HEINE: Celebrating the new Mass

On Nov. 27, American Catholic parishes will begin using the new Roman Missal, a Mass guide which, most importantly, rewords many of the Mass’ standard prayers. The new wording stays truer to the Latin Mass used by the Vatican, but it has caused controversy among both laypeople and clergy.

Some have wondered about the necessity of these changes, justifiably noting that it will take some time to learn all of the prayers’ new wordings. Others have complained that the new Mass has strayed too far from a conversational tone, fearing that the theologically uneducated might feel confused and alienated by the diction. However, the new translation is both beautiful and necessary. Its language erases former ambiguities, better connects the Mass to the Bible and traditional Catholic theology and reveals greater internal coherence within the Mass.

Some of the old translation’s language lacked precision: some lines were opaque, and others may have even caused unsuspecting error and theological confusion. For example, the old Nicene Creed referred to Christ as “the only Son” of the Father, a potentially confusing statement since Christians also call themselves the adopted “children” of God. Recognizing this, the Church changed the wording to call Christ the “Only Begotten Son,” eliminating a large chance for theological error by merely inserting an adjective.

For another example, consider the old Eucharistic prayer, which states that “Through Him [Christ], with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father.” Here, the translators chose to leave “almighty Father” until the very end, making a sentence that primarily seems to say that “All glory is yours, Father.”

This indeed is a fine statement, but it does not sufficiently emphasize Christ’s role or the unity of the Trinity. Now, enabled by the flexibility of Latin word order, the translators have pushed the “Almighty Father” back, so the prayer reads “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours.” This move makes Christ’s necessity clearer and better emphasizes the glorious nature of all the persons, not just the Father.

In addition to removing such ambiguities, the new translation also better connects the Mass to Scripture. For example, one Eucharistic prayer will now read “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” instead of “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” This may not seem like an improvement, but the new words more clearly refer to Matthew 8:8, in which a centurion with a sick servant speaks to Jesus, asking him to heal the servant. Many other prayers already have a clear Scriptural basis, but this will add to the number, further emphasizing the necessity and importance of Scripture.

Similarly, other rewordings will increase the Mass’s explicit connection to the Church’s theological canon. For example, the Nicene Creed will say “consubstantial,” instead of “one in being,” going to the word used by Thomas Aquinas and other theologians and ideally increasing the faithful’s confidence about reading theology. This may seem inconsequential, but, perhaps contrary to popular belief, all Christians should have a strong theological understanding.

The lack of such an education typically leads one to form false or incomplete notions about God, while a proper understanding and use of theology enhances one’s prayer life. We will indeed never understand God completely, but we can certainly understand Him to a greater degree and should use theology to provide ourselves material for meditation.

The new translation will also reveal the great internal coherence within the Mass. For example, the Gloria will now have a threefold cry for mercy in it, comparable to the Agnus Dei’s. Similarly, the Confiteor will also have a threefold reflection on sinfulness, as the faithful say “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” These moves will highlight patterns and connections in the Mass while also emphasizing our great sinfulness, inspiring a reflection that makes God’s mercy seem all the greater.

The new translation seems wonderful to me, though some may still object to the Mass’s lack of a conversational tone, seeing this as something which may distance the faithful from the liturgy. In response, I would at least point to all of the new translation’s aforementioned benefits and argue that these benefits outweigh this negative change, if it even is a negative.

I would even venture to say that the lack of a conversational tone is a positive change, for it enhances the gravity and sanctity of the proceedings. No matter which position you take, though, it seems to me that the new translation is positive on the whole, and I stand behind it wholeheartedly.

Travis Heine is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at travis.heine@yale.edu. 


  • The Anti-Yale

    There used to be a “tiny” gothic RCC church in Mt. Carmel. I, a renegade Congregationalist, would sneak in there and listen to the latin mass when I was ten or eleven years old. I never understood a word, but I recognized that I had entered a different dimension—-perhaps one might even call it a spiritual dimension.

    I’m with the last two Popes on this one: English just doesn’t do it.

  • bcrosby

    So this is a really interesting piece, and I’m glad that Travis is bringing the new version of the Missal to the attention of more than just Roman Catholic and religious studies circles. That said, I worry that this column, providing as it does an account of the changes justified by scholarly and theological expertise, leaves out pretty crucial political-liturgical and political-ecclesiological sides to this story. It seems to me that the story of the new Roman Missal is inextricable from the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and the traditionalist ‘Reform of the Reform’ movement which has emerged in Vatican II’s wake. These conflicting currents of liturgical thought and practice are themselves inseparable from questions of the location of religious authority and power within the Catholic Church, questions also raised by actions such as the decision of the Vatican to investigate several orders of women religious or to censure Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson, to use two recent examples. The new Missal is more than just a question of translation – it also plays a part in much broader controversies and changes within the Church. I would have loved to see this column address that.

  • RexMottram08

    The hermeneutic of continuity builds under BXVI!

    Marvelous, just marvelous!

  • River_Tam

    Cool. Learned a lot from this piece.

  • Pro_Vobis

    Nothing earth-striking. English is still English and changes all the time. Just ask the Church of England.