A new translation for a Church that's reclaiming its identity

The new translation of the Mass has launched, and from all reports, the Second Vatican Council has not been rolled back, mass confusion did not break out with the first use of “and with your spirit,” and no more than a few parishioners frantically dialed up dictionary.com on their smartphones to find out what “consubstantial” meant. 

After all the handwringing of experts and commentators for the past year, it would seem that Catholics weathered the change pretty well. 

I almost laughed out loud when at the very beginning of the Mass I did, in fact, respond with “and also with you.” Even a Catholic publisher whose company sold many thousands of resources to help people prepare for the new translation has trouble breaking a decades-old habit. When I was a teenager, I remember resisting the change from Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit for the longest time, so I figure I am just innately a creature of habit when it comes to liturgy. 

I do think that the new translation is both more poetic and more scriptural than its predecessor, particularly if one pays attention to what the priest is praying. And paying attention is one positive aspect of this break-in period as we learn to hear the Mass anew. Every liturgical experience incorporates repetition, a reliance on a sacred language and sacred action rather than on spectacle and novelty. The risk of such repetition, however, is that we tend to go on autopilot. Our minds drift and we lose focus. When this happens, we can miss the beauty of the prayers being said, which is one of the most accessible fruits of the Mass in the vernacular. 

This new translation has been decades in the making, but it comes at a moment in our history that strikes me as a unique convergence. The original translation, growing out of the changes initiated by Vatican II, was born in a period of great Catholic optimism. In the spirit of the council, at least as it was popularly understood, the Church was more a partner to society than its scold or its antagonist. In this country, the council coincided with the election of John F. Kennedy, and there was a palpable sense that Catholics had arrived in America. No more Latin. No more fish on Friday. Like the theory that had guided the first vernacular translation, there was now a “dynamic equivalence” between Catholics and their fellow Americans. What so many Catholic leaders of the 20th century had worked for was now true: Catholic Americans were seen as the same as all other Americans. 

Times have changed, however. Now the phrase most often heard in Church circles at all levels is “Catholic identity.” There is a palpable feeling that something has been lost in the last half century. For some it may be the sight of Catholic politicians taking positions diametrically opposed to Church teachings on life and social justice. For others it is the lack of clear Catholic identity among many adults that has resulted in numbers wandering off to other religions or denominations, or no religion at all. 

Most recently, there is evidence that there are new threats to religious liberty in the form of regulations and laws that will punish those organizations and individuals that remain true to Catholic teaching regarding life issues or marriage. 

For Catholics who still attend Mass weekly, marry in the Church and baptize their children, there is a hunger for something more, something that distinguishes them, that sets them apart. Is it only a coincidence that at this moment arrives a new translation that is loftier, more sacred, more self-consciously different from the ordinary and the mainstream? Maybe this new translation is about more than just exchanging a cup for a chalice. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.