Rewrite gives Catholics a new mass

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am

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For more than three and a half decades, Catholics across Hong Kong have closed their eyes and prayed in English using the exact same words as fellow believers the world over.

The ritual is etched onto a global collective subconscious, with many prayers being learnt from a young age and recited by heart.

Soon, some of these rituals will change. On November 27 - in tandem with Catholic churches around the globe - services in Hong Kong will adopt an updated set of rites, designed to be much closer to their Latin origins than today's version.

The Roman Missal, which contains the wording of prayers and readings used in the Catholic mass, will enter its third English language edition. It is the first translation since 1973 and the city's churches will adopt it in all English services.

That will change services for about 100,000 of the city's Catholics - including Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen - who attend English mass - according to the Bishop of Hong Kong, John Tong Hon.

The introductory rites will no longer say, in addressing Jesus, 'you plead for us at the right hand of the father', changing to 'you are seated at the right hand of the father to intercede for us'.

During the Eucharistic prayer, in place of 'Christ has died, Christ is risen', congregations will say, 'we proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection'.

To Dennis Montecillo, chief executive of a private equity firm and self-professed 'cradle Catholic', the language will be harder to grasp but lead to a more mature understanding.

'Will it be harder to understand? Only to the extent that truth is sometimes harder to understand than common knowledge - which isn't always truth,' he said. 'If anything, I think the changes will force me to dig more deeply into my faith by researching the background behind the changes in order to understand the rationale.

'Obedience ... is a pillar of our church. Was it St Thomas Aquinas who said 'first believe, then understand?' I think he was onto something when he said that. I believe that the holy spirit has always inspired our church leaders to do the right thing when it comes to matters of faith and morals.'

Jenny Fong Yuen-ling, who grew up a Catholic and volunteers at the Ladies' Guild at St Joseph's Church, said the deeper understanding the new missal offered would take time. 'When you go to mass, when you believe in a religion, it's not easy. You have to find the meaning yourself,' she said. 'You have to put effort into it, like a relationship.'

Other believers were less enthused. 'I'll just follow the old translation in my heart - it's part of my life,' said a life-long Catholic who declined to be named. 'After so many years I know what works for me.

'I myself think the most important thing is the spiritual guidance and spiritual growth we receive. Even if you use your own language, the divine will understand what you are saying.'

The Hong Kong-born academic has used the 1973 translation for more than 30 years and said he would continue using the words he knew, even if the church wanted otherwise. However, he did not want to be named or seen to criticise the church.

'We have our own judgment but so long as we keep it to ourselves I think the church will bear it,' he said.

The chairman of the Diocesan Liturgy Commission of Hong Kong, Thomas Law, said preparations were under way for the new text's adoption although it was not yet available for the public to see in full. 'Whenever an official translation comes out we use it, following what the church says,' he said. 'The content is a great improvement.'

Tong said the new version brought richer clarity to the meaning of the text and could be seen as a third way between the complexity of the Latin-heavy first edition and the more relaxed second edition.

'Just like a pendulum, when you go to one side and the wordings are too faithful to the translations, you will lose the fluency of the language. When you go in the other direction, you might lose a little bit of the original meaning,' the bishop said. 'Maybe the third edition is trying to be a balance.'

Tong is on the Vox Clara Committee, the group of 11 cardinals, bishops and archbishops from around the world that oversaw the translation of the new version of the Roman Missal.

Controversy has been reported in Ireland, the United States and Australia over the perceived inaccessibility of its language. At the heart of the debate is an issue as old as the church itself: traditionalism versus reformism.

According to Professor Kang Phee Seng, head of Baptist University's department of religion and philosophy, the concepts are really not opposed but complementary. Ease of understanding was important for newcomers to a faith to understand the concepts, but as faith matured, believers sought a more nuanced interpretation, he said.

'It is important to stress that the church is one and there's a common language,' Kang said. 'It's like the whole of China has a national anthem that tells everybody that they are under the same sovereignty. The reformists have a point too - we don't just cling to the old tradition for tradition's sake. It has to be a living tradition in us. I think every generation has to ask itself, 'Is this tradition meaningful? Is it meaningful to our generation? And if so how do we communicate it?''

The missal's invitation to communion - where Catholics eat bread and drink wine representing Jesus' flesh and blood - points to the kind of difference Kang describes between the difficult but satisfying and the accessible but simplistic. 'Happy are those who are called to his supper,' says the present book. The updated text reads slightly differently: 'Blessed are those called to the supper.'