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Liturgical payback


MissalFor those that lived through it, the Second Vatican Council was a momentous experience, radically changing the day to day life of Catholics around the globe. There was a definite 'before' and 'after' the Council. For most Catholics the biggest change was to hear the mass said in the vernacular, in English, rather than Latin.

We have lived with that particular translation now for over 40 years. Amid some heated debate we are about to receive a new English translation, one which is close in structure and feel to the original Latin text introduced by the Council. How this is implemented and how it will be received within the church remain to be seen.

I am not a liturgical theologian. Indeed my liturgical tastes are not very refined or critical. Like many church members who sit in the pews, I take what I'm given. I've lived with the present translation of the mass for most of my life, and have only fleeting memories of an earlier time when the mass was in a language completely incomprehensible to me.

The present translation has become part of parcel of my liturgical experience, and I am blissfully unaware of its supposed multiple shortcomings that seem to annoy some purists. I also have no great sense of loss in relation to the Latin mass. I studied and enjoyed learning Latin for six years of my high schooling but know well that a liturgy can be equally poor in either Latin or English.

But though I am not a liturgical theologian I do have a strong interest in the theology of the church and in the event of Vatican II itself. The Council brought about major changes in the life of the church, at multiple levels of its existence. It endorsed a shift from the metaphysical language of scholasticism to a more biblical and personalist mode of communication. It encouraged genuine respect for other Christians and even non-Christian faiths. It sought to recognise the rights and dignity of the laity as priestly people.

None of these changes involved a change in dogma, but it did change the way the church related both internally and externally. One major changewas in the liturgy and the celebration of the sacraments. For many Catholics this is where the rubber hit the road, because these changes impinged immediately on their religious lives.

Overall, these changes were not well managed. The general model was one based on obedience, with the command to change coming from the Pope and moving its way down the ranks to the local parish. It is clear, for example, that the Vatican II document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, envisaged a continuing role for Latin, while also suggesting the introduction of vernacular translations. However, Pope Paul VI decreed that the vernacular was to become the dominant form, with the use of the Latin rite to be restricted.

Overnight Latin vanished, and for many people this was a shock. Some were not only shocked; they were hurt by the rapidity of the change. They found this change deeply alienating, to the point of schism. The vocal opponents of 'the spirit of Vatican II' regularly argue that this marked the beginning of a long process of decline, with a significant falling off in church attendance. (Of course it is simplistic to suggest that this is the sole reason for the decline, or indeed a reason at all, but that is the argument.)

Given this, one might think and hope that our church leaders will learn from previous experience. They may remember the trauma caused by sudden and largely unexplained changes in the liturgy, and engage in some significant change management of the whole process.

On the other hand, out there in Catholic blogger land, particularly in the US, many see the new translation as payback for what happened after Vatican II. Now the 'liberals' are going to know what it felt like to have their liturgy changed without consultation, without explanation. 'They made us suffer, now it's their turn.'

There are also romanticised postings on restoring dignity and a sense of the sacred to the liturgy though this new translation. But a new translation does not produce new priests, nor will it create a new liturgical sensibility among the people and their celebrants. For many it will just seem like change for change's sake.

The changes are not drastic, but they will jar for people who have spent a lifetime becoming familiar with the present translation. Saying 'and with your spirit' instead of 'and also with you' will take some getting used to; and the use of the word 'chalice' instead of 'cup' in the Eucharistic Prayer seems odd to me.

The Trinitarian theologian in me is happy to see the word 'consubstantial' returned to the Creed in place of 'of one being' in describing the relationship between the Father and the Son, if only because it will give me something to talk about.

I am not privy to what the Australian bishops are planning in relation to the change here, but if the process is just dropped into parish life from on high, with the expectation of automatic obedience, then there may be problems. Present day Catholics are not as compliant as they were in the '60s when the vernacular was first introduced. Without proper preparation, the liturgy could become a battleground, and this would be tragic.

