Theological quibbling. At first glance, that’s how some of the forthcoming changes to the English-language translation of the Roman Missal might appear. The difference between words and phrases such as “consubstantial” and “one in being,” or “And also with you” and “And with your spirit,” seem to contain within them echoes of the classic Gershwin tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” It’s all to-may-toes and to-mah-toes, po-tay-toes and po-tah-toes.
But, in fact, that’s not how it is at all.
The Mass, for as poetic as it can sound, is no Gershwin tune. The words it contains aren’t there for their rhyming potential. They’re there because they mean something, because they say something true and important about God, the world and the human condition.
Many of those words were first used in the Mass by apostles, saints and Church Fathers. They were drawn from the scrolls of Hebrew Scripture and the written and oral tradition of the Church. Some are the words of Christ. Others are the words of those who followed him. Through the centuries, the faithful have given their lives to say those words. They’ve also given their lives to ensure that the right words were said.
For all those reasons and more, the words of the Mass matter. They matter a great deal. That’s why the forthcoming changes to the translation that English-speaking Catholics use in the Sacred Liturgy aren’t about theological quibbling or liturgical minutiae. It’s most definitely not to-may-toes and to-mah-toes. It’s serious business … albeit serious business that takes a bit of time and study to understand.
So, what are some of the changes Catholics will encounter starting on Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent, that seem small but are actually quite significant?
Et Cum Spiritu Tuo
Now we say, “And also with you.”
Beginning Nov. 27, we’ll say, “And with your spirit.”
Besides “Amen,” there’s no word or phrase that Catholics repeat more often during the Mass than “And also with you.” Accordingly, one of the first things Catholics will notice is that, in the new translation, that familiar response has been changed to “And with your spirit.”
The phrase is an awkward and odd one, at least to most postmodern ears. After all, who greets someone’s spirit? So, why the change?
To start with, it’s accurate. In the original Latin, whenever the priest says to the people Dominus vobiscum (“The Lord be with you”), the people’s response is Et cum spiritu tuo, literally “And with your spirit.”
It’s also the way the phrase is translated in almost every other language, including French, Spanish and Italian (Et avec votre esprit, Y con tu espiritu, E con il tuo spirito), as well as by English-speaking Lutherans and Episcopalians.
“English-speaking Catholics are among the few that didn’t translate the phrase accurately,” said Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship. “The new translation draws us into parallel with other language groups and traditions.”
But the correction isn’t just about accuracy or parallels. Again, the words of the Mass are there for a reason. And the response “And with your spirit” conveys something different than “And also with you.”
“The latter sounds like a cultural greeting,” says Joe Paprocki, national catechetical consultant for Loyola Press. “Which was the point. The original translators wanted something that sounded more like everyday speech. But it can sound like the congregation is saying, ‘Right back at you, Father,’ or ‘You too.’”
And that’s not what the Latin phrase means. It’s not just another way of saying “hi” to the priest.
Rather, said Father Hilgartner, Et cum spiritu tuo is “a liturgical greeting given to the priest at four significant moments, when the priest is about to do something that by virtue of Holy Orders he has been ordained to do: preside over the Mass, proclaim the Gospel, pray the Eucharistic prayers and dismiss the congregation.”
As such, he continued, the congregation’s response is intended to remind the priest who he is, that he has been ontologically changed by ordination, and that it’s the spirit of Christ, to which his own spirit has been configured, which allows him to carry out those sacred tasks.
“It’s meant to be a reminder that what the priest is doing is not about him,” he said. “It’s a reminder that this isn’t about Father and Father’s Mass. It’s about Father allowing Christ to act in him.”
Likewise, “And with your spirit” isn’t intended to suggest that the priest is any holier than his congregation. Rather, said Father Neil J. Roy, who teaches liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, it “expresses a prayer that the ordained may be made worthy of the dignity of their divine calling.”
The response also reminds the laity of a thing or two.
To start with, said Father Peter Stravinskas, author of “The Bible and the Mass” (Newman House Press, $10), it reminds the congregation who the priest is.
“He’s not just a representative of the community. He’s not a liturgical animator. He’s there in the person of Christ,” said Father Stravinskas.
It also reminds the laity, he continued, that the priest “is doing for them what they cannot do for themselves. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit he has been conformed to Christ and is therefore able to transform gifts of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood.”
These explanations are nothing new. Much the same was said by St. John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Doctor of the Church, and by his contemporary, the poet-theologian Narsai of Nisibis, in their catecheses on the Sacred Liturgy.
In one homily, Narsai preached that in responding, “And with your spirit,” the congregation “call ‘spirit’ not the soul which is in the priest, but the Spirit which the priest has received by the laying on of the hands. By the laying on of hands the priest receives the power of the Spirit that thereby he may be able to carry out the divine mysteries. That grace the people call the ‘Spirit’ of the priest, and they pray that he may attain peace with it and it with him. This shows that even the priest needs prayer, and it is necessary that the whole Church should intercede for him.”
