Tick, tick, tick … Mass confusion update

We are almost there — only hours away from the end of American Catholicism as we know it.

The new English translation of the Catholic Mass is a big deal and I get that. I recognize that the coverage we have been seeing in the mainstream press reflects the Catholic liturgical culture wars and I get that, too.

Nevertheless, the journalist in me wants to know what is going on in the following lede in The Los Angeles Times.

The word “consubstantial” does not roll naturally off the modern American tongue. It’s one of those $5 words with Latin roots that tend to make the speaker sound pretentious or, if he trips over it, like a pretentious idiot.

Who, precisely, is speaking in this lede? Who says that “consubstantial” sounds pretentious? Who says that it does not roll naturally off the tongue?

Who is being quoted in this very, very opinionated lede? The story has a normal byline. Is it actually a column?

This is a journalism question. I am not arguing that many Catholics do not agree with the Times on this point. There are many who would disagree. Could it have been stated AS FACT that the word “consubstantial” can be mastered in under 60 seconds by anyone who wants to do so?

This story does include lots of practical language that illustrates the changes — which is good. Yet, even there, the voice is one of a lecturing professor, not a journalist quoting people who have debated these issues for decades.

Change doesn’t come easily, especially when it alters deeply ingrained rituals. Not all Catholics are happy with the new prayers, and some priests are deeply distressed by a translation that they find, in spots, to be tongue-twisting. But most seem willing to accept, even embrace, the new wording, which hews much more closely to the original Latin.

In instances when Catholics have said that Jesus “was born of the Virgin Mary,” they will now say he “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

When they said, “I have sinned through my own fault,” they now will say, “I have greatly sinned,” and add the triplet: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

Voices do show up, eventually, and to no one’s surprise, they tend to be rather one-sized. Here’s my personal favorite, in terms of the — uh — forward-leaning language in this piece.

The Catholic blogosphere has buzzed for two years with debate over the new translation. It has been called “clunky, clerical and academic,” “wordy, pompous and utterly unnecessary,” and “a great step backward.”

More than 22,000 people signed a petition on the website “What if We Just Said Wait?,” urging the church hierarchy to delay making the changes until they can be reevaluated and improved.

As a frequent visitor of the Catholic blogosphere, let me note for the record that there are fierce defenders of the new translation out there who have computers and know how to use them. It would be very, very easy to put together a long list of nasty descriptions of the quality of old new English translation of the Mass as well as a long list of superlatives about the new old Mass translation.

In the end, conservative voices do show up, including the archbishop of Los Angeles. Thus, readers are told:

Vatican II led to the first substantial change in the missal since 1570. Church officials now say they believe the English translation of that prayer book was hastily conceived and fundamentally flawed. Its mistake, they say, was focusing on the creation of a readable English text at the expense of accuracy. The new missal is intended to translate the Latin as accurately as possible.

“We aren’t trying to go back; we’re just trying to update what we had and improve it as much as we can,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. “I see it as something positive.”

Father Daniel Merz, associate director of the Secretariat for Divine Worship at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the previous translation put more of an “activist” spin on the liturgy, in a way that made man, not God, the central player.

To be simplistic, this does appear to have been a battle between the “people of God” advocates in Catholic academia and conservatives who favored the return of more language and images from scripture, especially those stressing the reality of sin and the actions of a transcendent, judging God.

Stay tuned for the day one coverage when this hits the pews this weekend. Please point us toward the most balanced and informed coverage.

For example, check out the following “On Faith” online Washington Post feature by Elizabeth Tenety, which combines tons of helpful info and links to hard facts. Essential reading as the apocalypse nears.

Read it all.

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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.

  • Will

    But…. but….. but….. The “new language” is the OLD language.

  • Fr Theodore

    Considering the first paragraph, one wonders if the author is aware how many other words in the English language have “Latin roots”.


  • Martha

    But tmatt, y u not no that we am too stoopid to say bigger words like wot dat iz? Us just simple lay peoples wot not no nuttin’ and don’t do nuttin’ hard or complicated in we day jobs like working in offices or on factory production lines (where things are now computerised to the utmost degree).

