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The new translation of the Mass is a huge success. But why, oh why, are we stuck with the clumsy old version of the Agnus Dei?

All the same, I am profoundly grateful for what we now have. Never again ‘And also with you’

By on Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The new Mass translation (Photo: Mazur/

The new Mass translation (Photo: Mazur/

Well, the new translation of the Mass is now up and running, and, at least in my parish, its launch seems to have passed off without any awkwardness at all. “And with your spirit” was confidently and (as far as I could see) unanimously declared, as though the congregation had been saying it for years (phone conversations, however, have elicited a certain difficulty elsewhere in remembering to say it. Maybe the most important thing to remember is to keep your eyes on the card). There was a real sense of occasion, I thought. We began, slightly shakily, using James MacMillan’s very splendid setting (used at the beatification last year), and the process of getting people’s heads around it has begun. All in all, it was a great occasion.

As in parishes all over the country, a series of sermons on the new translation, and on the Mass itself, also got successfully underway. I wonder how many priests said for the first time that the people’s response in that opening exchange between priest and congregation does not mean “and the same to you, Father”. “And also with you” can’t really mean much more: indeed, it was the perfect example of how the old translation, from the off, consistently reduced (ah, wondrous past tense) theological meaning in the movement from Latin to English. So why is it “and with your spirit”? Your priest probably quoted biblical, especially Pauline, and also Patristic instances in which the phrase was regularly used – instances which mostly had never been quoted in sermons before, since we were lumbered with “And also with you”; why bother? (if you didn’t have such a sermon on Sunday, have a look at Fr Austin Milner OP’s scholarly article published in the Herald early this year).

The loss of meaning in that opening exchange was enormous. A good explanation of just how much was lost (and now has been regained) has been given by Mgr Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington:

In effect, the expression et “cum spiritu tuo” is an acknowledgement by the congregation of the grace and presence of Christ who is present and operative in the spirit or soul of the celebrant. Christ’s Spirit is present in the priest in a unique way in virtue of his ordination. Hence what the dialogue means is:

Celebrant: The Lord be with you.
Congregation: We do in fact acknowledge the grace, presence and Spirit of Christ in your spirit.

This understanding of the dialogue was not uncommon among the Fathers of the Church. For example St John Chrysostom wrote:

“If the Holy Spirit were not in our Bishop [referring to Bishop Flavian of Antioch] when he gave the peace to all shortly before ascending to his holy sanctuary, you would not have replied to him all together, And with your spirit. This is why you reply with this expression… reminding yourselves by this reply that he who is here does nothing of his own power, nor are the offered gifts the work of human nature, but is it the grace of the Spirit present and hovering over all things which prepared that mystic sacrifice. (Pentecost Homily.)”

On the whole, I am thrilled by the new translation, which consistently uncovers new theological meaning in the text. That’s why this Sunday I felt I had to be present at a celebration using the new English Rite: this was, after all, an historic event for the Church in this country. In future, I shall probably revert to my practice of attending the Oxford Oratory’s 11am Latin High Mass on Sundays. But most other Masses there are in English: and when I go to Mass during the week, there or at the Oxford University Catholic chaplaincy, Mass will still be in the vernacular. Most of us who prefer Mass in Latin have long ago accepted that most Masses we attend will be in English: so it is wonderful that the new translation is so palpably closer to the Latin – not just in some scholarly sense we would only be aware of if we have made a close comparative study of the new and old translations with the Latin text, but noticeably for anyone, sometimes, dramatically so: it is splendid, for instance that now, instead of confessing “that I have sinned through my own fault” and striking my breast just the once, on Sunday I confessed (striking my breast thrice) “that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”: for, the suppression of that threefold repetition of the “mea culpa” (in response, perhaps, to some mistaken ecumenical sense that there is a protestant dislike of what they are pleased to call “vain repetition”) – that suppression always produced a consciousness, in anyone who went sometimes to the Mass in Latin, of a dreadful and palpable loss of the prayer’s devotional power. But no longer: never again. Alleluia.

