Why Catholics Love Ash Wednesday

Once again today, Mass was packed: every Mass, every pew without exception, from morning until night.

Catholics love Ash Wednesday. Priests often comment on how peculiar it is. It is not a holy day of obligation. Catholics could stay at home and luxuriate, stay at the office and work, avoid the traffic, avoid the fight for a parking place.

Instead they come. They come to receive ashes on their heads, and be marked as Catholics, a sign observed by everyone inside and outside the Church. And it isn’t exactly flattering to walk back into the office with a smudge on the forehaded. One walks around all day having to explain the meaning and where one has been.

Attending Mass on Ash Wednesday it isn’t a law in the world or in the Church. There is no penalty for failing to be there. And yet they come anyway.


It has something to do with the mark, the very physical evidence of the ceremony. The faith isn’t an abstraction in this case. It is instantiated in something we can see. It is not just an idea. It is a thing perceived by the senses. It is unlike anything we experience in the rest of the world: it is a mark of the sacred.

In some ways, in the sweep of history, this is an especially Catholic impulse, one that takes seriously the Incarnation as an empirical fact. That God would become man and take on human form in every way affirms as facet of our faith that the senses are not evil as the Manicheans would have it but rather a part of the created order that can made sacred through holy uses in holy spaces.

I’ve read various atheist tracts over the years that rail against every variety of religion and poke fun at the gods we are accused of inventing in order to quiet our insecurities. In these, Catholic Christianity is usually lumped in with all the others and dismissed as a sheer fantasy. But these writers are wrong in this sense: Catholicism is distinct for being a faith that is fundamental based on a series of physical facts perceived by the senses. Christ existed. He made certain claims for himself. These claims were heard. For these claims, he suffered and died.

If these facts are wrong, Catholicism is not true. But they are not wrong, and on these truths about what happened in time, in the physical world, form the foundation of our doctrine. The Incarnation is everything for us.

It is for the same reason that Catholics do not fear icons and images of saints, and we want our Churches to be beautiful and grand, not small and merely functional. The form is part of the faith. And so it is with ashes, which have this interesting intertemporal feature that is intrinsic to the liturgical year. The ashes are merely conjured up for use on this one day but rather come from the previous year’s liturgical experience of Palm Sunday, and thereby reach back and also foreshadow both Christ’s death and our own.

And so with ashes we cover three senses: the touching of our foreheads, the hearing of a reminder of our own mortality, and the seeing of the ashen cross on our foreheads. And here we have a case against the ideology that wants to purge Catholicism of its distinctive physical markings and the ceremony that makes them part of our lives. Catholics come even in the absence of a mandate in order to experience them. And we do so because we adore the perceivable marks of our faith. We adore the ritual. We adore those features of the faith that underscore features of the physical world that make our very lives sacramentals. Our faith is not just abstract. It is real.

A hugely important aspect of this, but one sadly neglected in our time, is our music. Catholic music is like the ashes on our forehead, a very old tradition with timeless meaning for lives. It is a physical sign of something much deeper. Ashes are visible evidence of the invisible. Catholic music is the audible sign of the inaudible. It is something we should hold on to, cling to in order to give the daily march of our lives a spiritual meaning.

What if one year the Catholic Church stopped giving ashes and instead proposed something completely new. You can use your imagination concerning what this would be. What would happen? Would people take to it very well? Not likely. It would end up killing a ritual, killing a tradition.

Something like this has happened to Catholic music. The sound of what was once something unique to our ritual was drowned out by something else entirely, and people thereby lost interest in it. Our children are not taught it. Our pastors do not insist on it. We don’t train people to sing it. We don’t expect excellence or standards. And we certainly won’t pay for it. The music lost its significance when it lost its connection to history and ritual.

I think this helps explain many of the problems modern Catholics have with the present state of Catholic music. It doesn’t transport us into a spiritual realm. It is something we perceive with the senses but it doesn’t connect us intertemporally, doesn’t draw us into something larger and more important than our own times and our own generation. It lacks that deeper connection to the whole ritual of our faith. It seems artificial and deracinated.

Let’s use the loss of the Marian antiphons as an example. They were once associated with a season. In Lent, we would stop singing Salve Regina and start singing Ave Regina Caelorum. Today, hardly anyone knows the latter song (even though it is very beautiful) and ever fewer know the former. These are songs of our faith, as much a part of our history as ashes on Ash Wednesday. And yet they were taken away or simply dropped for no apparent reason.

