HACKENSACK, N.J. — The language of the Roman Catholic Mass is about to change for the first time in nearly 40 years, as a new missal translation debuts throughout the English-speaking world on Sunday.
The church says the third edition of the Roman Missal, which contains the prayers and instructions for the Mass, is more faithful to the original Latin and more inclusive of scriptural reference.
But some worry that it’s more obtuse than inspired, and even those who embrace the changes are expecting a linguistically bumpy ride as legions of Catholics are forced from the rote script they have followed since childhood.
“Those who have it memorized will be going off the rails at times, but that’s OK,” said the Rev. Bob Stagg, pastor of the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, N.J. “We’re going to make a lot of mistakes for a long time. But it will cause us to focus and pay more attention and that will be of value.”
Church leaders concede that some of the language might not immediately roll off the tongue. In the Nicene Creed, recited by those in the pews at Mass, the phrase “one in being with the father,” which refers to Jesus, will be replaced by “consubstantial with the Father.”
The word “consubstantial’ — created by the church in the 1300s to indicate both the divine and human nature of Christ — is likely only familiar to theologians. However, church leaders say the word better conveys Christian belief, as does another change in the creed in which the phrase “born of the Virgin Mary“ will be replaced with “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”
“The new texts recover many of the biblical allusions that were lost in the previous translation,” said Paterson Bishop Arthur Serratelli, who has worked for the past four years with the Vatican and clergy and scholars around the world to help craft the new translation. “The language itself is much more noble and uplifting.”
The new missal will be used beginning Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, which is the monthlong spiritual preparation for Christmas. The missal also contains prayers used for special Masses, such as those for weddings and funerals.
The new translation contains mostly small but sometimes substantial changes. When the priest greets the congregation with “The Lord be with you” the faithful will reply “And with your spirit” rather than “And also with you.”
In the communal confession at the beginning of Mass, the words “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” were added. And confessors now will say they have greatly sinned, instead of just sinned.
But the bulk of the changes are in parts spoken by the celebrants, or priests. The new missal seems less idiomatic or colloquial and more poetic than the previous translation.
“It’s more formal and more literal, so it’s going to make everything sound different,” said the Rev. Tom Dente, director of the office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Newark.
“After saying Mass one way for over 30 years, it’s going to take some time to get used to,” said the Rev. Michael J. Sheehan, pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Church in River Edge. “We’ll have to get used to some of the more intricate phrases and try to understand why these translations can make a difference in the way we pray. … People will come to see how it can enhance spirituality.”
The changes will seem abrupt for some, especially in an institution that tends to measure changes by centuries. But the new translation was nearly a decade in the making, and was approved by U.S. bishops in 2005 and the Holy See in 2010.
“Some people are interpreting this as a step back but in the big picture it is a step forward,” Dente said. He noted that the new language, in its formality, better conveys the greater weight of the church’s spiritual beliefs.
And if the faithful made the jump from Latin Mass following Vatican II in the 1960s, most say it shouldn’t be too long before people get the hang of the new text.
“It’s for holiness and clarity,” said Pat Dippel, leaving a recent morning Mass at the Church of St. Philip the Apostle in Clifton. “If it makes sense, then it will catch on quickly.”