By Frank Wessling
For Catholics, the activity that most pulls us together is the Sunday Mass. We might be fervent or lukewarm, attentive and involved in all manner of church life or a quiet member on the fringes. We all kneel together for Mass.
That gathering, that activity, is about to push itself on us in a way that will make the quiet folks pay more attention as it has already irritated many of the attentive. A good many changes are coming in the words of Mass. At the end of November, on the first Sunday of Advent, the English language Mass will have so many minor differences that we’ll need cue cards to get through it.
The change begins with our response to the priest-celebrant’s greeting, “The Lord be with you.” We will not say the familiar “And also with you.” We will say, “And with your spirit.”
The new response won’t have the vernacular flow of the old one, but that doesn’t make it bad. The new language disrupts a simple two-way dialogue between priest and congregation by adding a direct reference to the transcendent focus of this ritual meeting.
In the current practice — “The Lord be with you/And also with you” — it should be inferred that the Lord is the focus of this hour. That should be assumed. But the words themselves are virtually the same casual “And the same to you” that we might give to a greeting on the street. Its meaning, even in the solemn setting of Mass, is likely to be kept horizontal, where we are in charge.
In the Mass we enter a drama, not a casual encounter, and the language used should point beyond its casual meaning. It needs to open us to a vertical, outbursting dimension of life, to the transcendent, the beyond, where the extraordinary mystery of God is met and invited to shape us. “And with your spirit” is an attempt to do this — possibly not the best and probably not the last such effort, but we can at least grant that it strains in the right direction.
A great many other changes will interfere with what many of us have memorized over the last 40 or so years. Notice of the change and instruction on the new language should already be happening in parishes. News of it has been out for more than a year, but few of us have noticed. A survey of U.S. Catholics earlier this summer found that 77 percent did not know change was coming.
Among those who have paid attention, discontent is already common; as much for the way this change was managed by high Church authorities as for the word changes themselves. Those are explained as resulting from a different emphasis in translating from Latin, the Church’s traditional language of worship. For example, “And with your spirit” is said to be a better way of translating the Latin Et cum spiritu tuo.
The way Church authorities handled the process of this change has generated its own tension and controversy. To squeeze a complex story into one paragraph, the bishops of English-speaking nations worked up new — and in their estimation better than what we have now — translations of the Mass prayers in consultations over several years. They submitted their work to the pope’s office for approval and it was rejected. New translations were prepared with Vatican control. The bishops, with some, mostly quiet, grumbling, took what they were given.
This is where we are now, as the bishops make a good faith effort to implement something they did not produce.
That good faith effort by the bishops should be met with good faith by people in the pew. One way is to allow ourselves to hear with fresh ears.
This metaphor of hearing with fresh ears, normally used with music, is appropriate for the present challenge to English-speaking Catholics. Our ears may have been dulled by repetition and familiarity with the old words. We may not be hearing the spirit within the words. Even if some of the new ones sound strange and some phrases seem alien to English, their very strangeness may call us awake to fresh meaning.
However we work through the coming change, there is, among all of us, “a deep instinct for unity in the Church,” as “The Tablet” of London, England, noted in a recent editorial. Also, “Ordinary people know very well that in practice the Church is far from perfect, and have learned, by and large, to make the best of it.”
Making the best of it can have great value when it draws us out of isolation and into the communion of ordinary people trying in our imperfect ways to hear and share God’s love.