I have to say, however, that there was, for me, one disappointment (and though only one, a real and substantial one): that there has been no change in the exceptionally clumsy (and inaccurate) translation of the Agnus Dei. “Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world” isn’t just dreadful because it carries on from the old regime that terrible habit of writing prayers which seem to be informing God that he does this or that, or has this or that characteristic, so that it almost looks as though one is saying in the Agnus Dei, for instance, “look, you take away the sins of the world, the least you can do therefore is…” There is a real feeling of presumption in prayers conceived in this way, as well as a loss of meaning. The Latin is Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata Mundi: God’s taking away the sins of the world is expressed in a subordinate clause; this signifies that our prayer comes from our own consciousness of God’s saving mercy, and the transformation of our own relationship with God that that consciousness has brought (the same is true in the Gloria in Excelsis: “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis/ Qui tollis peccata mundi etc”). Grammatically, of course, there is a problem in achieving a literal translation. “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata Mundi, dona nobis pacem” has a vocative noun “Agnus”, followed naturally by second person verbs, “tollis” and “dona”. That would, if you preserved the subordinate clause, produce the literal translation “Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace”. That “take” sounds, on its own, awkward in modern English.

But why not “Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world”? That is accurate and I would have thought quite mellifluous. It would take some getting used to: but so will “and with your Spirit”. But why am I grumbling? This will be the last time, I swear: for, in the immortal words of John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” It’s too late now: the translation we now have will be the last, certainly in our lifetimes.

The fact is, I have to admit, that I would personally always rather hear Mass said or sung in Latin anyway. But mostly, that’s not an option (though one day, and perhaps even relatively soon, say in a decade or two, perhaps it will be). We should be grateful (and I am, profoundly) for what we now have: an immensely improved and mostly much more beautiful translation of the Mass (some of the greatest beauties are in the new translations of the Eucharistic prayers: so the sooner Missals and Mass booklets with both priest’s and people’s parts are available, the better).

The more we get used to the new translation, I am convinced, the deeper will be our love of the Mass, freed from the sense that in the translation we use we have been shortchanged. One result, I would not be surprised, will be a growing feeling that we now need to change the translation of the Bible we use at Mass: the dreadful Jerusalem Bible is the scriptural equivalent of the old translation of the Mass: clumsy and banal, just not good enough.

OK, Vox Clara; how about it?

  • K.Smith

    Yes, of course it makes sense in the gospel. But this is during Mass, under the ‘roof’ of the church. In the context of Holy Communion …’under my roof’ is a bit ridiculous!
    Does it mean under the top of my head [for example]? .

  • K.Smith

    It grates.  It is hardly more reverant. In fact it seems pompous and at times silly.
    ‘A place of refreshment’? [Heaven?] …A nice little tea house or a rural pub garden?

  • K.Smith

    Have you really read it? When I heard the ridiculous promise of a ‘place of refreshment’ I nearly fell out of the pew. I found it hard not to brust out in a fit of incredulous giggles. How can you take the more absurd bits seriously. Now I know the translators must have a great sense of humour!

  • Adrian Johnson

    Why?  Cardinal Annibale Bugnini , that’s why.  

    –After which Pope Paul VI woke up one morning and smelled the Smoke of Satan in the Church ! 

  • K M R Jackson

    I was just reading one of my son’s lessons on the Tridentine Latin Mass and it explains the “…and with your spirit”:-
     The first 2 are taken from Psalm 84. They’re verses 84:7 and 84:8. Look them up in your Bible! Remember, there are different numberings for the psalms, so in your Bible this may be called Psalm 85, or be written as Psalm 85 (84).The last part of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, before the Dominus vobiscum (“The Lord be with you…”), is from the beginning of Psalm 101. See if you can find this in your Bible! It may be shown as Psalm 102 (101).The prayers at the Foot of the Altar ends with “The Lord be with you,” and the response, “And with your spirit.” This is an old Hebrew expression. It is an expression that is used in the Bible: it is used by St. Paul in his 2nd Letter to Timothy. It’s in 2 Timothy 4:22. (There’s another verse you can look up in your Bible!)After this, the priest says Oremus (“Let us pray”)and walks up the steps to the altar, while the altar boys remain below. As he is going up, he says a prayer silently (it doesn’t need any response), asking God to take away our sins in order to be worthy to enter into the Mass. This prayer was written in the 1000′s (11th century).When he reaches the altar, he kisses the altar, where there is a relic of a saint inside. There are 2 reasons for this. One is that it shows honor to the altar where our Lord is about to be sacrificed. The second is to show our connection with the Communion of Saints, since there’s a relic there.The course is simple and excellent – we are constantly stunned by the new revelations of old tradition. Take up your Tridentine Latin Mass – the nuggets of gold are buried deep and only a traditional, scriptural explanation will suffice – bring back the rood screen – but first look at the historical explanations as to what it represents – we are so linked to the OT it is beautiful to acknowledge our path out of bondage!To Christ Through MaryKate Jackson

  • K.Smith

    It is interesting that a form of language gives Satan more power. It is also interesting that ‘splendid language’ lends our petitions to God greater weight. Pity the poor tongue-tied and the truly humble! Jesus looked forward to the day when we shall worship in spirit and in truth.

