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New translation tweaks to sacrament of penance take effect this Lent

A file photo shows a crown of thorns at St. Bonaventure Church in Paterson, N.J. The sacrament of penance in the Roman rite sounds slightly different this Lent, thanks to approved changes in the English translation set to take effect in a few weeks. (OSV News photo/Octavio Duran)

(OSV News) — The experience of the sacrament of penance in the Roman rite will be slightly different this Lent, thanks to approved changes in the English translation set to take effect in a few weeks.

Starting Ash Wednesday — which takes place this year on Feb. 22 — the prayer of absolution will include three modifications, so that the revised version will read as follows:

“God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and poured out [formerly “sent”] the Holy Spirit for [previously “Holy Spirit among us for”] the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God grant [instead of “give”] you pardon and peace.
And I absolve you from your sins
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The new text was adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during its Spring 2021 meeting, with the Vatican’s Dicastery (then-Congregation) for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments approving the text in April 2022. As of April 16, 2023, the Second Sunday of Easter known also as Divine Mercy Sunday, the revised formula for absolution is mandatory.

“The essential part of the absolution formula has not changed,” said Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Divine Worship, during an Oct. 25, 2022, webinar co-sponsored by his office and the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions.

During his presentation, Father Menke admitted the bishops had debated whether the minor changes were worth undertaking. However, he said the consensus favored striving for a more accurate translation from the Latin.

Father Menke noted penitents “who can be a little scrupulous” might panic if priests — many of whom “have said this prayer literally thousands of times” — inadvertently use the old form of absolution.

“They might be concerned (that absolution) doesn’t count,” he said.
Yet he stressed that “the heart of the sacrament” remains intact, and the absolution is still valid.

While not a major alteration, the update to the text nonetheless offers “a wonderful opportunity to reiterate and teach the importance of the sacrament of penance as a staple for living the Christian life,” Father Dennis Gill, director of the Office for Divine Worship at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, told OSV News ahead of a Jan. 31 webinar he plans to give on the topic. “It’s also a wonderful opportunity to catechize about the sacrament itself.”

Father Menke noted in his October 2022 webinar that the updates are part of a broader effort by the Vatican to ensure accuracy in the translation of liturgical texts.

“It’s not due to anything against the Latin texts,” he said. “It’s based on the fact that the Holy See instructed the bishops of the world at the beginning of the 21st century that our translations needed to be more accurate.”

Liturgical texts have been revised throughout church history under papal direction: St. Pius V modified both the breviary and the missal in response to the Council of Trent, while St. Pius X, Pope Pius XII and St. John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, all significantly furthered such efforts.

Noting several difficulties in the practical application of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms, St. John Paul II stated in his 1998 apostolic letter “Vicesimus Quintus Annus” the need “to remedy certain defects or inaccuracies, to complete partial translations … (and) to ensure respect for the texts approved.”

The 2001 document “Liturgiam authenenticam,” issued by the Vatican’s then-Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, developed the scope of the project, which first resulted in the 2011 full retranslation of the Roman Missal.

Since then, “we’ve dutifully been going through the books one by one with the assistance of ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) and preparing new editions of these books,” said Father Menke in his presentation.

So far, he said, new English translations of liturgical books have been completed for confirmation (2015), matrimony (2016), exorcism (2017), the dedication of a church (2018), the blessing of oils (2019), the baptism of children (2020) and ordination (2021).

The updates do not imply that “the (older versions) are heretical,” Father Menke told OSV News Jan. 30. “It’s just that church authorities have determined we might do better.”

The translation process is a rigorous one, with plenty of opportunities for bishops to review and reconsider the proposed updates, he added.

ICEL contracts with translators who prepare texts for consideration by the 11 bishops’ conferences that are full members of the commission: Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Scotland, South Africa, and the U.S.

The bishops representing those conferences in ICEL then evaluate the translators’ work and, once approved, texts are then provided to the various bishops’ conferences for evaluation by all of their members.

Each bishops’ conference decides whether to implement and publish the eventual final version, Father Menke told OSV News.

As the translations are completed, he looks forward to a slightly slower work pace.

“There’s been this (ongoing) change for the last 10 years or so, with new books coming out,” said Father Menke. “I hope 10 years from now we’ll start a period of stability that will last a long time.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News.

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