Back to previous page


Post Most

Catholics’ Mass liturgy changing; ‘ritual whiplash’ ahead?

By ,

English-speaking Catholics are bracing for the biggest changes to their Mass since the 1960s, a shift some leaders warn could cause “ritual whiplash.”

The overhaul, which will become mandatory Nov. 27, is aimed at unifying the more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide with a translation that is as close as possible to the original Latin version. It allows for less independence and diversity of interpretation in a church that in recent decades has tried to retain more control over how Catholicism is defined.

Recent popes have emphasized orthodoxy and hierarchy, particularly in the West, where religious identity is increasingly fluid. Catholic hospitals and schools have been required to more clearly espouse church teachings, and Pope Benedict XVI has stressed the sole truth of Catholicism over other faiths, even declining this month to pray with Hindus, Jews and others at an interreligious event.

The new translation changes the majority of sentences in the Mass. The prayers and call-and-response dialogue between the priest and the congregation are different, transforming the dialogue that Catholics under 40 have used in church their entire lives. Some leaders warn that the shift could cause “ritual whiplash” among those accustomed to a worship script so familiar that most recite it from memory.

Reaction to the changes has been intense, in some ways fueling a Catholic culture war that began when the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s imposed far more sweeping changes designed to open up and modernize the church. Some traditionalists say the new translation of the ritual is richer and — because it’s less conversational — more mysterious and spiritual.

“At first I thought it was an affront, the Vatican coming down on us. But after thinking about it, I see it as something that will bring us all back toward the center,” said Emily Strand, 35, a former campus minister at the University of Dayton who has attended Mass regularly throughout her life. “Vatican II was an excuse for people to do whatever they wanted with the liturgy.”

But more modern Catholics, and some who are already disaffected, say the new language is an awkward imposition that will distance people from the church. The translation “wouldn’t affect me going [to church] or not,’’ said Vilma Linares, who was walking near St. Matthew’s Cathedral earlier this week with a friend at lunchtime. “But the less conversational the Mass, the more they will alienate people.”

Erie, Pa., Bishop Donald Trautman says that such words as “consubstantial” and “chalice” and a Jesus “born ineffably of the inviolate Virgin” won’t help Catholics get closer to God.

“We have to keep in mind these are prayer texts being used by priests at a Mass,” he said. “People should be able to understand them when they are heard.”

Others, including clergy, have protested that the new translation replaces ones approved by the U.S. bishops.

Perhaps the most basic change will be when the priest says: “The Lord be with you.” The congregation will no longer say “And also with you.” The new response is “And with your spirit.”

Some changes are more controversial. The line that said Jesus died on the cross “for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven” will change to “for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Other changes emphasize the difference between common English and Latin: “When supper was ended, He took the cup” becomes: “In a similar way, when supper was ended, He took this precious chalice in His holy and venerable hands.”

A poll of Catholics done early this summer by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that 77 percent of respondents were unaware of a forthcoming new translation. Catholic dioceses and schools began preparations a few months ago, running workshops and podcasts and updating Web sites to lay out what’s happening and why.

Millions of books are being replaced; each parish must buy its own. (What becomes of the old books? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends burying them on church grounds or in a parish cemetery.) While parishes wait for the new ones, laminated cards will be put in the pews as a guide for worshipers.

Still, church officials say they expect serious confusion when those Catholics who aren’t connected with Catholic institutions and attend church only on big holidays, show up for Christmas. The Rev. Michael Wilson of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Solomons, Md., said he will offer this advice next month to his congregants: “Okay, folks: Everyone take a deep breath.”

The new translation has been in the works since a decade ago, when Pope John Paul II called for a full replacement of the one that came out of the 1960s Second Vatican Council. The thinking that came out of Vatican II was that the Mass script should be contemporary and paraphrased, that people should pray the way they speak in regular life.

As a result, pivotal changes were made. Mass was no longer said in Latin, and priests began facing the congregation (instead of standing with their backs to the crowd) and preaching more about the Bible rather than only on church doctrine.

Traditionalists worried that having different translations around the world opened the door to confusion. The past decade has seen much debate in the church about the new translation, with the Vatican rejecting less-literal translations that some saw as more poetic and contemporary.

When asked this week about the issue, several priests repeated an inside joke: What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.

Catholics who speak other languages are on a later schedule and won’t see any changes immediately. There is no timeline yet for Spanish-speaking Americans. But the English version is perhaps the most important to the Vatican, because booming areas in Asia, including China, use it, not the Latin one, as the basis of their translations.

Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of the commission in charge of English translations of liturgy, said the reforms will promote unity. “The way we worship is what we believe,” he said. “If you want to have unity of belief, texts used in worship need to be the same.”

Several priests in the region said the controversy was being overblown.

“There are other things more important to focus on,” said the Rev. Gerry Creedon of Holy Family in Dale City, “like drone bombings.”

© The Washington Post Company