Does This Mass Have Mass Appeal?

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The vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Thursday to approve (with some exceptions) a new English translation of the daily Mass may seem like a minor piece of religious linguistic business. But in reality, it amounts to the swallowing of some very bitter medicine administered by the Vatican. Or, perhaps, it could be better described as part of a slow-motion kick in the bishops' teeth, with repercussions for all English-speaking believers.

Whether this is a change with mass, as well as Mass, repercussions isn't clear yet. It will certainly affect every Catholic churchgoer every Sunday, although admittedly not anywhere as drastically as would the ultimate liberal bugbear, a return to Latin exlusively. And by definition the changes are in tone rather than content. Yet to some the tone is of a record running backwards, towards a linguistic stiltedness that will discourage rather than invite Catholics to think about what they are saying. One of the most prominent switches is from the exchange between priest and congregation: "The Lord be with you." "And also with you." In the new version it reads, "The Lord be with you." "And with your spirit." Says Fr. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit weekly America who also celebrates weekly Mass at a Manhattan church, "When do you say to someone, I hope your spirit has a nice day today?'" He adds, "It just doesn't translate."

Or you could say it's over-translated. The Church's second Vatican Council of 1962-65 decreed that every Catholic should be able to experience the Mass in his or her own language, in addition to Latin. The Church produced an initial English version, which everyone agreed would have to be refined; and the bishops from the world's English-speaking dioceses appointed an expert committee that completed most of the job in the 1980s — or at least that's what most of its participants thought.

They had attempted to take Vatican II at the Church's word, understanding its call for "full, conscious and active" liturgical participation by the faithful to suggest a Mass that people could truly understand and relate to. As a result, they developed a text based on "dynamic equivalency" to the Latin rather than word-for-word translation — in other words, a version that honored the spirit as well as the letter of the text. Among their changes was a replacement of some of the hes with more inclusive gender language.

However, under John Paul II inclusive language fell out of favor, and dynamism took a backseat to strict construction. In 1998, to the bishops' immense frustration, the Vatican refused to accept their version. Although angered at the rebuff, the translation committee went back to the drawing board, and eventually came up with the Mass that was voted on yesterday.

Are the bishops happy with it? Almost certainly not. Did they have a choice? Well, at the beginning of this year they received an instruction from Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship, declaring it "not acceptable to maintain that people have become accustomed to a certain translation for the past 30 or 40 years" as a reason to reject the changes and noting that the Vatican had the right to impose a translation in any case. Despite this, until Thursday there was real speculation that the U.S. bishops — who, like their brethren globally, have chafed increasingly about being treated like branch managers rather than ecclesial princes in their own right (or, er, rite) — might vote down the new version and initiate liturgical insurrection. The fact that they've decided to decline some of the changes — such as the substitution of the phrase "consubstantial with the Father" in describing Christ for "one in being with the Father," on the argument that the latter uses more understandable words — suggests that they are not totally rolling over. But, as they have learned the hard way since Vatican II, it may only be a matter of time before their non-acceptance is deemed unacceptable.