    Funny, when I was six, I could handle saying “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” whilst simultaneously striking my breast, but that was probably the fault of the vicious and savage nuns who beat it into us (er, that last was sarcasm, just for those who think it may have been the truth).

    Fr. Z’s blog has a poll up for the ordinary pewsitters to cast their votes on the new translation as rolled out in America; though he’s a little too conservative for my tastes in some matters, I have to agree when he asks:

    “Was it, as some critics whine, tooo haaard for you to understand? Did you have an aneurysm or become confused when you heard “consubstantial”? Did anyone stage a nutty when they heard “for many” during the consecration? Did anyone faint from stress at the words “The Lord be with you”? Were you able to grasp the Collect and other orations? When the Preface and Sanctus came did you have a case of the vapors or break out in a sweat? When you were to say “enter under my roof” did you vow to join an evangelical mega-church?”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m amazed how I have seen virtually no mention in the media stories on this topic about the two schools of translation that were (and still are in some quarters) at war over how to translate the Mass–as well as the Bible. One school promotes what is called “dynamic equivalence” and the other promotes amost word-by-word literal translation.

  • Lauritz

    The corrections to the poor translations is very much over due. The English was so poorly done. It really stopped my conversion to the RC faith. I did more searching and found the Orthodox Church.

    I thank you for those poor translations. Without them, I would have never found the Orthodox Christian faith.

  • Dan Crawford

    Report from the 4 PM Vigil Mass in Bairdford PA: The words changed but the Express and Quick Exit aisle seats were filled before Mass and empty right after Communion. Nothing seems to have changed – except of course the words. Initial impression of the changes – pretty wordy and some rather strange expressions – e.g. what does it mean to be “held worthy”?

    In addition to the two schools of translation mentioned by the Deacon, other issues have been left out from the discussion: one having to do with the rendering of Bishops’ Conference opinions irrelevant to the work of the “new” translation, and the on-going battle between conservative Catholics and those whom they find unacceptable in the Church.

  • Dan Crawford

    Some historical context: English first made its way into the American Roman Catholic Church 47 years ago on the First Sunday of Advent. English became the language of worship in England 461 years ago on Pentecost Sunday.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    What all of the main stream media stories lack is this: Any investigation into the claims of both sides. Is the new translation of the Latin more accurate? Was the old translation lame?

    It is simply solved by going to the Latin and comparing it to both translations. After all, Latin is the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, and the comparator. A story starts off false comparing the translations to each other instead of to the Latin.

    Of course, that is way beyond most secular reporters. It didn’t used to be, by the way. It used to be that anyone with a college degree knew some Latin. But the quality of education these days is an entirely other topic…

    Anyone I know who knows and loves Latin (myself included) believes the new to be way better. Translation, though not easy, is not rocket science either. The new translation is simply more faithful to the Latin.

  • Bill

    Just got back from evening Mass. Even here in Texas, we rednecks managed to get through the new liturgy with a minimum of confusion. When “consubstantial” came up, no one said, “Huh? What’s that?” And no one sounded like a pretentious idiot. No shootings or knifings over the new, old mea culpas, either.

    Give us a couple of weeks. I think we’ll adjust.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I associate the phrase “$5 words” with a populist appeal to the common man from his superior, usually a politician like the Pappy O’Daniel character in O Brother, Where Art Thou. The LA Times article confirmed that association. The article blatantly whips up controversy, or rather, keeps alive one that is getting rather stale with a series of cliches (including an oblique, but obligatory reference to the sex abuse scandal) and complaints. It’s clear The Times is promoting the translation change as a surrogate for the usual hot button issues (note the “related article” links on the website). The actual business of implementing the new liturgy is not the earthquake it’s being made to be.

    But here’s my take from the Vigil Mass anyway: what Bill said, except I would say “We’un Texans”. There are a couple of spots that really are clunky, but then, spots in the old translation really are banal. The proper prayers were very rich and interesting theologically and linguistically. I would like to have them printed in the bulletin for further reflection.

    Two major achievements: returning the Creed to a personal affirmation – “I believe” – and directing “The Mystery of Faith” from the following affirmation to the preceding Presence, which is the Mystery.

