SAfrica protest over new Catholic Mass translation

Johannesburg, South Africa - A new translation of the Roman Catholic Mass that is to be introduced worldwide in a few years is getting an accidental trial run in South Africa, where some parishioners are complaining it's too hard to understand.

The controversy comes as Pope Benedict XVI travels Tuesday to Cameroon on his first papal pilgrimage to the continent that has the fastest growing congregation of Catholics.

Critics say the new, more literal word-for-word translation is part of an attempt to roll back the progress made decades ago when the church halted its insistence on Latin.

Before Communion, for example, the prayer "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you" becomes "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof." "One in being with the Father" becomes "consubstantial with the Father" in the Nicene creed.

And the congregation's response to the greeting that opens Mass with the priest saying "The Lord be with you," changes from "And also with you" to "And with your spirit."

In a misunderstanding, some South African church leaders started using the new version prematurely in some parishes, even though the English-language prayers won't be approved for global use for at least a couple of years. But instead of pulling back in the face of their mistake, they are continuing to use the liturgy.

Distribution of the prayers has fueled debate over whether the new translation — meant to more closely follow the original Latin text — will help deepen parishioners' prayer life or alienate them from the church.

"I think the church has been very lucky that the South Africans jumped the gun because it's showing the Vatican that there is going to be a worldwide problem when these new translations are put into effect," said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

"Once again the Vatican isn't listening to the critics, and we're going to have another major embarrassment to the pope when these translations are put into effect and are forced on the people in the pews," he said.

Vatican II, the 1962-1965 meetings that inspired liberalizing reforms of the Roman Catholic Church, led to changes such as Mass being celebrated in local languages. Reese said prior to that, Mass was said in Latin and parishioners followed along in a missal that had an English translation.

The new Mass translation now is being used in some parishes of the Southern African Church, which also includes Botswana and Swaziland and serves some 3.2 million Catholics. The premature use, which began in late November, is being blamed on a misplaced letter advising that the texts weren't to be used immediately.

Bishop Edward Risi, in charge of the local bishops' liturgical department, said the new translation is "a more faithful rendering ... an echo of the scriptures. What the original Latin has done uses the scriptures and English must also reflect that."

The debate over translating the latest edition of the Roman Missal, the ritual text for celebrating Mass, began years ago.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a third edition of the "Missale Romanum," followed by a Vatican document a year later that insisted translations should stay close to the Latin and adhere to church doctrine. An international panel representing English-speaking bishops began tackling the job of translating the new liturgy.

But Clement Armstrong of Bryanston, South Africa, said some of the changes in wording are "simply nonsense." While his home parish has not yet adopted the changes, a church where he attended Mass over the holidays has.

"I am resistant to change and I think the older community in my parish will feel the same," he said. "I can accept change when there is a good reason but I cannot see one."

His daughter-in-law, Anne Armstrong agrees: "We are all familiar with the liturgy we have used since we were children. Why is there the need to say Mass differently?"

The Rev. Efrem Tresoldi warned in The Southern Cross, a regional Catholic weekly: "I've heard it said that younger people are leaving the Church because, among other things, the language used in our liturgy sounds foreign to them. I think this new version of the order of the Mass is even more alienating."

Lay leader Paddy Kearney also points to the theological implications in the "mea culpa." The new translation reverts to repeated pronunciations of guilt emphasized by beatings on the breast reflected in the Latin Mass: "Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."

Under Vatican II, the breast-beating was abandoned and people pronounced only once on grievous sinning.

"I think this is because some feel we need to have more emphasis on our guiltiness and sinfulness, because the feeling is that we have lost our sense of guilt," Kearney said.

There's a feeling, Kearney said, "that Vatican II was a mistake, that a lot has gone wrong as a result of its decrees and that we need to get back in line, get knocked into shape, that we need to inch back to where we were before."

In an article in The Southern Cross, Bishop Kevin Dowling agreed.

"I am concerned that this latest decision from the Vatican may be interpreted as another example of what is perceived to be a systematic and well-managed dismantling of the vision, theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II."

The Rev. Russell Pollitt also questioned whether nonnative English speakers in South Africa, where there are 11 official languages, would understand the more abstract concepts.

"The new text seems almost to imply that there is something inherently holy about Latin and inherently unholy about proper English," English Professor Colin Gardner said.