Any expectation that people will flock back to mass because a new translation is in place is not likely to be fulfilled. Far more likely is that, as with the change at Vatican II, there will be a disaffected minority who leave or cease to practice because their experience of the sacred has been violated. At the end we will probably be left asking whether it is all really worth it.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University, and contributed to John O'Malley, Neil Ormerod, Stephen Schloesser, and Joseph Komonchak. Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? (New York: Continuum, 2007). He has an article appearing in Theological Studies (2010) on the debate on continuity and discontinuity at Vatican II.

Topic tags: liturgy, latin mass, neil ormerod, vatican II



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Existing comments

I despair. Honestly, there are so many more important issues in which our church might engage.

Patricia Taylor | 25 February 2010  

As an Anglican, and secretary of the Australian Liturgy Commission, I have been following the proposed change with some interest, especially because such shifts do touch on the 'godly turts' which the regular practice of prayer forms.

Two responses, Neil. First, the text of a rite is just one part of its affect / effect - as discussion of 'time' at Societas Liturgica last year emphasised, it has not been the wording or images of rites over the ages which have associated Christmas with snow, for example, but all the other elements which make it an event - the songs, symbols, movements, local customs etc. Yet a shift in the language easily facilitates changes in these co-signatory aspects of how we actually experience worship in Christ.

Secondly, I continue to be puzzled as to why Rome does not encourage local experiment and response - to my (post-BCP Anglican) mind, the idea of issuing a rite for use which has never been tried at the parish level is of considerable spiritual concern. The experience of revision in non-Roman parts of the western Christian tradition in the past half-century has been that this is not only valuable, but near essential.

And I suppose I could add that, ecumenically, fiddling with until now agreed texts is a further step - not so much 'backwards', as 'blinkered'. Has Rome decided that using words which as far as possible are in common with other Christian traditions, no does not matter? Does the Vatican not now 'see' its ecumenical conversation partners when it comes to the central act of the Church, the offering of praises and prayers by the people of God?

PS: the 'traditional' translation of the Nicene Creed had 'Being of One Substance with the Father' - not consubstantial! In English, familiarity with that term in worship owes more to a 19th century hymn!

Charles Sherlock | 25 February 2010  

Maybe we should go back to the Latin Mass where 99% of the congregation did not understand the language of the Mass even though they might have studied it at school, but accepted the words as part of a sacred ritual. Who cares about 'thees' and 'thous' and 'chalice' and 'cup' except that the latter is simpler for children who are the future churchgoers...maybe ? As for a Missal, when last did the persons standing next to you in Mass carry a Missal ? Maybe a better thing to concentrate on is how we treat our fellow worshippers. When last did you ask a fellow worshipper whom you did not know to come home and have a cuppa ?

The main reason why I no longer attend Mass is because after giving it a fair go ( in recent years), I have found fellow worshippers anything but fellows. Catholicism has long ceased to be a community religion.

philip | 25 February 2010  

"Familiarity breeds contempt."

An age old saying which serves me well, especially when I think I know what I am talking about, but don't acknowledge humbly enough that there are other people who excel in the areas where I am but a novice.

Just a couple of other points about Neil's offerings on the introduction of some changes to the Mass text.
Neil refers to the Latin of the pre-Vatican II vernacular Mass as being 'incomprehensible.' We sometimes forget that God works through what we may perceive as incomprehensibility - how often have we said, "God works in mysterious ways." I'm not advocating any return to Latin, though in our parish, we do use the Greek Kyrie, Christe, but as a way of linking in with the ancient paradox of the early Church hailing, not Caesar as Lord, but Jesus.

The new English translation of the Mass frames it more in Biblical imagery, a move which is faithful to the Vatican II.

