Sigh. Time for another bad Mass changes story

If your GetReligionistas wished to do so, we could open up a second weblog this month and do nothing but write about the mainstream coverage of the upcoming changes in the English translation — repeat, the translation — of the Catholic Eucharistic texts used in Western Rite.

This is a major news story, no doubt about that. However, the whole “It’s the end of Vatican II, as we know it” dramatics are getting out of hand.

If you want to see several key elements of this syndrome in one concise package, check out the following mini-commentary (I am not sure that it is a news report) in Time.

What would Richard Ostling do? Well, he wouldn’t write like this:

How do readers know they’re in trouble? Here’s the first sentence:

Every Sunday, the world’s one billion Catholics usually attend mass.

That sound you hear is active Catholics laughing to keep from crying. All of the world’s Catholics USUALLY attend Mass each and every Sunday? Huh? Since when?

Then there is the rest of this paragraph:

That means that for a few hours a week, some one-seventh of the world’s population is in sync, reciting the same liturgy, praying the same prayers. But on the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27, English-speakers will face the first major change in nearly half a century: a new translation of the sacred mass

The only real problem in this passage is the word “but.” Yes, Catholics around the world are all praying the same prayers and reciting the same liturgy (except for those in various Eastern Rites), only in various translations of the basic Latin reference text that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. Now there will be a new English translation of that text.

That is news. However, it is not a change that is so major that it will shake the world, as implied by the first sentence. The whole world was in harmony, BUT NOT after Nov. 27?

Then there is the following summary offered as a statement of fact, not opinion.

Now the new Roman Missal, as the mass is called, attempts to unite English speakers more closely with the original Latin and with other languages’ translations. But the new translation — even though it took some 30 years to design — often makes the mass even more wooden and more difficult to understand. When Catholics recite the 4th-century Nicene Creed, for example, Jesus will be described as “begotten, not made, con-substantial with the Father,” instead of “begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.” Begotten is hard enough—how many people know that “consubstantial” means substances that are the same? That’s a word found most often on tests in theological graduate school programs.

The Mass is called the Roman Missal? I thought the Mass was called the Mass.

Note that it took the Vatican 30 years to get the translation wrong. That isn’t an opinion. That’s a fact.

The new translation is wooden and more difficult. That’s a fact.

“Consubstantial” is a strange word and will baffle many Catholics, who are not capable of learning what it means. That’s a fact, too.

Actually, this is one of the passages in the new translation that points toward a potential news story. One of the common themes that I have seen in the coverage is that the new translation is less ecumenical and represents a step away from improved relations with other Christian bodies (think Anglicanism and progressives in the World Council of Churches).

However, I have heard a number of Catholics note that the new English translation has actually moved in the direction of another set of churches — the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Eastern Rites. The rites remain very different, but they now share some crucial similarities when it comes to the wordings used to express complex doctrinal truths.

So less ecumenical or more ecumenical? Just asking.

Has anyone seen any really, really good mainstream press coverage of this upcoming transition?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FrH

    I’m not sure where the 30 years of design came from either. Liturgicam Authenticam was issued in 2001.

  • tmatt

    You are saying this is a factual error?


  • Bill P.

    This coverage comes from, and it’s one of the better pieces I’ve read in the mainstream.
    (Here’s the link if my link-posting fails:

    In it is some good context and a nice assessment of the matter:

    The Rev. Richard Watson, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, said that the Mass “has been tweaked for years,” but this translation is not “correcting” the previous version. “What was going on many centuries ago is, in essence, the same.”

    But the words in the Mass are changing, including some of the calls-and-responses, the Gloria, the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds. Even the first and last words spoken, the greeting and concluding rites, are different.

    “The old translation has served us well. … We’re not static. The spirit still moves in the Church. We’ve got the translation we need now,” Watson said. “In 50 years, we may need a new one. It’s the evolution of the church, with God leading us.”

