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Catholic liturgy has new translation

Across the country, a revised text will be said at Mass. Some are minor tweaks, others not - and not everyone’s happy.

The Rev. Jonathan Gaspar of the Boston Archdiocese taught priests about changes to the Catholic Mass. The Rev. Jonathan Gaspar of the Boston Archdiocese taught priests about changes to the Catholic Mass. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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It is a habit as ingrained in Roman Catholics as making the Sign of the Cross:

“The Lord be with you,’’ says the priest at the altar. And from the pews comes an automatic: “And also with you.’’

But no more.

Under a new English translation of the liturgy, taking effect in Boston and across the United States with today’s Masses, the proper response will be, “And with your spirit.’’

It is but one of many revisions to the words of the Catholic Mass. Some seem like minor tweaks: “seen and unseen,’’ for example, has become “visible and invisible.’’

Other changes are already jarring some parishioners who have heard the new liturgy. Translators substituted the unusual word “consubstantial’’ for the descriptive term “one in Being’’ to describe the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

Some 40 years have passed since the last major revisions to the English-language Catholic liturgy. The 1973 translation has been etched into the memories of an entire generation of church-goers. For many, the words of the Mass come to their lips automatically, like a reflex.

Officials of the Boston Archdiocese expect it will take months to break long-held habits and get everyone praying the right words.

“Nobody expects perfection,’’ said Monsignor Dennis Sheehan, associate director of Worship and Spiritual Life for the archdiocese. “It’s like everything else in the church; we stumble along toward heaven.’’

In recent weeks, pastors around the archdiocese have been experimenting with the new texts, taking them out for test-drives during Masses.

“I warn the people when something [new] is coming - ‘Be astute,’ ’’ said the Rev. James Hickey, of Holy Family Church in Rockland. He has encouraged the faithful to laugh at their mistakes. “It’s joyful. There is a sense we’re all in it together.’’

Kate Boland, 60, a Catholic from Wilmington, said that some of the changes have given her pause, such as a subtle edit to the Nicene Creed, a prayer which used to begin: “We believe in one God.’’

The new version begins: “I believe in one God.’’

That may be more faithful to the original Latin, but the change might alter the experience of the Creed, potentially making it an individual act and less about the community of worshipers who pray it together, she said.

The changes have upset some Catholics across the country, who have taken their complaints, if not to Rome, then to the Internet.

The new translation, years in the making, is intended to more faithfully reproduce the original Latin.

“It’s English that is a little more stylized,’’ said the Rev. Jonathan Gaspar, co-director of Worship and Spiritual Life. The new translation has also been called more formal, more deferential, and in some instances more cumbersome than the previous version, which used more conversational language.

One hope is that the changes cause Catholics to look anew at the liturgy that has grown so familiar.

“When you change ritual language, you’re not only going to be changing what people say, you’re sometimes asking them - inviting them - to change a picture or a feeling or a relationship because that’s what ritual language is supposed to establish,’’ Sheehan said.

The new texts also are designed to better echo Scripture. One of the most dramatic revisions comes during the invitation to Communion. Catholics are accustomed to praying aloud: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you . . .’’

The new response is: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof . . .’’

If the new words ring familiar, that is the point - the prayer borrows a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, which tells of a Roman centurion’s request for Jesus to heal a servant.

“A lot of the phrases we’re going to hear in the language of the Mass come right out of the Bible,’’ said Gaspar.

Bobby Gregory, 22, a member of St. Cecilia Parish in Boston who studies theology at Boston College, said he is looking forward to the new translation and its emphasis on scriptural imagery. The changes “are a good opportunity to pay attention to the words we say at Mass, and to think about why we say what we say,’’ he said.

Not all Catholics are so supportive. The Rev. Michael Ryan, a priest at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, set up an online petition to protest the revisions. He believes the more literal translation is clumsy, hard to pray, and appears to have been put together by people who know Latin better than English, he wrote in an essay in the Jesuit magazine “America.’’

His petition has gathered more than 22,000 signatures, imploring the Roman Catholic Church to re-evaluate the decision to enforce the new texts. A number of Boston-area lay Catholics have signed the petition.

And last February, a Benedictine monk from Minnesota who was part of an international commission charged with matching music to the new translation caused an uproar with an open letter criticizing the translation process.

The monk, Anthony Ruff, complained that the process was needlessly secretive and marked with “deception and mischief.’’

In the Boston Archdiocese, Gaspar and Sheehan have led seminars for priests to prepare them to handle the changes.

At a recent study session at archdiocese headquarters in Braintree, Gaspar pointed out that the new Roman Missal contains an unfamiliar musical notation, the quilisma. To sing it the right way, he urged a dozen priests to imagine sitting on a hot bench.

He popped up and sang with a surprised little warble: “Glor-or-y!’’

That is how to interpret the quilisma, he told the priests. “If you don’t do it, you don’t do it,’’ Gaspar said, with a forgiving wave. With so many changes coming to Mass, “No one is going to say, ‘He didn’t interpret the quilisma properly.’ ’’

Into the 1960s, English-speaking Catholics were accustomed to hearing the Mass in Latin, said the Rev. John Baldovin, a Boston College professor of historical and liturgical theology. Parishes briefly used interim English translations before the 1973 version was ready, he said.

Some scholars panned what they considered the “pedestrian tone’’ of the ’73 translation. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, working for bishops from English-speaking countries, produced a new translation in the 1990s, which the Vatican rejected, Baldovin said. Under new guidelines set by Rome, the commission, and others, developed the more literal translation, he said. It will be the official liturgy in all English-speaking countries.

Baldovin, who has been an adviser to the International Commission, says the new translation is “a mixed bag.’’

“There are some things very well done,’’ he said. “Some capturing of scriptural imagery from the Latin is better. Sometimes the flavor of Latin prayers is better.

“But sometimes in their choice some vocabulary, I wouldn’t agree.’’ He does not support the translator’s decision to change the word “cup’’ to the more elegant term “chalice.’’

“This is the latest English translation; it will not be the last,’’ Baldovin said. “I assume there will be a need for a new translation in 20 years or so.’’

By then, words that sound so unfamiliar today will be habit.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at

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