The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by Madeleine Brand

Catholics adapt to new translations

File photo of Pope Benedict XVI.
File photo of Pope Benedict XVI.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

This Sunday, Roman Catholic churches across the U.S. will roll out a big change that might confuse the pews. For the first time in 40 years, the Church is updating the translation it uses during its English language services. The goal is to bring the prayers closer to the original Latin. For English-speaking Catholics, that means memorizing new words and phrases – some of which are awkward and much more formal than many are used to.

Once upon a time, Catholic Masses were in Latin. But in the 1960's – the Church translated the liturgy into the native tongues of those who worshiped. Now, you can hear the prayers in the Roman Missal in almost every language. For those who've never been to a Catholic Mass, there's a lot of call-and-response involved.

For example, when the priest says, "The Lord be with you," the members of the congregation reply, "And also with you."

But starting this Sunday, Catholics will have to shake that habit and say instead, "And with your spirit."

It's one of many small but significant changes that priests like Father Willy Raymond are getting ready for. He celebrates Mass at St. Monica's Catholic Church in Santa Monica. Many of his prayers are changing.

Father Raymond said, "I've actually used the new translation with a couple of smaller Masses. And it's amazing how many times I have to rely on the book. Whereas using the Missal I am accustomed to, I can get through the whole Mass without the book except for a couple of prayers that change with every Mass."

The update is only for the English version of the Roman Missal. Father Raymond said the English translation was penned in a hurry and parts of the Latin were left out.

"I heard an English Bishop talking about the initial translation, which was very fast, and being English, he said it's like having a full cup of tea and walking across the room quickly. You are going to spill some of it. Now we have the time to walk very carefully across the room with the tea without spilling any of it."

A careful walk indeed – the new translation was some 30 years in the making. Now that it's ready, English-speaking Catholics around the world are poring over the new texts.

Some are reading pamphlets or watching power point presentations. Others have cue cards, or "pew cards." At St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point, one priest prepped the faithful with a series of no less than 10 sermons on the new translation. And yes – there's even an iPhone app.

All of this change isn't cheap. St. Monica's, for example, has around 17,000 members. The church expects to spend thousands of dollars on informational handouts, new copies of the Missal and rights to updated music.

Gary Denk is a cantor at St. Monica's. The current version of the Gloria is "Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on Earth." The new translation adds the phrase "peace to people of good will." That means Denk has an all-new melody to learn. "Glory to God, glory to God, glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace, on earth peace to people of good will."

Denk likes the new lines. He said they bring a fresh energy to the service, "I would have to also say, these changes coming sort of, in the coincidences of the historical happenstances of the sexual abuse and all that stuff – it's a cleansing, it just feels like sort of a cleansing time."

Father Thomas Rausch said not all theologians are fervent fans of the updated translation, in part because it follows the rules of Latin grammar.

"Sometimes it seems more complicated in English. Prayers are longer because they follow the Latin sentence structure," he said.

Rausch is a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He said in addition to grammar that will try the patience of a saint, the new Missal throws around words like "chalice," "begotten" and "consubstantial." And he points to one passage that irks many theologians:

"When the priest blesses the cup, he says, 'This is the chalice of my blood, shed for you and for all' in the present translation. And the new one says 'for you and for many.' Which sounds to the untutored ear like Jesus died for the elect and not for all. I find that an infelicitous translation."

After Sunday Mass at St. Monica's, churchgoer Jim Dodenhoff said hearing all new prayers next week will be a bit of a jolt – but that’s a good thing.

"Sometimes we get so ritualized, if you will, we are not really reflecting on what we are saying. I think in some degree this will be a little bit of an opportunity to look closely at the words. And I happen to be one of those guys who think words are important."

Dodenhoff admits he’ll probably trip over the new wording at first. But he's not worried – after all, the Church is big on forgiveness.