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The words changeth

Nov. 28: Roman Catholics throughout the English-speaking world, including several parts of India, yesterday left behind some words they have used in prayer for nearly four decades.

They flipped through unfamiliar pew cards and pronounced new phrases as the Church urged tens of millions of worshippers to embrace a new translation of the Roman Missal, the book of texts and prayers used during Mass, that more faithfully tracks the original Latin.

The Mass — the central ritual of the Catholic faith —itself hasn’t changed, but the English translation has, in the largest shake-up to the everyday faith of believers since the upheavals that followed the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Most of the changes are actually to prayers recited by the priest. But some of the changes for prayers spoken or sung by the congregation revise familiar words that for some people are spoken almost automatically after years of churchgoing. (See chart)

The new translation, phased in throughout the English-speaking world over the past year, was officially introduced over the weekend in the English-language Mass in the US, Canada, the UK and India.

The introduction of the new English translation appeared to pass smoothly in churches, despite some confusion and hesitancy over the new words.

But behind the scenes, the debate has exposed rifts between a Vatican-led Church hierarchy that has promoted the new translation as more reverential and accurate, and critics who fear it is a retreat from the commitment of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s to allowing people to pray in a simple, clear vernacular.

Fr Sunil Rosario, the director of dialogue and ecumenism, Archdiocese of Calcutta, and parish priest of Church of Our Lady of Velankanni, Picnic Garden, said the revised Roman Missal resulted in “conscious participation” during Sunday’s Mass.

“All the parishioners responded very well. There was active and conscious participation. It was beautiful worship,” he said.

Fr Rosario explained the significance of the change. “The problem was that each country had different ways of translating the Order of the Mass. This was addressed first by Pope John II and then the current Pope Benedict and both thought it better to have one translation according to the Latin script, which would also reflect the unity of all the churches.”

Sunil Lucas, the president of Signis India, the national body of Catholic Communicators in India, felt that “the people, by and large, are not too happy with it” but added that he welcomed the change.

Others felt the changes “emphasised the spiritual dimension” when “we tend to forget the original meanings of the prayers with modernisation of language”. “Some new prayers don’t communicate old teachings of the Bible and Mass texts. They had more depth and meaning than modern usage,” said Babu Joseph, the spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

In Delhi, however, the changes will come into force only from January 8, said Dominic Emmanuel, the spokesperson for the Delhi Catholic archdiocese.

Fr C.M. Paul, the former director of Nitika Don Bosco, said a hue and cry had been raised abroad by small groups although the changes were “peripheral”.

“What the Vatican Council is trying to do is make it more scriptural. For example, the response to ‘The Lord be with you’, is now ‘And with your spirit’ instead of ‘And also with you’. But ‘you’ already means ‘body and spirit’ because that’s what we are made of. So while the meaning is the same, the language is closer to the original scriptures,” Fr Paul said.

Some parishioners in Calcutta found the changes too subtle. “It’s practically the same thing but maybe the church wants us to be more aware of the original scriptures. There were some people in Sunday’s Mass who found it difficult…. But it didn’t cause an uproar since the changes are subtle….,” said Eunice Pereira, 85, parishioner of Church of Christ The King in Park Circus.

Cut to Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In the cavernous nave of St Patrick’s Cathedral, when Monsignor Robert T. Ritchie said to the assembly “The Lord be with you”, many reflexively responded with the words that have been used for decades, declaring “And also with you” rather than the new response: “And with your spirit.”

Although he had carefully studied the new service, even Monsignor Ritchie lost his place at one point, raising his eyebrows as he flipped through the Missal, looking for the right words before the start of Communion. Mickey Mattox, a professor, said that adapting to the changes “was a lot less difficult than I thought it might be, even though probably all of us are going to end up holding our worship folders for a few weeks until we memorise all the new language”.

Kathleen McCormack, a volunteer at another church in New York and a former schoolteacher, said she didn’t like the new translation. “Consubstantial? What is that word?” McCormack said, referring to a term in the re-translated Nicene Creed (an ancient statement of Christian beliefs) that replaces language calling Jesus “one in being with the Father”.

Elsewhere, criticism of the changes ranged from “clunky text”, “top-down secretive process”, “the syntax is too Latinate” and “it’s not good English that will help people pray”.

Catholics throughout the world worshipped in Latin until Vatican II, when the Church granted permission for priests to celebrate Mass in other languages. The English translation used until this weekend was published in the early 1970s and modified in 1985. Scholars then began work on a new translation, and by 1998 a full draft of the new missal was completed and approved by bishops’ conferences around the English-speaking world.

But Rome never approved that translation and instead, in 2001, issued new guidelines requiring that the language of the Mass carefully follow every word of the Latin text, as well as the Latin syntax, where possible. That marked a dramatic philosophical shift from the more flexible principle of “dynamic equivalence” that had guided the earlier translations.

Rev. Daniel Merz, whose secretariat is in charge of promulgating the changes in America, said the text had been widely discussed before it was put into use. He said the new translation was more poetic and filled with imagery. “I don’t think there’s ever been a document that’s been so consulted in the history of the world,” he said. “Over time, we have realised that there is a better way to pray,” he added. “Not that the old way was bad, but we hope and believe that this new way is better.”

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