Good explanation then. Good explanation now.
Now we say, “One in being with the Father” during the Nicene Creed.
Beginning Nov. 27, we’ll say, “consubstantial with the Father.”
Seventeen hundred years ago, the Catholic Church was drawn into a knockdown, drag-out fight about how to best express the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The fight was sparked by the Alexandrian priest Arius. He and his followers, dubbed Arians, argued that the Father and Son were of like substance, homoiousios, but that the Son had not always been with the Father, that the Father had in fact pre-existed the Son.
Arius’ bishop, Alexander, however, said otherwise. Siding with the pope and the majority of Catholic bishops, he defended the teaching that the Father and Son were of the same substance, or homoousios. He also defended the belief that the Father and Son were co-eternal, that they had existed together through all eternity.
One “iota” was all that differentiated homoiousios from homoousios. But for that “iota” Catholics gave their lives, and bishops such as St. Athanasius and St. Hilary of Poitiers were sent into exile (Athanasius no fewer than five times).
In 325, however, the Council of Nicaea definitively settled the question, declaring the Father and Son were of the same substance, homoousios.
In the Latin version of the creed that bears the council’s name and enshrined the correct definition of the relationship between the Father and the Son, the Church Fathers translated homoousios as consubstantialem. The English translation of consubstantialem is the nearly identical “consubstantial,” and in the English translations of the Creed that preceded the 1970 translation, “consubstantial” was the word most often used.
But with the introduction of the Pauline Mass in 1970, “consubstantial” was dropped from the Creed. In its place was the phrase, “one in being.” The substitution was made for simplicity’s sake. “One in being” seemed more understandable and accessible than “consubstantial.” Which to an extent it was.
But only to an extent. Which is why, when the new translation of the Roman Missal goes into effect next Advent, “consubstantial” will return to its traditional place in the Nicene Creed.
The reason for that switch is much the same as the reason homoousios trumped homoiousios in 325. It more accurately describes the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
“‘One in being’ is vague and open to misinterpretation,” said Father Roy. “The Father is the source of all being. He is the sole Being whose essence is his existence, and he gives all of us our being and existence. So, to a certain extent, we’re all ‘one in being’ with the Father. That doesn’t say anything unique about Christ.”
Moreover, added Father Stravinskas, “Just because ‘one in being’ is three simple words in a row doesn’t mean that the average person understands what the phrase means.”
In fact, he continued, many don’t. The simplicity of the phrase is deceptive. It rolls off the tongue without ever forcing people to stop and think about what they’re saying.
But what they’re saying is something that has to be thought about — deeply thought about — to even remotely be understood.
“When people first hear they’ll be saying ‘consubstantial,’ their first response is, ‘I don’t know what that means. Why can’t we use a word I understand?’” said Father Hilgartner. “But we’re talking about a mystery that no one fully understands and that can’t be fully articulated. In some ways the use of the word helps us confront the mystery, to stand before the mystery.”
Paprocki agrees, seeing the word as a “catechetical moment” that can lead people to a deeper understanding of the Trinity.
“People in centuries past have given their lives defending these words,” he said. “Words are crucial. And this word, consubstantial, is crucial to helping us understand the relationship between the Father and the Son. If the word causes some head scratching, that’s OK, as long as that head scratching leads to people asking what the word means and why it’s important.”
Now the priest says, “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”
Beginning Nov. 27 he will say, “For this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
In the Sacred Liturgy, there is no moment more important or more filled with grace than when the priest repeats Christ’s words, first spoken at the Last Supper, and bread and wine become Body and Blood.
For the past 40 years, English-speaking Catholics have heard those words of consecration, when spoken over the cup, translated as: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.”
As of Nov. 27, however, Catholics will instead hear: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: For this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”
Most of those changes won’t raise any eyebrows. Chalice, rather than cup. Poured, rather than shed. Eternal, rather than everlasting. Each has its significance, and together they give a more poetic and reverent tone to the prayer, but none are controversial or puzzling. The same can’t be said, however, of the phrase, “for you and for many.”
At first hearing, it sounds as if the Church is saying that Christ didn’t die for everyone, that there’s some special subclass of human persons who aren’t of salvation-grade quality. But that can’t be what the Church actually means. Or is it?
The answer is no ... and yes. Christ did die for everyone. He offers salvation to all. But not everyone accepts what he offers. That’s what the phrase “for you and for many” reminds us. And that’s what the original Latin says.
