Having come of age in the years after Vatican II, I never knew the Catholic Mass in Latin. In fact, the only version I know is the one that's been celebrated for the past 40 years. So I didn't take too kindly to the idea that the words and responses of the Mass would be changing, and I'd have to look at a written guide to get me through the prayers that have rolled off my tongue since childhood.
The impending changes to the English translation of the universal Roman Missal have sparked controversy among Catholics, to be sure. Some wonder why we need a new translation when the old one seemed to be working just fine. They see the new language--which brings the English more closely in line with the original Latin--as a return to a harsher time, a past that no longer fits our modern way of thinking. Others see the changes as a long time coming, a correction of a translation that was always slightly "off." Whatever side of the fence you're on, the changes are less than one month away. It's time to adapt and move forward. The new translation of the Roman Missal will go into effect on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, which is the beginning of the Church year for Catholics.
So what will these changes mean for you? They will probably feel somewhat strange at first, and no doubt there will be some things that may never feel right. I'm not going to try to convince anyone that referring to Jesus as "consubstantial with the Father" in the Nicene Creed where we once had the almost-lilting "one in being with the Father" is ever going to feel normal, let alone be an improvement. But, if we approach the changes with an open mind and, more importantly, an open heart, we just might find our connection to the Mass reinvigorated for the first time in years, something Catholics in this country could sorely use.
Here are four basic guidelines for making the new Mass your own:
- Get to know the Scriptural references behind some of the changes. When I first heard that the short prayer said before Communion was changing, I balked. Where we once had the straightforward, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed," we will now say: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." First reaction: What roof? Whose roof? Why are we discussing a roof? Once I got past that initial annoyance and remembered my Scripture lessons, I had that aha moment. Remember the scene from the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, the one where the Roman centurion comes to Jesus seeking healing for his servant? Jesus offers to go to the soldier's home, but the centurion responds: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant shall be healed." See what I mean? Aha! At that moment, as we are preparing to receive Jesus in Communion, we can ask ourselves, do we have the faith of the Roman soldier? Do we truly believe that Jesus just has to say the word and we are healed? Many of the changes have similar Scriptural connections that provide a better understanding, if not a clear-cut explanation. Who says Catholics don't focus enough on the Bible?
- Learn some new moves. Catholics are used to a certain amount of, shall we say, physicality during Mass. To an outsider, a Catholic Mass can look a bit like an aerobics class, what with all the sitting, standing and kneeling. But, as with all things Catholic, there are reasons--usually ancient reasons--for each and every movement. We stand whenever we sing or pray together because it's a posture of respect and praise. We sit when we are listening, learning or meditating, just as Jesus' followers sat around him when he preached. We kneel as a sign of total reverence and adoration. In the new translation, we get a few new prayer moves: During the Confiteor ('I confess'), for example, when we say the new/old words "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault" (the literal translation of the well-known "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa"), we are instructed to take our right hand and gently "strike" our breast just over our heart, just as my parents did in the pre-Vatican II days. Like the other physical gestures we use during Mass, this one is meant to be an outward expression of our inward prayer.
- Use a cheat sheet, and take a prep class, if possible. Many parishes and dioceses around the country are offering courses and workshops to help Catholics adapt to the new changes. Some are rolling out certain parts of the new translation slowly, ahead of schedule. Others are introducing the changes in sung versions in order to break the autopilot recitation of prayers we are prone to slip into at Mass. Parishes will be using written worship aids with the new prayers. Don't feel embarrassed to use these sheets, thinking you should know this new language by heart. Very few people--probably not even your priest--will have this language down cold from the get go.
- Let this be an opportunity for renewal. If you go to Mass week after week, year after year, it's easy to get the been-there-done-that feeling. Sometimes it takes something dramatic to snap us out of our complacency. Learning the new language, responding to the priest in a different way, using new physical gestures--all of it will require some attention to detail. That can be a very good thing for our spiritual lives because whenever we have to stop and reflect on the words we say and the meaning behind things we once took for granted, we can't help but enter more deeply into our faith. Even when we're annoyed by a change, it forces us to confront the "Why?" and get to the heart of what we really believe. And that's never a bad thing.
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