Priest Challenges New Translation Of Mass

There's a new English translation of the Catholic mass coming out soon, and it's trying to sound more Latin. The Vatican has been pushing for this for a decade: It wants the English to mimic the words and even the syntax of the original Latin prayers. Conservatives say it moves the church back to a more "timeless" sound; but at least one priest is trying to stop it. He says it's awkward and absurd for English to try to "ape" the sound of Latin, even in church.

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For churchgoers, this is a season steeped in tradition: familiar hymns, familiar liturgies, familiar prayers. For Catholics, some of those familiar words are about to change. The Vatican has ordered a new English translation of the Catholic Mass.

And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, some priests say the new wordings are too traditional.

MARTIN KASTE: Things are relatively old school at St. James Cathedral, a soaring, Italian Renaissance-style structure that overlooks downtown Seattle and boasts two complete pipe organs.

(Soundbite of music)

KASTE: Still, the language spoken from the altar is more modern.

Father MICHAEL RYAN (St. James Cathedral): Come, Emmanuel, wisdom of God most high. You guide creation with power and love.

KASTE: That's the pastor of St. James, Father Michael Ryan, performing the Mass in the straightforward English that's been in use for more than 30 years. Ryan is unhappy about the new version of these prayers that the Vatican is now preparing, a version he finds far too retro.

Father RYAN: They adopted principles that the ancient Latin of these prayers -all of our prayers are translated from Latin. The Latin needed to shine through and be very, very clear. They needed to be quite literal - I would say even slavishly literal to the Latin.

KASTE: Ryan dislikes the new translation so much, he's challenged its adoption in a recent article for a major Catholic magazine. He says he's not against formal language, but he doesn't think you should try to make English sound like Latin. As an example, he points to the words that describe Joseph, husband of Mary. Current prayers simply calls him Joseph, her husband.

Father RYAN: The new translation, which replicates Latin, says, Joseph, spouse of the same virgin.

KASTE: Does that sound better in Latin?

Father RYAN: To a Latin speaker, perhaps. In English, it's ludicrous.

KASTE: Church authorities acknowledge that the new version will be wordier. Monsignor Anthony Sherman is the executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He says the longer prayers will present a challenge.

Monsignor ANTHONY SHERMAN (Executive Director, Secretariat of Divine Worship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops): Priests, when they proclaim these prayers, will have to make sure that they take a look at them first, so that they see how they're going to be able to intelligently proclaim them.

KASTE: He says it's worth it, though, in order to bring back the old Latin syntax.

Monsignor SHERMAN: You cannot dismiss the Latin syntax, because sometimes within the syntax itself, there's a message being conveyed.

KASTE: Sherman says the new translation isn't inherently conservative; it's just truer to the original. But others see this as an attempt to move back in time, back before the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which opened the door to Mass in modern languages.

Father Paul Janowiak is a professor in the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. He says he understands church leaders' desire to rewrite the Mass.

Father PAUL JANOWIAK (Professor, School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University): Somehow if you recapture the liturgy the way it was in the '40s, that somehow you can recapture an ethos and a control and a like-minded thinking. And that's simply not going to happen in this pluralistic world, this diverse world in which we live.

(Soundbite of church bells)

KASTE: Most worshippers coming out of evening Mass at St. James don't have strong opinions about this yet. The new missals aren't expected to show up in pews before Christmas of 2011. Still, Jack McGowan(ph) is one Catholic who has looked at the new prayers. He says he hasn't made up his mind.

Mr. JACK MCGOWAN: I think it's important that our prayers and everything be relatable to our daily experience. But I also think there's an element of when we come to Mass, there's a sense of timelessness.

KASTE: For him, the question is: Does Latin syntax make English sound more timeless - or just more Latin?

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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