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Alternative English Texts for Mass

And more on celebrating extra Masses.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: I have an inquiry about the possible alternative texts for Mass celebrated in the English language. I understand that the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) holds the copyright for the official Roman Missal text for English. As such, I'm assuming that the official English text must come from ICEL. Is it possible for a bishop (or a conference of bishops for a particular country) to approve the use of another English text of the Roman Missal apart from that of ICEL? If so, under what conditions would this be permissible? I ask this because I noticed a parish priest using a very different text for the collect, prayer over the gifts, and prayer after Communion when doing the Mass in English in front of a congregation. This has disturbed me for quite some time since I believe it is not liturgical, especially in light of No. 846.1 of the Code of Canon Law ("In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one's own authority"). -- C.B., Quezon City, Philippines

Answer: Although this question is capable enmeshing us in the legal technicalities of translation norms, I will attempt to simplify it as best I can.

ICEL is an international organ of 11 English-speaking bishops' conferences such as England, Ireland and the United States. Some other conferences, in which English is widely used, are associate members. ICEL is overseen by bishops who represent the conferences, even though it has its own staff who organize its regular activities.

ICEL is an instrument in the hands of the bishops' conferences. It is designed to provide, as far as possible, a uniform and high-quality English translation of the official Latin texts. The idea is to pool resources by selecting highly qualified translators and experts so as to produce reverent and singable English translations that are also literarily and theologically faithful to the original.

It is important to note, however, that ICEL offers its translations to the bishops. It has no authority of its own to officially approve a translation nor produce new texts or modify the official texts in any way.

Because of the number of bishops' conferences involved, the approval process for a new translation is inevitably complex. The process involves each episcopal conference separately examining a first draft and sending suggested modifications back to ICEL, which must then rework the text and send a definitive translation back to the bishops.

When a bishops' conference receives a definitive ICEL text it is once more placed before the body of bishops. A two-thirds majority of each bishops' conference is required for approval. At this stage the bishops may still make further modifications to the text as well as approve any adaptations of the translations. They may also opt not to use ICEL's translations and attempt to produce their own. Any such modifications would apply only within the territory of this particular conference.

Once a bishops' conference has approved the translation it goes to the Holy See, which may confirm the text as it is, but it may also introduce modifications of its own. This would be the case, for example, if some aspect of the translation is deemed unsatisfactory or if the Holy See desires that there be a single common version of a particular formula. The Holy See then sends the definitive text back to each bishops' conference which promulgates the new translation in that country.

The Holy See may also approve any adaptations or new texts composed by the bishops' conference for each particular country. These variant texts will only be printed in the missal issued for that country.

At this moment ICEL has completed its translation of the new 2001 Latin Missal. The text, divided into several sections, is now under consideration by the several bishops' conferences. Part of it, the Order of Mass (the invariable parts said by priests and faithful), has already received definitive approval from the Holy See but will not be used until the entire missal project has concluded.

From this sketch we can see that it is possible that more than one official English translation of liturgical texts can exist, even though the Holy See and the bishops themselves are striving to achieve a uniform English rendition of the Mass. They have been successful with respect to the future Order of Mass, but it remains to be seen if it can be accomplished for the variable parts of the missal.

With respect to the precise question at hand it is possible that the priest is using a different approved version of the current translation. This would be legitimate if the Philippine bishops' conference have not specified the use of a specific English missal and allow the use of any approved version of the prayers.

These prayers can vary from country to country. For example, the collect of the 21st Sunday of ordinary time in the missal used in the United States reads: "Father, Help us to seek the values that will bring us lasting joy in this changing world. In our desire for what you promise make us one in mind and heart."

In the breviary used in Australia, Great Britain and Ireland, this same prayer is rendered: "Lord, by your grace we are made one in mind and heart. Give us a love for what you command and a longing for what you promise, so that, amid this world's changes, our hearts may be set on the world of lasting joy."