    But I repeat – it’s not an earthquake.

  • bob

    The religious story may be as is frequently the case, the writer. The author sees “consubstantial” and is too unsubstantial to understand it.

  • NolaGil

    I thought Bruce Nolan at the Times-Picayune had a pretty good piece — straightforward and relatively balanced, without hysterics.

  • Daniel

    Why Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! I would suppose no one knows what transsubstantiation means, nor consubstantiation, though both words have been in common usage and the controversy dates from the 1500′s. Excuse me; I didn’t know we were all so stupid! “The word “consubstantial” does not roll naturally off the modern American tongue. It’s one of those $5 words with Latin roots that tend to make the speaker sound pretentious or, if he trips over it, like a pretentious idiot.”
    I do tend to avoid using Latin to impress people, though that is a temptation to which I could succumb. However I hope I don’t sound like an idiot whenever I use a Latin root.
    Adjusting slightly to a different topic; it looks from this article like cheer leading for one of the schools of translation. Showing a bias here.
    News for the journalists: God is going to do what He wants to do, by means of, or despite, the translations. Not because of them.

  • Fla N Kus

    It is very necessary to now reform our music in the Liturgy. The Marty Haugen stuff must go! The Evangelical Protestant praise and worship styles must go! The Catholic Charismatic stuff must go! We want reverant chant and traditional Catholic sacred music.
    St. John of the Cross says we must not seek supernatural manifestations, and the Charismatic Catholic movement says that we should seek supernatural manifestations. Who will you trust? Please repent of any involvment in the Catholic Charismatic movement and you will help Holy Mother Church very much.

  • Passing By

    God is going to do what He wants to do, by means of, or despite, the translation.

    Well, yes, but one does wish infallibility extended to liturgy and music.
    :-) :-)

  • Geo

    Fla N Kus hit the nail on the head. The next issue to be dealt with is going to have to be music. We need sacred music that is in keeping with the elegance of the new translations, not more of the same pop music schlock.

  • Hector

    I note that ‘Cooperation’ also has five syllables, and Latin roots, though somehow people seem to know what it means.

    I don’t pretend to know exactly what ‘consubstantial’ means, but then that’s rather the point: the Trinity is a mystery, and no one is CAPABLE of knowing exactly in what sense the Father relates to the Son (though we can approximate and analogize it). If ‘consubstantial’ makes people pause for an instant to consider, you know, this is really something weird and out of the ordinary, then that’s a good thing. We aren’t supposed to treat the relationship of the Father and the Son as something prosaic and easily comprehensible.

    Dan Crawford, of course, raises an excellent point. English liturgies have been ongoing for over four centuries, and English translations of the Latin Mass (more or less) have existed since Anglo-Catholics first published the English Missal about a hundred years ago. Significantly, the traditional-language liturgies done by Anglicans (which were what most Anglicans were using before the 1970s) are a lot similar to the language of the ‘new’ translation. This isn’t really ‘new’ at all, it’s faithful to the tradition of English liturgy.

  • Karl

    Basically, liberal Catholics accept a “community gathering” theology of the liturgy that the new translation does not support well. The new translation is attractive to those who tend to be more conservative and prefer traditional forms of piety. I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of liberal Catholics (or disgruntled ex-Catholics) work at major newspapers.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    OK, I know I’m going to attract tomatoes for this one (not so many as that very AmCath chasuble in the article ought to, though): I don’t think the article was that bad. Yeah, the lede was condescending, but the subtitle laid it out that the new translation was more accurate. And when you get to the second page, you get to what is probably going to be the truth: that congregations are going to switch over with not much fuss and little change.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Significantly, the traditional-language liturgies done by Anglicans (which were what most Anglicans were using before the 1970s) are a lot similar to the language of the ‘new’ translation. This isn’t really ‘new’ at all, it’s faithful to the tradition of English liturgy.

    Yeah. Across town, the Episco-Anglo-Caths are wondering what the big deal is with the new translation.

    While I think the coverage of this is all pretty overblown, it does help those of us interested in sacred liturgy to remember that, while the new translation is more faithful, it will take some time to get used to. And really, it is not going to be the “$5 words” that people are going to stumble over. It’s going to be “And with your spirit.”

