I am sipping coffee with a friend after having just left church on a recent Sunday afternoon. She comments on the wonderful music coming from the choir that morning. I think out loud, “I wonder how they are coping with the upcoming liturgical changes … ” She pauses, cup midway to her lips, and responds in a confused voice, “The what?” 

My friend is not alone. A new survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University indicates that more than three in four adult Catholics in the United States are not aware that aspects of the English translation of the Roman Missal are about to change. She is not even alone among regular Massgoers, as the survey estimates more than four in 10 weekly attenders have not heard that the words and prayers at Mass will be changing. 

Respondents were asked if they had heard “that parishes in the United States will soon be implementing changes in the words and prayers at Mass at the direction of the Vatican.” Seventy-seven percent answered “no.” This is equivalent to more than 44 million adult Catholics who don’t know about the changes that will occur throughout the English-speaking world beginning Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent. 

Most respondents took the survey in English (82 percent), and among these Catholics, awareness was just slightly higher at 26 percent. The changes in the liturgy will only be implemented at Masses celebrated in English. CARA parish surveys indicate that about 6 percent of all Masses in the United States are celebrated in Spanish, as well as smaller numbers of celebrations in Portuguese, Latin, Vietnamese, Italian, Polish and Tagalog, along with other languages. 

Survey Results

Preparing the faithful

Much has already been written, primarily in the Catholic press, about the upcoming changes to the English-language liturgy. Not only will the words and prayers of the priest change — from the greeting to the dismissal and some of the prayers in between — but the responses of those in the pews will change as well. The changes are the result of a new English translation of the Roman Liturgy instructed by the 2001 document, Liturgiam Authenticam from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.  

In recent months, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been concentrating on rolling out the specifics of these changes to leadership, clergy and parish ministers with the publication and distribution of the “Parish Guide to Implementing the Roman Missal” (USCCB Publishing, $9.95). A campaign to make parishioners more aware of the changes is slated for the fall. For more information on the new translation and implementation of the Roman Missal, the USCCB has established a website with an overview of the changes and resources for parishes (www.usccb.org/romanmissal). 

Mass frequency

Among respondents who took the CARA survey in English, there are a few specific subgroups that are less likely to experience any “November surprise.”  

Attendance at Mass makes a big difference in awareness. Fifty-seven percent of respondents who attend Mass at least once a week expressed awareness of the upcoming changes. Awareness drops significantly among those attending less than weekly. 

Thirty-four percent of “monthly” Mass attenders, those saying they go “almost every week” or “once or twice a month” know about the upcoming changes. One in 10 (9 percent) of the so-called “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) Catholics, who are in the pews “a few times a year” or less often, know about the upcoming changes. 

Catholic schooling makes a bit of a difference, with 31 percent of those who attended a Catholic elementary school knowing of the changes, as are 39 percent of those who attended a Catholic high school and 48 percent of those who attended a Catholic college or university.  

More educated Catholics in general are more likely to know about the upcoming changes. While a third of adult Catholics with a bachelor’s degree or higher (33 percent) have heard that these changes are coming, only 24 percent of those with only a high school diploma and just 19 percent of those who did not graduate from high school are aware. 

Current involvement in a parish beyond Mass attendance helps as well. Seventy-five percent of those who say they are “very involved” in their parish are aware compared with 13 percent of those who express “no involvement” with a parish at all other than possibly attending Mass. Likewise, those registered in a parish are more likely to know about the changes. While 37 percent of registered parishioners are aware of the changes, that figure drops to 10 percent among those who are not registered. 

Generational differences

Some of the biggest differences in awareness are by generation. Younger Catholics might be the most surprised by the changes this Advent. 

The oldest generation of Catholics, those born before 1943, is most aware of the changes. While nearly half of Pre-Vatican II Generation Catholics express awareness, only three in 10 Vatican II Generation Catholics (born 1943 to 1960) and two in 10 Post-Vatican II Generation respondents (born 1961 to 1981) are aware of the changes. Awareness is lowest among Millennial Catholics (born 1982 or after), with just 17 percent of this group knowing that the liturgy is about to change. 

There are a few regional differences as well. About one in three in the Midwest know about the changes (36 percent), compared with 25 percent in the Northeast and South. Catholics in the West are most likely to be surprised, with just 18 percent expressing awareness. 

The revised liturgy is described by the USCCB in “Ten Questions on the Roman Missal, Third Edition” as following “the original Latin texts more closely” and that the new English used at Mass will be “more formal and dignified in style.” No parishes will be allowed to use the current translation once the changes have been implemented in November. 

While the Church still has time to prepare and make Catholics more aware of the coming changes, the current answer to the question of “who knows?” is “not many.”

Melissa A. Cidade is a CARA research associate.