That is only the beginning. There are entrances, offertories, communion chants, sequences, Psalms and alleluias, and a thrilling set of ordinary chants for the people, each of them artistically brilliant, music that was born with the Roman Rite and grew and matured with it, bound up with its text and ritual through all of history. To neglect this body of music is no different from neglecting Ash Wednesday and its features. Like ashes, this music is not mandatory. But also like ashes, it can again become a critical feature of living life like a Catholic.

The musical treasures of the faith are not hidden away. They are there for us, more accessible than ever before in history. We only need to reach out and make them ours again, putting them to use in our lives. The music can be like the ashes: signs of an incarnational faith that doesn’t reject beauty and art or scorn the sense but rather embraces them all as signs of eternal truth. These features of our faith help us to believe what the world calls impossible and believe what the world calls unbelievable.

Sacred music belongs in Church. It is a specialization of the Church. The Church takes the raw material of notes and text and turns hearing them into occasions of grace. Just as no one thinks much of the ashes in the fireplace – there is nothing holy about them – so too do Catholics believe in their hearts that the music of the Church must be special and point to holy ideals. It can. And with the seemingly endless variety of chants in our history and music books of the Roman Rite, every single liturgical event can take on a special meaning in the same way that Ash Wednesday has.

We should rejoice at the traditions that have survived and enlivened the faith, drawing us to the liturgy even when we aren’t fulfilling an obligation. So it can be with every Sunday and every feast day – and even every day. We only need to reclaim those features of the faith that are timeless, holy, beautiful, and universal expressions of its core truths – with music as the preeminent example.

Bringing Back the Tract for Lent

During Lent in the Roman Rite, choirs stop singing Alleluia before the Gospel. These days, the most common replacement is called the “Gospel Acclamation” but that is not the tradition of the Roman Rite. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, in Lent, the Alleluia is replaced by the Tract. “The name Tract, Psalmus tractus, was given to it, because it was sung straight through without any answer [antiphon] by the choir.”

The Tract makes an appearance in the current General Instruction on the Roman Missal: 62(b): “During Lent, in place of the Alleluia, the verse before the Gospel is sung, as indicated in the Lectionary. It is also permissible to sing another psalm or tract, as found in the Graduale.”

Further, since the Roman Gradual is the normative music of the Roman Rite, one could say that it is clearly preferable to use the tract rather than something else, whatever it may be. (You could take the argument further and perhaps make the case that the Missal acclamation text is primarily structured for reading not for singing, as with the Missal propers in general, and so for singing, one must turn to the Gradual.)

If there is an ordinary form parish somewhere that uses the tract – the full tract from the Graduale, which are very long and very difficult – I’m unaware of it. Or rather: I can think of perhaps two or three cases in the country where this might be done, but the tradition in unknown anywhere else. There are very obvious reasons why. If parishes find it to be a herculean effort to sing Angus Dei, putting together a schola to sing a seven-minute tract in Latin during Lent is highly improbable.

But this post is not about problems; it is about creative solutions. And truly, what I am about to show you is one of the most creative I’ve ever encountered. (Aside: have you noticed that there have been more innovations in integrating the old and new forms of the rite within the last three years than in the previous 40 years combined?)

The solution is to revive the tract by offering it in English set according to a beautiful Psalm tone, so that it can be sung by alternating solo and choir or two choirs or just two singers. Psalm tones are gorgeous and haunting and perfect for Lent. People are not used to hearing them and they are so….Catholic! Yes, the Gregorian original would be better in Latin but that option is clearly not being taken right now and it has been available for many decades. What we need is a way to revive the Tract in the current environment.

Aristotle Esguerra has provided that solution. I gave you

prepared by Aristotle Esguerra, one of the most creative, productive, and brilliant Catholic musicians working today. This are very easy to sing but produce a fantastic result. The text comes through in a clear narrative, which is exactly what Psalm tones are designed to do, and they do so prayerfully and solemnly.

Each of these can be sung by anyone with very little practice. And doing through extends the time before the Gospel, produce a sense of stillness and reflection. It is all the more reasonable to do these within Lent because there is no Gloria, which then allows more time for a different form of music.

