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Changes in the Mass: Deepening Our Understanding

Like my fellow pastors around the country, I’ve been reflecting on the changes happening to the prayers that we all pray at Mass. We pastors have been attending workshops and “talking shop” about how we’ll be working with these new texts when the changes are implemented on the First Sunday of Advent.

We have an expression for that in everyday life. We say, after talking and coming to a consensus, “We seem to be on the same page.” That expression shows the importance of agreed-upon ways of speaking.

When we gather for liturgy, we also find it helpful when we’re all “on the same page.” In this case, it means praying the same words to express our shared faith. The liturgy is the public work of the Church, all over the world. Across the globe, our creed and our prayers capture what we all believe as Catholics.

Even in the early Church, a time when the presider improvised many of the prayers at Eucharist, some common phrases and expressions were used. The leader would recall the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Teachings of Jesus and the apostles would be quoted from memory or read from collections of sayings and letters circulated throughout the Church. Parts of the Hebrew Scriptures were used, such as the Book of Psalms.

As the Church grew and became the official religion of the Roman Empire, common, agreed-upon forms of the prayers, gestures and order of the Mass took shape. Eventually, these became organized into what we know today as “rites.” A “rite” is the term for a standardized way to worship.

Ancient Prayers for Today

The ceremonies of the Roman rite were eventually collected, over time, into a book known as a missal. Missal comes from the Latin Missale, meaning “Mass book.” The Missal contains the prayers of the priest and the responses of the people, as well as the instructions for liturgy and the Order of the Mass. (Another book, the Lectionary, contains sacred Scripture. A book of the Gospels is often carried in the entrance procession and put in a prominent place, then is used to proclaim the Gospel.)

In a powerful way, our Sunday liturgy is rooted in ancient gestures and words, translated anew for our time. As we adapt to the new translation of the Roman Missal, we have an opportunity
to delve into our history, discover ancient treasures again and allow the Holy Spirit to work—as the Spirit always has—to transform us at Eucharist into the Body of Christ.

Why Missals Change

By the time of the 16th century, many of the Church’s practices, including the liturgy, had fallen into disrepair. We all know about the Protestant Reformation, how what started as a need for reform within the Church became much more than that! Reacting to the upheaval of that Reformation, the
Council of Trent met off and on between 1545 and 1563. It offered clear statements of Catholic teaching and introduced many reforms, including a major revision of the liturgy.

A new, comprehensive Roman Missal was promulgated by Pope St. Pius V in 1570. This Roman Missal governed the way people in the Western Church celebrated Mass until the time of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

That Council, like the Council of Trent, saw the need to reform the liturgy once again. But Vatican II didn’t discard all that history and tradition. Instead, it built upon it. Following the Council, Pope Paul VI gave us a revised edition of the venerable Roman Missal, with lots of changes, changes which my generation lived through.

Now, less than a half century later, a third edition of the Roman Missal has been prepared and translated from Latin, the official language of the Church. It’s that book which will guide us in common prayer for the foreseeable future.

All of us as Catholics understand something of the meaning of the Mass deep in our hearts. But the external words and gestures at Mass help to bring us that meaning. They link us to what Jesus did in his life, death and resurrection. They help us to open ourselves to God in common prayer. The external structure helps a lot—even if it may seem strange or different to outsiders, or even to Catholics at times!

The wide acceptance of the changes begun by Vatican II will make using the new English translation of the Roman Missal a challenge. The new translation offers a more literal translation of the official Latin text, which may seem to some a step backward. It more clearly translates some Scripture references used in the liturgy, and is more poetic in places. The language is more formal, but some of the new translations require explanation so that we may pray them well.

Even though, for the folks in the pews, the forthcoming changes in the prayers of Mass are relatively small, some understanding of what’s behind the changes will help all of us make the adjustment.

The place to begin understanding the changes in the prayers at Mass is to appreciate that our prayer in church is different from our personal prayer. Our personal prayer is just that: personal.

Ways We Communicate

I remember watching my Italian grandmother fingering her rosary beads as she sat in her rocking chair. I also recall that after my father died, I found a prayer book full of holy cards. I realized that he had dutifully prayed from that book, and probably had used some of those holy cards with devotional prayers from various saints.

Both my grandmother and my father freely chose their style and their texts, to pray as God moved them. My personal prayer and yours might be similar to theirs, or it might be different. As long as we’re taking time to pray, the style, the words and the method of personal prayer are secondary.

When we gather for Eucharist, and for other communal prayers, our prayer takes on a different character. Now the prayer must bear the burden of expressing common faith in a way which will help to unite everyone gathered. Our communal prayer expresses our unity as the Body of Christ.

But because the Eucharist is a sacrament, with the power to actually bring about the unity which the prayers and rituals express, that holy action must be carefully structured.

The Church has learned from practical experience over 2,000 years! Human communication depends on language and gesture, with language being critical to good communication.

The public prayer of the Church, the liturgy, needs to be structured and organized. And the texts, the very language of worship, must be carefully written and mastered by those praying the words. We depend upon the carefully written and proclaimed text. As the priest proclaims the prayers and the assembly responds, the common texts enable us to pray together well, to focus. The texts teach us, hopefully move us. The prayers of the Mass are a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to work in us.

