant to modern Catholics. To that end, they employed a translation principle they called “dynamic equivalence.”

In practice, this led them to produce an English translation that in many places is essentially a didactic paraphrase of the Latin. In the process, the language of our Eucharistic worship — so rich in scriptural allusion, poetic metaphor and rhythmic repetition — came to be flattened out and dumbed down.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra, Australia has observed that our current translation “consistently bleaches out metaphor, which does scant justice to the highly metaphoric discourse” of the liturgy.vii

This describes the problem well.

Archbishop Coleridge, by the way, is a translator by training. He headed the committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) that produced the new translation we will begin using in Advent.

He has pointed out serious theological difficulties with our current translations, including problems related to ecclesiology and the theology of grace.

The key point here is that the words we pray matter. What we pray makes a difference in what we believe. Our prayer has implications for how we grasp the saving truths that are communicated to us through the liturgy.

For instance, our current translation almost always favors abstract nouns to translate physical metaphors for God. If the Latin prayer refers to the “face” of God, “face” will be translated in abstract conceptual terms, such as “presence.” References to God’s “right hand” will be translated as God’s “power.”

This word choice has deep theological implications.

The point of the Son of God becoming flesh is that God now has a human face — the face of Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Whoever sees him sees the Father.viii

Yet if in our worship we speak of God only in abstract terms, then effectively we are undermining our faith in the Incarnation.

As Archbishop Coleridge says:  “The cumulative effect [of abandoning human metaphors for God] is that the sense of the Incarnation is diminished. God himself seems more abstract and less immediate than ever he does in Scripture or the Church Fathers.”

I want to say this again: I don’t believe there were bad motives involved in the translations we have now.

I think the root problem with the translations we have now is that the translators seriously misunderstood the nature of the divine liturgy.

Our current translations treat the liturgy basically as a tool for doing catechesis. That’s why our prayers so often sound utilitarian and didactic; often they have a kind of lowest-common-denominator type of feel. That’s because the translators were trying to make the “message” of the Mass accessible to the widest possible audience.

But Christ did not give us the liturgy to be a message-delivery system. Of course, we pray what we believe, and what we pray shapes what we believe. Lex orandi, lex credendi. But the liturgy is not meant to “teach” in the same way that a catechism teaches, or even in the same way that a homily teaches.

On this point, the words of the great liturgical pioneer, Father Romano Guardini, are worth hearing again:

The liturgy wishes to teach, but not by means of an artificial system of aim-conscious educational influences. It simply creates an entire spiritual world in which the soul can live according to the requirements of its nature. ….

The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there. ….

The liturgy has no purpose, or at least, it cannot be considered from the standpoint of purpose. It is not a means which is adapted to attain a certain end — it is an end in itself.ix

This is the authentic spirit of the liturgy.

As Guardini says, the liturgy aims to create a new world for believers to dwell in. A sanctified world where the dividing lines between the human and the divine are erased. Guardini’s vision is beautiful: “The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life.”

The new translation of the Mass restores this sense of the liturgy as transcendent and transformative. It restores the sacramentality to our liturgical language. The new translation reflects the reality that our worship here joins in the worship of heaven.

The new edition of the Missal seeks to restore the ancient sense of our participation in the cosmic liturgy.

The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the Eucharist bringing us into the heavenly Jerusalem to worship in the company of angels and saints.x The Book of Revelation starts with St. John celebrating the Eucharist on a Sunday. In the midst of this, the Spirit lifts him up to show him the eternal liturgy going on in heaven.xi

The message is clear: The Church’s liturgy is caught up in the liturgy of the cosmos. And our Eucharistic rites have always retained this vision of the cosmic liturgy.

The Gloria and the Sanctus are two obvious points of contact. In the first, we sing the song that the angels sang at the Nativity. In the latter, we sing in unison with the angelic choirs in heaven; we sing the song that both St. John and the prophet Isaiah heard being sung in the heavenly liturgy.

The oldest of our Eucharistic Prayers, the Roman Canon, lists the names of the 12 apostles along with 12 early saints. This is meant to correspond to the 24 elders who John saw worshipping around the heavenly altar.xii

The Roman Canon also includes a prayer for the holy angels to bring the sacrifices from our altar up to God’s altar in heaven.

And of course the Communion Rite includes the Vulgate’s translation of the invitation that St. John heard in the heavenly liturgy: Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.xiii

Yet we need to recognize that this experience of the heavenly liturgy has been lost since Vatican II.

This loss is reflected — I’m tempted to say abetted — by our current translation. For the last 40 years we have erased this heavenly reference in the Communion Rite with our bland translation: Happy are those who are called to his Supper.