This approach also helps single out Lent as a special liturgical time different from the rest. The people will know this and hear this (whereas a short Gospel Acclamation makes Lent seem pretty much like the rest of the year.

This is a way of restoring Roman rite tradition in stages. This is a gigantic first step. If nothing else, if a pastor is squeamish about using this before the Gospel, singers can use this tract during the offertory. At least in this case, the choir is actually contributing to the liturgical structure rather than just being there to “provide music” of some sort to pass the time.

Congratulations to Aristotle for his work here. And a special thanks goes out to him for make this a free download for the whole English-speaking Church. There are some editions of the tracts available in Psalm tones but I believe this is the first to come out in modern English and the first new edition in many decades.

A note on performance, and I suppose that this can’t be said enough. There are two clefs in Gregorian notation, C and F. The half step of the scale occurs just before the clef marking. This way you can go to the piano and pitch it out. Each tones only has four notes so this should not be a problem for anyone. As for rhythm here, the pace should follow the speech pattern you would use in reading, with word accents as the English language would suggest. If you do those things, this will be beautiful, effective, and thoroughly liturgical.

Tradition, Going and Coming

A really strange irony in Catholic liturgical life runs as follows. During and following the Second Vatican Council, there was a brief period of transition from old to new, a time when new resources were pouring out that were leading us out of tradition and toward a new conception of liturgy. These resources included, in the first instance, editions of the Roman Missal that used the vernacular. There were editions of English plainchant coming out. There were books of seasonal propers (I’ve never really understood what this phrase could mean), most famously the Graduale Simplex.

In many ways, these resources were both good and bad. The traditionalists of the time were right to be wary of what was happening. The sudden appearance of the vernacular in 1965 was a reversal of a tradition of more than a millennium. The pace at which the holy tongue was being abandoned was very scary and threatened to unleash unknown confusions.

For one thing, there is a grave danger that something unknown would be lost in a poorly-thought-out transition from a fixed universal language to the disunity that comes with dozens of different languages in which every word is subject to a different interpretation. There was the danger that doctrinal and liturgical unity, carefully fostered through the ages, would suddenly disintegrate.

Something that very few Bishops considered that the musicians did understand concerned the fate of the music of the Roman Rite. The tunes of the ordinary settings of the Mass, which had stabilized for many hundreds of years, were very much tied to the Latin language. This is true with all music, not just ritual music. Try singing Happy Birthday to the English-language tune but substitute a German translation. You have to add and take away notes, and even then the emphasis is all wrong. It is a bad fit. At the very least, there are some puzzles to solve and much to be lost.

For some reason, non-musicians have a hard time getting this point. Many Bishops and reformers just figured that this was no big deal. Just put the English words in, said Annibale Bugnini, or just write new music. As the architect of the reform, his autobiography reveals that he could not figure out what the musicians were so hysterical about. He just didn’t get it.

He never understood that to change the language of ritual music threatens the entire body of work. This is true enough with the ordinary of the Mass (which the 1965 Missal in the U.S. put into English) but especially true of the propers of the Mass. The body of work known as the propers are the very foundation of development of music (in the West) for 1000 years. They are precious works of art, each one of them. Changing the language here is an act of artistic violence, akin to taking a wrecker ball to all the cathedrals of Europe. But when musicians made these points, the liturgists looked at them like they were fanatics who didn’t get the needs of changing times.

Change happened anyway. There were attempts to come up with English translations of the Mass and English propers of the Mass, along with Psalms. How we look at these depends on your point of view. From one perspective, these attempts were exceedingly dangerous to tradition. On the other hand, they had merit in that they were earnest attempts to comply with the vernacular trends without totally throwing out tradition, saving perhaps the baby even if the bath water was being thrown out.

From this second point of view, these resources were conservatizing devices. They attempted to reconcile new reality with what had come before. To be sure, this was a time of great confusion and the arguments were intense and led to wicked personal splits and acrimony.

These transitional materials, appearing between 1963 and about 1968, were very short lived. Many of them are now online, made available by Musicasacra.com and currently being used by many parishes that are working their way back to tradition.

How can this be? Well, by the late 1960s, it had become clear that all kinds of hell had been unleashed. Experimental Masses were taking place all over the country that involved blues, rock, phony folk, and plain old goofy music that bore absolutely no marks of the sacred. By they time that history rolled around to settling on the music of the St. Louis Jesuits, many people were relieved that at least it was religious music and somewhat calm compared to the upheaval they had just gone through.

