Mass Changes

November 30, 2011

On Sunday, the English version of the Catholic Mass changed from the version used for the past four decades. The changes made include:

-When the priest says "The Lord be with you," have the people say "And with your spirit" instead of "And also with you"
-Changing several statements that begin with "We believe" to "I believe"
-Replaced option of saying "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" with "We proclaim your death, O Lord,and profess your Resurrection until you come again."
-Replaced saying Jesus is "one in Being with the Father" with "consubstantial with the Father."
The changes are intended to make the English a more literal translation of the Latin Mass. Many people have offered complaints that the new language is too unusual and unfamiliar. In particular, the addition of the word "consubstantial" has drawn criticism. For instance, comedian Stephen Colbert (who is Catholic) declared:
We're trying to get into heaven here, not take the SATs!
Although intended to elicit laughter, Colbert makes a good point. The language used in Mass or any other church service should be something people actually understand. This why the Mass was translated into English in the first place (as part of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council). Rather than keeping Mass in Latin, the decision was made to allow it to be said in the language of the people. However, using arcane English terms keeps that from happening as well. Some claim it is a minor change that people will get used to. For instance, Reverend Tom Willis argued:
This is a change in the translation, and that's it.
He makes the idea of changing a translation to be minor, but it is not. Even as people get used to it, it will change the the service and those who attend it. Using one word instead of another changes the way people view a text, think about the concepts involved, and act in response. As Mark Twain wisely put it:
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.
If the translation change was not a big deal, then the Catholic Church's leadership would not have made the changes. Yet, the idea of having a more literal translation is a guiding translation principle that impacts the texts and how it is interpreted. Both translation goals are good--both the goal of keeping the concepts closely tied to the original text and the goal of making the language as accessible and understandable as possible (these two principles also help explain differences between some biblical translations). Regardless which translation principle one prefers, it is important to recognize the impact of changing the words.