It’s not about “awkwardness.” It’s about theology.

For the last two USCCB meetings, no proposal from the floor has received less support from the bishops than any suggestion that the recent translation of the Roman Missal should be reviewed or challenged in any way.

The most recent tiresome proposal from a liturgist suggests that only the presidential prayers–admittedly the most challenging aspect of the translation–be changed from the current translation, to an earlier, completely inadequate work of ICEL.

The reason it was inadequate had very little to do with syntax, something to do with vocabulary, and everything to do with theology, and specifically the theology of the presence of God.

The world has very little faith in the presence of God on earth, and since 1973, there has been precious little in the English-language prayers of the Mass that would challenge this prevailing view. There is much presence-specific language in the Latin of the prayers, however, and this is adequately rendered in the 2011 translation of the Missal.

Two major soteriological moments follow directly from the presence of God.

  • Divine help is an intimate, ongoing gift.
  • This help is powerful to change people, making their actions, although limited, truly meritorious.

One of the major reforms of the new translation is a recovery of the expression of both this sense of the presence of God, and of these two results of God’s presence that mean so much in our daily lives: help, and transformation.


In the collect for the First Sunday of Advent, for example, the 1998 working group completely failed to adequately render the “help” aspect or the “merit” aspect of the collect. The prayer’s very first word is “give,” “Da.” The word “give” does not occur in the 1998 draft. Instead, the word “strengthen” is used:

Almighty God, strengthen the resolve

of your faithful people

Whereas the 2011 correctly renders the sense of absolute gift:

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,

the resolve

According to the draft of 1998, God helps us, some. This inadequate prayer asks God to strengthen what is already there, as though we had any good–any being–beyond what God our Creator gives us. The truth is that all that we are, God gives us, beginning with our very existence. Certainly the resolutions of our will are God’s gifts to us. We are not self-standing beings sending a memo to tell God to help us, some. We are ourselves God’s gift to us. “Every gift and every perfect gift is from above.”

There are other problems in this first section of the collect, including a major inaccuracy of the basic surface meaning of the text, but as I will emphasize again, in my opinion the key improvement of the 2011 translation concerns presence, and what follows: help, and merit.

Regarding the divine help, we are a Church that begins every hour of the Office by asking God’s assistance to even begin praying. The 1998 draft definitely changed the wording of this prayer in this important aspect of theology.


Likewise, the 1998 draft omits the word “merit,” a key soteriological expression, and unavoidable in any accurate translation. Like the opening “Da,” it is just there, right in the prayer, inarguably. But the 1998 draft changes this precise theological term to the rather proforma image of “calling”:

he may call us to sit at his right hand

and possess the kingdom of heaven.

Whereas the 2011 again gets the translation pretty much right; although frankly I would prefer the clarity of the theological word “merit,” it might fly pretty much over peoples’ heads, and the word “worthy” is rather striking here and might well hit home to the worshipper. Me, worthy? Could this happen to me? Yes. And it is about time we as Catholics remembered the promises of our religion.

gathered at his right hand,

they may be worthy
to possess the heavenly kingdom.

Personally I think merit is such an important category that once I wrote a rather silly song to make it even more accessible than the above. It’s written to be sung to the tune of the old Frank Sinatra song Love and Marriage:

Grace and merit, grace and merit,
God’s so great He just can’t wait to share it,
‘Specially with His mother; you can’t have one without the other.

Grace and merit, grace and merit,
The cross is heavy but you’ll have to bear it.
Let me tell you, brother: you can’t have one without the other.

Try, try, try to separate them. It’s an illusion.
Try, try, try, and you will only add to the confusion.

Grace and merit, grace and merit:
It’s a legacy we may inherit,
With the blessed mother. You can’t have one. It’s just not done. You can’t have one without the other.


Note how extrinsic the 1998 draft made God to the whole salvation process, as the one who “calls” us into heaven–a sentiment completely missing from the Latin text. Yes, the calling of God as to one outside His kingdom is an important moment of the life of grace, but that is not the kind of moment that the collects are about. We are already God’s faithful, in the prayer. God’s presence to us–actually, in us, by the sanctifying grace of Baptism–is certainly a strange doctrine. But it is true, and our liturgical prayers should go all the way. They should express the full boldness of our radically hopeful faith.

Update: Rev. Mr. Dr. Fritz Bauerschmidt faults the above for using just one collect as an example. I should mention that it is simply the collect mentioned in the blogpost to which I’m responding here. In other words, it’s from my point of view a random example–and yet it doesn’t surprise me to find the theological problem in it, because that problem is pervasive throughout the draft translation.

The aesthetic issue he raises is another matter, and frankly I believe that the 2011 translation is much more beautiful and reflective, much more reposed, than either the draft or the 1973. I wonder if it sounds foreign because we are used to a certain rather assumed style, formed as our ears have been for forty years of desert living. But that is another issue.

6 Replies to “It’s not about “awkwardness.” It’s about theology.”

  1. You raise an important point, Kathy. ICEL's omission of words was among the problems that bishops specifically raised in their prolonged discussions of the draft texts of the so-called 1998 translation — e.g., beseech, beg, merit, grant… (I like your witty ditty, by the way!)

  2. Great post, Kathy. But now I can't get "Grace and Merit" out of my head. Have a blessed Holy Week and a joyful Easter!

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