But in some ways, other sectors were getting worse. There was also the problem of the new translation of 1969/70, which had very little of the dignity of the English we saw in the 1965 edition. The new translation seem to reinforce the impression that the Roman Rite would travel very far from what it had been. An ethos in the liturgical world developed that essentially praised anything new while regarding anything old as regrettable and marked for destruction in time.

So the four-hymn model of music, initiated in the preconcilar low Mass, and then receiving reinformcement from the experimental days of the late 1960s, became the norm, and here is where we have been stuck for all these decades.

With the dawning of a new consciousness concerning the propers of Mass, and the rise of new interesting in what we’ve left being (primarily the very Gregorian chant at the Second Vatican Council gave primary place at Mass), many people have discovered the resources of the early and mid 1960s, and find them to be very valuable for helping us move forward out of the current rut and into a ritual that is artistically and theologically worthy of its aims.

This means that vernacular chant is being rediscovered. The seasonal propers of the Graduale Simplex are being rediscovered. The nobler and dignified English of the 1965 Missal is being rediscovered. And each of them are being implemented in our parishes. The irony is that insted of leading us away from tradition – which might have been their historical function – they are leading us back to tradition. It’s like a car that has driven so far from its path that the only way out is to retrace the path from whence it came.

I’ve written several times that 2011 feels a lot like what I imagine 1965 felt like: a time of transition and change. And the same old factions are at it again, arguing about norms and practical issues. But haven’t we learned from the intervening years? The path forward as mapped out in the early 1970s was a path away from where we need to be. It is path to nowhere.

Cardinal Newman had a conception of the Roman Church has always developing and always moving, and, in this respect, it is different from other faith traditions. This presents both dangers and opportunities. For us today, this is a great opportunity to get back on the right path, rediscover what we left aside, and move forward to embrace truly timeless and universal forms of our beloved ritual.

The Digital Age Will Kill “Community” Obsessed Worship

In an article this morning on InsideCatholic, I riff a bit on a thesis by Richard Beck. He argues that digital social networking is taking over the social function of church attendance. I argue that he might be right and this makes the case for reclaiming those aspects of faith that the digital world cannot duplicate, namely theological and liturgical tradition:


The digital age offers a profound challenge to religious believers who continue to desire that the faithful gather to praise God. The Church has served other purposes as well, and this is all to the good. But to the extent that these are not theological and liturgical purposes, they are in danger of being displaced.

Many Catholic thinkers and writers have for decades chosen to emphasize the communal and social aspects of the liturgy over its theological dimension. This comes through in their recommendation of music that “people like” and “can sing” with gusto. The presider should be friendly and accessible, like your best friend. Homilies should be upbeat and funny. We must greet our neighbors and extend a hand of friendship, dragging out the “sign of peace” as long as possible.

This perspective now faces a serious problem. What is it that the Church offers uniquely? Here we must embrace a deeper understanding of why we gather: not only the traditional teaching concerning the Real Presence, but also the traditional liturgical structure that makes that awareness an integral part of the experience at Mass. This goes for music, vestments, architecture, and every other aspect of liturgical life.

The world is crying out for sacred space, and there is little that the digital world can do to create that. There is nothing that the digital world can do to create the Real Presence of Christ. This is the “app” that the Catholic Church offers, and it is a very serious matter because it deals with eternal, immortal things.

The Church does have something unique to offer, even and especially in the digital age. But if we do not embrace the liturgical forms that underscore that unique offering, we are as much in danger as Professor Beck suggests. Facebook may indeed kill the touchy-feely form of Catholicism that many have urged on us for decades. Community feeling will not fill the pews in the future. However, re-embracing ritual, solemnity, and truth will.

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Chant first but no particular style of art?

Fr. Anthony Ruff writes in his piece in GIA Quarterly that certain statements in Sacrosanctum Concilium are in tension with each other. Of this he is certainly correct. But an example he provides – one I’ve seen many times – doesn’t fly. He writes that this is an illustration of the tension: “Gregorian chant is to have first place, but the church has not adopted any style of art as its own (nos. 116, 123).”

You have to look this up to see the error. Section 116 famously said that Gregorian chant is to have first place. But to get to section 123, you have to move past the section on music and here you discover that the sage statement about style concerns architecture and furnishings, not the core music of the Roman Rite.