    The story also includes a critical and often unacknowledged element of the new translation—that the English is becoming more closely aligned with other languages:

    Watson, of Christ the King, is a recent graduate of seminary, where he learned both versions of the Mass, and a Spanish translation. The Spanish version, like many of the Romance language translations, already was closer to the Latin.

    And it has a nice ending—devoid of anything snarky:

    It’s uncertain how Catholic parishioners will warm to the new translation and whether the changes will feel big or small.

    Watson said, “The prayers will become a part of us. We will recite them as beautifully as we do now.”

    Says Molloy: “We’re trying to grasp in finite language an infinite God.”

    I would say that the author of this piece, Lu-Ann Farrar, does a fine job of helping her readers get religion.

  • Roberto

    One of the common themes that I have seen in the coverage is that the new translation is less ecumenical and represents a step away from improved relations with other Christian bodies (think Anglicanism and progressives in the World Council of Churches).

    Admittedly, I have only paid cursory attention to the coverage of the new translation but I wonder what “less ecumenical” can possibly mean in this context. The samples I’ve read are certainly more, as Fr. Barron said, theologically rich and the language is more, well, Latinate (well, duh!), but, as has been pointed out, they are translations of the same underlying Latin text.

    Listening to some samples, what came to mind was, believe it or not, Rite I of the Book of Common Prayer. Maybe that’s the wrong kind of ecumenism.

  • Bill

    At the end of last evening’s Mass, they distributed a printed card with the changes in the liturgy and the pastor discussed the upcoming changes. After reading accounts in the press of how disruptive the new responses will be, I was astonished at how few changes there were. And the changes were not really new, but simply more literal translations of the Latin. Everything old is new again.

    I am happy that in my lifetime relations between Catholics and other Christians have grown warmer, but the notion that the Catholic liturgy (or Lutheran, Anglican or Presbyterian liturgies) should be based on ecumenism seems silly.

  • C. Wingate

    re 6/7: As we’ve gone over in several previous go-’rounds, the new translation abandons the old ICET translations of the common material. In years past if I went to a Catholic church, I could expect the same text of the Gloria and the Sanctus and the Creed; indeed, there was some chance that for the Sanctus I might sing the same music (the Proulx setting being very widely used). There’s still some chance of that, as the Sanctus translation is little changed (there’s not a lot of leeway in the Hebrew, mostly in dealing with S’vaot); but the Gloria and Creed have been altered considerably. The whole idea behind the ICET effort in the first place was that there was no reason that everyone speaking English should not be saying the same thing when the underlying text was the same; indeed, with the Creed the unitive meaning of saying the same text is all the stronger. Now, there’s no denying that the ICET texts are a little “looser”, in that they use less technical language and are written like English instead of Latin or Greek or Hebrew (remembering that the real originals of all the texts in question is never Latin). As translations, they reflect the (sometimes lamentable) aesthetics of the era. But the unilateral retranslation means, quite literally, that they will no longer be saying the same words as the rest of us.

  • donbtex

    I read a comment recently regarding the revised translation: “The language of the Mass is different from our everyday language because the Mass itself is different from our everyday activities”

    And many of the changes in the translation are in what the priest says.

    It is insulting and demeaning to think that ordinary Catholics in the pews cannot understand some of the words such as “consubstantial”. Just maybe the changes will force us to concentrate on what is being said and not be so automatic in our responses.

  • Karl

    The new translation, in many ways, moves away from what stereotypical progressive Catholics (and some mainline Protestants) want—informal language that is theologically ambiguous. The press coverage is probably influenced by progressive Catholics or disaffected ex-Catholics who left for some reason or another, like that Benedict XVI is too conservative. Either the Time article is advocacy journalism for the US Catholic left or it’s terribly misinformed

    This Associated Press article is good, the reporter did her research and discusses various controversies fairly:–New-Mass/

  • Karl

    The AP article also recognizes that things are more nuanced than Vatican II vs. before Vatican II.

