Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Spectacular Success of the New Missal Translation

As much time as I had spent reading the new translation of the Missal, looking over the differences with the old translation, even saying the new prayers aloud and writing extensively about them, nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced today. The experience was beyond anything I believed would come in my lifetime. I found myself nearly overcome with a kind of controlled glee from the beginning of the Mass until the end.

The changes are few compared with the overall effect. There was a new decorum, a new seriousness. The words are said to be more opaque but the real-life experience in the opposite. The new text peels back the cloudiness that has shrouded the Catholic Mass under the old translation and its attempt to make the incredible so commonplace. At last we have a real match between the language we use and the things we believe. Both are now serious and robust. There is no more of that disunity we had become used to after all these decades.

As I’ve thought about this throughout the day, I’ve realized something I had not fully understood before. And perhaps this explains why the tiny opposition to this Missal is so vociferous and noisy. Here is the thing: the new translation has given the Mass a cultural transplant. I hadn’t known that this would happen ahead of time. But these small changes, the more complex language, the longer sentences, the heightened formality - all of these have a cumulative effect in eliciting a certain kind of intensified belief structure and comportment.

Our choir sings from the front of the nave so I was able to watch people today. For the first time that I can ever remember, I looked up and saw the eyes of 100% of everyone there looking up at the altar. Truly, this was a first. At the Incarnatus Est at the creed, 100% of the people there bowed their heads. At the end of communion, 100% of the people there were kneeling with heads bowed in prayer. I cannot remember ever seeing this kind of unity of purpose.

For whatever reason, the responses were louder than I’ve ever heard them from this congregation. More people attempted to sing. And clearly everyone was paying close attention to the words. The readers, even without instruction, seemed to have a new dignity in approaching the sanctuary, and a better cadence about how they read. In general, there was a sense that what we were all doing was important, significant, and serious - and this sense was not something imposed on top of the Mass but rather flowed from its essence.

You could say that this is because it is all new. Perhaps this explains part of it. But there is more to do than that. The language of the new translation is a different form of English than you would ever hear someone use in conversation. It cannot be mistaken for the usual blather we hear from television, radio, store clerks, and coworkers all day. It is the language of liturgy and that causes us to sit up and take notice. it causes us all to behave.

I can tell you, it is much better in real life than it is on the flat page. I would say that this is even true of the chants, which are much better in use than in practice. The Kyrie was effective. The Memorial Acclamation was very good. The Sanctus, which I had previously not been disposed toward, was remarkably good and nicely balanced with the style and approach of the rest of the Mass. The Agnus worked too. I think I can be happy with these Missal chants for a long time, and whereas I used to grant certain criticisms of the opponents of these chants, I’m now a believe that these are exactly what we need.

I suspect that many people who had doubts coming into this project have changed their minds already. In the New York Times today, Fr. Anthony Ruff is quoted with extremely critical remarks to the journalist: "The syntax is too Latinate, it’s not good English that will help people pray," But on this blog today, he writes: “It all went quite well at the abbey, and I was struck by the beauty of the liturgy.... Overall, I liked it much more than I expected.”

Excellent. I’m sure many people felt the same way. Actually, so far as i could tell, most people seemed very excited about the whole thing. Most Catholics attend Mass in something approaching what a friend of mine calls “a vegetative state.” It’s true enough. It’s been true for years. To put matters bluntly, most Catholics have been bored out of their minds at Mass, and I think this might have something to do with the plainness and mundane quality of the language. With that stripped away, the boredom factor seemed vanquished.

An older gentlemen after Mass opined that he felt a strong sense of relief, like a bad chapter in the history of Catholicism had been closed and a bright new one had opened. “Well, we went full circle, didn’t we, and we are back to where we were in 1965.” There is a certain sense in which this is really true. It is a fresh start for the reformed liturgy, a fresh start for the postconcilar English-speaking Church, and a fresh start in our lives as Catholics. I’m so grateful that I’ve lived to see it.

The people who were involved at all levels in the production of this Missal are required as a matter of a vow to remain anonymous because they were working for the Church and not for themselves. Still, I would like to congratulate each one of them. What they did took courage. It took daring and guts. It requires something truly heroic to stand against the winds and prevail in this way. It takes special people to embrace something so profoundly counterculture and push it all the way to reality. They did it and we are all grateful to them for it.

If anyone is reading this who stopped going to Mass long ago, please consider coming back. You will find something wonderful, something completely out of this world.