There is nothing new about church leaders arguing about worship, including whether the rites have become too casual or superficial. Take St. John Chrysostom, for example, who complained about the irreverence he saw in the churches of Constantinople. Back in the old days, he said, people knew what it meant to solemnly observe the holy mysteries. Alas, some believers seemed to be going through the motions -- in the 4th century.
The archbishop urged his flock: "When I say, 'Peace be unto you,' and you say, 'And with your spirit,' say it not with the voice only, but also with the mind; not in mouth only, but in understanding also."
Some of those words will sound familiar for Catholics who have tuned into the fierce debates surrounding the historic changes that arrive in their sanctuaries on Sunday, Nov. 27, the first day of Advent. This is when, after eight years of work by a global commission of bishops, American Catholics will begin using a new English translation of the Novus Ordo Mass that, four decades ago, was approved by the Second Vatican Council.
Critics say this new translation is too rigid and predict mass confusion in the pews. Supporters insist that its complex and poetic cadences more accurately reflect the Latin source text and will bring American Catholics into harmony with Catholics worldwide who use similar translations in their own languages.
No one disputes the sweeping nature of the changes, said Anthony Esolen, who teaches English at Providence College. So far, he has written 90,000 words of commentary on the Latin text and this new translation for the Magnificat Roman Missal Companion.
The bottom line: Rome ordered a new English translation of "every prayer said at every Mass for every day of the year and every purpose for which a Mass may be said," he said. Worshipers should prepare for many phrases that will sound both new and old.
"These prayers are theological and scriptural poems," he explained. "Everything in the Latin is built on scriptural language and images. ... Once you see all of these verbatim words of scripture, the argument of how to do the translation is essentially over. All of these clear references to scripture needed to be in the new translation. You don't have much of a choice."
Once of the most obvious changes comes at the beginning, when the priest faces his congregation and says, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." In shorter versions of this invocation, the priest will either say, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" or "The Lord be with you."
After 40 years of responding with "And also with you," American Catholics will now reply using the ancient phrase, "And with your spirit" -- which is "et cum spiritu tuo" in Latin.
This new translation goes downhill from there, according to Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., former chair of the U.S. bishops' liturgy commission.
"When the bishops at the Second Vatican Council made the historic decision that the liturgy of the church should be in the vernacular, there was no mention of sacred language or vocabulary," he argued, in a much-quoted analysis for the progressive magazine U.S. Catholic.
"The council's intent was pastoral -- to have the liturgy of the church prayed in living languages. Translated liturgical texts should be reverent, noble, inspiring and uplifting, but that does not mean archaic, remote or incomprehensible. While the translated texts of the new Missal must be accurate and faithful to the Latin original, they must also be intelligible, proclaimable and grammatically correct. Regrettably the new translation fails in this regard."
The Vatican's instructions to the translators, said Esolen, did stress that "pompous and superfluous language must be avoided." However, this doesn't mean that the poetic touches found in the Latin -- such as "venerable hands of the Lord," "immaculate victim," "consubstantial," "it is truly right and just," "the Powers of heaven" and many others -- will repel modern worshipers.
Pious language, he added, can have a holy purpose. After all, it's possible that if Catholics are never asked to turn to God and "use words like 'beg,' 'implore' or even 'pray,' there's a good chance they will forget how to 'beg,' 'implore' and even to 'pray.' "