Saturday, February 19, 2011

Catholicism Grows Up

There are ways to write for children and ways to write for adults. I could write this whole column in a voice designed for children. The sentences would be short and begin with verbs. The voice would be active. The vocabulary would be limited. Word choices would favor Anglo-Saxon and not Latin derivatives. I would favor the concrete over the abstract. The narrative would be simple and to the point. Sentence constructions would be predictable and not challenging.

We all know something about this way to write, whether from our own childhood or from the books we have read our children. It is a legitimate form, suitable to a specific purpose. Journalism students are taught to write this way, always keeping in mind a target comprehension level well below adult level. The cliche is that newspapers, for example, are written for a 7th grade level of understanding. This is not easy to do actually, and it does take practice. But it is necessary to reach the broadest consumer market.

The more I compare the writing of the current versus the forthcoming Missal, the clearer it is to me that “dynamic equivalence” -- which amounts to a distortion of the Latin -- was only part of the method behind the current translation of the Missal. There was also a belief that the translation should seek to simplify according to the method used for journalism and books for young people or even children.

The goal always revolved around cognitive understanding as a first priority -- a goal formulated in reaction to the widespread perception that the people could not understand Latin. The attempt to reduce, simplify, shorten, and concretize was formulated in reaction to a very shallow understanding of the purpose of worship.

Consider the collect for the 7th Sunday of the year: “Father, keep before us the wisdom and love you have revealed in your Son. Help us to be like him in word and deed.” Compare to the forthcoming Missal: “Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, always pondering spiritual things, we may carry out in both word and deed that which is pleasing to you.” Leaving aside the completely different content, the second is one long sentence with side clauses and extended thoughts. This is adult writing. The first is broken up into one thought per sentence.

The 6th Sunday of the year demonstrates the same. From the current collect: “God our Father, you have promised to remain forever with those who do what is just and right. Help us to live in your presence.” And forthcoming: “O God, who teach us that you abide in hearts that are just and true, grant that we may be so fashioned by your grace as to become a dwelling pleasing to you.” The forthcoming deals with complexities and uses extended constructions. The first is plain and direct, designed for young minds.

What is the over-all liturgical effect of this approach? Words aren’t the only thing happening at liturgy. There are the other senses to deal with too: the sights of vestments and furnishings and the sounds of music. None of these appear in a vacuum. The music, vestments, and furnishings we choose are part of liturgical structure, the foundation of which is the text itself. As we pray, so shall we believe, and what we believe is reflected in what we end up seeing and hearing.

The music that came to dominate the liturgy in the years of the first translation finds its parallel in the text itself. It featured a lack of seriousness. Its goal was maximum accessibility, maximum reach. The musical phrases were short and not challenging. The musical narratives were short and to the point. The musical formulations were direct and lived within a strict metrical framework. The musical language was drawn from songs and styles that were already familiar, since the goal was not to offer something radical different but to tap into a pre-existing aesthetic in order to readily communicate.

Not that any of this had anything to do with the musical heritage of the Roman Rite. In fact, it was a wild distortion of that heritage, which was rooted in the text of the liturgy. Its structure was not metrical because the text was not metrical. It was plainsong and it had a freedom to float and adapt itself to the liturgical goal. The simplest forms embedded a profound purpose and its most complex forms had a cathedral-like sophistication in structure.

For forty years, ever since the promulgation of a text, this type of music has virtually non-existent at Mass. Instead, we’ve had hymns (Mass propers virtually banished) and a relentless drive away from traditional hymns and toward pop songs. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps given the textual foundation of the liturgy, this trend begins to make a bit more sense. The language of the liturgy reinforced and call forth the language of the music. This all amounts to a trivialization and, more precisely, infantilization of the Roman Rite - which is a pretty good description of what has been happening over these decades.

Think of it this way. Let’s say that you move into a new home and discover that the master bedroom has light pink carpet and butterfly wallpaper, plus a light fixture that recalls Sleeping Beauty. It’s possible that you could just plop your ball-and-claw chairs and your Victorian four-poster bed right in there, along with a giant mahogany chest of drawers. But there would be a certain, shall we say, decorative tension going on here. You would be far more inclined to either change the wallpaper, carpet, and fan, or just use the room as the children’s room.

This is the kind of problem that has been persistent sine this translation appeared in the 1970s. And it has given rise to a level of aesthetic upheaval in the Church that has been truly unprecedented. It’s true that the infantile music and non-serious vestments predate this translation but the translation might have help entrench them and make them mainstays in the Catholic world.

During these years, we also witnessed a massive fleeing from the Catholic Church as well as the development of an active resistance movement. This movement had strong reasons to hold the views it did, for it was clear that, from all appearances and sounds, the old Catholicism had been overthrown in favor of an alien religion that only bore a vague similarity to the old. It’s quite clear that many of the criticisms of the “Novus Ordo” were actually related to the translation and the accoutrement's that it called forth; most did not deal with the core of the Latin edition of the Mass that was promulgated by Paul VI.

Meanwhile, those who longed to implement the words of Vatican - remember that Gregorian chant was to take pride of place - faced terrible resistance. Not only the winds of culture but the very culture of Catholic liturgy itself - a culture mainly shaped by an errant and biased translation of the Mass - seemed to weigh against the implementation of the Council. It was like hanging a precious work of art in a fast-food restaurant or wearing black tie and tails to a Lakers game. The mix of Gregorian chant and the English liturgy seemed odd and fundamentally opposed.

Now that we are getting a look at an accurate translation that actually captures the Latin sense, and is not distorted by an infantilizing or popularizing bias, we have a clearer grasp on a main problem that has been extant for all these decades. The new translation is solemn and serious. Most of all, it is in the language intended for adults and for a faith that seeks to mature.

Are we losing accessibility? As understood in the 1970s way, perhaps so, but we gain beauty, seriousness, holiness, solemnity, and a element of transcendent mystery that sparks the spiritual imagination and feeds the deepest longings of the soul. In other words, we are getting the Roman Rite back, not in its purest form but at least in a form that is not at war with what the ritual is and does as its very foundation. It is a sacral language, as Laurence Paul Hemming has argued (Worship as a Revelation - Burns and Oats, 2008), is inseparable from the idea of liturgy itself.

The hope is that many of the other infantilizing elements that we’ve come to associate with the Catholic faith will find themselves less at home in the new parish life that will emerge after Advent 2011, and, just as Gregorian chant was driven out, the silliness of the last decades will be displaced by liturgical forms that match with the textual core. It is a huge step in the right direction, one that will make more steps along the path much easier to take.