Generations of Roman Catholics still recall when priests first turned to face the people in the pews and recited a Mass that had been translated from Latin to English.
Some parishioners embraced the changes. Others left the church and never came back.
But many didn’t realize the revisions rolled out 35 years ago were only the beginning. This year, a new wave of English translations is taking effect in every English-speaking country in the world, including the U.S., prompting priests to hit the books and re-learn portions of the Mass they have recited for decades.
The dozens of revisions to the Roman missal – the book that has the instructions and texts needed for the celebration of the Mass – are the latest chapter in a process started by the Second Vatican Council when the Latin Mass was first translated.
Intended to inspire more depth and reverence, the revisions also have caused consternation among priests and parishioners who must learn a new way of worshipping after many years.
“We’re encouraging parishes to begin a long-range plan as people start to learn these responses by heart again,” said Todd Williamson, director of the Chicago Archdiocese’s office of divine worship.
“There’s no change in the ritual. Nothing is being added or taken away. What’s changing is the translation and the text and the prayers that are used. That’s where I think the normal Catholic might be just a bit confused or unaware.”
Parishioners must memorize slightly tweaked versions of creeds and prayers. They also must alter some of their responses, such as, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” before they receive Communion.
The new translation borrows from the Gospel of Matthew: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”
“ ‘Why?’ is the first question everyone asks,” said the Rev. Ken Simpson, pastor of St. Clement Catholic Church in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. “The prayers we’ve been saying for the last 35 years were always intended to be temporary.”
The new translations are more literal, Williamson said. Thirty-five years ago, the goal was to keep the language simple in order to convey the general meaning to parishioners. The new fancier vocabulary better captures the reverence and beauty of the Mass, he said.
For example, to describe the relationship between Christ and God the Father, priests no longer will say “one in being,” but “consubstantial” – a more precise theological term for which there is no other English equivalent.
“What we’re doing in church in these prayers is addressing the ultimate mystery with a capital ‘M’ and addressing ultimate love with a capital ‘L,’ ” said the Rev. Steve Lanza, pastor of St. Julie Billiart Catholic Church in Tinley Park, Ill. “So there is a little more complexity in the phrasing.
“We’re not addressing something that is ordinary. We’re looking at something extraordinary here.”
That doesn’t lessen priests’ anxiety as the deadline to implement the new missal approaches. Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George has decreed the new Mass will go into effect next Advent, which starts Nov. 27.
“From that date forward, no other edition of the Roman Missal may be used in the dioceses of the United States of America,” George said.
About 150 of the 1,500 pages making up the new missal have been made public for priests and parishioners to start practicing, including the texts for Advent and Christmas. The entire missal is expected to be published in October.
The new missal increased in size to include feast days for the 480 saints canonized by Pope John Paul II.
Lanza said as long as the Vatican releases the rest of the text two or three months in advance of when they’re needed, priests should have time to internalize it.
“It gets in your blood and your bones and your brain and your heart. That’s the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.
“We all want to be able to preside and pray those words with the proper disposition and the proper understanding and do it well so the people can all pray along so the Mass is the deep experience it’s supposed to be.”