Although both translations are officially approved it is hard to see how the translators could interpret the same Latin original so diversely. Such divergences demonstrate the effective need for the new, improved translation currently being considered.

* * *

Table Wine for Mass

Question: Could you please comment on the permissibility of using commercially available table wine for Mass? When the label clearly indicates "100% grape," this would seem to satisfy the requirements for validity. I ask the question because "altar wine" sells at a premium over table wine, and is generally not available without having to pay additional shipping charges. Having this option might appeal to pastors of poorer parishes who are looking for ways to trim parish expenses, and yet who are expected by the diocesan ordinary to offer the chalice to the laity at all Masses. -- A.L., Gallitzin, Pennsylvania

Answer: The principles involved in the determination of proper matter are relatively simple. The most recent official declaration on this point stems from the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 50, which basically sums up earlier laws and the Code of Canon Law, No. 924:

"The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. During the celebration itself, a small quantity of water is to be mixed with it. Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured. It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter."

Almost a century earlier the Catholic Encyclopedia gave basically the same doctrine but added more details, all of which are still relevant.

"Wine is one of the two elements absolutely necessary for the sacrifice of the Eucharist. For valid and licit consecration vinum de vite, i.e. the pure juice of the grape naturally and properly fermented, is to be used. Wine made out of raisins, provided that from its colour and taste it may be judged to be pure, may be used (Collect. S. C. de Prop. Fide, n. 705). It may be white or red, weak or strong, sweet or dry. Since the validity of the Holy Sacrifice, and the lawfulness of its celebration, require absolutely genuine wine, it becomes the serious obligation of the celebrant to procure only pure wines. And since wines are frequently so adulterated as to escape minute chemical analysis, it may be taken for granted that the safest way of procuring pure wine is to buy it not at second hand, but directly from a manufacturer who understands and conscientiously respects the great responsibility involved in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. If the wine is changed into vinegar, or is become putrid or corrupted, if it was pressed from grapes that were not fully ripe, or if it is mixed with such a quantity of water that it can hardly be called wine, its use is forbidden (Missale Rom., De Defectibus, tit. iv, 1). If the wine begins to turn into vinegar, or to become putrid, or if the unfermented juice is pressed from the grape, it would be a grievous offence to use it, but it is considered valid matter (ibid., 2). To conserve weak and feeble wines, and in order to keep them from souring or spoiling during transportation, a small quantity of spirits of wine (grape brandy or alcohol) may be added, provided the following conditions are observed (1) The added spirit (alcohol) must have been distilled from the grape (ex genimime vitis); (2) the quantity of alcohol added, together with that which the wine contained naturally after fermentation, must not exceed eighteen per cent of the whole; (3) the addition must be made during the process of fermentation (S. Romana et Univ. Inquis., 5 August, 1896)."

Note that none of these documents speak about the obligation to use any officially denominated "Altar Wine" and indeed there is nothing special about official altar wine except that it is guaranteed to be nothing special.

If one could be equally certain that a cheaper table wine is 100% grape with no additions of other substances or of non-grape alcohol, then it would also be valid matter. To be certain, and before using it, one should inquire from the manufacturer regarding the process involved in making the wine so as to exclude any doubt whatsoever.

While any priest could make such an inquiry, it would be more prudent that it be done through the local ordinary who could then inform his clergy that, as well as official altar wines, such and such a brand of common table wine may also be considered as valid matter for the Eucharist.

Something similar can be said regarding the presence of minute traces of sulphites found in most modern wines as preservatives. As we explained in a follow-up on
July 13, 2004, our opinion is that since the sulphites do not change the nature of the wine, their presence does not affect validity.

An Australian reader offered some further qualities of sacramental wine that were not included in our earlier reply. "It could also be noted that that the wine used for the liturgy should not be fortified, no wine-based spirits, and that it should be 'still' -- no champagne or spumante!"

I would only specify that "fortified wine" usually means the likes of port, Marsala and sherry. It is not the case mentioned in our previous column, when grape alcohol is added to weak wines in order to preserve them, provided that the alcohol level does not exceed 18%.

