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Originally published December 15, 2009 at 12:06 AM | Page modified December 15, 2009 at 12:41 PM

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St. James pastor speaks out against new English translation of Mass

The Very Rev. Michael Ryan, longtime pastor of Seattle's St. James Cathedral, is taking an outspoken position against a new English translation of the text that guides the Roman Catholic Mass.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A new translation of the book that guides the prayers and responses of the Roman Catholic Mass is coming to parishes, and the longtime pastor of Seattle's St. James Cathedral isn't happy about it, saying some of the language is awkward and clumsy.

The Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan also is critical of how the revision came down, saying the process violates the spirit of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council which, among other changes, included priests celebrating Mass in English rather than in Latin.

The new English translation of the revised Roman Missal is a more literal translation from the Latin and lacks richness and beauty, Ryan said.

He said it will lead parishioners long accustomed to saying and responding to prayers a certain way to wonder why the changes were needed and will put priests in a position of having to "sell" the new translation even if they don't like it.

So he has taken some unusually bold steps, writing about his concerns in the Dec. 14 issue of the Jesuit magazine "America," and calling for a waiting period to test market the new translation before it reaches all English-speaking parishes, possibly in the next year or two.

He's also set up a Web site (www.whatifwejustsaidwait.org), encouraging priests, bishops and lay Catholics to sign up in support of his position.

"I know it might smack of insubordination to talk this way," Ryan wrote in his piece in "America." But "what is at stake, it seems to me, is nothing less than the church's credibility."

The new translation, recently approved by U.S. bishops, is still awaiting approval from the Vatican.

While some Catholics see it as a welcome return to more traditional elements, Ryan says he's hearing from Catholics across the spectrum who are simply wondering why the change is needed and how it helps their prayer life.

In South Africa, where it was mistakenly introduced earlier this year, Ryan said, the response was not good. People he's spoken with who are familiar with the changes haven't liked them either.

Ryan said one example is that the phrase "Joseph, her husband," has been changed in the new translation to "Joseph, spouse of the same virgin."

Other new phrases he cited in the "America" article include such examples as "consubstantial with the Father," and "oblation of our service."

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Ryan said he feels so strongly about the issue because "we're dealing now with the heart of our church — the central prayer. There's no more important prayer for us than the Mass." In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council — or Vatican II — initiated changes that were intended to open the church and update its rituals. Along with saying Mass in English or other local languages, Vatican II gave bishops in each region the authority to produce their own translations, subject to Vatican approval.

Ryan believes that spirit of local initiative was violated.

"The initiative came from the Vatican," Ryan said. "They put people in place to do the translations who would meet their expectation."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, former "America" editor and senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, agrees with Ryan's take.

"I think this is a liturgical train wreck that is going to be happening when they implement this thing," Reese said.

The reaction of people in the pews, he said, is likely to be, "This is not better. In fact, it's worse."

But others say they like what they've seen of the new translation.

Joseph Bottum, editor of the magazine "First Things," which frequently focuses on Catholicism, says the new translation isn't perfect. "But it's a step in the right direction. It's more faithful to the Latin, and thereby more reflective of the long liturgical tradition of the church."

Plus, the new translation will include elements of the old Latin Mass that were left out of the previous English translation, he said.

He expects the reaction to be far more muted than with the sweeping changes of Vatican II, about which "some people were ecstatic," he said, and "some people were furious."

If the Vatican approves the new translation — which is almost certain, given the conservative stance of Pope Benedict XVI — a period of education in the parishes will take place, with some observers saying the new translation probably wouldn't be introduced until 2011.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says it's "very unlikely" that Ryan's effort will succeed.

She noted the bishops have been discussing and voting on various sections of the new translations since 2004 and their final vote for approval in November was by a wide margin.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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