Changes to Roman Catholic Mass Will Surprise Majority in the Pews, Survey Says

In many ways, Nicky Gautier is a model Roman Catholic. The Charlottesville, Va., resident attends Mass every Sunday, has enrolled her daughter in Catholic school, is active in her parish's social life and considers herself to be "very religious."

Yet despite her strong church connections, Gautier, 36, was surprised when she recently learned that a significantly altered Roman Missal, the "call and response" guide to the words said by priests and congregants during Mass, would go into effect this fall.

"We were talking about the Mass and my friend was wondering how they were going to bring it about and what would be different, but I remember feeling completely clueless," said Gautier. "I said, 'What do you mean they are going to change the Mass?'"

Since changes were approved by the Vatican in December, U.S. bishops have been preparing priests and lay Catholics for the first use of the revised missal on Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent. But despite an aggressive effort by bishops to educate the nation's 68 million Catholics, including training for priests and an extensive web campaign, new survey results released this week say that three in four Catholics are unaware of the upcoming changes.

As part of a broader survey not yet released, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, which studies Catholic trends and demographics, asked more than 1,000 U.S. Catholics if they knew about changes to the Roman Missal. Overall, 77 percent said no. Among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, 43 percent said no.

They'll want to get up to speed: The new translation requires different responses from congregants in a dozen sections of the Mass.

For instance, when the priest says, "The Lord be with you," the congregation now responds, "And also with you." But come November, the congregation will say, “And with your spirit.”

When reciting the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith, Catholics now say that Jesus is “one in being with the Father." Soon, they will say that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father.” Also, Jesus will no longer be "born of the Virgin Mary," but "incarnate of the Virgin Mary."

The acclamation "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" is being removed from the Mass entirely because it was never in the original Latin version.

The new missal is the first major change to Mass rituals since the early 1970s, when revised texts were issued to implement Second Vatican Council reforms that allowed local languages to replace Latin in the Mass. The new English-language version of the missal is meant to conform more closely to the official Latin text that serves as the basis for all local-language Mass translations. Pope John Paul II initiated the latest translation in 2000. The following year, the Vatican released a document titled “Liturgiam authenticam” (Authentic Liturgy), which said the new missal should replicate the Latin Mass in vocabulary, syntax, punctuation and capitalization.

Even as U.S. bishops press forward with implementation, a minority of priests and laypeople have protested, calling the new wordings awkward and inaccessible. Among them was a Seattle priest who persuaded more than 22,000 Catholics to sign an online petition calling for a pilot program in select parishes. That effort was unsuccessful.

"I'm concerned about those 'Christmas and Easter' Catholics. We don't see them on a regular basis. When they come back to church for the holidays, what will happen?" said Melissa A. Cidade, a research associate at CARA who conducted the survey. "There is not much time left before the new translation starts to be used. Many Catholics will be hit with a 'November surprise.'"

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, who chairs the Committee on Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he is not discouraged by the survey results. "I'm not very surprised, to tell you the truth. Do I wish it was different? Yes, but I think we live in a society where, unless something is immediately upon us, we don't get overly excited," he said.

Aymond predicted that priests will began talking more about the missal changes in the next two months, when the pews fill up with families returning from summer vacations. The new missal books, which are available for parishes to pre-order, will not be shipped until Oct. 1. "In every Catholic church in the United States, we will have worship aides that people can read from," he added.

The Rev. Jan Larson, a retired priest and liturgist in the Archdiocese of Seattle who originally signed the online petition to protest the new translation, said he has reluctantly accepted its use and expects an overall smooth transition, albeit with a few bumps.

"Most priests have not started introducing the new missal, and for a few couple of weeks, people will have to have cards in their hands with new responses," said Larson, 69, who assists at Our Lady Queen of Sorrows parish in Snoqualmie, Wash. "I went through this before when we went from Latin to English. I remember for a number of weeks people having to follow the new translation back then. I have to keep that in mind now. It was a hassle at the time, but worked fine in the long run."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the new Roman Missal translation was done to bring the text in line with the Latin Mass as it existed before the Second Vatican Council. The new missal translation is based on the current official Latin text of the Mass.