Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Sacramental oils wait in the back of St. Mary Cathedral at the 2011 Chrism Mass.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Sacramental oils wait in the back of St. Mary Cathedral at the 2011 Chrism Mass.
SAN JOSE — The new translation of the Roman Missal may be the best thing to happen to the English-speaking Church since Vatican II. Whatever your thoughts are about the translation, it has succeeded in making liturgy and the way we celebrate it higher priorities on the agenda of most parishes and dioceses.

Our bishop had a choice to make: Do we simply go through the mechanics of changing words and be done with it, or can we make this an opportunity for liturgical renewal? He chose the harder but more transformative path.

Beginning in 2004, when the International Commission on English in the Liturgy distributed the first draft of the English translation, our U.S. bishops discussed, debated, highlighted, and edited these texts. They and their liturgical offices had seven years to explore the nuances of this issue and to pass through all the normal stages of change and transition.

Not everyone will immediately accept and understand the changes. Many will with enthusiasm; others will be more indifferent. (I’ve found that most average parishioners simply want to know what the new words are so they can be ready. Often, they’re just glad to have someone finally “explain the Mass.”)

I encountered a good portion of parish leaders and liturgical ministers who wondered why, why this, and why now. For many of them, these were also questions of faith, not in Christ but in the decisions of Church leaders. They needed me to be authentic as much as they needed me to be hopeful, especially those who see this new translation as a step backward from the reforms of Vatican II and the hope and collegiality the council inspired.

They wanted to know about the translation’s weaknesses as well as its strengths—there are many examples of both.

To be authentic, I had to speak honestly and fairly about the translation and how it came about. To be hopeful, I had to put these changes in context with the Church’s long history of liturgical development. I also had to remind them that Vatican II did make a difference. The faithful have been formed for more than 40 years by a liturgy that takes seriously their baptism and their right and duty to participate fully in that liturgy. Words alone do not make up the liturgy, and words alone cannot change who we understand ourselves to be as a liturgical assembly. To emphasize this point, we did some mystagogical reflection.

This realization, that the liturgy depends as much or more so on the other ritual “languages”—proclamation, music, environment and hospitality, gesture and posture—as it does on the words, helped put the new translation into context. These new words are not the entirety of the liturgy. Nor should they be our only focus. For these words to work well, the rest of the ritual languages have to be performed well too.

The mechanics of changing words from one style of English to another are relatively simple compared to the changes 40 years ago. This fall will not be like 1970 when there was very little catechesis to help people pray in a completely new language for a markedly different ritual. Today, we have more resources and more highly catechized and liturgically literate faithful.

Our greater challenge will be to prepare a liturgy that forms us to bring deeper conversion to our world. To do that, we need to communicate the risen Christ with more than just words.

The writer is director of worship for the Diocese of San Jose and holds an MA in theology from Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.