Reading the Roman Missal, Part 1: Consubstantial

by Erin Brenner on July 13, 2012

US Catholics have been using the new edition of the Roman Catholic Missal for eight months now, and the worry over the new translation has proven mostly groundless. Congregations are reciting prayers and responses almost seamlessly.

One change, for example, was the response to “Peace be with you.” Formerly it was “And also with you.” Now it’s “And with your spirit.” When I attend mass these days, I hear the congregation say the latter in unity.

But a few items have caught my attention as needing more explanation or as just plain odd. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll pick my nits in detail.


The first item that caught my attention was the use of consubstantial in the Nicene Creed, the prayer that outlines the basics of what Catholics believe:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
consubstantial with the Father
through him all things were made.

The term means “of the same substance, nature, or essence,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). We can see this easily in its parts. The prefix con- is a variant of com-, meaning “together.” One of substantial’s meanings is “having mass or constitution.” Together + having constitution. In other words, Catholics believe Jesus is the same being as God.

I admit consubstantial doesn’t come tripping off my tongue. It’s just not a common word. It appeared just eight times in a recent Google News search, and three of those results were references to the word’s use in the new missal. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has only 30 instances out of the 450 million words it contains. Google Books returns just 10,200 results from 2000 through 2009, many of those theological.

But given the surrounding text as well as the commonality of the term’s parts, it’s not hard to figure out the intended meaning. It’s not a great choice, given the former phrase was “one in Being,” but not the end of the world either.

Stay tuned for part two: the story and usage of oblation.

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