There have actually, in Australia, been three English translations of the Mass since Vatican II, one in particular was for the Sydney Archdiocese alone, while there was a general pre-1975 text for the other Australian dioceses.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 25 February 2010  

I was not aware of any discontent at the changes to the Mass following Vatican II. My memory is that they were welcomed with great enthusiasm. Perhaps that is because at the time I lived in Tasmania, where we had an enlightened archbishop.

Kevin Prendergast | 25 February 2010  

Having recently attended the national meeting of Liturgical Commissions in Perth as a representative of the Sydney Archdiocese I can respond to one point Neil has made. An extensive program of catechesis is planned, it being recognised that the introduction of the vernacular 40 years ago was not handled as well as it should be. Most importantly, a big opportunity for faith development was not taken up. An outstanding international DVD resource has been prepared under the leadership of Fr Peter Williams of Parramatta diocese (see http://www.becomeonebodyonespiritinchrist.org/ for the start up page) which was shown to us in Perth in a very advanced draft form. The depth, quality and professionalism of what we saw was first class. It goes far beyond just talking about the new translation and should form the basis for a wider and ongoing catechesis about the Mass, ministry and the church (so it's got something for you, Neil) in Catholic schools, parishes and elsewhere. I for one sincerely hope that the poisonous atmosphere which seems to characterise much of the liturgical blogosphere in the US is not repeated in Australia and that we concentrate on sharing with our brothers and sisters the church's treasures both old and new. For those interested in learning more, Archbishop Coleridge's keynote address to the Perth gathering can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/stories/archbishop_m1847562.mp3

Francois Kunc | 25 February 2010  

It's a load of humbug. The people in Rome have spent 40+ years trying to get the Vatican 11 toothpaste back in the tube, while their flock eyes them with scorn. I've read that this new translation (by Italians and Spaniards!!) has been 10 years in the making. Really, grown men should have better things to do with their time. You would think that the Church had no real issues to grapple with.

Richard Olive | 25 February 2010  

Re-reading my comment, I see that my typing dyslexia hit this piece badly ... I meant 'godly ruts'!

Charles Sherlock | 25 February 2010  

Changing the word "all" for whom Christ shed His blood to "many" is not a small change. The average pew person with the slightest disagreement with the Church will know they are sitting on the outside of that "many" rather than on the inside.

Why that change? Correct translation? Is that really what Jesus wanted at that moment... the Church seems to say yes.

Latin or not, I think Jesus would say we have really screwed this one up. Luckily he didn't treat the woman at the well the same way.

don clarke | 25 February 2010  

The liturgical changes are fine but what about the explosion of scientific knowledge there's been in the last 200 years. Since C. Darwin and I Newton alone the literal meanind of the Nicene Creed becomes theistic nonsence. For RC's like me the Mass itself is a struggle. In paradox I could call myself a Christian A-t h i e s t. To the modern mind God is way beyond our creedal formulas.

David Morrison | 25 February 2010  

I wonder if there will be an English/English Mass group emerge, just as Latin Mass groups did to protest their indignation and sense of loss of the sacred. They seem to have been legitimised. Perhaps a diocese will authorise English/English worshippers to have their liturgial celebration also. Will that mean Mass available in three liturgical languages? Seems a lot of fiddling.

Alex | 25 February 2010  

A translation that incorporates metaphors that expand our understanding of the sacred and therefore of ourselves and which invites and enables the whole Church to ponder those things which are really beyond words, and engage with our ordinary lives in a more meaningful way would be worth the effort. A translation that seeks preciseness of translation and doctrinal / theological purity of one group within the Church has the potential to polarise even more the Church which can no longer be described as the One Body of Christ alive and active in the world.

Catherine White | 25 February 2010  

As a primary school kid I loved the very first translation of the Mass. For example: "Let us pray: urged by Our Saviour's command, and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say...".

It always moved me to hear it and the words remain etched in my memory. The current version, which replaced that first translation of the Mass, is about as moving as a dead fish.

Hugh | 25 February 2010  

My hope would have been that the language may have gone the other way, with more inclusive language and some room for local imagery in some of the prayers rather than resting on early european and greek philosophical experience.

