Get Ready – The Mass is About to Change

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Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

So, sometime next year you’re attending Sunday Mass as you always do, the priest takes his place in the sanctuary, makes the Sign of the Cross and says “The Lord be with you,” and you dutifully respond, “And also with you.” “Wrong,” the priest says, “The correct answer now is, ‘And with your spirit’.”

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That’s the scenario you’re likely to encounter in the not-too-distant future as some of the language of the Mass, language with which we’ve become very familiar, is about to change. The change is the result of a new translation of the Roman Missal, a translation that’s been studied and discussed for a number of years now, and is soon to be introduced into the English speaking world.

The reasons for the new translation are, in themselves, simple enough. The Mass is being translated anew to provide a more exalted, transcendent, “spiritual” language for our worship, and to make the English translation more consistent with the Latin original.

The translation process has been long and complicated, and it gets very technical, very quickly. The development of liturgical language is no small feat – it involves highly trained experts in Canon Law, scripture, liturgy and language. Eleven different episcopal conferences from the English speaking world on five continents have been consulted.

The process of translating the Mass and its final product have been the subject of a fierce debate within Church circles. The Catholic blogosphere has gone crazy over the topic, with competing articles, editorials, surveys and petitions. The folks personally involved in the discussion can get very emotional about matters such as the role of the Bishops Conference vs. the Holy See; the composition and competence of consultative groups such as ICEL (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy) and Vox Clara; about the relative merits of arcane documents such as Comme Le Prevoit and Liturgiam Authenticam. In short, the process of translating the liturgy makes the recent debate over healthcare reform in the United States look like a walk in the park!

There’s so much intramural stuff going on here, you might be tempted to throw your hands up in total frustration and ask, “Who cares . . . what’s the big deal . . . aren’t there more important things to deal with?” Good questions, all.

But as often happens in the Church today, the debate over liturgical translations reveals a broad division in ecclesial ranks pitting, in simple terms, conservatives against liberals. It seems to me though that it’s a mistake to read too much into the translation process, from either perspective. To those who think that the new translations represent the salvation of the Church and a great triumph for traditional values and orthodoxy; as well as to those who view the new translations as a giant step backward, a rebuke of the Vatican Council, and an abuse of hierarchical authority – to both camps I suggest, respectfully, “Get over it.” While the debate might be interesting to ecclesial wonks and relevant to a theology classroom, it really won’t help us solve the problem at hand.

Leaving aside all the inside-Church debate then, there are some important things to remember as we prepare for the implementation of the new language of the Mass in the Diocese of Providence.

The first is to acknowledge that the change in the prayers of the Mass will indeed present a significant challenge for priests and parishioners alike. We’ll need more recourse to liturgical books and printed materials for awhile; we’ll have to think before we speak. There will be mistakes and embarrassing episodes. The process will require a little perspective, a lot of patience, and maybe even a healthy dose of humor.

The second point is to assure you that the changes will be preceded by a thorough catechetical process, a teaching process that will involve the entire diocese. Useful materials are already being prepared and published nationwide, and in the diocese a core committee of priests has been formed and has begun the very first phases of the process. In the near future the committee will be expanded to include other representatives of our diocesan Church. The committee will work hard to guide us in our journey.

And finally, I’m convinced that the process of implementing and learning the new translations of the prayers will provide us with a truly blessed opportunity. I wonder – in the thirty-some years that we’ve been using the current translations of the Mass, doesn’t it seem that we’ve become a little too casual, a little careless about our liturgical prayer? When we attend Mass don’t we sometimes sleepwalk through it, respond like robots, and pray without ever having to think about what we’re saying? Of course there’s something comfortable and cozy about memorizing our prayers and taking them to heart, but the accompanying danger is an over-familiarity that leads to boredom and emptiness.

I suspect that in just a few years we’ll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. My guess is that some of the new translations will be much better than the old; and that others will be awkward and truly “ineffable.” But if the process of learning new responses and prayers of the Mass helps us to think about what we’re saying; if it helps us to grow spiritually and appreciate the wonderful gift of the Eucharist; if it helps us even a little “to worship in spirit and in truth,” then the process will have been well worth the effort.

The way in which we receive and implement the new translation, and its impact on our diocesan Church, is now in our hands. Let’s do our best to set aside the drama and work on it together – prayerfully, peacefully and productively.

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