    I went to the first new-missal mass in the diocese tonight; there were no bomb threats or puppy-kickings, and no one stumbled over the reworked Confiteor or the Creed, but “And with your spirit” went over like a lead balloon. We (and the priests) have been on autopilot with this stuff for a long time; it will take a while.

    One thing I am sick to death of hearing in the coverage is the argument (always dressed up in nice language, of course) that the average pew-warmer is too dumb to understand complex theological ideas and the words used to describe them. I find this personally insulting, and it needs to stop.

  • Julia

    All missals for the laity before 1964 had both Latin and an English translation. My father’s 1934 missal has “I believe” for “Credo”; “all thing visible and invisible” for “visibilium omnium, et invisibilium”; “consubstantial with the Father” for “consubstantialem Patri”; and “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary” for “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto”. Not many people in 1934 had studied Latin, but they knew what was going on.

    My 1955 missal has the same English as the 1934 version except for “being of one substance with the Father”.

    I think it was 1964 that introduced “Holy Spirit”, a better word for “Spiritu Sancto” due to the connotations of “ghost” in the 20th century, but the 1969 New Mass English and the tweaking in about 1974 were the big changes.

    The LA Times reporter should have realized that the man he describes below was only 6 years old in 1964 and probably couldn’t read yet; so, of course, he couldn’t understand the Mass in Latin – he couldn’t read the English in a Missal. And the “current” English liturgy dated from 1974 when the man was 16 – the Mass had been in English for 10 years already. This is my 4th English version, if you count the English in my Missals before 1964.

    “I’m just so used to the old one,” said Dennis Scheer, 53, who is barely old enough to remember the relief he felt when the current liturgy replaced one that was entirely in Latin


    Later the LA reporter shows he doesn’t understand what translation means:

    The congregation recited, as it has countless times before, “And also with you.”

    That is a loose translation of the Latin, “Et cum spiritu tuo.” The new translation aims to be truer: “And with your spirit.”

    A great example of “dynamic equivalency”. A word was left out in the version that is now gone. There are many other places in the Mass where words and entire phrases were cut out.

    Whether that is good or bad thing, eliminating words and phrases is an issue I don’t see many reporters mentioning.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    For this former Episcopalian from the days of BCP 1928, the challenge isn’t “and with your SPIRIT”, but “and with THY spirit”.

  • Karl

    I would argue that “And also with you” is not a dynamic translation of “Et cum spiritu tuo,” it’s a phrase that retains some semblance of the original meaning. Dynamic equivalence is supposed to preserve the meaning of the original while allowing the translators more freedom in omitting unnecessary words and using different grammatical structures. Formal equivalence tries to “let the words speak for themselves” and preserve grammatical structure without butchering the English language.

    When the 1973 translation was done, formal equivalence and “high English” were both seen as promoting European cultural imperialism.

  • Julia

    Karl: My old missals also translate it to “And with THY spirit”. BTW today’s translations don’t use “men” to mean all people and that update has been retained.

    A NYT article about the practices at the parish church of Columbia University is very knowledgeable. It admirably addresses the complicated road from English in the 60s before the New Mass through the 2 English translations of the New Mass.

    Never thought I’d be praising a NYT article about a Catholic subject.


    In the 1960s, the parish priest was Msgr. Myles M. Bourke, a liturgist who directed the first English translation of the New American Bible. Informed by his own work, he solidified the mix of Gregorian chant, classical hymns and English-language liturgy that is still in use. The well-worn 1966 hymnals in the pews contain a translation of the Mass close to the one that Rome is unveiling.

  • Julia

    The St Louis Post Dispatch has a reporter who doesn’t know her liturgical terms.

    While liturgy translations will change modestly for celebrants at mass beginning this weekend, the Eucharistic prayers will change significantly for priests.

    Read more: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/for-catholics-it-s-the-start-of-a-new-liturgy/article_6abd24ce-af14-513b-a9ae-8cd9f6457fa2.html#ixzz1evSYrsqp

    The priest is the celebrant, not the laypeople in the pews.