Marie Wilson | 25 February 2010  

Excellent article Neil. I would though agree, that my vintage of Catholic welcomed the transition to English and we did have lots of 'renewal' meetings at Parish level to engage with Vatican II. However a new translation into any language at all won't create great liturgy if there is no living community to celebrate it. And that, for me, is where the real sadness lies. Too much emphasis on rubric and not enough on healing the pain of broken communities and families.

We might argue persuasively that systemic coverups of clergy sexual abuse has had just as much to do with the falling off in congregations as changes to the liturgy. I saw it decimate two parishes to which I belonged.

Kim Power | 25 February 2010  

I do wonder why!!!

7 or so years seems a long time to change, I hear, not a significant number of words.

What has been wrong with the last 40 years of liturgical celebration?

To change 'and also with you into 'and with your spirit' seems rather strange, to put it mildly'. Not an everyday use of our language.

Could that be another reason for our young to claim the church's irrelevance in their lives.

Perhaps the time, effort and money could have been better spent on encouraging us all to look at the life of Jesus more closely.

Bernie Introna | 25 February 2010  

For some time I have been trying to formulate a view about these changes and have been puzzled by the sound and fury accompanying the proposals. Professor Ormerod articulates very clearly a view that I share and I suspect do many other non-specialists who nonetheless are trying to understand this issue.

This is one of those articles that fulfills the purpose for which Eureka Street was established

j l trew | 26 February 2010  

In 10 years 50 per cent of our existing churches will have closed --given current rates.Who will replace our disappearing Priests - how can we communicate wih our disaffected younger brigade.So much time spent on issues which most of us see as a big yawn!!!

BRIAN | 26 February 2010  

I come at this from a particular perspective, as someone both recently returned to the Church, and someone who's of Polish heritage.

The Polish Mass has all those elements that people are finding contentious in the new translation, such as "and with your spirit".

Seems that's closer to the original Latin. And so, it seems the current English translation isn't quite up to scratch.

Of course it's going to be strange getting used to something new, but it is also such a great opportunity for catechesis on the Mass, learning why we say what we say, and why those words are important.

I've only recently read about the Early Church and was so excited to see the earliest Christians were celebrating Mass pretty much the way Catholics do now.

I've spent many a Mass since then listening to the prayers and thinking in awe of all those people through time that connect me back to the Apostles, imagining them gathering then, just as we do now.

That continuity is something precious, and if a new translation can add to that and give us a chance to rediscover again what it is that happens when we come before the altar, I'm all for it.

Meg | 26 February 2010  

It seems that a lot of time and energy of a lot of people has gone into small changes and I agree with the comments that there are more pressing problems facing the Church than any need to change a few words etc. Those of us who still use missals, and there are quite a few, will have to spend $30 or more on a new one just to understand the few changes there are. Not all those changes are for the better. e.g. chalice for cup may be closer to the Latin calixus but none of us drinks from a "chalice" these days.

Similarly "with your spirit" may be closer to the Latin, but nowadays it makes more sence to wish the Lord to be with one's whole person, not just his spirit. I think the time and energy could have been better spent on seeking ways to bring the Gospel to those who don't come to Mass.

Tony santospirito | 26 February 2010  

The liturgical reform of the 1960s came off the rails because those in charge during the post-conciliar phase did not observe all of the fundamental guidelines and principles laid down by Vatican 2. Among them were: there was to be no change at all which was not demonstrably for the pastoral benefit of the people (it is hard to see what was the real benefit to the people of many of the rubrical changes); the changes were to emerge organically from the previous tradition (they weren't - rather there was a damaging rupture of continuity); all the liturgical rites were to be respected (they weren't - several rites peculiar to religious orders [eg., Dominicans] were done away with; Latin was to be preserved as the language of the Roman rite (it wasn't); plainchant and polyphany were to have pride of place in the Church's musical practice (they don't); and so on....

