The nation's Roman Catholic bishops signed off Thursday on a new English translation for the Mass that would change prayers ingrained in the memories of millions of American parishioners.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted at its biannual meeting for a new translation after a brief but vigorous debate over several small changes in wording. The 173-29 vote on the Order of the Mass was aimed at satisfying Vatican calls for a translation that's closer to the Latin version.
Before Mass changes at the parish level, the Americans' version must go to offices in the Holy See for final approval. The bishops' leader on the issue said that process could take years.
"Without a doubt, this is the most significant liturgical action to come before this body for many years," said Bishop Donald Trautman, chairman of the conference's Committee on Liturgy.
"It will take some adapting, but it is not earth-shattering when you think of the changes we went through 40 years ago," he said, referring to the Second Vatican Council, where the Latin Mass was replaced by the vernacular languages in each country.
The new translation alters the wording of key texts spoken by Catholics during worship, including the Nicene Creed, the Gloria, the Penitential Rite, the Sanctus and Communion.
Some have worried about changing a fundamental rite of worship that is so much a part of Catholic identity, especially now. Mass attendance has been declining, the priest shortage has left a growing number of churches without a resident cleric, bishops and parishioners have been battling over the closure of old churches and schools, and the prelates have been trying to rebuild trust in their leadership after the clergy sex abuse crisis.
Prior to the meeting, the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and a Jesuit priest, said the new Mass would "cause chaos and real problems and the people who are going to be at the brunt end of it are the poor priests in the parishes."
Trautman acknowledged the adjustment could be difficult. "I think we all recognize that our priests are overburdened now and stretched thin," he said. "We do believe, however, that this is important for the worship life of the Church. These texts are presenting a new richness that we haven't seen in the past so that will have to be the driving force."
Minor changes to the wording of many portions of the Mass will be obvious to Catholics. The repeated exchanges "The Lord be with you" / "And also with you" between a priest and his congregation, for example, become "The Lord be with you" / "And with your spirit" in the updated version.
The prayer said before Communion would become "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof," instead of "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you."
Survey results released by the conference's Committee on Liturgy last November found that U.S. bishops were split over whether the changes were necessary, but in the end the proposal won more than the 168 votes it needed for approval.
Some bishops said the changes would deepen lay people's understanding of Catholicism and Scripture. They said priests could use the changes to spark a discussion of the liturgical reasoning behind them, including citing biblical stories and the Latin version.
"All these changes should require ... a certain amount of explanation and allow the people who are using them to grow in faith and not remain where they are," said Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala.
Bishops debated for about 20 minutes on a variety of wording changes, some pitting the familiar against the new. A proposal to change the words of the Nicene Creed from "one in being" to "consubstantial," which is closer to the Latin, failed.
Roman Catholic bishops in Australia, England, Scotland and Wales have already approved translations with at most only slight differences, said Monsignor James. P. Moroney, who leads the liturgy office for the bishops' conference.
On another subject, retiring Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been leading the bishops' task force on Catholics in public life, announced that a new ad hoc group will serve as a liaison between the bishops' conference and Catholic politicians. He also said the task force had met with Catholic Democrats and Republicans privately to discuss how to best merge their religious beliefs and their politics.
Catholic politicians' duty to adhere to church teachings — particularly Catholicism's anti-abortion stance — was a hot-button issue in the 2004 campaign when John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, was the Democratic presidential nominee.