Again: the words we pray matter. What we pray makes a difference in what we believe.

The Mass is truly a partaking in the worship that St. John saw around the throne and the altar of God. This is not a beautiful idea, but a sacred reality.

This is the teaching of the New Testament, the Church Fathers, the Second Vatican Council, and the Catechism, which contains numerous references to the heavenly liturgy.xiv

And for years now, Pope Benedict XVI has been urging the Church to reclaim this appreciation of the cosmic liturgy, to reclaim our great liturgical patrimony.

I want to underline these words of the Holy Father: “The essential matter of all Eucharistic liturgy is its participation in the heavenly liturgy. It is from thence that it necessarily derives its unity, its catholicity, and its universality.”xv

The essential matter of our Eucharist is its participation in the liturgy of heaven. In other words: that’s what the Eucharist is all about. The Eucharist we celebrate on earth has its source in the heavenly liturgy. And the heavenly liturgy is the summit to which our Eucharistic celebration looks.

Yet how many of our people in the pews — how many of our priests at the altar — feel that they are being lifted up to partake in the heavenly liturgy?

This is why this new translation is so important.
I want to look briefly now at some of the changes in this new translation. I want to meditate on these changes and suggest some ways in which these changes might enhance our appreciation of the essential transcendent dimension of the liturgy.

Many of the changes are small and subtle — but even in these we can sense a shift.

For instance: in one of the forms introducing the Penitential Rite, the priest will now pray: “You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us.” Currently, of course, we pray: “You plead for us at the right hand of the Father.”

What’s the big difference?

The new translation lifts our gaze to heaven and asks us to contemplate Christ seated at the right hand of the Father and there interceding for us.

By contrast, the translation we have now aims to be didactic and efficient. It scrubs the metaphor and hence the vision of our Lord in heaven. It opts instead to give us information about what Jesus is doing for us.

The original Latin — ad déxteram Patris sedes, ad interpellándum pro nobis — combines two quotations from the Letter to the Hebrews. And it’s not just a random allusion to the Vulgate. It was chosen quite deliberately from Hebrews’ meditation on Christ’s heavenly high priesthood.

In the New Testament, to be “seated at the right hand” describes Christ’s divine power and authority.xvi By removing the metaphorical reference to his being seated, our current translation weakens our prayer. This sense of weakness is reinforced by the decision to translate interpellándum by the word “plead” — which in common English usage suggests an inferior or powerless position.

In restoring a faithful translation of the Latin, the new Missal redirects our worship toward heaven. We pray, confident in our Father’s mercy, knowing we are in contact with our High Priest — who “is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,” and “always lives to make intercession” for us.xvii

Another example is the epiclesis in Eucharistic Prayer II.

Currently we pray:

Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy,
so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

The new translation restores the repetitive language and the biblical metaphor found in the Latin text:

Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray,
by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall,
so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Restoring the Latin here gives us a much richer prayer. It also stresses that the liturgy is not our work, but the work of God, who sends down his Spirit from heaven.

The key word is “dewfall,” rore in the Latin. It is a poetic metaphor that is filled with Scriptural significance. Of course, the allusion here is to how God fed his chosen people with manna that he sent down from heaven with the morning dew. We are also meant to associate this with Christ calling the Eucharist the true manna, the true “bread which comes down from heaven.” xviii

Again and again, this new translation reminds us how seeped our liturgical language is in the vocabulary and thought-world of sacred Scripture.xix

In just this epiclesis, for instance, we have not only the reference to the heavens that drop down manna with the dewfall. We also have an allusion to the sending down of the Spirit — upon the earth at creation, upon Mary at the Annunciation, Christ at his Baptism, the Church at Pentecost, and each one of our hearts at our Baptism.

Considered prayerfully, we can see that Spirit’s action on the altar in the liturgy continues the Spirit’s work of creation and redemption in history.

We also must not forget that 80% of the prayers in the Roman Missal date before the 9th century. We have a duty to hand these treasures on faithfully and accurately.

Vatican II taught that every petition, prayer, hymn, liturgical sign and action draws its inspiration, substance and meaning from sacred Scripture.

This is reflected in our new translations.

And this is deliberate. This is what the Vatican intended in Liturgiam Authenticam, the important statement of translation principles that it issued back in 2001.

I think what I like about this Vatican statement is its realism. No matter what the fads in liturgy or catechesis, the Vatican is determined to keep us “real.”

Liturgiam Authenticam says: “The words of the Sacred Scriptures, as well as the other words spoken in liturgical celebrations … are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather, they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.” xx

And when it comes to translating the Latin texts of the liturgy, Liturgiam Authenticam also invokes the same principles of realism.

