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On Ash Wednesday, the words you hear at Mass will change. Here’s how

Ash Wednesday: While it’s not a holy day of obligation, it might as well be.

In most parishes, Ash Wednesday is one of the most highly attended Mass days of the year. Even this year, in which everything is different, many parishes are still preparing for long lines of Catholics who’ve come to “get their ashes” before heading off to work — even if work is only a morning Zoom call.

A priest marks a Catholic’s forehead with ashes in an Ash Wednesday liturgy. Credit: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian May/ US Navy/Public domain.

The incredible strangeness of 2021 is not the only thing that will make this Ash Wednesday different from years past.

One difference, for Americans, is that priests are asked this year to sprinkle ashes atop people’s heads, instead of tracing the sign of the cross on the forehead. Sprinkling is the common method of distributing ashes in many parts of the world, and is an ancient custom.

But even sprinkling ashes won’t be the only change for American Catholics.

On Feb. 17, 2021, Ash Wednesday, the words of the Mass will change too — or, at least, revert to what they once said, before a mis-translation changed things. 

The U.S. bishops’ conference issued a memo last week explaining that the “collect,” one of the opening prayers of the Mass, has been mistranslated since Mass translations in English were first published after the Second Vatican Council.

Effective Ash Wednesday, bishops and priests celebrating Mass are instructed to pray the collect with the appropriate translation.

The Pillar answers your questions:


How many words are changing?

What word is changing?

Here’s what’s happening:
The “collect” is a prayer that concludes the opening rites of the Mass. The collect invites people to pray in silence for a moment, and then offers a prayer to God that is drawn from the readings or feast of the day, or the purpose for which the Mass is being offered.

The collect ends with an invocation to Christ, which includes mention of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and ends, in Latin, with “…Deus, per omnia sæcula sæculorum.”

In English this has been translated as “one God, forever and ever.”

A particular collect might conclude, for example, “Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.”

But here’s the thing. In Latin, the prayer doesn’t say “one God.” It just says “God.”

And the prayer isn’t meant to be an affirmation of the oneness of the Holy Trinity. Instead, it is meant to affirm that Christ is God — because of the pervasiveness of the Arian heresy, which taught otherwise, in the centuries in which the prayer first came into being.

So to better reflect this — and to more accurately convey the official Latin text of the Mass — the English text will drop the word “one.”

The prayer above will now read: “Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.” (bold added for clarity.)

Other conclusions to the collect prayer will undergo similar changes.

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Why is this changing?
In May 2020, Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments, wrote to English-speaking bishops’ conferences pointing out the error, and asking them to change it. The U.S. bishops voted to make a change to their official English translation of the Mass, as have episcopal conferences in England and Wales, Canada, and Ireland.

Ok, but, there’s a global pandemic. And world hunger. And wars! Why spend time and money to change something like this?
I guess this is a matter of perspective. The Church has an ancient maxim: Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi — as we pray, so we believe, and so we live. 

This saying is meant to remind the Church that prayer is central to Catholic life, and forms minds and hearts, which in turn form action. In this sense, praying with the Church, in the prayers the Church prescribes, accurately translated, might be the best formation for believing and living like a Catholic — which includes loving the poor, caring for the sick, being peacemakers, and doing other good things.

It might seem like a minor thing, sure. On the other hand, in the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t taken all that much to get it right, either.

Were Masses celebrated with a mistranslation invalid? Illicit?
No. The words of the collect are not the central words of consecration in the Mass, and do not affect the validity of the Masses celebrated with them, either.

The Masses weren’t illicitly celebrated either, since — even while priests are warned not to change any of the words of the Mass unilaterally — this was an official mistake, and one officially approved by the Vatican, not a personal choice by some priest to change the words to his personal preference. 

In fact, it would, arguably, be contrary to the Church’s rules for a priest to change the words of the collect ahead of the official Ash Wednesday change, since he is exhorted to follow the missal exactly.

Why are priests urged in that way? Because the Mass is the prayer of the entire Church, not the prayer of one priest who wants to change things to suit his personal viewpoints or preferences.

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So do I have to do anything?
Probably not. Especially if you are not a priest.

The collect is prayed by a priest. So starting on Ash Wednesday, just listen and pray along, as you would any other day, but with a nuanced change to the meaning of the prayers.

If you are a priest, you’ve likely already seen a memo from the bishops’ conference, which suggests that you probably don’t have to buy a new missal to remember to omit the word “one.” Hopefully, that proves true.

There is one exception worth noting. The USCCB has clarified that the change applies to all liturgical books, so if you you pray the Liturgy of the Hours, then starting Feb. 17, you should drop the “one” as appropriate — and if you don’t pray the Liturgy of the Hours, you should consider it. Could be a good practice for Lent.

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