The new translation of the Mass is a huge success. But why, oh why, are we stuck with the clumsy old version of the Agnus Dei?

The new Mass translation (Photo: Mazur/

Well, the new translation of the Mass is now up and running, and, at least in my parish, its launch seems to have passed off without any awkwardness at all. “And with your spirit” was confidently and (as far as I could see) unanimously declared, as though the congregation had been saying it for years (phone conversations, however, have elicited a certain difficulty elsewhere in remembering to say it. Maybe the most important thing to remember is to keep your eyes on the card). There was a real sense of occasion, I thought. We began, slightly shakily, using James MacMillan’s very splendid setting (used at the beatification last year), and the process of getting people’s heads around it has begun. All in all, it was a great occasion.

As in parishes all over the country, a series of sermons on the new translation, and on the Mass itself, also got successfully underway. I wonder how many priests said for the first time that the people’s response in that opening exchange between priest and congregation does not mean “and the same to you, Father”. “And also with you” can’t really mean much more: indeed, it was the perfect example of how the old translation, from the off, consistently reduced (ah, wondrous past tense) theological meaning in the movement from Latin to English. So why is it “and with your spirit”? Your priest probably quoted biblical, especially Pauline, and also Patristic instances in which the phrase was regularly used – instances which mostly had never been quoted in sermons before, since we were lumbered with “And also with you”; why bother? (if you didn’t have such a sermon on Sunday, have a look at Fr Austin Milner OP’s scholarly article published in the Herald early this year).

The loss of meaning in that opening exchange was enormous. A good explanation of just how much was lost (and now has been regained) has been given by Mgr Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington:

In effect, the expression et “cum spiritu tuo” is an acknowledgement by the congregation of the grace and presence of Christ who is present and operative in the spirit or soul of the celebrant. Christ’s Spirit is present in the priest in a unique way in virtue of his ordination. Hence what the dialogue means is:

Celebrant: The Lord be with you.
Congregation: We do in fact acknowledge the grace, presence and Spirit of Christ in your spirit.

This understanding of the dialogue was not uncommon among the Fathers of the Church. For example St John Chrysostom wrote:

“If the Holy Spirit were not in our Bishop [referring to Bishop Flavian of Antioch] when he gave the peace to all shortly before ascending to his holy sanctuary, you would not have replied to him all together, And with your spirit. This is why you reply with this expression… reminding yourselves by this reply that he who is here does nothing of his own power, nor are the offered gifts the work of human nature, but is it the grace of the Spirit present and hovering over all things which prepared that mystic sacrifice. (Pentecost Homily.)”

On the whole, I am thrilled by the new translation, which consistently uncovers new theological meaning in the text. That’s why this Sunday I felt I had to be present at a celebration using the new English Rite: this was, after all, an historic event for the Church in this country. In future, I shall probably revert to my practice of attending the Oxford Oratory’s 11am Latin High Mass on Sundays. But most other Masses there are in English: and when I go to Mass during the week, there or at the Oxford University Catholic chaplaincy, Mass will still be in the vernacular. Most of us who prefer Mass in Latin have long ago accepted that most Masses we attend will be in English: so it is wonderful that the new translation is so palpably closer to the Latin – not just in some scholarly sense we would only be aware of if we have made a close comparative study of the new and old translations with the Latin text, but noticeably for anyone, sometimes, dramatically so: it is splendid, for instance that now, instead of confessing “that I have sinned through my own fault” and striking my breast just the once, on Sunday I confessed (striking my breast thrice) “that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”: for, the suppression of that threefold repetition of the “mea culpa” (in response, perhaps, to some mistaken ecumenical sense that there is a protestant dislike of what they are pleased to call “vain repetition”) – that suppression always produced a consciousness, in anyone who went sometimes to the Mass in Latin, of a dreadful and palpable loss of the prayer’s devotional power. But no longer: never again. Alleluia.

I have to say, however, that there was, for me, one disappointment (and though only one, a real and substantial one): that there has been no change in the exceptionally clumsy (and inaccurate) translation of the Agnus Dei. “Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world” isn’t just dreadful because it carries on from the old regime that terrible habit of writing prayers which seem to be informing God that he does this or that, or has this or that characteristic, so that it almost looks as though one is saying in the Agnus Dei, for instance, “look, you take away the sins of the world, the least you can do therefore is…” There is a real feeling of presumption in prayers conceived in this way, as well as a loss of meaning. The Latin is Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata Mundi: God’s taking away the sins of the world is expressed in a subordinate clause; this signifies that our prayer comes from our own consciousness of God’s saving mercy, and the transformation of our own relationship with God that that consciousness has brought (the same is true in the Gloria in Excelsis: “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis/ Qui tollis peccata mundi etc”). Grammatically, of course, there is a problem in achieving a literal translation. “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata Mundi, dona nobis pacem” has a vocative noun “Agnus”, followed naturally by second person verbs, “tollis” and “dona”. That would, if you preserved the subordinate clause, produce the literal translation “Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace”. That “take” sounds, on its own, awkward in modern English.

But why not “Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world”? That is accurate and I would have thought quite mellifluous. It would take some getting used to: but so will “and with your Spirit”. But why am I grumbling? This will be the last time, I swear: for, in the immortal words of John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” It’s too late now: the translation we now have will be the last, certainly in our lifetimes.

The fact is, I have to admit, that I would personally always rather hear Mass said or sung in Latin anyway. But mostly, that’s not an option (though one day, and perhaps even relatively soon, say in a decade or two, perhaps it will be). We should be grateful (and I am, profoundly) for what we now have: an immensely improved and mostly much more beautiful translation of the Mass (some of the greatest beauties are in the new translations of the Eucharistic prayers: so the sooner Missals and Mass booklets with both priest’s and people’s parts are available, the better).

The more we get used to the new translation, I am convinced, the deeper will be our love of the Mass, freed from the sense that in the translation we use we have been shortchanged. One result, I would not be surprised, will be a growing feeling that we now need to change the translation of the Bible we use at Mass: the dreadful Jerusalem Bible is the scriptural equivalent of the old translation of the Mass: clumsy and banal, just not good enough.

OK, Vox Clara; how about it?