Words of worship that have been familiar for three decades in America's Roman Catholic churches could change if U.S. bishops meeting in Los Angeles this week approve a new English translation of prayers and blessings used to celebrate Mass.
Perhaps the most noticeable revision would be heard after the priest says, "The Lord be with you." The response of the people would change from "and also with you" to "and with your spirit."
The proposed changes follow strict rules for liturgical translation set by the Vatican in 2001 under Pope John Paul II that are meant to be more faithful to the original Latin text of the Roman missal, the book that guides the Mass. Though many of the changes are slight, they nonetheless alter parts of the Mass that Catholics hold close to their hearts.
The profession of the faith known as the Nicene Creed, for example, would change at the beginning from "We believe" to "I believe." The line that says "one in being with the Father" would switch to "consubstantial with the Father." In addition, "He was born of the Virgin Mary" would become "by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary."
The new translation has inspired intense debate - dubbed "the liturgy wars" by some observers - among bishops over whether to approve, amend or reject it. The translation needs a two-thirds majority vote before it can go to Pope Benedict XVI for final approval.
Purists praise the new translation as a more dignified, literal reading of the Latin. Others criticize the new translation as needlessly archaic, arguing that the familiar, more pastoral text should remain in place.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was the U.S. representative to the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, the panel of bishops from 11 English-speaking countries that prepared the translation.
In addition to concerns about language, George said, many bishops have expressed fear over disrupting the Mass as leaders work to restore trust damaged by the sexual abuse scandal.
"Liturgy is what the church is all about, so no matter what the question is, liturgy inspires intense debate," George said in an interview.
"Everybody knows that this translation is far more faithful to the Latin," he said. "Whether or not it is a good example of the receiver language, English, is one consideration. Whether or not, no matter how good it is, is this the time to change anything, is another consideration."
Approving a new "Order of Mass," which includes the prayers and blessings commonly repeated at every service, is the first step in a long process of translating the entire book of prayers for Mass.
The need for new translations arose after Pope John Paul II approved a new Latin edition of the Roman missal in January 2000. Other portions of the missal are being translated, George said, and the new language would probably not be used in parishes for two to three years.
"The reason we have to do the translations is that we have a new edition of the Roman missal and we have to start using it pretty soon," George said.
In the archdiocese of Chicago, early discussions have begun on developing brochures and leaflets for parishioners that explain the changes in the Mass.
"These are changes that every single Catholic will notice," said Todd Williamson, director of the Chicago archdiocese office for divine worship. "There is the potential for disruption, so we have to do all we can to help people understand."
Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., has been one of the most outspoken critics of the new translation, calling it "too rigid" and saying it emphasizes fidelity to the Latin original at the expense of language that is more meaningful to the people. Trautman, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, said an internal poll showed that bishops are split on the matter, with 52 percent favoring the new translation and 47 percent judging it "fair or poor."
"Liturgical language must not just be faithful and accurate, but intelligible, proclaimable, dignified and reflective of the contemporary mainstream of the English language as spoken in the United States," Trautman said during a lecture at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.
Despite the opposition to the new translation, a Vatican official warned last month that liturgical translations not in accord with Roman rules would not be approved.
In a strongly worded letter, Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, told Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, that the American church would not receive special permission to continue using defective texts.
"It is not acceptable to maintain that people have become accustomed to a certain translation for the past 30 or 40 years, and therefore that it is pastorally advisable to make no changes," he wrote.
Though bishops are divided on the effectiveness of the new translation, most agree on the need for revision. Catholic scholars have said the current translation was done in haste as part of the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council, resulting in inaccuracies.
George also noted that some of the changes would bring the English-speaking church in line with the rest of the Catholic world. For example, when the Catholic mass is celebrated in Spanish, the response for "The Lord be with you" already includes the word espiritu to recognize the spirit of Christ. The choice of "And also with you" in English was meant to make the translation more personable, George said.
Margaret Ramirez writes for the Chicago Tribune.