A reporter called to interview me about the new translation of the Roman Missal. We spoke for a while about the process and problems of translation before she asked which of the forthcoming changes I thought would be the most important. 

Perhaps too hastily I said it would be the congregation’s response to the priest’s invocation: “The Lord be with you.” For the last 40 years or so, we’ve been responding with “And also with you.” As of December 2011, we’ll say “And with your spirit.” 

My interviewer asked the intelligent follow-up, “Why?” 

I don’t remember how I responded, but I’m sure it was some more refined version of the response I usually give to my kids: because I said so

In the days following, however, I found myself scrutinizing my answer. 

It does seem a slight change — the addition of one word, the subtraction of another. But it’s actually rather large in its implications. 

Indeed, I’m not the only one to notice this. The U.S. bishop most intensely involved with the promotion of the new translation, Cardinal Francis George, has singled out this response as somehow illustrative of the whole project. 

But that’s not all. The American hierarch who has been most critical of the new translation, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, has tagged this particular change as problematic — and illustrative of the problems he had with the entire project. 

They’re two bishops, representing two very different views of the new translation. Yet both agree that this little change, to this little phrase, is important and representative. So I’d like to examine some reasons why this simple salutation might be so important. 

Those reasons, as I see them, fall into five broad categories: frequency, ubiquity, antiquity, theological weight and liturgical tone. 

1. Frequency

The simplest matter to point out is frequency. We will repeat that phrase more often than any other in the liturgy — five times in the course of a typical Sunday Mass. We say it in the introductory rites, at the Gospel, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, in the Communion rite and, finally, in the concluding rites. 

2. Ubiquity

We do this not only in the Latin rite. You’ll hear it also (and often) from the Copts in Egypt and Ethiopia, the Chaldeans in Iraq, the Malabars in India, and the Carpatho-Rusyns in the Ukraine. That’s ubiquity. Liturgical sound-bytes don’t get more universal than “And with your spirit.” 

3. Antiquity

True catholicity is universality not only in space, but also in time. We Catholics respect what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” And when we study the remnants of Christian antiquity we find that line again and again: 

The Lord be with you. And with your spirit. 

Peace be with you. And with your spirit. 

They represent a common exchange of greetings in Semitic cultures, one evident in the Scriptures and still in use today. 

In the Book of Ruth, chapter 2:4, we read, “And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem; and he said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you!’ And they answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ ” 

In the First Book of Chronicles (22:11,16), we find King David using this formula in a more solemn way, as he pronounces his final blessing upon his son, Solomon. “Now, my son, the Lord be with you, so that you may succeed in building the house of the Lord your God, as he has spoken concerning you….Arise and be doing! The Lord be with you!” 

In the New Testament letters of St. Paul, we at last find the words cast in the spirited form that will soon be familiar to us. “The Lord be with your spirit” (2 Tm 4:22). “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Phil 4:23). 

It seems probable that this greeting was used in the ancient synagogue liturgies of the Jews. From these liturgies the earliest Christians likely adapted the form for the Church’s Eucharist. 

Also it appears often in the ancient Christian witnesses. We find it in The Apostolic Tradition, usually attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome. Though composed around A.D. 215, the document claims to be setting down the “spiritual gifts” the Church has had “right from the beginning.” 

The Apostolic Tradition is a manual of “church order,” laying down customs and disciplines related to liturgy and morals. Other Church orders emerged, around this time and a little later, throughout the Christian world. Unanimously they witness to the exchange of greeting in the form we will soon hear at every Mass: “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” “Peace be with you.” “And with your spirit.” 

We find the exchange in Coptic, Syriac, Greek and Latin — the liturgies of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Milan, Alexandria, Constantinople and Edessa. It is in the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Constitutions

As we turn from the third century to the fourth, we find another form of catechesis beginning to emerge from the shadows. It’s called mystagogy. Mystagogical preaching explains the deeper meaning of the liturgy’s words, postures and gestures. The mystagogical homilies of the fourth century, like the Church orders before them, all witness to the frequent use of the traditional exchange: “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” 

Their interpretations, then, bring us to the fourth of the five categories we’re considering.

4. Theological Weight

One of those fourth-century preachers, Theodore of Mopsuestia, a Syrian bishop, spoke often of the exchange because it recurred frequently in his liturgy. He spoke of it as a sort of epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit to come down in blessing upon the priest and his people, just as the Spirit comes down upon the offering of bread and wine. 

