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.

18 Replies to “Catholicism Grows Up”

  1. A good measure of how seriously to take a critique, it seems to me, is how well the critic knows his subject matter in detail. There's a problem if the target of the critic's ire is so widespread as to resemble nothing so much as Swiftian hatred of the world in general.

    Specifically, if all post-conciliar music sounds infantile, that probably means you haven't been listening all that carefully. It's hard to see how you'll ever persuade anyone who knows the repertoire better than you do, to see things your way.

    Something struck me a day or two ago, while talking to a friend in profound need of comfort. We both knew the words, you shall not fear the terrors of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day. They are words from Psalm 91. I'm a cathedral musician, so I know loads of psalms by heart both in English and Latin. My friend isn't, on the other hand, but knew those words because of one popular contemporary psalm setting. I wonder how many Catholics-in-the-pew are familiar with those words for the same reason, and how many would be if they only ever heard the psalms sung in Latin to Gregorian psalm tones?

    (Trivial aside: begin with verbs? Know what you're talking about? Isn't easy to write solely in verb initial sentences. Might have made a mistake. Advise you to tread carefully when expounding on matters of grammar, I would. Said enough?)

  2. Well, Copern, you are nothing but predictable. My two examples here both split thoughts to begin new sentences with verbs. As for the main trends in liturgical music, I think infantile works.

  3. Copernicus;

    I know the repertoire all too well (Organist Director since 1981…Full-Time since 1985), and Jeffrey's assessment of much of it as infantile is pretty accurate. Sure, there is indeed good music that has been written in the "post-concilliar period", however you will hear little if any of it in parishes because it isn't in the Big Three hymnals and worship products. I think there is a fine line between some of the music that is too often heard which is downright "poor quality" or just "bad music", and that which is pretty good quality, but is still written in that simplified, direct "USA TODAY" type of style that relies on predictability and popular-music cliche to make it work. It may be good quality, but it's still dreck by any other name.

    I think that Jeffrey is right on the mark in his observation that the maturing of the liturgical language will call for a maturing in the musical language as well (which I think is what he was getting at here).

  4. Those words you describe are not from a popular setting of a psalm but rather a song based on a psalm. There is a difference. If you have been using it as a setting for a psalm, you have been mistaken.

  5. Yes, yes, yes – the 1969 translation of the Order of Mass and much of the music produced in the aftermath of Vatican II has been tried and found wanting – I get it.

    We will soon be using a much improved and more faithful translation and there is great potential for the use of more authentic and truly sacred music in our churches – I get it, and I am very happy about it.

    I must admit, though, that I am growing tired of the blogosphere critique of they way that we have done things these past 40some years – I am not convinced that this endless repetition of the same note is going to help us move forward.

    The reason that I read the Chant Cafe (and other sites) on regular, and sometimes daily, basis is that these sites are providing a growing number of really usable resources for the liturgy that have been not been available during the 35 plus years that I have been an organist and choir director.

    The Chant Cafe, etc. all have an enormous ministerial function to perform by continuing to provide a way forward for liturgical musicians. That ministry will not be accomplished, in my view, by continuing to ride the hobbyhorse of past abuses (please don't remind me that "those who don't know the past are condemned to repeat it" – I have had an active role in music ministry in church since the early post Vatican II days.

    Thank you for the many great resources that you have helped me become aware of – many of which I have begun to use frequently. Keep up the good work.

  6. Isn't a little strange, though, when one considers that the Latin of the Missal was not based on the language of the elites and highly educated, but constructed to express the faith clearly and precisely to the multitudes. It seems to me the current translation obscures the faith by failing to be precise, while the revised translation obscures the faith by failing to be clear. The faithful deserve a translation that is both accurate and understandable when proclaimed.

  7. "you shall not fear the terrors of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day. "
    I used to sing that. Was it really from the Holy Bible? Thought it was one of those pop lyrics.
    I don't think ignorance and good intention are a good combination here.

  8. By the way, I really can't take seriously a cathedral musician who claims that all is right with the world. Some people just need to get out a bit more, not just cherry pick venues dominated by their friends. Or maybe people like this just don't care about the parish rabble.

  9. @Jeff Rice:

    the Latin of the Missal was not based on the language of the elites and highly educated, but constructed to express the faith clearly and precisely to the multitudes

    The Latin of the Mass was that of the grammarians, increasingly differing from that of the language of the streets. It was, as Christopher Page puts it, an example of a "hightened and often archaizing form of the same language that is nobody's native tongue".

    The use of a standard and literate form of a language for the liturgical texts of the faith helps ensure integrity, clarity, precision and profundity of expression. This was particularly true of the cosmopolitan late Roman world. Similar observations might be made of the English used to mediate those texts today.

  10. @Jeffrey Tucker:

    By the way, I really can't take seriously a cathedral musician who claims that all is right with the world.

    Nor does a cathedral musician's claim that all is right with the world mean that it is. One only needs to inspect the Cathedral music lists to realise this.

  11. "Catholicism grows up" That's a good news, but there are stil lots of rebellious teenagers, or those who act like teenagers, who think they know better than the parents and want to have their ways.
    Maturity comes with wisdom, and it is based on humility and obedience for Christians as our Lord showed them on the cross.

  12. Not aimed at anyone in particular, but some of the worst music I've experienced at Mass has been at Cathedral churches…as well as some of the best

  13. "Catholicism grows up"? You surely wouldn't think so in many parishes in the NYC area. Like stepping into a time capsule and revisiting the late 60s.

    "but some of the worst music I've experienced at Mass has been at Cathedral churches…as well as some of the best"

    Same here!! I'll fall out of my pew if I ever hear anything that can even come close to St. John the Divine NYC, Canterbury Cathedral or Wells for the Mass or holy eucharist, evensong or dressed matins.

  14. Jeffrey,

    By the way, I really can't take seriously a cathedral musician who claims that all is right with the world.

    Definitely not! Peace.

  15. In 1964 the translation of the Agnus Dei in the USA went:

    "Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us (2)
    Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace."

    At my high school we sang that to Ray Repp's music with guitars.

    At my parish we sang that – exact same text – to the Agnus Dei melody from Mass XVI in the Vatican Kyriale, adapted by J. Gerald Phillips and published by McLaughlin and Reilly of Boston.

    Exact same text: two different melodies: two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT spiritual experiences that I can remember close to fifty years later!

Comments are closed.