Washington-area Catholics attending Mass on Christmas Day will find major changes in the familiar language of the liturgy after the introduction of a new English version, which some have welcomed as "poetic" and others criticize as "clunky and archaic."
Mandated by the Vatican, the new Roman Missal, a fresh translation of the Mass in Latin, actually went into effect in the English-speaking world the last Sunday in November. But Christmas Mass attracts many more worshippers than any other day in the year, and a large number of Catholics will be wrestling with once-familiar prayers in significantly altered form for the first time.
Laminated pew-cards will lead them through, for example, a new translation of the Nicene Creed, the profession of faith that comes early in the Mass, as well as new responses to the celebrant priest.
But the bigger challenge is faced by the priests themselves as they attempt to master numerous changes in, and additions to, the Mass they had been accustomed to reciting on a daily basis since the 1960s. Despite seminars and training sessions in advance of the introduction of the new Missal, many celebrants still stumble over the new texts, or mix them with the old one.
"Priests are having a hard time adapting to the changes; one priest apologized to the people for the mistakes he was making," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Father Reese is critical of the new translation.
Transitional problems were expected. On its website, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was responsible for introducing the changes, calls for patience "as we all struggle to learn, to understand, and to internalize our ageless faith in a new verbal expression."
The celebration of the Mass in the vernacular language instead of in Latin was introduced in the 1960s after a decision of the Second Vatican Council. But Pope John Paul II was unhappy with what he saw as too much divergence from what the Vatican describes as the "original" Latin text.
In 2001, reflecting papal displeasure, the Vatican issued an instruction titled Liturgiam Authenticam, which set the ball rolling for revisions in the vernacular translations. The document stated that changes were necessary because of "errors which affect certain existing translations." Furthermore, it left little doubt that Rome wanted the new versions to reflect the Latin liturgy as closely as possible.
Translators, it said, should render "the original text faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language ... without paraphrases or glosses."
Nine years and several drafts later, an English translation that satisfied the Vatican was produced. "Every single word in the Latin text is accounted for in the English translation," said Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, who oversaw the English-language side of the multilingual project for the American bishops.
Catholic experts pointed out that the new translation does not alter the ritual, but the changes in the prayers were likely to jolt both priest and worshippers out of the devotional routine.
"Sometimes we can be so comfortable with [our prayers] that it helps to step back," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, in a teleconference. "With the new translation, we are forced to stop and go very slowly and reverently."
Despite the slip-ups, many priests in the Washington area welcomed the changes. "The prayers are more poetic," said the Rev. Joseph Calis, parish priest of Holy Face Church in Great Mills, Md. "You have to get used to them, but once you do, you see how great they are."
But Father Reese, a former editor of the Jesuit review America, questioned the Vatican decision to use the virtually defunct Latin version as the basis of the new text, calling the result "terrible, clunky, mechanical and wooden."
"We're still treating the Latin language as a sacred text," Father Reese said. "It's not inspired, it's not scripture. What we should be doing today is writing new prayers in good English. We want to concentrate on the mystery of God's love and the resurrection of Jesus."
Bishop Donald Trautman, of Erie, Pa., objected to the long sentences, which he said were old-fashioned, and a "jumble of subordinate clauses."
For older Catholics who grew up attending the Mass in Latin, the new version has a familiar, even nostalgic, ring. For example, the congregation's response to the priest's "The Lord be with you" has been changed back from the more perfunctory "And also with you" to "And with thy spirit." (In Latin: Et cum spiritu tuo.) The communion invocation that begins "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you" becomes once more "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou should enter under my roof." (The Latin: Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum.)
Like it or not, the revised Mass is here to stay. It was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, as head of the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who started the translation process in the first place. As Pope Benedict XVI, he has pushed for its conclusion.