The greeting, then, is more than a “Hi, how are ya?” It’s an important moment highlighting the Spirit’s power to transform not only the elements offered in the Mass, but also the communicants who partake of the sacrament. Theodore’s interpretation seems to require the presence of the word “spirit.” 

Theodore’s friend and classmate, St. John Chrysostom, went still further in analyzing the exchange. He held that the congregation’s response, “And with your spirit,” is an implicit profession of faith in the power of the sacrament of holy orders. Chrysostom’s claims demand our closest attention:  

“If the Holy Spirit were not in this your common father and teacher, you would not, just now, when he ascended this holy chair and wished you all peace, have cried out with one accord, ‘And with your spirit.'
Thus you cry out to him, not only when he ascends his throne and when he speaks to you and prays for you, but also when he stands at this holy altar to offer the sacrifice. He does not touch that which lies on the altar before wishing you the grace of our Lord, and before you have replied to him, ‘And with your spirit.'
By this cry, you are reminded that he who stands at the altar does nothing, and that the gifts that repose there are not the merits of a man; but that the grace of the Holy Spirit is present and, descending on all, accomplishes this mysterious sacrifice. We indeed see a man, but it is God who acts through him. Nothing human takes place at this holy altar." 

Because they are “other Christs,” our Catholic priests speak and act with the power of the Holy Spirit. They do so when they repeat that five-time epiclesis, “The Lord be with you.” Indeed, only a man who has been ordained may pronounce those words in the liturgy. A layman leading a prayer service may not. 

How important is that little exchange? Consider this: in the ninth century, some local churches enacted legislation forbidding the celebration of private Masses. They based their argument on the fact that, in the repeated salutation, the priest addresses worshippers in the plural — dominus vobiscum — and the greeting requires a response in the singular — et cum spiritu tuo. Without a congregation of at least two worshippers in addition to the priest, both sides of the exchange seemed meaningless. The discussion went on for centuries before the Church settled on a consensus in favor of private Masses. The “vobis” addressed by the priest is understood to be all of Christendom. 

5. Liturgical Tone

And so we come to our last category. 

Cardinal George expressed his hope that this small change in wording will bring about a larger change in the way we experience the Mass. At the beginning of the translation project, he wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper: “Our current translation might seem more personal and friendly, but that’s the problem.”  

The spirit referred to in the Latin is the spirit of Christ that comes to a priest when he is ordained, as St. Paul explained to St. Timothy. In other words, the people are saying in their response that Christ as head of the Church is the head of the liturgical assembly, no matter who the particular priest celebrant might be. That is a statement of faith, a statement distorted by transforming it into an exchange of personal greetings.  

He’s hit on something here. The elimination of the words “your spirit” does seem to reduce the exchange to a common greeting and not much more. But in the tradition, as we’ve seen, it is so much more. 

One 20th century commentator, Maurice Zundel, spoke of it as a rallying cry. The priest issues it as a summons whenever the Church is about to do something new in the liturgy — launch the Mass, proclaim the Gospel, make the offering, or dismiss the faithful to be Christ to the world. 

At every new beginning in our Mass, we draw nearer to the divine mystery. We draw closer than Moses was on Mount Sinai, closer than the high priest had been in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. We need the Lord to be with us. We need the Spirit of Christ as we advance. Because that’s the only way we can be safe, so close to the divine fire. 

In our sacramental liturgy, the things of nature are elevated to supernatural significance. It happens with bread. It happens with wine. It happens with common words. They can speak with power that’s supernatural, and they can effect what they signify. They don’t need great pomp to do this. But clarity and completeness can only help. 

Liturgical formality is, of course, no guarantee of congregational reverence. It’s funny that in another long passage where St. John Chrysostom analyzes the meaning of “And with your spirit,” he also decries the irreverence he witnesses in church every Sunday. In the old days, he pointed out, the houses became churches; now, he said, the churches have become mere houses, where Christians behave with casualness and carelessness, heedless of the divine mystery in their midst. 

He continues in an imploring tone, “When I say, ‘Peace be unto you,’ and you say, ‘And with your spirit,’ say it not with the voice only, but also with the mind; not in mouth only, but in understanding also.” 

That should be our rallying cry today. May the Lord indeed be with us! 

MR. AQUILINA is author or editor of more than a dozen books on Catholic history, doctrine and devotion. He is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology based in Steubenville, Ohio.