Liturgy is like a strong tree whose beauty is derived from the continuous renewal of its leaves, but whose strength comes from the old trunk, with solid roots in the ground. ~ Pope Paul VI
Whenever I’m in the midst of lamenting about some unjust change to my personal way of life, my mother always shakes her head and calmly states, “You never did like change.” She’s right, as moms always are. Sometimes it was simple changes that bothered me, like my favorite television show moving to a different night or a good restaurant closing. Other times my life had the bigger changes we all face from time to time: a new subject in school, friends moving away, or a new position at work. No matter how serious or frivolous, I was always a bit reluctant to embrace and accept whatever change came my way.
The comfort I find in routines and rituals is one of the many reasons why the celebration of Mass is special to me. As I hear the familiar words and prayers, I forget whatever is troubling me and lift my heart in prayer. The words are so ingrained in my memory that I don’t need to look at a missal to follow along – I know what’s coming next. The words are familiar; they are comfort food for my soul.
If you knew these things about me, you would assume that today would be very difficult, for the Mass as we know it is changing. The new translation of the Roman Missal begins today, the first Sunday of Advent. The “old” English translation of the Mass will never be used again. But what theoretically should rock my personal ship of comfort in a big way isn’t; I’ve actually been looking forward to the new translation. As a person who enjoys the familiar, my anticipation of such a major change is rather surprising. After all, the order of the Mass that is changing is the only one I have ever heard – I’m too young for the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. But as much as I love the comfortable and routine things about life, I’m also a lover of language. And while comfortable, familiar, routine words and phrases are good, there’s something to be said for improving the good to make it even better.
By now most church-going Catholics have heard about the change, which is giving the English-speaking world a more faithful translation of the former Latin Mass. When I first heard about it a couple of years ago, my first thought was, “Oh, good!” because I recognized that something wasn’t quite right with the words I was so used to saying. When I attended Mass in Italy, I realized that the congregation was not saying what we say in English. The phrase that I understood was the people’s response to the priest’s greeting of “The Lord be with you”. I knew enough of the language to know they were saying “And with your spirit” and I knew that the phrase had been the response in the older Latin Mass. And I wondered…why was our English translation dumbed down?
The language of the Mass that I have come to know wasn’t exactly a word for word translation of the old Latin. Maybe “dumbed down” is a little harsh – I’m sure the original translators would have said that the language was “more accessible”. In fact, the main complaint about the new translation is that the language is becoming too lofty – too inaccessible for our modern sensibilities and understanding. But give us a little more credit than that – maybe the words we use for worship should be lofty and majestic! We are worshiping our Creator, not conversing about the latest reality show. Starting today, the words will be more poetic – especially the prayers that the priest will say.
The one familiar phrase I will miss is in the prayer after the Our Father (called the embolism) in which the priest prays to “protect us from all anxiety”. I always liked the sound of that. The new version will ask to keep us “safe from all distress” – an equally comforting thought, but it will sound different to my ears. Change isn’t easy, and I think it will take a long time until I’m used to the new words and know them by heart the way I knew the old. To get to that point, I’m going to have to do something that we often forget to do when it comes to the “familiar” – I’m going to have to listen.
While it will take a while for me to remember the new words, I will come to appreciate the richness and beauty of the new translation. Some day those of us that grew up with “the old” will either remember this shift to “the new” as a significant change – or the “new” will become so familiar that we won’t ever remember the liturgy having been different.
Take time to listen closely to the “new” liturgy and enjoy some of the poetic imagery. It may sound a little different from what we’re used to, but the words are beautiful. If a skeptical routine-loving change-resister like me can appreciate the fine tuning of the language, anyone can.