Friday, October 1, 2010

Rally 'Round the Roman Missal

One year from this first Sunday of Advent, the Mass that we hear at our local parish is going to be very different, and what a blessing it will be. The words of the Mass will be a much closer reflection of the Latin original. There is a beautiful dignity to the text. The music of the Mass will be integral to the printed edition, making it far more easy to sing rather than just say the Mass. Long-standing problems with the old translation (such as poor and highly suspect paraphrases in crucial prayers) are washed away.

What this change amounts to is a new beginning for the Missal of Paul VI, a reparation of a botched translation with origins back to 1969, and a re-embrace of Catholic teaching, identity, and native liturgy. It is a fresh start for modern Catholicism as we know it. More precisely, what we will experience is a Catholicism as we haven’t known it but should have known it. This is much closer to what the Fathers of Vatican II originally imagined.

The whole of the Catholic world should be celebrating. I’m quite certain that Catholics in the pews, come Advent 2011, are going to feel a profound sense of relief. However, it is different in the world of published opinion. The early indication is that it’s going to be a rough year. Essentially the problem comes down to this: this new translation of the Missal has few defenders, people will to stand up and say without hesitation what I said above. The Missal itself is caught in the same trap that the revision after the Vatican II found itself in, with a few differences given the timing and the evolution of liturgical debate in the intervening years.

Here is a summary of the problem.
The most erudite, learned, and passionate among the defenders of the Roman Rite are these days mostly attached to what is called the “extraordinary form,” the ritual of the Mass as it stood in the 1962 Missal that Benedict XVI liberated three years ago in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.

By habit and temperament, these “traditionalists” have lost heart to engage the battle of the “Novus Ordo.” Quite frankly, they just don’t care that much about it. We all have limited time and theirs is invested elsewhere. They have their Mass or are looking to get their Mass in a form that they regard as obviously superior. An improvement on a Missal they regard as a hopeless failure is just not something that they can get too excited about. Still, these people should remember, as Fr. Z pointed out, that the ordinary form is the Catholic experience of the overwhelming majority (is it 80%? 90%); if you love the faith, you have to care to some extent about this issue.

Meanwhile, I’m beginning to realize that the group known as the “progressives” or the “left,” the adherents to a theory wrongly known as “liberalism,” appear to be conducting some kind of guerrilla warfare campaign against the new translation. They are pettifogging it to pieces. They complain about the process, the particulars of tiny changes, the printing, the tones used, the methods and approaches, the people involved, the timing of the release, the delays, and everything else one can possibly complain about. Complain, complain, complain -- that’s all they seem to be able to do with regard to the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal in English.

This campaign is so relentless, so petty, so pervasive that one begins to suspect an agenda at work here, namely, a goal to poison the atmosphere to such an extent that everyone will gain some kind of vague impression that the release of this vastly improved and corrected translation is some kind of disaster for the Church and the faith. One stands and looks at their blogs and listens to their words with amazement.

After all, the new Missal is a vast upgrade in every way one can imagine. This isn’t even a debatable point. And what is the choice? Are we really just supposed to continue forever to use the shag-carpet translation that was so wickedly foisted on us in 1970? The style is ridiculously childish by comparison - perhaps it accorded with the Sesame Street standards of the time but these do not wear well. The new Missal uses dignified, liturgical language. As incredible as it is to imagine, the “progressives” are giving the impression that they are as attached to this lame-duck anachronism as they are to the music and vestments of the period! And perhaps they are. Perhaps the goal is to discredit any further reforms made in the name of the new Missal - reforms such as....musical reform in which we sing propers instead of some guy's songs.

There is a third party to consider: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This is the group that actually voted for the new translation. Surely the USCCB will lead the charge in rallying behind the new translation? Sadly, the answer is no. The problem is essentially one that is intrinsic to any bureaucracy: it can never admit a mistake. All change has to be presented as a change for the sake of change, but not an improvement or correction or reversal of error.

Thus, if you look at the USCCB’s elaborate website on the New Missal, and go to its frequently asked questions, you will find that the first question (a perfectly reasonable question) is: “Why was there a need for a new translation?” The answer begins with a lot of yada yada about history. And finally explains that there was a need for “prayers for the celebration of recently canonized saints, additional prefaces for the Eucharistic Prayers, additional Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Intentions, and some updated and revised rubrics (instructions) for the celebration of the Mass.”

Huh? That explains why things are added to the Missal. But it does not explain why the entire Missal has been completely re-translated from top to bottom, to the point that virtually no parts of the lame-duck translation survive in tact. It’s like completely redecorating your three-story house, and when someone asks why you did it, you answer that it is because you have a new lamp. In other words, this answer makes no sense.

The published answer to the reasonable question continues with a final sentence that vaguely hints at but does not explain the real reason. Now, this is rather boring so don’t give up in your attempt to read it carefully: “To aid the process of translation of the Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued Liturgiam Authenticam, in 2001, an Instruction on the vernacular translation of the Roman Liturgy which outlines the principles and rules for translation. In 2007, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Ratio Translationis for the English Language, which outlined the specific rules for translation in English.”

Now, again, this is not a reason but it does explain the guidelines. Those guidelines came from Rome. You have to read between the lines, but it essentially comes down to this. The current translation was a disaster of such epic proportions that Rome had to intervene and explain in detail how to translate a Latin Missal into an English one, and enforce those rules so that something could be done to give the people back their faith!

Years ago, I worked on a series of articles that compared the existing translation to the Latin text. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of Latin, I was so shocked at what I found. I had planned to write a series of pieces, but I had to stop after the second article, simply because I could not mentally handled what I was finding. It was too alarming to actually face in its full reality. It would have been bad enough if the translation had been merely incompetent, but that was not the problem. The problem was fundamentally theological. Distinctive Catholic teaching had been bypassed. Words were changed to eliminate doctrines. Issues of divine importance had been systematically swept away. Studying this material was as destabilizing an experience as I had ever been through.

One year from now, all of this will be history. I’m so incredibly grateful. At long last, Catholicism will speak in English, at our own parishes, in a manner that actually reflects what is in the real Missal. It might take generations to figure out how it came to be otherwise. Something really went haywire. But we can let the historians figure that out. What is fantastic is that our long period of captivity is nearly at an end.

Who will rally around the new Missal? We can’t count on the “progressives.” The “traditionalists” long ago lost interest. The big bureaucracies are caught up in their own issues, and fear even so much as admitting that this Missal will be an improvement. Whom does that leave to celebrate and defend our new Catholic reality one year from now? You and me.

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