  • K.Smith

    Why is Islam attracting young converts? It offers certainties. It is in many ways quite simple. It does not favour debate and questioning. It is not founded in love but in absolute obedience. You are in or you are damned. Ritual prayer, ritual fasting, apostates are damned [some would like them executed if they persist in error] .Jesus was a prophet, NOT the son of God. Jesus [Issa] did die on the cross. There is no God but Allah and Muhammed [pboh] is his prophet.  You know exactly where you are in Islam.

    There are some Catholics, who [apart from a few theological differences!!] would like to see Catholicism pick up a few pointers from Islam. Seems like certain changes are heading in that direction.

  • Anonymous

    Right K Smith.  He also prayed that we all be one, even as he and his Father are one.  Of late, that is certainly not the case.  The faith is divided, the world is raging and methinks it’s close to the time of His return.  But, will there be faith left on earth?

  • AlleluiaPTL

    We need to keep in mind this Vatican peoccupation with its own power base when we view all of its actions and decisions affecting the life of the Church taken by the current Pontiff and his immediate predecessor. Church authority does not reside within the Vatican. It resides within the Church itself, and the Church, as we all know from Vatican ll, is the people.

  • David Jones

    It’s not the Latin thats the problem – it’s the English – “enter under my roof” ! – have you or anyone at ant any time said such rubbish

  • Mey1

    I quite agree about the translation of the Agnus Dei.  I was very hopeful that the dreadful translation we have been using for so long would go but when attending a meeting addressed by one of the committee charged with the translation I was informed that it would stay for fear that “you who take away….” would turn into “yoohoo”!  What is wrong with “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world have mercy on us”.  More accurate and elegant surely.  The translation we have to continue using is, in my opinion, rather impertinent.

  • No more NO! – PLEASE!

    “A YOUNG GIRL will conceive and bear a son……”

    Ahem! – What exactly is MIRACULOUS about THAT?????

    Of course it is meant to be translated as “Virgin”
    Common sense should make us realise that!

  • CatholicinHeart

    Latin was the language of Rome, and of Ceasar, not of God. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Much of the bible was written in Greek TO EASE ITS UNDERSTANDING TO THE PEOPLE OF THE TIME. Why the Vatican does not continue in this effort absolutely confounds me.

  • Laura, UK

    Well, it seems this discussion finished some months ago but I have just popped by to see what other people thought of the new translation and have been surprised at how many people are happy with it. I am perhaps one of what commenter’s have been referring to as ‘the young people’, I am in my early 20′s and have attended mass for my entire life. I liked mass, I understood it, I knew what I was saying and I was introducing friends to the love of God by bringing them along to celebrate with me and my parish. There was already far too much standing up, now sit, now kneel, now stand again but it has just gotten worse. What a mess this new ‘more literal’ and ‘true to Latin’ translation has made. How is this opening up to the Church to new believers, the church relies on a new congregation to thrive, unfortunately in my parish, the average age of regular worshippers is 60+, fine for now, in 10-20 years time, where will the congregation be? The Church has been declining for many years, and I fear this is the beginning of the end for many local parish churches in this country and potentially across the English speaking world. I realise that this sounds dramatic but I am not prepared to sit in a Church and speak words which I believe are alienating not only potential new believers but old-hats like me also. I also cannot connect in prayer with my God when I need to keep my eyes on the card. The Christian message is to spread the word of God in a language that the people will understand. The disciples received this gift from the Holy Spirit, talking in ‘tongues’ so that the people could listen and understand what they were hearing. I am really starting to consider attending services by a denomination other than Catholic that is more welcoming to new worshipper’s and more inclined to follow the example shown to us within the word of God which our faith is supposed to be based upon.