Now That You’ve Heard the New Translations: Why?

(Editor’s note: The italicized words are the questions asked by an educated 30-something Catholic, who attends Mass regularly.)

“Why are they doing this to us? Why are they changing the words of the Mass? What’s the big deal about a few words here and there?”

The person asking these questions is a victim of over-preparation for the liturgical changes of Advent, 2011. Some parishes gave classes on the changes six months in advance. Some parishes presented weekly instructions, change by change, read to the congregation before Mass. Other parishes ignored preparation and let pew cards provide the instruction – a read-along-and-you’ll-get-it solution to catechesis. There is some benefit in the last preparation method because the main changes will be in what is heard by the people, what the priest is saying in the words of Mass, not so much in what the people say.

Take the ‘I confess.’ I know I’ve sinned. I know it is through my own fault. Why do they have to change that? Are they trying to dumb us down – we don’t know this without repeating it over and over? These prayers of the Mass are all I know. I grew up with these prayers. Why are they suddenly not good enough? Are you saying God didn’t know what was in my heart all these years because the words being said were not correct with the Latin 40 years ago?

Back when the first English translation was made, there was almost a strict avoidance of repetition. Americans didn’t need repetition was a reason given. The mystical three repetitions of prayers in honor of the Blessed Trinity (so evident in Eastern Rite liturgies) gave way to one quick salute and on to the next line. An opportunity to take the time to consider, for example, that we are truly a sinful people, as the change in the “I confess” will do does not work well with a once through and drive through mentality.

The new wording of the Mass is intended to return uplifting and even poetic language to the Mass. It is intended to give us food for thought because the new words that will be heard will correctly express what the liturgy has said for centuries and has always meant to say. It is not intended to dumb the congregation down, that was already done with the 1969 translation. The new translation is intended to make the meaning of the Mass as clear as possible.

Why didn’t they do it right the first time? If it was wrong, why didn’t they change it within five years? Why did they let it go so long, and since it’s been so long, why did Pope John Paul II suddenly decide it had to be done at all?

It may be an apocryphal explanation, but the reason at the time was the early translators felt Americans did not, could not, understand the Mass in properly translated English. We would not understand some of the words because we don’t use them. For example “And with your Spirit” had to be “And also with you.” Over the years, “And also with you” has become no more meaningful than the automatic “Have a nice day.” “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth” for “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will” is another example of skewing words and meaning. Perhaps the original translators thought it offensive that peace would come only to those properly disposed.

In the eyes of the scholars then, the translation had to be as simple as possible. That is elitism at its worst. Unfortunately, the text was left to scholars who made these decisions and in some places made up a freestyle translation.

The ink was hardly dry on the 1969 translation before people began to complain that it wasn’t accurate, that it affected the meaning of the Mass. Why wasn’t something done about it sooner? Why can’t our Congress get anything done? Stonewalling. People who cannot admit error. What secretary, what official doesn’t keep certain items from the boss’s knowledge? How many ways can letters be delayed, particularly letters of complaint, or find their way into the circular file? The bureaucracy of the Catholic Church was and is no different than that of any other business. Only God knows if things could have happened differently, if the Pope could have done things differently.

When Pope John Paul II came to office, he came as one intimately connected with the Second Vatican Council and the meaning of the document on the liturgy which called for renewal. He came to this country more than once; he saw and heard the Mass as it had been given to us by our leaders. It wasn’t as if in 2001 he got up one day and decided to order a new translation. He recognized the loss of language, the loss of faith, and began in various writings years ahead of time to set the stage for a change back to authentic texts. Finally, he asked for change. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments undertook the writing of a document mandating changes to the translation of the Mass in use. In February 2001, Pope John Paul II approved the document, Liturgiam authenticam by the Congregation. Early in that document, written by Jorge Cardinal Medina Estevez, it says:

It has been noted that translations of liturgical texts in various localities stand in need of improvement through correction or through a new draft. The omissions or errors which affect certain existing vernacular translations – especially in the case of certain languages – have impeded the progress of the inculturation that should have taken place. Consequently, the Church has been prevented from laying the foundation for a fuller, healthier and more authentic renewal.

For these reasons, it now seems necessary to set forth anew, and in light of the maturing of experience, the principles of translation to be followed in future translations – whether they be entirely new undertakings or emendations of texts already in use – and to specify more clearly certain norms that have already been published, taking into account a number of questions and circumstances that have arisen in our own day.” (LA, n.6-7)

A more interesting question to ask is why it took 10 years to effect the changes asked for. The countries were given 5 years to come back with the new translations, to come back with musical settings for the parts to be sung. And for the ensuing 5 years? Translation drafts have been going between the Vatican and various bishops’ conferences in an effort to get the correct words. Back and forth, back and forth (what does that look like to you?), until now.

“If it was true that it was thought back then that we allegedly couldn’t understand the Mass, then that’s an education problem. Why didn’t they teach the meaning of the Mass to us if it was so important?”

Consider the times. There was general upheaval in society, a do-your-own-thing mantra. The Vatican Council called for renewal and many people, priests and religious included, adopted the do-your-own-thing mantra. Education went topsy turvy as well, memorization was out, methodology was in, methodology was more important than content in both public and parochial settings. In the American church, centralized bureaucracy controlled the religion textbooks in Catholic schools. Only approved texts were to be used. Those texts with “too much doctrine” were blackballed. Very few parishes went against the diocesan education office. Teaching the Mass and its history and meaning had no place in this venue where we gathered around the table with the presider for the meal instead of attending the Sacrifice of Calvary reenacted. How many children then learned that in the Mass, Jesus offers Himself to the Father through the action of the priest? In fact, how many learn it now?

