New Catholic missal garnering mixed reviews

Literal translation from Latin adopted

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

When Helen Hull Hitchcock first held a bound copy of the new English translation of the Roman Missal in her hands, the advocate for faithfulness to the Latin text was awed. When the Rev. Louis Vallone beheld the same book of liturgy, the priest who has brought renewal to flagging parishes was worried.

The new missal, to be used in English-speaking Catholic parishes worldwide starting next Sunday, is a literal translation from Latin. It replaces a simpler, more free translation from 1973. Advocates say it will add reverence and theological depth to the Mass. Critics call its language awkward and obscure.

Father Vallone, pastor of St. John of God in McKees Rocks and St. Catherine of Siena in Crescent, compared it to writing a novel in Shakespearean English.

"They say that the language is more poetic, but it's Latin poetry, not English poetry," he said. "I'm not sure something is true reverence if it lacks understanding."

Mrs. Hitchcock, the editor for bulletin of the Adoremus Society for the Renewal of Sacred Litergy in St. Louis, praised its accuracy.

"Rather than using the lowest-common-denominator, popular style of language, it's somewhat more formal," she said.

"We need a more sacred-sounding translation of the missal. It will help form the way we understand the sacred text."

Among the changes for laity:

The reply to "The Lord be with you" changes from "And also with you" to "And with your spirit."

The penitential prayer restores the triple repetition of responsibility for sins: "Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."

In the Nicene Creed "We believe" is now "I believe." "One in being with the Father" is now "consubstantial with the Father."

The acclamation, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" was banned and replaced with other options.

The pre-Communion prayer is lengthened: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

No one thought the 1973 translation was perfect. The U.S. bishops spent the 1990s planning revisions to be more poetic, with gender-inclusive terms for humanity. But some Catholics objected to its method of translating ideas rather than words.

Each side accused the other of political motives. By one account, liberals were sneaking feminist ideology into the Mass; by another, conservatives wanted Rome to seize control of translation from the bishops, to whom it was given after Vatican II.

In 2001 the Vatican ruled that all translations must be literal, from the Latin, and eschew gender-inclusion. The translation was applied to a revision of the Latin text that Pope John Paul II approved in 2002. The Roman Missal has had eight revisions since 1570.

The church changes details of the Mass to highlight its core message that Jesus died to atone for human sin, said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC. He wrote "The Mass: The Glory, The Mystery, The Tradition" to help laity understand the new liturgy.

"The church has regularly updated the Roman Missal. Certainly since the Second Vatican Council and the call for vernacular languages, it was necessary to do this in stages. They had to get [the first translation] out quickly and then go back and revisit it. I think of this as polishing the translation," he said.

Priests face the greatest changes. The most controversial alters a declaration that Jesus died "for all" to "for many."

That doesn't change the doctrine that Jesus died for everyone, Cardinal Wuerl said.

The New Testament "makes it very clear that Christ died for all people," he said. "It doesn't mean that some aren't invited into salvation. We always understood and we continue to teach that while 'multis' says 'many' it means 'all.' "

Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, an outspoken critic of the new missal, said the Mass should say what the church means.

"What we pray and say in the liturgy is meant to catechize the people," he said.

"In the pulpit we are going to explain that Jesus died for everybody, even the worst of people. But in the liturgy we will say from the altar that he died for many. That will be confusing. When I raise this, people reply that it's a [teachable] moment. But you can't stop and keep explaining everything that is said in the Mass."

The missal turns good Latin into poor English, he said.

"At Vatican II the church approved a vernacular text. Is consubstantial vernacular or Latin? It's not vernacular. That is Latin, anglicized," he said.

Ms. Hitchcock believes the unfamiliar word will force Catholics to reflect on the Trinity.

"To say 'one in being' sounds easier, but the mystery that is being described here about the Trinity needs to be explained anyway," she said. "We've been on autopilot for so many years that we don't think about it."

Preparation for the new missal started months ago in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The Rev. James Gretz, director of the Department for Worship, held meetings for parish lay leaders, school principals, directors of religious education, youth ministers and even business managers who must budget for new books. Priests attended six-hour workshops.

For months the bulletin at Elizabeth Ann Seton in Carnegie had inserts about what to expect, said the Rev. David Poecking.

The new translation "makes an effort recover a certain solemnity, a consciousness of the Mass as worship and as a dialogue between God and the church, mediated by Christ," he said. "It might be too early to render a judgment on whether it achieves that purpose, but I believe it has the potential to. Realistically, most of us are going to struggle at first. Certainly I will."

That's a major concern of Father Vallone. He bought many extra pew cards with the new words, and told people to take them home to memorize. That's harder for priests, who have many more prayers to say.

"For 40 years I have been praying the Mass. I don't even glance at the missal. Now I am going to be reading the Mass," he said.

He suspects that discomfort with unfamiliar prayers may cause infrequent attenders to stop entirely.

"Did we need some tweaking and adjustments? Undoubtedly. Did we need this radical, wholesale shift? I don't feel like it. The people coming to church didn't feel it," he said.

"Is this a good thing? The best thing? What God wanted us to do? I don't deny any of that. I just don't think we will see the fruits of it in the years I have left."

Many parishes introduced the sung parts in September, so parishioners wouldn't stumble through them during Advent.

The big question for parishes was whether to use modified versions of familiar musical settings or start fresh with music composed just for the new words.

"If a parish has sung something for years using one setting, it could be better to transition to a whole new setting rather than revise something that's so ingrained that they'll trip on it," said the Rev. James Chepponis, director of the Pittsburgh diocesan Office for Music Ministry.

Parish music directors and choirs responded well, he said.

"Our musicians are used to being creative. I haven't really heard of a lot of grumbling," he said.

At St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland the director of music, Don Fellows, has heard little reaction from the pews.

"No one has complained and no one has tried to beat me up after Mass. I've asked people, and they tell me they find no problem."

He's noticed stumbling on the Gloria but "I'm patient. It might take a couple of years to get it ingrained," he said.

Fred Moleck, a nationally prominent church musician and retired director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Greensburg, calls the new translation "retroactive." But he expects little disruption.

He began his career before Vatican II, and was a consultant for the transition to English.

"There are a lot of younger people involved in this who didn't know the church before Vatican II and think they are restoring it. But they don't really know what it was because they weren't part of that formation," he said.

Mr. Moleck is the founder and editor of GIA Quarterly, the journal of a major liturgical publisher. GIA composers and editors have made successful revisions to popular Mass settings, he said.

Parishes that use contemporary music can still do so, he said. The popular contemporary GIA hymnal "Gather" is in its fourth printing since an edition for the new missal was published this summer.

Audrey Patterson, 76, has sung in the choir at the Church of the Resurrection in Brookline for 40 years. She likes the new music.

"It's not too difficult to change the words around a little bit," she said. "

Peggie Richardson, 66, says the choir at St. John Capistran in Upper St. Clair has worked so hard on the new liturgy that, "I know the new Gloria better than I knew the old one," she said.

"I've seen enough change in the church that this isn't traumatic."

Correction/Clarification: (Published November 23, 2011) Helen Hull Hitchcock edits the bulletin of the Adoremus Society for the Renewal of Sacred Liturgy. A story Sunday on the new Roman Missal gave an incorrect name for her organization.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?