In Latin, the phrase used is qui pro vobis et pro multis, which literally means “for you and for many,” or “for you and the many.” “The many” can mean the same thing as “all,” but traditionally that’s not how the phrase has been interpreted, not by Catholics and not by Protestants who continue to use the words “for many” in their own communion services.
In part, explained Father Hilgartner, “for many” has been used rather than “the many” because the passage is a translation of the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, words which allude to a passage from Isaiah 53 about the suffering servant who would make many righteous.
It’s also been translated as “many” rather than “the many” or “all,” added Father Stravinskas, because of Jesus’ own words about heaven and hell in Matthew 7:14: “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.”
“On a spring day outside Jerusalem the Second Person of the Trinity saved every member of the human race, potentially,” said Father Stravinskas. “It’s ‘potentially’ because not everyone will be saved. The Lord says that in the Gospel.”
Again, however, that’s not to say that Jesus doesn’t want to save everyone. He does.
But, explained Paprocki: “In order to receive salvation, something on our part needs to happen. We don’t earn our salvation, but we need to embrace it and live it.”
“Our decisions have consequences,” added Father Roy. “We’re not Jansenists, whose crucifixes were long and narrow, signifying that only a few would be saved. Our crucifixes have Christ’s arms spread wide to show that salvation is for the many. But if we eliminate human choice, then morality has no meaning or content. One can do whatever one pleases and just presume God will forgive all offenses without repentance. But that’s not how it works, and presumption is a sin against the Holy Spirit.”
By returning to the traditional “for you and for many,” the Church asks us to remember that.
The words remind us, as Father Stravinskas said, “that there is no such thing as automatic salvation. Just because someone poured water on your head 50 years ago doesn’t mean you’re saved.”
They also force us to confront our own sins.
“They’re meant to be a call to an examination of conscience,” said Father Hilgartner. “At every given celebration of the Mass, they’re an invitation to ask, ‘Where do I stand? I recognize Christ has died, so what have I done to accept it?’”
Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa
Now we say, “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my deeds, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.”
Beginning Nov. 27, we’ll say, “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
The new translation of the Roman Missal won’t just bring a change in words. It will also bring a change in tone, calling for greater humility from both the priest and the congregation.
Consider, for example, the language of the Confiteor. In the current penitential rite, Catholics pray, “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my deeds, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.”
With the new translation, however, Catholics will pray, “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
Likewise, in the introduction to the penitential rite, the priest no longer calls upon the congregation to “acknowledge our failures,” but rather to “acknowledge our sins.”
To some, the changes might sound a bit like an invocation to breast beating, rather like the Church is calling congregants to indulge in some good old-fashioned Catholic guilt. But that’s not what’s happening.
As with the other changes, the new translation is just faithfully rendering what’s always been there in the original Latin. And what’s there isn’t there to make us think badly about ourselves. It’s there to make us think rightly about ourselves.
“The words are intended to help us realize how grateful we should be,” said Paprocki. “In spite of the fact that we’ve gravely sinned and have grievous faults, we have a God of mercy who died for us. We need to realize the gift that our salvation is.”
We also need to realize that we all need that salvation.
“In the culture today, many people, Catholics included, have an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ attitude,’” Paprocki explained. “But we’re not. We’re broken people in need of being fixed. We need God. We’re completely dependent on him, and without him, we’re nothing. Unfortunately, most of us only remember that in times of great need. The language of the Mass tries to help us realize that in good times as well.”
It also reminds us that God is not a vending machine for spiritual and material favors, dispensing grace at our command.
“In the new translation, you hear the priest saying things such as, ‘humbly we beg you,’ ‘we beseech you,’ ‘be pleased to grant,’” said Father Hilgartner. “There’s less bossing, less ‘Lord do this,’ and more petitioning, more ‘Lord, grant this we humbly pray.’
“That can sound like groveling,” he added. “But it’s not. It articulates the truth that we don’t dare just present a list of demands to God. We’re not engaged in commodity trading. Everything is a gift and only because God is gracious and merciful do we dare approach him, let alone receive the gift of a response.”
In articulating that, the new translation does what the Mass is supposed to do: It puts us in right relationship with God. It also reminds us who we are.
“We are beggars before God,” said Father Stravinskas. “We are not his equals. He’s not our buddy. He is our Creator, and as his creatures we owe him adoration. We haven’t come to Mass to give orders, but to receive orders. The current texts have blocked that distinction.”
All this matters, of course, because in the journey to holiness, humility is a must.
“Humility involves real knowledge of self,” said Father Roy. “Even the ancient pagan Greeks understood the importance of that. ‘Know thyself,’ said the Delphic Oracle. Christians recognize humility as the first rung on the ladder of perfection. The final rung is charity, but the journey starts with humility. It’s where the path of perfection begins.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
What else will you hear in the new translation? (sidebar)