The Latin words Dominus vobiscum ("the Lord be with you") - and the response et cum spiritu tuo (“and with your spirit”) - were once among the best known words of the Catholic Mass. In the pre 1970 rite, the priest typically said it 8 times – at the end of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, before the Collect (“Opening Prayer”), before the Gospel, at the Offertory, at the Preface, before the Postcommunion, before the Dismissal, and finally before beginning the Last Gospel. At sung Mass, all but the first and last of these verses and responses would have been sung. Four times (before the Collect, at the Offertory, before the Postcommunion, and before the Dismissal) the priest would turn around and face the people to say or sing Dominus vobiscum – unless, of course, he was already facing the people, a relative rarity in the English-speaking world, but the norm, for example, at solemn Papal Mass in the Major Basilicas of Rome. (The old Missal pointedly provided for this contingency in its directions on how to celebrate Mass.)
The familiar response et cum spiritu tuo (“and with your spirit”) has been the universal response in both Eastern and Western Churches since at least the year 215. (According to one 5th-century author, the word “spirit” refers “not to the soul of the priest but to the Spirit he has received through the laying on of hands” and represents the community’s prayer that the priest may fulfill his role as celebrant in the grace bestowed upon him by the Holy Spirit).
Since the shift to the vernacular in the 1960s, it has been translated accordingly in almost every language (e.g., y con tu espiritu, und mit deinem geist, etc.) One notorious exception, however, has been English, in which for the past four decades the congregation has been reduced to responding “and also with you.”
(I’m sure we have all heard the familiar joke about the priest who at the start of Mass realizes his microphone is not working and says, “There is something wrong with this microphone,” to which his automatic-pilot congregation loudly responds “And also with you”).
In just under three weeks, this anomaly will be corrected as a new, revised translation of the Roman Missal is introduced. The entire order of the Mass – both the Ordinary (the normally unchanging parts) and the Proper (the parts that vary from day to day) – has been re-translated. Only the scripture readings in the liturgy of the Word (contained in a separate book, The Lectionary) will not change, since they are taken ultimately from previously authorized translations of the Bible. (In the United States, the New American Bible is the scripture translation in official use in the liturgical books).
The main concern underlying this new translation seems to be to make the words worshipers hear and recite accord as literally as possible with the base Latin text. For various reasons, the translation in use these past 40 or so years took certain liberties with the text in the name of what is called “dynamic equivalence.” In the process, much of the poetry and dignity of the words was lost – as were all sorts of familiar phrases (e.g,, the triple “through my fault” in the Confiteor, the Centurion’s words in the Domine, non sum dignus before Communion, etc.) In returning to the principle of “formal equivalence” in the translation process, we will now have a text that is both more faithful to the original and more elevated in its words, sentence structure, and cadence than its 1970s predecessor.
The new translation should be welcomed as a further spur to recovering a more reverent style of worship and a fuller sense of what the liturgy is about. Even so, change is always challenging, and some will undoubtedly find these changes somewhat difficult. (I remember well what it was like when we went from Latin to English, when “the changes,” as they were then commonly called, were first imposed upon relatively unprepared and unsuspecting congregations in the mid 1960s!) Now – as back then – these changes should remind us all that the liturgy is the Church’s common worship and not our private individual prayer, and that it is in fact a gift from the Church to be received by us with fidelity – and gratitude.