Entering More Deeply Into the Mystery

A revision of the Catholic Mass seeks to restore some theological weight

By David O’Reilly Inquirer Staff Writer 

The Latin words Dominus vobiscum – “the Lord be with you” – were once among the best known of the Catholic Mass.

The priest would turn and say it five times during Sunday service. Altar boys would reply with et cum spiritu tuo: “And with your spirit.”

Never mind that some in the pews couldn’t hear or understand them. To purists, the sonorous words of the Latin Mass were mystical, ancient, and layered with meaning, never to change.

Change they did, of course.

In 1970, the Catholic Church replaced Latin with liturgies spoken in the languages of the people.

That old theological weight is just what church leaders hope their flocks will rediscover next month, when they encounter revisions to many of the English-language prayers and responses they have spoken for 41 years.

Ordered by the Vatican a decade ago, and years in translation, the revised text of the Missal to be presented Nov. 27 represents an “absolutely faithful” version of the Latin, according to the Rev. Dennis Gill, director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Worship.

Despite months of preparation at parishes, the changes are sure to jar some layfolk, Gill concedes, and may “take some adjustment.”

But the seemingly new prayers and responses are far more traditional than those they replace, he said, and offer a “more complete presentation of the ideas” at the heart of the Catholic faith.

The revision, Gill said, is a “critical and ongoing part of the work” of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.

Eager to make the Mass a more vibrant experience for the laity – who for centuries had worshipped passively, in near-silence – the council called for user-friendly liturgies spoken aloud by worshippers in their own languages.

Almost overnight, the Credo in unumdeums and the Hoc est enims uttered in cavernous cathedrals and mud-hut chapels for 1,000 years were reduced to relics. Accessibility – a laudable idea – became the watchword.

To those who knew the Latin, however, the English translation lacked not just mystery; it lacked spiritual depth.

“Our current translation might seem more personal and friendly,” Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, recently observed, “but that’s the problem.”

After 1970, for example, a eucharistic prayer that in Latin depicted God gathering the faithful in an assembly so vast it was spanned by “the rising of the sun to its setting” became “a people . . . from east to west.”

Lost in the English was God’s “cosmological” dimension and “the divine blessing of light and warmth that come from the sun,” one priest lamented recently in Our Sunday Visitor magazine.

But the cosmological sun will return to the texts on Nov. 27, the start of Advent.

Returning, too, will be the first-person pronoun that for nearly two millennia began the recitation of the Nicene Creed. The Latin, credo, is a singular verb that means “I believe,” but the 1970 English translation replaced it with the communal “We believe.”

Now, the Creed will begin with the traditional, individual affirmation of faith: “I believe in one God, creator of heaven and earth . . .”

Likewise, the Dominus vobiscum antiphon will regain a spiritual dimension lost in 1970. When the priest asks that “the Lord be with you,” the congregation’s response that year became “and also with you,” not the traditional “and with your spirit.”

Lost in that seemingly modest change, Gill said, was the people’s acknowledgment of the priest’s special role – the “spirit of Christ” he acquired at ordination – in the sacrifice of the Mass.

Cardinal George has likewise observed that the people’s response is not a mere personal greeting but an acknowledgment that the priest “is head of the liturgical assembly.”

A recent poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that three of four American Catholics were still unaware of the imminent changes.

Although the order of the Mass is unchanged, there will likely be some stumbling and mingling of old and new responses at first.

But once things settle down, Gill said, Catholics will not only accept the changes but embrace them, and “enter more deeply into the mystery that’s being celebrated.”

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