Changes in Mass at odds with season's simple message


The pews of many Roman Catholic churches in the Toledo diocese and throughout the country will be filled to capacity tonight. Standing room only is customary for midnight Masses, frequently packed by infrequent churchgoers who maintain a once-a-year tradition.

Even if months, years, or decades have elapsed since Catholics saw the inside of a church, the liturgy they grew up with is easy enough to pick up again. The familiar prayers and responses of the Mass are well ingrained -- or used to be.

An eye-opener awaits occasional Catholics. If the prodigal sons and daughters had trouble relating to religion before, new changes in the Mass liturgy could have them reeling.

The church hierarchy has ambiguously complicated communication of the text of the Mass. Certain prayers and passages have been awkwardly translated to comply with the Vatican's wish for a more traditional and spiritual tone in the liturgy.

The result is language lunacy. Since the beginning of the Advent season, Mass-going Catholics have struggled to adapt to the translations with laminated copies of the changes.

We've been told they more accurately reflect the original Latin language and will help deepen faith in the English-speaking world. Forgive my cynicism.

As a parishioner and lifelong beneficiary of a revamped Mass liturgy, I appreciate the value of simple, straightforward prayer.

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council made a progressive effort to reach ordinary Catholics with words that are understandable, moving, and meaningful. After centuries of an antiquated Latin ceremony that isolated ordinary Catholics, the church recognized the need of the faithful to be fully integrated in the Mass.

Ornate, stilted, tortured text, often whispered by a priest with his back to the congregation, was mercifully changed to make sense to native English-speakers. Gone were poorly worded sentences, fractured phrases, and lofty, out-of-touch verbal and ritual niceties that appealed to no one but Vatican bureaucrats.

Instead, pastoral instincts took over. Improving the prayer life of the congregation and broadening individual participation in weekly worship became important.

Ritual became real. Prayers became personal. The message mattered, not the archaic-sounding and confusing cadences of the old Latin Mass.

The point -- and it was a good one -- was to bring people and God closer. Some priests, who are uneasy about expressing their opinion for publication, strongly question whether the new Mass translations will lead to a deeper spirit of prayer in the pews.

Not only did they thoroughly learn the English translation of the Mass, after saying it exclusively for 30 or 40 years, but they also learned how to make the prayers mean something to their parishes. Wordy dictates from traditional church sticklers -- without much if any input from the laity -- threaten to dismantle attempts to enhance relevance.

The Rev. Michael Ryan, a Seattle pastor, has launched a Web site -- -- and a movement among his brother priests to postpone the new translations pending a grass-roots review. In an article for America, a national Catholic weekly, Father Ryan asks: "What if collegiality, dialogue, and a realistic awareness of the pastoral needs of our people were to be introduced at this late stage of the game?"

"Is it not possible," he continues, "that the voices in the church that have decided that Latinity is more important than lucidity might end up listening to the people and re-evaluating their position?"

Msgr. Charles Singler, director of the Toledo diocese's worship office, sympathizes with his Seattle friend. Initially, he shared similar trepidations about liturgical revisions from on high.

But Monsignor Singler is resigned to the inevitable, and hopes that in the long run the translations will "bear fruit in the faith life of the community."

He concedes that the new sentence structure and grammatical patterns sanctioned by Rome are a challenge, but he believes Catholics have to "bite the bullet" and be open to experiencing another level of growth in their faith journey. Besides, added the monsignor, "it's too early to give a verdict on the new translations."

Wait three or four years, he said. Perhaps, but why? Erecting clumsy hurdles to prayer appears in stark contrast to the simple, unadorned stable birth we celebrate every year.

The Christmas message is a profoundly common one of deliverance. Nothing fancy, but it speaks to the heart and fills churches to capacity.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: