As they might say at the Vatican, "Vetus novum iterum est" (Latin for "what's old is new again"). An old text is getting a new edition.
On the first Sunday of Advent — which is Nov. 26 this year — the English-speaking Roman Catholic Church is changing the language in the ancient prayers, rubrics and readings used in the Mass. It's the first significant change to the service in more than 40 years and only the third issued in the Church's 2,000 years.
"On the scale of things in the history of the Catholic Church, it isn't terribly significant, but it's not insignificant, either," said Frank Russell, professor of history and classics at Transylvania University.
The Rev. Richard Watson, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington, said that the Mass "has been tweaked for years," but this translation is not "correcting" the previous version. "What was going on many centuries ago is, in essence, the same."
But the words in the Mass are changing, including some of the calls-and-responses, the Gloria, the Nicene and Apostles' creeds. Even the first and last words spoken, the greeting and concluding rites, are different.
"The old translation has served us well. ... We're not static. The spirit still moves in the Church. We've got the translation we need now," Watson said. "In 50 years, we may need a new one. It's the evolution of the church, with God leading us."
According to information provided by the Church, this translation is intended more closely to reflect the Latin, "integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses."
The Latin used in the Mass goes way back in time. The Catholic Encyclopedia says the Mass "begins with the Last Supper," when Jesus Christ and his disciples shared a meal before Christ's crucifixion.
From that event, the history of the Mass gets complicated. During the first 1,500 years of the Church, the Mass had regional differences. Then, in 1564, the Council of Trent decided the "boundaries of what is Catholic and what isn't," said Russell, the Transylvania professor.
The text decreed at Trent was used over the next five centuries, until 1963. The second edition of the text was published and became known as Vatican II. "That version of the missal used vernacular, the common language of particular regions, including English," Russell said. But the Vatican II translation left open the door for interpretations of the Mass. "From church to church, there can be a degree of variation," he said.
Vatican II was used for about 40 years, until 2000, when Pope John Paul II issued a third Latin translation to commemorate the new millennium. Over the next 11 years, that version was translated into English.
John Molloy, director of religious education at the Cathedral of Christ the King, said this English edition changed some of the "poetic license" from Vatican II. The new translation is not "slavish to the Latin," but it does include "formal equivalents."
"The theology is not changing, but what we're saying is more precise," he said.
Russell said, "To some extent, this is an attempt to get everyone on the same page, and variations don't become an issue."
For instance, no longer will parishioners respond to the priest's exhortation, "The Lord be with you," by saying, "And also with you." Starting at the end of the month, the response will become, "And with your spirit," a closer translation of the Latin phrase "Et cum spiritu tuo."
The music is changing as well to accommodate the new language. At St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Lexington, the new translation has been introduced to the choir through two new settings by composers Kenneth W. Louis and W. Clifford Petty.
The Rev. Norman Fischer, parish priest at St. Peter Claver, said the choir was energized by the new music and translation. "You are still going to get fed throughout the liturgy," he said.
Fischer, also a chaplain at Lexington Catholic High School, said the new translation is a "teachable moment" for congregations and students alike. At Lexington Catholic, the students have been introduced to the liturgy, but once the Mass is being used regularly, the school will offer classes on the translation.
The clergy also has been getting its liturgical ducks in a row. The priests have more changes than the congregation, but the church has provided a version with the changes printed in red.
Watson, of Christ the King, is a recent graduate of seminary, where he learned both versions of the Mass, and a Spanish translation. The Spanish version, like many of the Romance language translations, already was closer to the Latin.
"It's really up to the priest to be prepared," Watson said, and "priests are trained to lead the people in worship."
Individual congregations can introduce the changes however they see fit, but they don't have the option of not using the new Mass. Congregations are permitted to use the Latin Mass if they choose.
Some Protestant churches trace their histories to the Roman Catholic Church, but changes in the missal "are not likely to affect Protestant denominations," said Bill Arnold, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore. "Some Protestant denominations come from the Anglican tradition: ... Methodists, Presbyterians, other denominations to a lesser extent. Those denominations are more closely aligned to the Mass, but are not likely to alter their liturgy."
It's uncertain how Catholic parishioners will warm to the new translation and whether the changes will feel big or small.
Watson said, "The prayers will become a part of us. We will recite them as beautifully as we do now."
Says Molloy: "We're trying to grasp in finite language an infinite God."
Reach Lu-Ann Farrar at (859) 231-3335 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3335.