The New Mass Translation: Call for Research in Cultural Sociology

On this blog, there have been numerous posts in the last couple of weeks about the new Mass Translations issued last Advent.  As we already know, many Catholics have had difficulty adjusting to the change.

I remember learning that a new translation was coming actually a couple of years ago from college seminarians who talked about the “great Roman Missal Three.” Their excitement puzzled me – I was unsure what the need for a new translation was – my 20 ish years of Mass experience made me think that our current version seemed to work just fine.

I am now in graduate school studying parishes in Chicago. As parishes prepared for the Mass translation, I found my question changing from whether the new translation was necessary to asking how Catholics might be adjusting to the new translation. Thinking in a Durkheimian lens, my primary question is linked to my own sense of timelessness attached to only knowing one translation. This evokes a sense that the Mass is timeless and unchanging, and my experience of the Sacred is wrapped up in this ritual. Yet, certainly, any critical thinking lends us to know that the Mass is not timeless but a social construction. The discussion leading up to the translation led me to wonder how the Mass we knew and experienced emerged over time.

In 1950, Josef Jungmann, SJ, tracked the formation of the Catholic Mass in an enormous 800 page two-volume book entitled The Mass of the Roman Rite: It’s Origins and Development. Though his account does not include the Second Vatican Council, his approach documents historically and theologically what changes occurred in the formation of the Mass as early as first century Christianity. The sheer quantity of pages suggests that this Mass has evolved and changed over time to the present iteration we now experience.

Despite the notion that the Mass is a social construction evolving over time, we as sociologists know that what is externalized, objectivated, and internalized has real consequences in the world (Berger and Luckmann 1967). Thus, Catholics who had never experienced a different Mass before perhaps could conceive of the construction as timeless, and as a ritual, something that linked them to the conceptions of the Sacred.

In our research then, I suggest we study this translation from a cultural sociology approach. In the abstract for Penny Edgell’s upcoming 2012 Annual Review of Sociology piece, she argues that the sociology of religion should look at religion culturally from a) an institutional field perspective, b) a lived religion perspective, and c) a religious cultural tools and symbolic boundaries perspective. I believe these three perspectives are useful for understanding the Mass translation and its impacts on how Catholics are adjusting. Questions emerge for each of these three areas:

Institutional Field: Sociologists have argued that the local congregation or parish as a unit of analysis has become increasingly important (Baggett 2009; Warner 1994). How is the parish as an institution shaping beliefs or influencing responses to the new mass change? Is this influenced by the local Archdiocese?

Lived Religion: This perspective can help us understand my own questions about the Sacred and Profane from a Durkheimian lens. Does the mass lose some component of mysticism for Catholics when it changes? Given the construction of the ritual over time, answering questions such as this can help us further understand how individuals make sense of the Sacred and Profane, especially during a time of conflict and change.

Cultural Tools and Symbolic Boundaries: We know that different “Mass translation cards” have been constructed across the country to help ease the change for Catholics, and we have interacted with these tools ourselves. One church in my current research commissioned new mass songs and others have relied on the bulletin as a tool for communicating information about the translation. How do Catholics interact with these tools provided? Do these tools impact the ways Catholics relate to the Sacred and experience the Mass?


Baggett, Jerome. 2009. Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith. New York: Oxford University Press.

Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.

Edgell, Penny. Forthcoming 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38.

Jungmann, Josef A. 1950. The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia). Volume 1. Francis A. Brunner, trans. New York: Benziger Brothers.

Warner, R. Stephen. 1994. “The Place of the Congregation in the Contemporary American Configuration.” Pp 54-99 in American Congregations: Volume 2: New Perspectives in the Study of Congregations. Eds. James P Wind and James W. Lewis. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

2 thoughts on “The New Mass Translation: Call for Research in Cultural Sociology

  1. I think Sharma’s suggestions for researching the changes in the Mass are on target. I have another suggestion that fits in with the above perspectives – I think. I know that the Society for Catholic Liturgy that was formed in 1995 under the direction of Msgr. Francis Mannion had as one of its fundamental assumptions that there should be a moratorium on any changes in the Roman Missal or Mass because only 40 years had passed since the 1969 Missal (the society still exists but under new leadership). The society argued that ritual theory would suggest that what the contemporary world lacks is SAMENESS (I believe Randal Collins argues this as well). I tend to agree, but what we need to distinguish in our research on the Mass is changes in language as well as changes in ritual practice. From a Durkheimian perspective, changes in ritual practices are more likely to be recevied negatively than changes in language. The recent changes in the Mass, especially for the laity, are mostly changes in language and so I would suspect people are uncomfortable with these changes but they are not monumental. When Vatican II changed the Mass, Eucharistic ritual practices changed and consequently some Catholics left the church. I think these two eras in the Church’s history could be compared in order to gain some perspective on these new changes. For example, I have not heard of anyone leaving the Church because of these recent changes in the Mass. Of course, Vatican II changes were more comprehensive than the recent changes, but most ordinary laity who were upset with the changes coming from Vatican II were upset over their sacramental ritual practices (the Mass). Something to consider in researching recent changes in the Mass.

  2. In response to Mike McCallion. I have grappled with the idea of leaving the church primarily because of the changes to Mass and have decided to convert to a protestant faith. I was born after Vatican II was enacted and knew no other way to worship. With these new changes I find that Mass is more cerebral and less spiritual. That may be fine with well…everybody else, but it’s not fine with me. I feel like I lost my church and my connection with God, and these changes made by only a few Catholics are instrumental to this feeling of separation. Yes, the change in Mass is that big to me. I know it’s just a few words and is supposed to clarify things, but I find it clumsy and irritating. Mass is uncomfortable now. It also makes me question if the English Mass I have celebrated for all of my life was ever correct or if it was just a sham.