  • Julia

    Again, the St Louis Post Dispatch has it really wrong:

    Catholics celebrated Mass in Latin in the United States until 1973, when U.S. bishops implemented the changes to the liturgical text set down by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.

    Read more: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/for-catholics-it-s-the-start-of-a-new-liturgy/article_6abd24ce-af14-513b-a9ae-8cd9f6457fa2.html#ixzz1evUbhbst

    Actually we started using English in 1964 – I believe the English was from existing Missals that had both Latin and
    English side-by-side, but there were wide variations in practice among dioceses & parishes and also from week to the next. The standardized New Mass was inaugurated in 1969 in English and that Mass’s translation was tweaked in 1973.

    Also – Vatican II did not set down the liturgical text; it was done by a later committee who included Lutherans in their deliberations.

  • Will E.

    The San Antonio Express-News has this great line:

    Vatican II sought to involve lay people in the Mass, notably turning the priest to face the audience in addition to translating the Latin Mass into languages they spoke in everyday life.

    Calling the congregation “the audience”? Wow.

  • Jerry

    Also – Vatican II did not set down the liturgical text; it was done by a later committee who included Lutherans in their deliberations.

    Cue a Garrison Keillor monologue here :-)

  • Will

    I NEVER understood how “also with you” was supposed to be an improvement on “with they spirit”.

    When you are trying to create an environment of sacredness, you should NOT use everyday “ordinary” language.

    All right, I can’t hold it in any longer, I am going to say it and offend everybody. The modernizers don’t understand the basics of MAGIC.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Will–I understand your point and it is well taken but I would say: “The modernizers don’t understand the Christian basics of the sacred and the supernatural.” That, of course is quite a mouthful compared to “MAGIC” which, unfortunately, gives off the aura of being a carnival or sideshow trick and usually refers to something that can be seen and has a “WOW” effect.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Magic: The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.


    Mystery: Something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.


    Put them all together and they spell L-A-T-I-N. And don’t forget the clouds of incense, either.

  • david s

    NPR Weekend Edition did a fairly lengthly story on it, with a view toward the music:

    It quotes choir members, and folks from two sides of the musical debate within the Church.
    Aside from a little editorializing by the reporter, I thought it was good.

  • tmatt

    People! People!

    I’ve been on the road all day away from wifi and you’ve veered off into name calling, etc.

    Back to the journalism issues. And thanks for all of the URLs from coverage today. Keep it coming when the papers hit the streets tomorrow!

  • Julia


    Supposedly the Lutheran theologians were in on the composition of the Novus Ordo because there was a mistaken hope by the Catholic theologians working on the New Mass that the divisions in the Christian community were soon to be healed. Vatican II stirred up a lot of unrealizable hopes.

    We did end up sharing a common lectionary with some Christian denominations in the US, but it never went beyond that.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jon in the Nati wrote:

    Yeah. Across town, the Episco-Anglo-Caths are wondering what the big deal is with the new translation.

    Yes! Literally every “change” I’ve read about brings the liturgy closer to or equivalent to what Lutherans use for our liturgy. I have been wondering why stories don’t talk about this … guess it doesn’t fit into the chosen narrative … or maybe the reporters just aren’t familiar enough with other liturgies to know this basic fact.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    With regard to that lede, Terry, my 4-year-old surprised me by singing a song she learned at school that included the lines “Our mediator at the heavenly throne, Hear our cry and grant our supplication.”

    Maybe I should call the Los Angeles Times with this news …

  • Passing By
  • K G

    Not bad:


    But poor Cleveland struggles….


    Archaic words like “shall,” “wrought” and “thwart” are also employed in the new translation.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    …aaaaand right on schedule, from today’s Wash. Post: Catholic Mass changes don’t upset faithful

  • Leah Blain

    I’m Canadian so we’re also dealing with the change in posture. We’ve been told there will be kneeling basically only for the consecration. Naturally there are a lot of people who are upset.
    While the parishioners around here seem okay with the translation, the posture is definitely an issue.

  • John t
  • Will

    C. Wingate: Next, dog bites man!