The liturgical reform that we ended up with was not the one intended by the bishops at Vatican 2. Participants at one of the synods of bishops, the one in 1967, I think it was, were asked to vote on a sample new Mass rite that was performed for them - the majority of bishops did not like it and voted accordingly. We got it, anyway.

I think a lot of harm was done by the fact that the liturgical reform involved far too many changes implemented far too quickly. A mere five years elapsed between the abolition of the last gospel in 1964 and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo missal in 1969. The first person in the history of Christianity to attempt a liturgical revolution of that scope was Martin Luther. The changes should have been much more gradual.

A reform of the reform is long overdue.

Sylvester | 26 February 2010  

I refuse to buy a "new" Missal.....the powers that be will just have to put up with my refusal to say such stupid responses as "And with your Spirit".

Meg, what do you mean by the "early Church".....how early? What do you mean by they were celebrating Eucharist "pretty much" the way Roman Catholics do now?

What's so special about Latin anyway?

Francis | 26 February 2010  


You're flogging a dead horse. The English People of God were not consulted. The Latinolaters might think they have scored a few points but the Church will be the loser. Why, oh why, must we bend the knew to latin? Why can't we be a truly incarnational community and recognise that the ordinary lingo is a source of divine grace. God does not need Latin. I'm attracted to non Roman liturgies. Some of the Anglican ones are truly inspirational.

Cobber | 26 February 2010  

Very telling responses in the comments to this article.Eureka Street regulars will get sick of me using the term 'culture wars' but I can remember an article written in the early print version of the magazine, about 2004, challenging readers that the time had come to again "fall in love with the Church." I seriously took that challenge to heart and in all conscience examined my attitudes to the Church and all things church. In many of the attitudes I was clearly wrong and so had to make the necessary cultural changes.

My understanding of Catholic Church 'culture wars'could not be more clearly illustrated than in the contrasting comments to Neil Ormerod's article.

I did read, last week, Fr Andrew Hamilton's comment rejecting the use of the term, but, he did not demonstrate to me any empathy with what I feel and experience enough that keeps me using the term and wanting to promote some sort of discussion about all the issues surrounding it.

Tony Santospirito and Meg, in their comments, illustrate, for me, the issue that cultural interpretations are dividing us Catholics, preventing us from being united and 'in love with the Church.'

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 27 February 2010  

At an eucumenical level let us hope that the squabbles of the Reformation period are behind us. Academics mostly agree that we all are following the command of Jesus at the Last Supper "Do this in remembrance of me" The Mass is an action of taking bread and wine, giving thanks, breaking bread and receiving Christ himself in the elements of bread and wine.

Anglicans have a saying of doing things "Decently and in order" We all should be able to share the eucharist together. Modern liturgies have a variety of eucharistic prayers some based on ancient sources other than the Roman one and some are modern compositions with the intention of the early liturgies in mind. I am just as much concerned about unsuitable music and sloppy presentation as the words themselves.

John Ozanne | 27 February 2010  

Francis, to answer your questions...

By "early", I mean the first few generations after the Apostles.

What I've been reading are the translated writings of the Early Church Fathers (Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna etc).

The Mass described in those letters & other writings is so recognisable it's astounding - not just in what happens but the actual prayers they say, especially when it comes to the Eucharist.

I can't say what's so "special" about Latin, but I can say that one of the many things special about the Mass is the fact that for all these centuries, the Church has been celebrating it in pretty much the same way.

So when I let my imagination go when I stand there at church, I feel I'm not just there with all the people physically around me in 2010, I'm there with all those that came before me.

Especially all those in the earliest years of Christianity, who sacrificed so much so I could be here now.

That, for me, is both humbling and awe-inspiring. And it's given me a new kind of appreciation of the Mass.

So, for all those reasons, highly recommended reading!