As a result, an entire generation lost the concept of Mass as something special, a holy experience, not just something you do on Sunday morning or Saturday night if more convenient. A generation lost the language of the Church, the church words that were different enough that they meant something special in the Mass: “beseech,” “glorify,” “holy,” “soul” come to mind. The word “host” in the Sanctus, as in “Lord God of hosts,” means the Lord God commands an army. That’s a different idea of God from the benevolent, noninterventionist old man in many people’s minds.

“They are wrong thinking just hearing these words will change people. It’s what a person wants. If they want to change, they will. A parent can send a child to school but that kid isn’t going to learn unless he wants to learn. No amount of sitting in a classroom will make a kid learn. The same with the Mass.”

As James May writes in this issue of The Wanderer Forum magazine, “What we habitually pray must reflect correctly and clearly what we believe, for the more we hear or recite a text, the more it becomes part of us interiorly.” A person listening at Mass will notice some changes and will give them some thought. Thinking about it is the beginning of accepting change. That is why when the doctrine-rich catechisms became watered down religion texts with nothing in them, parents argued about them, particularly with the representation of the Body of Christ as bread. Just bread. Blessed bread. If you say bread over and over, that’s what becomes ingrained and belief in the fact that Jesus Christ is present under the appearance of mere bread slowly disappears.

“What is being addressed here is a superficial fix to a generational problem — i.e. each generation did a horrible job of passing down the traditions to the next. Contrary to the above, the more we hear and recite, the more it becomes habit like brushing teeth or combing hair: automatic, without thought. If someone really has a passion about something, they will be more in tune with it, it will mean more to them. What you’re trying to do with these changes is reignite the passion in people’s hearts, but you don’t address that with line changes – you have to give people a reason to be passionate about what they are saying. The true answer – the one more difficult to fix – is lack of desire.

Changing the words or actions — beating one’s chest three times? Really? Why does that have more meaning to God than sincerely being sorrowful? Answer: It doesn’t to God, but perhaps it does in the eyes of the mere humans around me. God knows whether I am sorrowful regardless of me sitting in the front pew and loudly proclaiming the words and gesturing or sitting in the back and quietly conversing with Him. He knows what we mean, and either we sincerely mean it or we don’t – He knows that too. That is what really matters. We aren’t witches, this isn’t magic — the words we are saying aren’t the problem. If God isn’t listening it’s because we aren’t worthy of being listened to not because the words we’re saying are wrong.

“I’ll bet they lost a lot of people when they brought in the English 40 years ago. And they’re going to lose a lot more over this. For some people, this is good, going back to the real Latin, as if that means something now. But for the rest of us, it is changing for the sake of change, changing because someone has the power to make it so.”

What goes around comes around. Change for the sake of change was the frequent charge against the 1969 translation. And many people left the Church, which holds the means to salvation in her sacraments, because of it. This time however, instead of change that waters down the meaning of the words of the Mass, the translation is returning it to what is an authentic representation of our beliefs about the Mass. It is a change for the better and perhaps the start of enough change to rekindle the passion the Catholic young man speaks about. The words of the Mass – preserved in the Latin texts – are centuries old. They speak of salvation, the conquest of death by the very Son of God – what could be more inspiring than that? Bishops and Popes and Doctors of the Church gave much thought to the exact meanings and exact teachings to be conveyed by the words of the Mass to uphold the Catholic faith:

Since the liturgical books of the Roman Rite contain many fundamental words of the theological and spiritual tradition of the Roman Church, every effort must be made to preserve this system of vocabulary rather than substituting other words that are alien to the liturgical and catechetical usage of the people of God. (LA, n. 50)

Change is difficult. It wrenches us out of the comfortable, out of the same old same old. That is why it is needed. The words we pray mean something profound. Why should we get cheated out of the meaning of a Mass prayer just because it is in English? An entire generation or more has lost the Mass as it was intended. It may take another generation before the seeds replanted with these changes grow strong. Please God, it will be so.

CINDY PASLAWSKI has been associated with Catholic journalism for forty years, as assistant editor with The Wanderer newspaper, as book editor for two volumes published by Borromeo Books, with parish and pro-life newsletters, and as secretary of the Wanderer Forum Foundation. She oversaw production of the Forum publications, including the book Saving Christian Marriage, and planned Regional and National Wanderer Forums. She and her husband have six grown children and five grandchildren.

This article appeared in the WFF’s new publication “Englishing the Liturgy.”  Gain a greater understanding of what happens at Mass and why the new English translations will help us to love Our Lord more! Purchase “Englishing the Liturgy” TODAY!

This article, Now That You’ve Heard the New Translations: Why? is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Cindy Paslawski

CINDY PASLAWSKI earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota, back when truth and accuracy were prized. She has been active with the Wanderer Forum Foundation almost since its inception, while working as a reporter for The Wanderer newspaper. She has also worked on the front lines as a church secretary and most recently as a freelance book editor. As the Wanderer Forum Foundation/Bellarmine Forum's executive secretary and publication editor since 1995, she has overseen production of the Forum Focus and the Bellarmine Forum magazines, coordinated Regional and National Wanderer Forums, and saw to the publication of both Saving Christian Marriage (2007) and Slaying the “Spiritˮ of Vatican II With the Light of Truth (2017). She and her patient husband have six grown children and nine grandchildren.

Get VIP Notice

Have new blog posts delivered right to your inbox!
Enter your email: