28 November 2011

A Catholic Moment:
Changes to the Mass

I'm what I've heard a lot of people around here call a “Cradle Catholic.” That's 45 years of attending Mass. I was born late enough that I missed most of the major pains when the Church decided to switch to the vernacular from Latin. However, I've seen a number of changes to the Mass over the years. Some were official. When I was a year or so past my First Communion the Church changed from parishioners kneeling in a row in front of the altar and having the priest administer the Host directly to the tongue to the parishioners standing in line and having the priest pass the Host to the parishioner's hands so the parishioner could put it in his own mouth. The institution of altar boys has disappeared and with it went the ringing of the bell when the bread transubstantiated into the Body and the wine into the Blood (I think this is a shame as it marked the important moment of mass and added an element of solemnity and majesty).

Additionally, I have seen any number of changes which have been either semi-official or undertaken by parishioners. We hold hands with the people standing next to us when we say the Our Father. The older minute of silence to remember those for whom we wish to pray has changed to asking for whom we have prayers and parishioners announcing names and reasons to pray for certain individuals. When I was young the only person I remember crossing his forehead, lips, and heart before the priest read the Gospel was the priest (asking Christ to be in his mind, on his lips and in his heart). Now everybody in the church does it. And we appear to have co-opted that most Protestant of Protestant songs “Amazing Grace.” It's strange hearing a song written by an Episcopalian Preacher which was the theme of the Second Great Awakening (which strongly established the Methodist and Baptist denominations in the U.S.) being played once or twice a month at the beginning or end of a Catholic Mass.

Yesterday, the Church introduced the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Priests everywhere led their churches through new versions of the prayers that many of them had been saying their entire lives (including me). We all stumbled as we would say prayers which were almost instinctual, but aren't the form of the new translation.

The one which caught pretty much everyone at least once during the Mass was “And with your spirit.” Several times during Mass the priest says “The Lord be with you.” Ever since the first translation into English the congregation has answered “And also with you.” It's a knee jerk reaction by now. Yesterday, that answer changed to “And with your spirit.” This is a direct, and much better, translation of the Latin “Et cum spiritu tuo.” This translation obviously corrects a failure in the original translation, but it was also the one which tripped people up the most.

The rest of the translations are a mixed bag. If you've ever done any serious translation work, you know there are those who tend toward simplicity of understanding and those who cleave to the idea that translations must be as true as possible to the original even if it means adding unecessary prepositions and conjunctions1 and using words which are almost never used in the receiving language. The original English translation was a translation which valued simplicity. The new translation values accuracy.

The Penitential Act


I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.


I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

This translation does a much better job of emphasizing the continuing nature of willful, sinful behavior on the part of man. I think the original may be seen as a reflection of the time when it was translated. It is an accurate, but simple translation. The new translation brings home the nature of the failing much better.

More interesting is the new translation of the Nicene Creed. I don't have time to get into that this morning and this is a busy week, so look for a discussion of that next Saturday or Sunday.


1 Prepositions and conjunctions are always a place where translators will vary because they vary in shades of meaning and use from language to language such that they often don't have exact translations and can be translated as a couple different words or even just as a comma.

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