Thursday, January 13, 2011

Five Changes to Expect with the New Missal

As with the Y2K hysteria of ten years ago, it is easy to find apocalyptic warnings about the dreadful fate that is going to befall the English-speaking Catholic world on November 27, 2011, which is the first Sunday of Advent, the day on which the new Missal with its new English translation will be implemented.

We hear of the “trauma” we will experience, how disastrous splits are going to surround us not only between parishes but within them, how people are going to be even more shocked and stunned by the new translation than they were in 1969 when the entire Missal moved from Latin to English.

But just as with Y2K, I expect no disaster at all. In fact, I believe the opposite. There will be no shock and awe. It will be different but it won’t be startling. It will change us as a people but only gradually over time. In the end, the changes will be dramatic but essentially organic. I’m happy to revisit this column one year from the implementation date to see if these five predictions about the new Missal hold up.

1. Restored Sensus Fidelium. The most disturbing aspect of the translation that has been in place for forty years is the way in which it stripped out subtlety and grandeur from the Latin original. It has the feeling of something gone over by a by-the-book magazine editor working at a popular weekly. The voicing is direct, the shadings are made stark, repetitions are taken out, metaphoric imagery is removed, and the complexity and richness of the text is made simple and necessarily thin.

If the translators didn’t see the point or didn’t understand why the phrase or sentence appeared in Latin - or it seemed to smack too much of the “old Church” - it was generally tossed out or replaced by something common, more familiar, or just new and fashionable. So long as the theme was generally the same, the new version stuck. It became nearly impossible to put the Latin and English side by side and expect anyone to figure out the parallels, and this was true even in the order of Mass itself!

This wouldn’t be a terrible problem if it happened only rarely but this approach became the method by which nearly everything in the Missal was evaluated and re-rendered. It affected the people’s parts profoundly but even more thoroughly in the celebrant’s parts. The net result has been a form of prayer and a perceived content of the faith that has lived a separate existence from the Catechism of the Catholic Church or our history of popular devotions and prayers.

The Mass seemed like a thing apart from the rest of our lives as Catholics. It had a different flavor and tone, a peculiar casualness about its approach and message.

The new translation changes this. It treats the Latin as the text of continuing normative relevance. The result is a text that has more solemnity, seriousness, and dignity, and feels more Catholic in the sense in which people expect.

Compare the first Sunday of Advent preface:

CURRENT: When he humbled himself to come among us as a man, he fulfilled the plan you formed long ago and opened for us the way to salvation. Now we watch for the day, hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours when Christ our Lord will come again in his glory.

FORTHCOMING: For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.

The second is incomparably more evocative of the idea of Advent, complete with information missing from the first: the lowliness of flesh; the eternity of salvation; the glory and majesty of the coming; the inheritance of the promise; the dare of our hope. It has so much more color and drama!

The point is further illustrated in this preface for the first Sunday of Lent on The Temptation of the Lord:

CURRENT: His fast of forty days makes this a holy season of self-denial. By rejecting the devil’s temptations he has taught us to rid ourselves of the hidden corruption of evil, and so to share his paschal meal in purity of heart, until we come to its fulfillment in the promised land of heaven. .

FORTHCOMING: By abstaining forty long days from earthly food, he consecrated through his fast the pattern of our Lenten observance, and by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, taught us to cast out the leaven of malice, so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery, we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast.

So from the forthcoming text, we see the relationship of Christ’s fast to our own, the parallel of the devil in the desert and the devil in the garden, the rejecting of sin and the need for our own repentance, and the final relationship between Christ’s resurrection and our own eternal life of which the season of Easter serves as a metaphor. The first first flattens out all this and renders it at all plainly and unimaginatively as possible. Thus can we see how the new translation might even help restore unfashionable ideas like fasting during Lent!

2. A Push for Sacred Music. Of course the music of the Mass is the elephant in the living room, but at last some people are starting to talk about it. ICEL is emphasizing the propers of the Mass over random hymns that now dominate the liturgy. This is a very important, practical step toward fulfilling the hope for Gregorian chant to have pride of place in the Roman Rite.

The Missal itself contains a tremendous number of chants that are beautifully written and easy to sing, even without any instruments. My impression is that there is far more music, and that this music is more integral to the liturgical text itself. It contains the music and the Latin for Vidi aquam, Crux Fidelis for Good Friday, Ubi Caritas for Holy Thursday, and Gloria laus for Palm Sunday.

The beauty and dignity of the Mass text alone is going to create a better environment for chant and the music of the Roman Rite. More than any other change, this is the one that will lead to a general settling down at Mass so that the liturgy will be more prayerful and reflective, a time when time itself ceases and we are better able to contemplate and see into eternity. It is a fact that music makes a much larger contribution to the orientation of our mind and heart than is generally supposed.

And let us never forget that the Missal alone is not enough to provide music for the Roman Rite, though the excellent offerings in here might tempt us to think so. The sprinkling rite chant outside Paschal time, the Latin ordinary chants, and all the propers of the Mass in Gregorian chant - which must have first place at Mass - are all found in the Graduale Romanum or its English-language offshoots. These are also liturgical books of the Roman Rite, and this new Missal will provide new impetus to revisit them or discover them for the first time. 

3. The End of the Liturgy Wars.
Everyone knows about the wrangling and argument and contention of the last decades, an environment in which all sides squared off in bitter dispute about the environment of worship. The new Missal settles many of these disputes, not by declaring one side victorious but by reminding everyone of the real point behind our gathering for Mass in the first place. It is not about us. Once we decrease, he can increase, and in that increase we will find a new peace in our communities through the grace of the sacrament.

Indeed, the decades of wrangling have an underlying cause, which has been the attempt to push the Mass into being something that it really cannot be, which is nothing more than an uplifting gathering of like-minded friends with a unified theme. A translation that highlights the majesty and presence of of God brings the liturgy closer to its true personality and purpose, and in this we will find a new way of understanding the faith and the reason for our gathering in the first place.

4. New Decorum. The casualness of the Missal text and its studied attempt at plain speaking had many spillover effects, one of which has been to encourage a sort of sloppiness in the way we all comport ourselves at and during the liturgy. The seriousness that has been missing can more easily reassert itself in the context of a liturgical text that itself is more elevated and oriented toward heavenly things.

A new sense of dignity and decorum will come more easily to us when we cut the plain-talking ways and speak and listen to words that are not like any words we use in conversation. I fully expect that the new Missal will give impetus to other related reforms such as an altar orientation toward the East, kneeling for communion, and better and more dignified vestments and furnishings.

5. A Hinge of History. I’ve had several people point out to me the similarities in language between the new Missal and the transitional Missal of 1965. Much of the music that came out immediately following the Council - English plainchant - is now making a comeback. More and more people are looking back to the Second Vatican Council to discover what is that the Council meant to do and compare that to what actually happened from the late sixties onward.

I’ve joked that sometimes it seems like the whole of Catholic liturgical history has done as giant leap from 1965 to 2011 and it remains somewhat foggy and unclear what happened in the intervening years. At last, and after much suffering and pain, we seem to be on the right track again. We might find that our parishes will fill up again, our seminaries will have new vocations, and popular devotions will return as part of Catholic life. All of this will get a huge push forward with the new Missal. This is the year, the year that in 100 years people will look back and say: this was the turning point.

None of this will be obvious on November 27, but it will become more and more clear as time goes on. And for that we must be supremely grateful to all those who prayers and hard work have brought us to this point where the light of the faith as expressed through the liturgy is appearing before us in our time.