Catholics express unsettling words in response to translation of Mass

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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.

** FILE ** A parishioner worships before Mass at St. Ignatius Catholic Church on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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** FILE ** A parishioner worships before Mass at St. Ignatius Catholic ... more >

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.

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