Meg | 01 March 2010  

Meg....Thanks. For a moment I was worried thinking that you were saying that the Church of the New testament celebrated Eucharist much the way that we do. That, of course, would be a nonsense. The celebration of Eucharist then would have been much simpler and in the language of the ordinary person.

Further, the language of the Church for centuries was Greek, not Latin......perhaps we should have our Eucharistic celebrations in Greek. Why not Aramaic, Jesus' language?

Just how does Ignatius of Antioch describe the Eucharistic celebration?

Francis | 01 March 2010  

Goodness: what next? Return the words in Lords Prayer to those written in the Gospels. (Which Gospel to use is another issue)

Chris | 02 March 2010  

I don't really understand why some people are up in arms about some liturgical scholars trying to look after our interests by using the latest scholarship in an effort, presumably, to make our liturgy as faithful as possible to tradition. And if they are slow and deliberate and careful - so much the better. Out of more than a billion Catholics, I think we can spare a few souls to do this work. We all have different vocations, after all.

As for people "despairing" and feeling the Church should be looking at "more pressing problems" and "real issues" - since when was theology and liturgy not a real issue and worthy of careful attention? Surely there is no opposition here, but complementarity between the liturgy, theology and ministry and outreach in all its forms.

Meg, I think you make a lot of sense. Thank you. Perhaps from your time away from Catholicism, you have returned with a more balanced and broader perspective.

Christian Cleveland | 05 March 2010  

To what may we -- should we -- pay attention, if not to our everyday practice and experience of prayer-in-community at Mass?

I find the comments along the lines of 'these changes are a waste of time' to be somewhat misplaced. And I don't mean to imply by that comment any priority of the 'local', just that, for my part, the liturgy is something that absolutely deserves our care and attention.

Honestly: in my current experience of the liturgy, I find that aesthetic and spiritual qualities are lacking.

The liturgy I experience as a worshipper at an inner-suburban community emphasises the approachable, almost 'domestic' qualities of prayer-in-community; sometimes at the expense of reverence, dignity, and the sense of continuity -- being part of something enduring and universal. I regret this, and I don't think the one need exist at the expense of the other.

As a graduate student I lived for some years in the UK. There I grew used to attending Mass in Latin (nb. not the Tridentine Rite) and to occasionally attending Anglican services. I note that in the Anglican services I attended, the response "And with thy spirit" was commonly said (coming from the Book of Common Prayer). This phrasing never jarred with me, indeed, in general I welcomed the beauty of the Anglican liturgical language.

I can accept however that others may not share my liturgical tastes.

The comment above about one person's experience of isolation and a failure of community at church is concerning.

Catherine | 19 March 2010  

Catherine rightly says liturgy ought to be paid attentive care. It is ritual prayer, implying it should be consciously, seriously done. She also rightly says that individual tastes may differ. To speak of taste is not to speak of something trivial: it's a term that attempts to describe the way a person feels comfortable and comprehending in their response. Tastes form from experience and understanding, and these are always different and individual. Hence it is regrettable when liturgical questions become engagements in, as Father Mac Andrew appropriately calls it, a cultural war. We should reflect that all liturgy forms are humanly-made, therefore not perfect, not indispensable, not even the ones we personally prefer.

Stephen Kellett | 23 March 2010  

I have deliberately watched over the last month. So far I have seen just one sister bow before approaching communion. That uptake is being pretty well ignored so what hope for the rest?

Australians have a deep seated thing in their psyches to resist being ordered about - I agree that there will simply be a few more that feel too alienated to bother any more.

Pauline | 23 March 2011  

I do not pretend to be a liturgist. But despite the alleged shortcomings in the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Anglican tradition, my quite young Grandsons (Latin Catholics) will stumble at "consubstantial" and chalice. What's the problem with "...being of one substance with the Father:by Whom all things etc". And "...after supper He took the 'cup'. Surely these words are better understood by children and those adults like children commended by Jesus!

The Revd Warren L Wade | 29 September 2011  

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