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November 4th, 2011
03:43 PM ET

Big changes to Catholic Mass spur confusion in the pews

By Gabe LaMonica, CNN

Washington (CNN) - The Roman Catholic Mass is undergoing a major overhaul.  In an effort to unify how the global church prays, the English translation of the church's worship service is being modified in order to more accurately reflect the Latin from which the Roman Missal is translated.

The Catholic Church is known by some as a bastion of permanence that has not often yielded to the forces of change in the modern era. In many ways the changes harken back to the Mass spoken in Latin, as it was in the United States prior to the 1960s.

“There is an Italian proverb,” said the Rev. Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, a professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America, “that ‘every translator is a traitor.' "

“Every translation is less than the original,” he said.

The liturgical changes are “all within the responses and the language of the Mass. In the grand scheme of things, they’re fairly minor,” said Mary DeTurris Poust, whose book The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass, on the subject came out in March.

“It will be a great chance to think about what the prayers mean again,” said Theresa Leyva, a choir member at St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, as she browsed new translation of the missal at a book store.

“I’m sure the first few weeks, it’ll be a little rough, but we’ll slip into it,” said Sara Hulse, a student at Catholic University from Milford, New Jersey, on her way to Mass on Thursday.

Experts acknowledge mixed reactions to the changes in the mass amongst members of a Catholic Church unaccustomed to change.

“Part of what’s going on is just the way human beings deal with changes,” said the Rev. Michael G. Witczak, an associate professor of liturgical studies at Catholic.

“Some people love change and some people hate change and some people deal with it as it comes and they’re not really hot or cold about it,” said Witczak.

The alterations in language are drastic enough that for longtime Catholics “it will be a big change to have to use a sheet of paper or a worship aid to say prayers,” said DeTurris Poust.

Some of the changes include, instead of responding, “And also with you,” to the priest when he says, “The Lord be with you,” Catholics will now respond with, “And with your Spirit.”

During the penitential act, where Catholics once said, “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault,” they will now say, “that I have greatly sinned.”

In the Nicene Creed, where once Catholics said that God is the “Maker…of all that is seen and unseen,” they will now say God makes “all things visible and invisible.”

And in that same prayer, where Jesus was once “Begotten, not made, one in being with the Father,” He is now, “begotten, not made, con-substantial with the Father.”

Where Catholics once said, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you,” they will now say, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”

The Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the world’s Catholic bishops beginning in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and ending in 1965 under Pope Paul VI, “made some tentative decisions about translating the liturgy into the vernacular languages of the people,” said Witczak, “but once the process started, people really liked it, so bishops around the world, not only in English speaking countries, but also other countries, began making more and more requests to have more and more of the sacraments in the vernacular, until finally everything ended up in the vernacular.”

“It wasn’t exactly what the bishops had wanted,” said Witczak, “but the dynamics of the process ended up with that as the outcome, and different languages translated the Latin differently.”

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), formed in 1963 by 11 English language speaking countries, wrote a liturgical constitution called "Sacrosanctum concilium" that same year. Their initiative was to translate “texts from a form of Latin that dates back 1500 years,” said the Rev. Msgr. Rick Hilgartner, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Some of these prayers have been maintained in our celebration of the Mass since the fourth and fifth centuries. We have many source texts that come from the sixth, seventh, eighth centuries,” he said.

That first generation of translators, in the aftermath of Vatican II, relied heavily on a philosophy of translation called “dynamic equivalence,” originating in a 1969 French document, Comme Le Prevoit, and emphasized a style of translation that focused on the language into which the Latin was translated (French in this case), rather than Latin. The first complete English translation of the Roman Missal, what was called The Sacramentary, dates to 1973.

The changes, put into motion in 2000 by then-Pope John Paul II when he announced an updated addition of the original Latin book, the Missale Romanum, affect not only the U.S., but “really the church in the English speaking world: the Catholic church in Australia, New Zealand, England, Wales, and Ireland and Canada, in various other parts of the world, in India, in some countries in Africa, and in Asia - this is also happening around this time, some are a little bit ahead of us, some are a little bit behind us,” said Hilgartner.

“This is a moment that’s not just about the church in the United States,” he said.

“In 2001,” said Irwin, “the Vatican published a document, Liturgiam authenticam, in which all countries which use the vernacular, their native language, in the liturgy would need to make sure that their translations from the Latin were as accurate as possible.”

This “new” document, new in the relative sense of “church time,” as DeTurris Poust so accurately characterizes the speed at which change is implemented in the Catholic Church, de-emphasizes the dynamic equivalence philosophy of translation, which, according to Witczak, “led the first generation of translators to choose to translate text in a way that in retrospect may have been a little bit too simple in not paying enough attention to the richness and content of the Latin prayers.”

“The watchword has been fidelity to the Latin ... and every vernacular translation needs to revisit their translations in light of the document,” said Witzcak, meaning that Catholics in English-speaking countries are not the only ones who will be seeing liturgical changes.

On the first day of Advent, November 27, on the beginning of the church year, “the new translation of the liturgy will be implemented,” said DeTurris Poust.

And, she said, “there’s no going back, except that we’re going way back.”

“Every diocese and each parish will prepare for and implement the changes as they deem proper,” said Irwin.

“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's website has posted information about and resources on the new translation for over a year and a half,” he said.

The old books, which cost up to hundreds of dollars each will be sent to libraries and archives or buried in church cemeteries.

“There’s specific guidelines on how to retire older books because they’ve been used in liturgy and there’s a blessing on them. You can’t just throw them onto an ash heap,” said Witczak.

“I’m keeping mine because I teach liturgy,” said Witczak.

CNN's Eric Marrapodi and Athena Jones contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Catholic Church • Church • Mass • Pope Benedict XVI • Pope John Paul II • United States • Vatican

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.