The New Translation: Personal Thoughts (and Research Ideas to come)

Last Sunday, I had my first experience with a mass using the new translation of the Roman Missal.  In the days since, I have been reflecting on my own experience and listening to others discussing their experiences as well.  Regarding my personal thoughts, I have two simple observations:  Change is hard.  Gaining perspective is important.

I would say that my own experience was mixed.  The changes (at least on the pew side) were not terribly extensive but they still disrupted me.  Several times, in fact, I began to get into the basic rhythm of mass before suddenly being jolted out of it when I made a mistake by failing to note one of the small changes listed on our sheet—most often by incorrectly responding “and also with you” rather than “and with your spirit.”  I have a feeling that particular change is going to take a while to sink into my soul.

That particular change also made me think of a pastor who used to joke that when he was out somewhere with a mixed crowd, he could always sort out the Catholics.  He would just throw out a loud, “May the Lord be with you”—and anyone who instinctually responded “and also with you” he instantly recognized as Catholic.  A co-worker similarly noted this week that pastoral leaders at retreats often used that same call and response to get groups to quiet down automatically.  This tells me that some of the phrases that are changing have been distinctive Catholic markers for the 37 years of my own existence.

It is an ironic truth that in all likelihood many of those who feel most ensconced within or at least most comfortable with the pre-existing Catholic liturgy will be the ones most disturbed by the current changes.  It is hard when an automatic routine is thwarted…it’s why I spoke of being “jolted” out of my routine above.  I don’t usually like being jolted.  At the same time, inspiration can be a jolt as well!

For me, it was useful to read the bulletin insert “Embracing Change in the Liturgy” put out by the USCCB.  While recognizing that the loss of the familiar is challenging, the insert also stated, “Change is an opportunity to stop and reflect on what we are doing and to come to a better understanding of God.”  I am trying to grab ahold of that opportunity with these liturgical changes.

As result of listening to (and reading about) how others are grappling with the changes, I’ve been able to gain some perspective.  For instance, my friend Colleen acknowledged the difficulty of change but noted how, for her, many of the new translation changes were prefigured by her own experience of learning the mass in Spanish.   She noted that there were many close parallels between the pre-existing Spanish translation and the new English translation.  Recognizing that Spanish (as a romance language) is much closer to Latin than English, her comment helped me to view the new translation as a faithful translation of the original Latin.  More importantly, it made me aware of the effort that it took Colleen to learn the mass in Spanish…no small feat, that.

I also read Mark Regnerus’ blog post on his experience with the new translation of the mass and his belief that it is a better translation.  In explaining his appreciation of the beauty of the new translation, Mark off-handedly alluded to his recent entrance into the Catholic Church.  “Being a newbie, I didn’t have much invested in the old version, so the newer version is easy to like.”  And yet, I think Mark did have a big investment in the old version.   As someone who recently went through RCIA, Mark had to learn an entire new liturgy basically from scratch.  In that same post, he writes:

Many American Catholics have long ago memorized their lines, and even in one year’s time I pretty much had mine down. Except for the Nicene Creed, which—although I occasionally recited it in the Presbyterian and Reformed circles in which I ran—is sufficiently longer and more complicated than the Apostle’s Creed. My memorization skills, at age 40, are not what they were in college.

His post made me so much more aware of how every new Catholic has to go through a laborious process of becoming familiar with Catholic rote responses in order to get comfortable with the mass.  I don’t think most of us cradle Catholics realize all of the effort put forth by people trying to enter fully into Catholic liturgy for the first time.  New folks have to be willing to go outside their comfort zone and learn a whole new liturgical form.

Finally, as a 37 year old cradle Catholic, these changes are easily the most extensive changes to the mass that I have experienced in my lifetime.   And yet, the changed responses for those in the pew can fit on a single front and back of a sheet inserted in our parish pews.  The changes for the priest are more extensive, but even for them, this change in translation is nothing compared to the changes that occurred following Vatican II.  Again, this gives me some perspective.

Doesn’t mean I have to like everything…the change away from “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” is one change that I am still wrestling with…while I recognize the biblical reference in “under my roof,” I always felt that I was responding to the image of Christ dwelling within me in the Eucharist—and “under my roof” takes me away from that imagery; so I find that change difficult.

Still, Colleen learning the mass in Spanish, Mark learning the mass for the first time as a 40 year old, my parents and grandparents learning mass in the vernacular after knowing it all there lives in Latin—all of them willing to do the work necessary to incorporate themselves fully within the liturgy.  That puts things in perspective.  Am I willing to make the effort to engage fully in the liturgy?  If so, what might I learn and gain from that experience?  Time will tell…

I have thoughts related to these liturgical changes regarding how social science might research liturgy, and I want my posts to always incorporate discussion of social science—unfortunately, it is getting late on a Friday afternoon.  So, I will plan on putting those thoughts into another post very soon.  Hope you all have a wonderful weekend!

2 thoughts on “The New Translation: Personal Thoughts (and Research Ideas to come)

  1. Your illustrations of other changes related to the litugy are valuable for the conversation. It seems to me that we have to be careful about how we think about them, lest our perspective be distorted by misunderstanding or misapplying them.

    Of the three illustrations, the stories of Mark and your friend, Colleen, are both examples of people who made personal choices to embrace a new way of praying with fellow Christians. While all changes have elements of loss, those we choose – as they did – are much easier to embrace and adopt.

    Your other illustration, of the change from Latin to English, is, on the one hand, much closer to the current situation, since the decision was made by the leadership of the Church, and everyone was directed to make the change. On the other hand, it is quite different from the change we are experiencing now because the two changes are not at all similar.

    At the time of Vatican II, the use of missals with the prayers of the Mass translated (or paraphrased) in English was widespread (largely a development of the 1940s and 50s). While the people in the pews experienced the Mass in Latin, they only knew a few memorized responses, and they used their missals as a way to understand the prayers of the priest. As a result, the change to the vernacular effectively eliminated a barrier to fuller participation in the liturgy, and this change was overwhelmingly embraced by the people, with fewer than 6 percent of survey respondents in the US opposing the switch from Latin to English.

    Our current change is quite different, precisely because of the habits of prayer that you refer to. For some people, this change moves them closer to their ideal for praying, but for others, it is a move in the opposite direction, and for everyone, it means having to spend more time thinking about what to say (sometimes at the expense of thinking about what is being said). This is a much more difficult change than the one 45 years ago precisely because of the situation you describe as “getting into the rhythm” of the prayer; we constantly have the old and new rhythms competing with each other, whereas the change from Latin to English never presented that sort of challenge. My pastor has observed that there is no chance that he will ever memorize any of the new eucharistic prayers before he dies, and he has actually gone back to saying the quiet prayers during the Mass in Latin because that’s how he first memorized them.