WASHINGTON--The nation's Roman Catholic bishops are showing surprising resistance to changing the words of the Mass in order to bring the liturgy in line with Vatican-ordered revisions.

U.S. Catholic bishops, who are meeting here this week, said changing the well-known prayers used at Mass would not be accepted by rank-and-file Catholics, and the bishops would prefer to keep much of the Mass the way it is.

The tweaks in language, if adopted next summer, would represent the most sweeping changes to the worship life of America's 67 million Catholics since the current Mass was introduced in 1970.

The bishops' reluctance to change, revealed in unsigned comments that were released Monday (Nov. 14), could spark an uncomfortable confrontation with Rome that is more characteristic of lay Catholics' independent streak than the bishops' penchant for loyalty.

The new language "will be a very hard sell pastorally, both for priests and people," said one bishop. All bishops' comments were anonymous. Said another, "Our people have come to 'possess' these sacred texts as they never have in the past. It is wrong to disturb and upset them with a new translation. ...Our people are angry enough."

While some of the changes involve words spoken by the priest, the most controversial changes are centered on words and prayers spoken by the people. Of the 19 texts spoken by the faithful during worship, 12 are up for change.

Some of the revisions are minor, but nonetheless noticeable. For example, the familiar "The Lord be with you, and also with you" exchange between the priest and the people would be changed to "The Lord be with you, and with your spirit."

A more jarring change would be the words spoken before Communion. "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you" would become "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof."

The bishops' liturgy committee said changes are needed in order to bring Mass in 11 English-speaking countries in line with Vatican-approved translations from the original Latin.

Many bishops complained that the new English translations were either "awkward" or "archaic" or, as one prelate put it, "too British." They complained that translators had failed to capture the "elegance" of the English language.

"During the years I was teaching Latin, had a student submitted comparable translations for classical Latin texts, I would have given him a low grade," one bishop said.

Others thought the changes were long overdue. "The (new) language is graceful and relevant," one bishop commented. Another said the new texts were "not common but reverent, which reflects the heavenly character of the liturgy."

A major concern for many bishops is that the changes will not be understood or accepted by lay Catholics, leading to two separate styles of worship: one that is familiar but no longer approved, and the other that is official but not embraced by many U.S. parishes.

The bishops' comments--some 1,147 from more than 100 bishops--were gathered this summer as part of a survey designed to test the bishops' tolerance for the proposed changes.

Just more than half (53 percent) of bishops rated the proposed changes as "excellent or good," while an almost equal amount (47 percent) said more work needs to be done.

"We are a divided body on this translation issue," said Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., chairman of the bishops' liturgy committee, who noted that the bishops do not have the two-thirds majority necessary to approve the changes.

Church guidelines require Mass texts to be the same around the world, but they also allow exemptions for "pastoral reasons." Trautman's committee, responding to the uproar, has proposed keeping some of the original language that is most familiar while implementing changes elsewhere.

Last June, the bishops balked at a proposed change that would remove the familiar "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again" refrain from the Mass because it is not part of the official Vatican translation.

Trautman said the "Christ has died" language could be made a permanent part of the U.S. liturgy, but not until next year at the earliest. "It's a problematic area," Trautman said. "We have to recognize that."

The bishops will be surveyed on three additional proposed changes--including the "under my roof" language--before final action is taken, probably next summer.

In other business, the bishops' president, William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., urged church leaders to mend damaged relationships with parish priests, who he said do not trust bishops to protect them after the church's sexual abuse scandal.

Skylstad cited a recent survey of priests that found 58 percent of them fear they will not be treated fairly if accused of sexual abuse.

"We need to exercise the God-given authority we have in a way that does not place bishops and priests on either side of a divide," Skylstad said.

"The challenge, of course, is to succeed in being both father and brother to our priests."

The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said the call for solidarity was welcomed and should help "begin to heal this breach" between priests and their bishops.
"He's absolutely correct that priests feel that once you're accused, you're left high and dry," Silva said. "Priests have felt that very seriously."

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