Our Australian correspondent also commented that if price is not an issue, kosher wines from Jewish stores are guaranteed as valid for Mass.

Another reader, an abstainer from alcohol, suggested the generalized use of mustum (grape juice that is only minimally fermented) instead of wine. The reader wrote:

"I have also read papal documents explaining that the essential substance is 'grape,' not 'alcohol.' Although alcohol content of recognized altar wines are low, drinking and driving gives the wrong message to the people (both communicant and otherwise), regardless of sacramental and liturgical changes in substance and meanings. Catholics frequently drive to and from Mass, when receiving the chalice.

"Therefore, it concerns me that you fail to mention the legitimacy of using mustum, especially in cases where the priest celebrant is a self-proclaimed alcoholic. Having identified and sampled mustum which is acceptable for the chalice, I find that it fulfills the sacramental and liturgical purposes far more completely than the fermented varieties. However, I can understand why the chemically changed wine (the fermented version) is today regarded as the acceptable standard.

"Mustum is not freshly available all year round in every parish, and at its best it is highly volatile.  It requires very careful storage and handling, which would be impractical in most cases. However, I would like to stress that (1) fermentation is actually a process of chemical corruption of the grape juice (attempts to say otherwise can undermine the theology of transubstantiation because the science proves it), and (2) I know that the administration of alcoholic liquor from the chalice is pastorally and symbolically suspect (it fails to give good moral example).

"Therefore, with new technologies becoming more widely available for packaging, refrigerating and dispensing pure pressed grape juices (Tetra Paks, thermal insulators and so forth), I think the Church would be wise to stay awake and sober about the virtue and legitimacy of using unfermented mustum as an altar wine. The word 'wine' has not always been synonymous with 'booze'; it has also meant a deliciously flavored taste."

While respecting our reader's decision to refrain from alcohol, I beg to differ regarding both the interpretation of papal documents and the use of mustum.

First, the Church has always understood the proper matter of the sacrament to be wine (an alcoholic beverage), and not simple grape juice. When conceding the use of mustum in extraordinary circumstances, the Church stressed that it is at the limit of validity. Therefore I do not believe that this concession justifies extrapolating the case in order to recommend its general use.

Also, the nature of the chemical process of fermentation has absolutely nothing to do with transubstantiation, which occurs to the final product, not to the process.

Second, I would respectfully disagree with expressions such as "administration of alcoholic liquor from the chalice" as well as linking the idea of "drinking and driving" with receiving Communion under the species of wine. We should always treat with respect, indeed adoration, what has become Christ's precious blood and is no longer simple wine. It is true that the accident of alcohol would certainly have an adverse effect if taken in large quantities, but we must give priority to faith in what the wine has become. From the point of view of faith I fail to see how consuming the sacred species could be construed as giving a bad moral example.

Even from the material point of view our correspondent's argument is untenable. It is a good thing to abstain from alcohol as a spiritual sacrifice; indeed, it is a meritorious act. It is not obligatory, however, and Catholic doctrine has always held a generally positive outlook toward material things when used with moderation. In other words, if Catholics may imbibe moderate quantities of alcohol with a clear conscience, much more may they partake of Christ's precious blood.

Finally, a reader from Washington state asked: "For the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, our church asked parishioners to 'bring your favorite bottle of wine' to be used as sacramental wine. Later, a flier was put out saying that 'as we enjoy the different flavors of the wines in coming weeks we would remember our diversity.' Doesn't this send the wrong message? Is this even allowed?"

From all that we had said about the care required in establishing the suitability of sacramental wine, it goes without saying that this is a very bad idea, and there is no small risk of compromising the validity of the sacrament, at least on some occasions. I would recommend that our correspondent inform the local bishop of what has occurred.

Even if there were no risk of invalidity, I can only wonder at the pastoral logic behind such an initiative. How could the quintessential sacrament of unity with God and our fellows be sequestered into becoming a vehicle for remembering our diversity?

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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