A spirited controversy

The sky is not falling this coming Advent, despite what you may be hearing. What will happen is the implementation of a new translation of the Roman Missal. 

This translation is intended to bring the English more in line with the original Latin text and with the translations of other languages, which themselves generally hew closer to the Latin text. 

Since there is nothing that a certain class of Catholic prefers more than a good row about the liturgy, this has become the occasion for a great deal of harrumphing. A rather creatively named organization — What If We Just Said Wait? — began gathering signatures from people who wanted to delay the translation. More recently, a number of articles have appeared in certain Catholic periodicals asking the bishops to bring the entire enterprise to a screeching halt. 

One of the charisms of being Catholic is a willingness to complain about Church matters, so there is nothing new here. My only concern is that the criticism may distract from what can be an important catechetical opportunity: While the changing of words — even the changing of many words — does not mean that Catholics will become holier or their liturgies more sacred and inspiring, the truth is that words matter. The Church no longer uses just one human language in its daily discourse with God — that is, Latin. But as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, having the diverse tongues of the faithful speak as one is still a Pentecost moment of sorts, and the words that our Spanish, French or Italian co-religionists use should closely parallel those that we speak. 

One small example of this is the soon-to-be restored response, “And with your spirit,” to the priest’s “The Lord be with you.” Those of us who have a vestigial memory of the Latin Mass will remember the altar boy’s phrase, “et cum Spiritu tuo,” or as it sounded to my childish ears, ecomespiri tutu oh!. If one attends a Spanish-language Mass, the phrase retains this sense: Y con tu espíritu. The translation that we have now — “and also with you” — is fine, but sounds a bit more casual: “Right back at you, Rev.!” 

What many may not know is that the phrase “And with your spirit” has deep connections with our Catholic history. The point was driven home to me when my wife introduced me to a passage written by St. Peter Damian a thousand years ago. In an essay called “The Book of the ‘Lord be with You,’” St. Damian was attempting to address the question of whether a hermit in his cell should say the response since there was no one else in the cell with him. 

Writing in the 11th century, St. Damian noted that when the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” he is invoking “the ancient authority of the Scriptures,” where it is used in several passages. Then he writes: 

“When the Church receives the salutary greeting of the priest, she greets him in return, and in doing so prays that, as he has desired that the Lord may be with them, so he [God] may deign to be with him. ‘And with thy spirit,’ she replies, meaning: ‘May almighty God be with your soul, so that you may worthily pray to him for our salvation.’ Notice that she says not ‘with thee,’ but ‘with thy spirit’; this is to remind us that all things concerned with the services of the Church must be performed in a spiritual manner.” 

St. Damian addresses this at greater length, but what I find fascinating is that 1,000 years ago a saint was thinking about and expounding on this phrase, itself many more hundreds of years old. If the discussion and catechesis leading up to the new changes can help us appreciate the deep wellsprings from which our liturgy has flowed, we will be the richer for it. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.