Anyone who understands religion news at the level of pews and altars understands that few stories matter more to dedicated readers, and appeal less to mainstream editors, than stories about changes in the books, laws and traditions that shape how people worship. Want to start a war? Arguments about sex will stir things up, but if you really want to touch people at the local level all you really need to do is change their prayer books and hymnals. Obviously, this is especially true when you are covering the ancient, liturgical traditions, but the "worship wars" in modern megachurches tug at the heartstrings in a similar fashion.
Thus, the biggest possible story one could imagine on this subject in the context of North America, the story that would impact the most people, would be a story about a complete revision of the English translation of the Roman Missal. And the story about this subject that would read by most newspaper readers -- since few local editors are going to gear up for early coverage on this topic -- will be the report produced by the Associated Press.
Thus, it is important that the following basic AP story on this subject functions as a kind of press release for critics of the Vatican and the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which will reach worshipers at the beginning of the pre-Christmas season of Advent in 2011.
What would you expect in such a story?
* A quote from the omnipresent Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, the patron saint of mainstream journalists in need of a quick quote that is, roughly 90 percent of the time, critical of the Vatican.
Check. In fact, Reese is granted the first direct quote in the story.
* Defenders of Rome are allowed only bland, vague, dull paraphrased quotations in defense of their actions.
Check. The story does not contain a single direct quote from a Catholic expert who defends the new Roman Missal.
* Material produced by an outspoken bishop who was on the losing side of the ecclesiastical wrestling match that produced the new texts. If possible, he should be cited in a way that identifies him as an expert on the topic, yet without clearly identifying his partisan role in the debate.
Put it all together and you have something that looks like this, in the body of the AP story that ran in newspapers from coast to coast.
Pope John Paul II announced the new missal in 2000 and it was first published in Latin in 2002. It's the first significant change in the English translation since the Mass was first celebrated in English after Vatican II in the 1960s, said the Rev. Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
"It will impact every Catholic in every parish because they will have to learn new responses in place of the ones they have been using since Vatican II," Reese said. "I believe that the new translations are a step backwards and confusing to the people in the pews."
Proponents of the new missal's translation into English have said its language is more poetic and true to the spirit of the original Latin. Critics contend the translation is too literal and includes too many theologically complex terms.
Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., who formerly ran the U.S. bishops liturgy committee, criticized the new translation as "slavishly literal" during a lecture last year at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Let's see. And what kinds of changes would critics want cited?
Prayers offered by the priest will include more complex terms such as "consubstantial," "inviolate," "oblation," "ignominy" and "suffused."
Critics like Bishop Trautman argue that Jesus Christ taught in the language of the common man and, further, that Vatican II reforms that first allowed the Mass to be translated from Latin to the vernacular are being unraveled by the more complicated words used in the new translation.
In response, readers receive another vague paraphrase from supporters of the new version, who are not -- again -- named or quoted.
It's a clean sweep, a tour de force.
Readers seeking more information about this press release can go directly to one of its likely sources, the PrayTell weblog produced by the St. John's School of Theology and Seminary. A sample of its criticism can be found at this edgy FAQ.
Those seeking a length defense of the new Missal -- including plenty of links to voices on both sides of the debate -- can check out this essay at the Adoremus Bulletin website. The official website on the transition, offered by the U.S. Catholic bishops, can be found here.
For a coverage that offers the mirror image of the AP report, readers might want to check out this Catholic News Service report, which includes the following material which I am sure could have been used in the Associated Press story as quick and easy commentary from the other side.
At several points during the Mass, for example, when the celebrant says, "The Lord be with you," the people will respond, in a more faithful translation of the original Latin, "And with your spirit."
The current response, "And also with you," was "not meant as 'you too' or something like 'back at you,'" Father Richard Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship, told Catholic News Service. Rather it is "an invocation to the priest as he celebrates the Mass, a reminder that he is not acting on his own, but in the person of Christ" -- a distinction that the new language will highlight, he said.
I hope that GetReligion readers will help me spot any significant follow-up coverage in the mainstream media. Might I suggest setting a Google News alert for these terms -- "Roman Missal," "Latin" and, of course, "Reese."
In conclusion, may I offer an old joke that, on this occasion, will almost certainly be quoted by activists on both sides of the Roman Missal debate (as opposed to its popularity for several decades on the Catholic traditionalist side of the aisle):
"What is the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist?
"You can negotiate with a terrorist."
Photo: The second photo is of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., which is linked to the school of theology and the seminary.