  • Bill

    Tmatt, thanks for disassociating me from the original #4 post. It was neither what I would write, nor how I would write it.


  • Passing By

    Ya’ll have done good work taking apart the Time article, and the article was a lot better, but I still got a couple of grins:

    It’s the first significant change to the service in more than 40 years and only the third issued in the Church’s 2,000 years.

    Really? Only the third?:-)

    And this howler:

    The text decreed at Trent was used over the next five centuries, until 1963. The second edition of the text was published and became known as Vatican II.

    Well, the ”Tridentine Mass” is actually known as the ”Mass of Pius V”and underwent numerous adaptations, the last (I think) in 1962. The liturgy authorized by Vatican II is commonly called the Novus Ordo, but properly “The Mass of Paul VI”. Ok, I ‘m being pedantic.

    The most interesting journalistic issue is how this is serving as a surrogate argument for the tensions deep within American Catholicism. The tensions are not an invention of journalists, but they do seem to explioit them

  • Passing By

    … exploit them to gin up scandal and controversy, and it certainly serves ideological purposes as well. In fact, it reminds me of the lefty tantrums when the pope gave wider permission for use of the Mass of Pius V for those who want it.

  • Karl

    Let people use the liturgical forms they happen to prefer, how dare he! :-)

    The press typically has issues when it has to report on something technical like science, math, or theology. Theology has political implications, so bias also enters in.

  • Bern

    The presiders are the ones that have the most work to do, but the folk in the pews have to listen to them speak the words of the Mass in Latinate sentences that can be up to 80 words long. …

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    At least the reporter referred to a “new translation.” I’ve lost track at how many times I have read or heard of a “New Mass.”
    As for the translation bringing us closer to Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic liturgies and drawing us away from Protestant style worship. If this is so, I say 3 Cheers.

  • Dan Crawford

    If the secular press has handled the story badly, the Catholic media have provided more cheer-leading than insight. I do believe there are problems with the new translations, and some Catholic bishops (though you’d never know it from the Catholic media) have pointed out those difficulties. One wonders too whether all other language groups in the rest of the Catholic world have had to undergo a similar “purification”,

  • Maureen

    The new translation also makes the Mass’ relation to Jewish prayers more readily apparent. Since this was one of the original goals of the post-Vatican II Mass rewrite, the concealment of this by the older translation is nearly criminal and possibly anti-Semitic.

    Re: length, it’s not unusual for conversational, informal English sentences to be more than eighty words long; and people usually understand multiple linked phrases more readily by ear than by eye.

    Re: the rest, the amusing thing here is that pre-Vatican II memes (“Everybody goes to the same Mass and prays the same prayers”) are being used to promote a particular post-Vatican II Mass.

  • Steve


    “The new translation also makes the Mass’ relation to Jewish prayers more readily apparent. Since this was one of the original goals of the post-Vatican II Mass rewrite, the concealment of this by the older translation is nearly criminal and possibly anti-Semitic.”

    Huh? Examples? Sources?

    And maybe you wanna tone down the rhetoric: banal and mushy, yes, but “nearly criminal”?

    “Anti-Semitic?” Oh, please. The ICEL translators back then were the most Judeophile in Christian history. The berakahs at the Offertory were clearly Jewish in form and left that way.

  • Meggan

    “Begotten is hard enough—how many people know that “consubstantial” means substances that are the same”

    Hey, now they know! They’ve just learned a new vocabulary word.

  • Mary

    Words such as “consubstantial” and “begotten” are quite normal withing the Orthodox services, along with very long prayers; so perhaps, indeed, the new translation is drawing nearer to the Eastern rites.

  • Julia

    I’d like to see the regular press discuss specifics.

    The restored “Gloria” has the subordinate clauses in the original. Currently it is broken up into declarative statements that sound like we are telling God who He is.

    Other such changes/restorations should have supporting and negative commentaries