Were the new translations cause for Mass confusion on Christmas?

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It didn't take long after the announcement was made that the new Mass translation would be implemented at the start of Advent 2011 for people to begin speculating on what that would mean for Christmas liturgies. After only four weeks, it was pointed out, those of us who are regulars at Mass would still be adjusting to the changes. So what would happen when the pews were suddenly filled with those who attend Mass only once or twice a year?

Once the new missal struck last month, initial reviews were mixed. Some complained loudly. Others praised the new translation. But most, it seemed, just took it in stride despite struggling with the new words or trying to understand why certain changes were made.

As Christmas Day approached, concerns again started to surface. Secular newspapers began running stories warning that Catholics who only show up in church for the big two (Christmas and Easter) were in for a shock. The Washington Times, for instance, claimed that "a large number of Catholics will be wrestling with once-familiar prayers in significantly altered form for the first time." A Catholic columnist in Toledo, Ohio added to the drama, writing last week, "If the prodigal sons and daughters had trouble relating to religion before, new changes in the Mass liturgy could have them reeling."

In other words, Catholics were being told they should expect a Christmas mess when they showed up for Christmas Mass. Yet now, several days removed from the holy day, I have not found a single report of the Christmas catastrophe so many had predicted.

So what actually happened? In my parish, there wasn't much difference on Christmas Eve than any other Sunday in Advent. The people's responses were generally muttered, with some cautiously reading the new words and others accidentally blurting out the old ones before trying to correct themselves. I didn't see anyone scratching their heads or looking around in confusion. There were no big disruptions and no one stormed out. And from what I've heard in other parishes, things were pretty much the same.

There are likely three explanations for what happened when the new translation debuted before its first enlarged audience. Those who haven't been to Mass in months may not have known in advance that things changed and, upon seeing the differences, they simply kept quiet and tried to following along, probably feeling embarrassed that they didn't know what was going on. Or perhaps they did know things had changed, but had no idea what the changes were and just tried to keep up, putting them only three weeks behind the rest of us. Or maybe those who knew about the changes and didn't like the idea simply decided to stay home.

We probably won't know for sure what difference the translations made to those who only drop in on our liturgies on special occasions. Some may have been silently steaming or overly frustrated, and they won't be back for a while, if at all. We might be able to speculate based on how many of them return for Easter, or even for Christmas next year, but those would only be guesses.

The most important question is whether parishes were able to offer these rare visitors a reason to want to come back more often, and if we're prepared to welcome them if they do decide to return.

Related reading:

Special section on the New Liturgy