The ‘Family Meal’

When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at a meal, the Last Supper, he forever linked a basic human activity—eating and drinking—with the sacrificial gift of himself. This sacrifice is his love, poured out for us on the cross.

The profound, history-changing events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection are experienced in the sacred, sacramental actions we know so well—gathering, sharing our stories and a holy meal, being strengthened to witness.

As we discuss the differences in the new translation of the Mass, we may be relieved to find the Mass’s familiar structure unchanged. The well-known pattern remains so much like our own family gatherings at home around the table. We gather, we share stories (Liturgy of the Word), we eat together (Liturgy of the Eucharist), then take our leave.

The new translation will sharpen our focus on this ritual pattern. As Mass begins, and you respond to the priest’s greeting, “The Lord be with you,” with the words, “And with your spirit,” you will, I hope, begin to reflect. Why are we here together? What does it mean to share a common Spirit—Jesus’ own gift of the Holy Spirit—at Mass?

New versions of the Confiteor (I confess) and Gloria move us from an awareness of our own sinfulness and need for God, to a spontaneous song of praise and thanks.

The priest’s opening prayer—all new translations, by the way—“collects” the assembly’s prayers. These new texts are rich in theology. They’ll require careful preparation and attention. The priest may add a note of solemnity by singing them, inviting our sung “Amen” in response.

The Liturgy of the Word is largely untouched. Put aside the card or missalette and listen actively to the stories of salvation, the homily that follows and our prayers of petition.

The words of both the familiar Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed have been retranslated.

Sacred Dialogue

Now we move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. There, in the eucharistic prayer, the center of our celebration, you will notice some meaningful changes.

The priest’s retranslated parts bring the English text closer to the official Latin version. You will hear clearer language, which better reflects biblical and other ancient liturgical texts. In most cases, wording is less gender-exclusive than our current translation.

The eucharistic prayer begins with a dialogue between presider and people, thanking God for the work of salvation in Jesus, with special emphasis on the season or feast being celebrated. All acclaim this preface with the Holy, Holy, Holy (Sanctus), whose words are slightly altered.

You may notice some changes in the priest’s prayers as the Mass proceeds. Most recognizable, of course, are the words from the Last Supper, which recall how Jesus gives his Body and Blood as food and drink, and commands his apostles to “do this in memory of me.”

A new, more literal translation of the prayers of institution will demand study and careful proclamation. The entire assembly acclaims this mystery of faith.

The Communion rite begins with the Lord’s Prayer, which remains unchanged. When the priest presents to us the consecrated bread and wine, though, both his proclamation and your response are newly translated.

The people will more closely echo the words of the centurion in the Gospel, who says he is not worthy to have Jesus come “under his roof” (see Matthew 8:8). A more literal focus on the Gospel story’s text will challenge us to reflect on how we approach our Communion with the Lord.

After Communion, as our Mass concludes, we are sent forth into the world. The final words of the Eucharist are meant to give us a mission in the world. The priest has new texts, which can help us realize that we leave each Mass as missionaries. We witness to how we’ve been changed by hearing the Word and sharing the Body and Blood of Christ. When we respond, “Thanks be to God,” we’re affirming that mission.

Some Things You’ll Notice

I’d like to point out some of the things you may notice as you participate in the Mass.

If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that the new translation has a different style. Each prayer sounds a bit more poetic, the language more formal, the tone that of a humble petitioner coming before an important person to make a request.

Here’s an example. In the old translation of Eucharistic Prayer II, in the part after the consecration of the bread and wine, and the people’s acclamation, the priest said: “In memory of his death and resurrection, we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup. We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you. May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.”

In the new translation of the same text, he says: “Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of life and the Chalice of salvation, giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you. Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.”

Do you hear the difference? By taking the English translation back to a more literal rendering of the Latin official text, the translators have given us longer phrases, more formal language.

There’s not room in this article for more examples, but I hope that, in your parish, your pastor will take time to show you others. You can also find the translations on a Web site of the U.S. bishops, It’s worth studying the new wording.

Work of Liturgy

For Christians, liturgy is a great work. At Mass, we hear the Gospel proclaimed. We’re formed into the Body of Christ, ready to go into the world and share with others our identity as members of Christ in his Church.

It’s twofold: At Mass we’re participating in the “work” of God, our redemption in Jesus Christ. But the liturgy is not only God’s work; it’s also the work of the Church. Through the liturgy we find the source of all our prayer and life. Then we do our work!

I invite you to reflect on your own experience of celebrating Eucharist. What does it mean to join with parishioners each Sunday? Have you had the experience of Mass in another language or culture? What was that like? How do the familiar prayers of the Mass help to focus your own personal prayer and presence?

If you start there—with the way we pray at Mass—you’ll have taken the first step to begin understanding the new translation of the Roman Missal.

This is the second of a three-part series of articles St. Anthony Messenger is publishing on the retranslation of the Roman Missal. The final installment, by Father Richard Hilgartner of the U.S. bishops’ liturgy secretariat, will appear in this magazine before Advent.