In recent days, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a number of different groups about the Third Edition of the Roman Missal and all that it means for our generation. In some ways, this is the first-ever Catholic Missal to finally get the music question right. Not even the Missal of the Council of Trent benefited from music experts involved in its creation. The music question was taken for granted, and it was years after its promulgation before the songbook to go with it was thought through. Over time, matters stabilized but not without fits and starts and quite a few botched books of chant having been produced along the way.
The Second Vatican Council produced no new Missal but merely a careful permissioning for one to be created at some point in the future, with no changes permitted that were not to the good of the Church. We know how that turned out. The interim Missal that came out in the United States was a quality product but a bit unstable, and hardly anyone believed that it would last very long. Sure enough, by 1969, a commission had produced the hoped-for new product, one that yielded coincided with, and assisted in causing, what is probably the largest upheaval and decline in Catholic institutions ever found on record.
The strange result of this event was the status quo today, which could be described as hyper conservative or perhaps more accurately described as stricken with fear of change. An odd stasis affects parish life. Bishops and priests all live in fear of doing too much in any direction for fear of alienating people yet again. Stability, blessed stability, is what the Catholic world seeks today because it is still recovering from the trauma delivered in the late 1960s.
And so, one can see why Bishops have been very cautious about the release of the new English translation. Even if the results are vastly better and correct most of the amazing errors of the past, there is a widespread fear that anything new could spark another meltdown. For my part, I expect the very opposite. I’ve large large portions of the Missal out loud to audiences and watched them swoon at the high language, the poetic cadence, the seriousness of the literary formulations. This Missal sounds and feels like Church. It turns out that people who go to Church rather like this.
But our times are not only about the new Missal. This is only the most visible symbol of improvement in our times. In the last few weeks, I’ve had some extremely exciting exchanges in both public and private that reveal what an amazing difference it has made to the world that we now have the first in-print book of sung propers in English for the ordinary form. The global distribution of the Simple English Propers book by Adam Bartlett has changed more than even I had anticipated.
I’ve told the story many times of how it suddenly dawned on me a little over one year ago that we really didn’t have anything to offer parishes that stood somewhere between the perfection of the ideal in the Graduale Romanum and the parish reality of four songs of nonliturgical text per Mass. So long as that was true, progress would be stopped simply because it is nearly impossible to leap from one to the other. You need musicians, training, experience, a pastor who is on board, and a people who are ready – ingredients that rarely come together all in one parish.
Today, we have the book and the viable option for any parish to start singing the real text of the Mass starting this next week! That is a glorious thing. The book is now used in many monasteries, convents, seminaries, and innumerable parishes. The North American College, for example, is all abuzz with the implications of this new book. This is helped by the fact that these are freely downloadable, so you don’t have to take the risk of buying for the entire year to try them out for one Sunday or just one communion chant.
The Simple English Propers are only the beginning. They serve as a model of the kind of music we need. I would also add that the Simple Choral Gradual by Richard Rice also falls into this category: simple music but absolutely beautiful in the real experience of Mass at regular parishes. There will be many other editions and approaches pouring out as the years go on. What matters most is that this book has finally begun to break up the old system that long predates Vatican II of singing any old thing at Mass.
This has proven to be strangely attractive to those good souls who inhabit the sectors of the Church known as Life Teen or the youth in general. I’m convinced that many of these people want to do the right thing but only need guidance and tools to get started. Now they have both. And what the youth are doing today is a foreshadowing of what everyone will be doing in the years down the road.
Keep in mind that what has inspired all of this is the new translation of the Missal. Most of all, it represents good faith on the part of the decision makers in the Church. No, the process was no perfect and it was even extremely messy at times. But the result is there for anyone to see. We will soon experience it – Advent I can’t come too soon. The results won’t be immediate but over time we are going to see the rebuilding process start to take shape.
The trends of our time show that hard work and prayer can make a difference in the Church and in the world. Millions have despaired for so long but today a new hope dawns, and it the privilege of this generation to be part of it.