If the experience of the faithful in other English-speaking countries is any indication, American Catholics are in for a bumpy transition as they encounter the most sweeping changes to the text of the Mass in more than 40 years.
The transition began Oct. 1 with new words for the music of the liturgy. The changeover is scheduled to be complete by Nov. 27 — the first Sunday of the Advent season — with both the priest and the congregation switching to the new English translation of the original Latin text containing prayers and instructions for the celebration of the Mass.
The transition is under way in other English-speaking countries, such as Ireland and the United Kingdom, and the reception to the new wording has been mixed.
“The distinct impression we’ve gotten in Ireland among the priests is that there is no enthusiasm for [the changes], by and large,” said the Rev. Tony Flannery, a founder of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland. “But it seems we have no choice, so we’re going ahead with it.”
Supporters of the new text, some 30 years in the making, say it is a more literal and direct translation of the original Latin, is more faithful to the Scriptures and to Catholic theology, and is expected to encourage a deeper prayer experience for congregations.
Critics counter that the new language is confusing and obscure in some places. Some denounce the changes as part of a larger effort by conservative bishops to roll back liberalizing changes approved by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
The changes include new wording for prayers said by the priest and new responses for the congregation. One key example is when the priest tells the assembled faithful, “Peace be with you.” Instead of responding “And also with you,” the congregation will reply “And with your spirit,” the pre-Vatican II language, which tracks much more closely with the official Latin (“et cum spiritu tuo”).
Church officials have made efforts to prepare priests and the laity for the changes, and say that any discomfort with the unfamiliar prayers and responses will fade with time.
“Once people get past the awkwardness of the newness, they will find that these prayers are very, very beautiful and quite helpful in entering into a positive experience in prayer,” said the Rev. Mark Knestout, director of the office of worship for the Archdiocese of Washington. “Utilizing rich language will help make a greater connection to our scriptural foundation.”
The Rev. Justin Huber, of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Kensington, said his parishioners have been “pretty receptive” to the new translation, especially after a presentation was held to help explain the changes and why they were being implemented.
“We took more of a theoretical approach instead of a practical approach,” he said. “The dominant reactions in the parish are that people understand why there is a new translation and what the changes are.”
Father Flannery said the issue for several Irish clergymen does not relate to the responses from parishioners, but to the language for the priests.
“I find it difficult to say Mass using the new texts,” he said. “The language is more difficult, and many of the words are so archaic to a modern congregation.”
Appreciating the text
Helen Hull Hitchcock, co-founder of the Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, said that “for the first time in a long time,” Catholics will be paying attention to the prayers instead of simply reciting from memory. She said the faithful “now have to connect to truth and beauty and something stable, especially in a culture that’s very diverse and chaotic.”
“The increased reverence of the text we have will help to increase our appreciation and our unity with each other, because it’s so much more beautiful [and] will draw us closer to the truth,” she said.
Elsa Thompson, a 30-year parishioner at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, expressed excitement about the changes.
“With the new translation, the words are straight from the Gospel,” Ms. Thompson said. “The young people, the old people, me we’ll start looking at the words again.”
In an e-letter sent to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl explained that the content of the Mass will remain the same and that the “translation we use to pray the Mass will be somewhat different, providing us with new words that have a deeper meaning.” Although the third edition contains prayers for the celebration of recently canonized saints and additional prayers for the sacraments, the fuss remains focused on the retranslated texts for the Mass.
The attitude in the U.S. remains hopeful, however. Father Knestout said the new translation offers a chance for Catholics to “look at the Eucharist in the same way, but with different eyes.”
“There’s a great deal of excitement for the coming of the new Roman Missal,” Father Knestout said. “There’s an excitement and an appreciation for it. People are looking at it as an opportunity to reawaken their lives through the Eucharist.”
Ms. Thompson, who has been attending St. Joseph’s since the 1980s, said that after attending a workshop on the new Roman Missal led by Father Knestout, she was “fascinated” by the language of the new prayers.
“The one that’s my favorite right now says, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed,’ ” she explained.
Once the new translation is released, the response will be prayed as “Lord, I am not worthy that You may come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
“That’s true, because our soul is healed,” Ms. Thompson said. “Now, the other prayer is beautiful, but perhaps we aren’t going to get a physical healing.”
Resistance in the pews
Others are less enthusiastic.
A website — What If We Just Said Wait? — features a few comments from more than 22,000 people who have signed a petition protesting the “systematic dismantling” of Vatican II.
“When one turns to the orations used by the celebrant, the incongruities of image and symbol, along with the tongue-twister syntax will all but sever any connection between priest and people,” said Martin Singer, a Catholic in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“The only people who will find new meaning in these changes are the ‘liturgy’ police, who will have new fodder and fuel to ignite their passions and send off letters to bishops, cardinals, priests, and, of course, like-minded websites and publication, all of them on a divine crusade to tell us what it really means to be ‘Catholic,’” he wrote.
Cheryl Broussard of Las Vegas wrote to the website that she fears the new translation “will discourage full and active participation, especially among our youth.”
“So many young people are already being attracted to churches who use modern language to convey a message and vibrant Christian music to inspire,” she said. “I am not saying we should follow that lead, but the beautiful liturgy we currently celebrate should not so easily be set aside.”
Ms. Hitchcock, who has been following the implementation of the new translation for a number of years, said some opposition was anticipated but that resistance seems much larger than it is because of the availability of social media.
Ms. Hitchcock said the most common argument against the Missal is that the “‘oppressive, patriarchal hierarchy’ at the Vatican has imposed the texts” upon local English-speaking churches without consultation. She said this is a result of a misunderstanding of the Second Vatican Council.
“The Holy See has authority over the Mass texts,” she said. “It’s in the documents for Vatican II.”
When Pope John Paul II announced the third “typical edition” of the Roman Missal in 2000, work began on ensuring an accurate English translation for the original Latin Mass texts. Standards for the translation were outlined in detail, and the guiding principle for translation was to translate “in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.”
A committee of bishops and consultants from English-speaking countries was established to assist in the review and approval of the English translation of the Roman Missal. It has met several times a year to review the texts.
“There couldn’t have been a wider consultation than there was,” Ms. Hitchcock said.
Father Flannery said there is not much that can be done about the process at this point.
“It’s in, and we have to go with it for now,” he said. “The last place there should be conflict in the Catholic Church is around the Eucharist.”
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