We will be blessed, as a Church, that in this new edition of the Missal, the translators took these principles to heart.

This is important. Because the liturgy is not only an aesthetic event. It is not only about praying beautiful words. The Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. They are the Word of God in the words of human language.

In the liturgy, we are praying to God in the very words of God. And God’s Word is power. God’s Word is living and active. That means that the words we pray in the liturgy are “performative.” They are not words alone, but words that have the power to do great deeds. They are words that can accomplish what they speak of.

As priests, when we speak Christ’s words in the Eucharist  — or in any of the sacraments — these words possess divine power to change and transfigure. “This is my Body … This is the chalice of my Blood.” When we speak these words by the power of the Spirit, bread and wine are marvelously changed.

The words of the liturgy are able to create “a universe brimming with spiritual life.” By these words we are summoned into the stream of salvation history. By these words we are able to offer ourselves in sacrifice to the Father, in union with Christ’s own offering of his Body and Blood. By these words we are being transformed, along with the bread and the wine on the altar. We are becoming more and more changed into Christ, more and more assimilated to his life.

That’s why it is so important that we implement this new translation with a profound Eucharistic catechesis and mystagogy.

Through this new translation, we need to invite our brothers and sisters to know the liturgy as a mystery to be lived. As Pope Benedict has said, our Eucharistic mystagogy must inspire “an awareness that one’s life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated.”xxi

That is the great promise of this new translation and new edition of the Missal. The promise of a people nourished and transformed by the sacred mysteries they celebrate. The promise of a people who are able to offer themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. A people who experience Christ living in them, as they are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another. xxii

Thank you for your attention this afternoon. I want to leave you with one last thought from our Holy Father. He has written:

The Church stands and falls with the liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the faith no longer appears in its fullness in the liturgy of the Church, when man’s words, his thoughts, his intentions are suffocating him, then faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells. For that reason, the true celebration of the sacred liturgy is the center of any renewal of the Church whatsoever.xxiii

So this issue of transcendence in the liturgy is essential. Our faithful implementation of this new edition of the Roman Missal is crucial. The renewal of the Church — and the renewal of every Christian life — depends on it.

The river of the liturgy flows and gives life to our hearts. It satisfies our deepest longings and gives us strength for our journey. We need to understand that the liturgy is a gift from God, providing a life that we can never create. It is a gift that we should welcome with gratitude and responsibility. And the Church herself is renewed through authentic renewal of the liturgy, a renewal in continuity.

The new translation of the Roman Missal is an important step in this process. Receiving with joy the beautiful words of the Mass will help us to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of the Lord and to allow the river of his presence to refresh our hearts and to renew the face of our world.

Thank you. I look forward to our conversation.



i. Sacroscanctum Concilium, 10.

ii. Address to Bishops of Australia on their “Ad Limina” Visit (October 20, 2011)

iii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1187.

iv. The story of Waugh and the new Mass is told in Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (Ignatius, 1999), 333–343. See also, Scott M. P. Reid, ed., A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes, 2nd rev. ed (St. Austin Press, 2000).

v. John 16:12–14.

vi. Letter to the Bishops of the World to Present the “Motu Proprio” on the Use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the Reforms of 1970.

vii. “‘The Norm of the Holy Fathers’: Liturgical Renewal Past, Present, and to Come,” Address to National Liturgical Conference, February 5, 2010. Available at:

viii. Col. 1:15; John 14:8.

ix. The Spirit of the Liturgy (Herder, 1998 [1930]), 66–67.

x. Heb. 12:22–29.

xi. Rev. 1:10.

xii. Rev. 4:4, 10; 19:4, etc.

xiii. Rev. 19:9.

xiv. Catechism, nos. 1090, 1111, 1136, 1187, 1326, 2642 (“heavenly liturgy”); 1139 (“eternal liturgy”); 1195, 2855 (“liturgy of heaven”).

xv. Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (Ignatius, 2005), 110–111; compare A New Song for the Lord (Crossroad, 1996), 175.

xvi. Matt. 26:64; Col. 3:1.

xvii. Heb. 7:25; 8:1; compare Rom. 8:34 (ad dexteram Dei qui etiam interpellat pro nobis).

 xviii. See Exod. 16:13, 14; Num. 11:9; compare John 6:50.

xix. Sacroscanctum Concilium, 24.

xx. Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Liturgiam authenticam, Instruction on the Use of Vernacular Languages? in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy (March 28, 2001), 19–20.

xxi. Sacramentum Caritatis, 64.

xxii. Rom. 12:1; Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 3:18.

xxiii. Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy, eds. Neil J. Roy and Janet E. Rutherford (Four Courts, 2010), 136.

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