The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor; thereby it is enabled to contribute its own voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in times gone by.

We think here of the many Churches in Europe that were converted from the Gothic to the Classical style during the Renaissance (changes that were truly tragic in retrospect). I’m thinking too of the Art Deco at the Loyola University chapel or the Byzantine style of the National Shrine or the modernism of the Oakland Cathedral. All of these are admissible and signs of life and change in art. Rome has no set of blueprints for buildings, no stack of approved patterns for vestments, no molds for statues that everyone must copy. It true to some extent in music, as motets and Mass settings reflect the style of the times (Haydn vs. Palestrina vs. MacMillan). This are always subject to change.

But Gregorian chant is not a style. It is not music that is identified with a particular time or place or people. It is the foundational music of the ritual itself, the music that has lasted throughout the whole history of the rite. It can be substituted with another form but its status as the core, the model, the ideal, never changes. This in fact is what is meant by the seeming proviso “all else being equal” – it means that even if circumstances change that merit some other approach, the status of the chant as the number one form of music is unchanged.

But here we must consider that there is a reason why the Church put this section on changing art styles in the section under architecture and furnishings. It is precisely to avoid the confusion that chant can be entirely displaced. Gothic styles and Art Deco styles can be entirely displace; Gregorian chant cannot be, which is why section 116 says what it says. This was a major contribution of the Second Vatican Council: to settle this issue once and for all.

The upshot of Fr. Ruff’s article is to argue that if we take Gaudium et Spes seriously, we must be open to modernity and adapt our ways to fit it. However, I find nothing in Gaudium that would unseat Gregorian chant from its primary place in liturgy. No, chant does not make Mass a “museum piece” any more than reading the Gospel means that we are somehow stuck in the past. The Gospel and liturgical chant are timeless things.

I really do not understand why people have such a difficult time understanding these distinctions, but apparently this confusion is common. I receive many emails from people who are somehow under the impression that this blog is all about promoting our personal taste and displacing the personal taste of others. Again, the opinion here is not unlike what Vatican II says: there are certain features of liturgy that are beyond taste, and chant is certainly among them.

Sing Compline for Lent

What do average Catholics know of the Divine Office? Virtually nothing, I’m sorry to say. And what do Catholics know of the Psalms? Very little apart from the paraphrases one hears in pop songs at Mass. Indeed, Mass is pretty much the only liturgical experience that Catholics know now, and they are completely unaware of the full range of the history of Christianity prayer as embodied in what is now called the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Second Vatican Council hoped to inspire a new movement in parishes the world over that would embrace the Divine Office. Chalk that up to yet another unfulfilled aspiration of a Council nearly swept away in a cultural tidal wave after it closed. Today the office is so unknown that parishes with limited access to a priest invent new services just to receive the Eucharist in the absence of a priest. It never occurs to anyone that a gathering to say the Office might be just the thing.

Well, rather than making this yet another long complaint about what might have been that didn’t happened to come to be, let’s turn this in a positive direction. A resource has become available for Catholics that has not previously been available in modern times. It is a simple and inexpensive book that allows any individual, family, or group to pray Compline or Night Prayer in a manner very close to the way it has been prayed since the 4th century.

It strikes me that it would be a wonderful thing for Catholics to get this book and start using it during Lent this year. The book is called Compline and it is published by Ignatius Press, as prepared by Fr. Samuel Weber, O.S.B., in parallel English and Latin, each with musical staff and completely pointed Psalms for singing. It is a small and very beautiful book. Ignatius should be commended for publishing it, for there are far too few Catholic music publishers putting out quality work like this.

Compline can be sung by the family after dinner or before bedtime. Or it can be sung by just one person alone. It is not necessary that a priest be present to receive the graces that come from singing compline. It might feel strange at first but after forty days, it will become a normal part of life, the Psalms beginning to become part of your daily routine and the hymns associated with the Office part of the music that enters your daily spiritual reflections.

The idea of compline is to complete the day with final prayers in hope of a peaceful sleep. It includes beautiful words that remind us of eternal life, with sleep as a kind of metaphor for mortality. All told, singing these night prayers takes about 10 minutes but it is very valuable use of time, a way to remember what is important at the end of a busy day and before we close our eyes. In the monastery, compline often signals the beginning of the great silence that lasts the remainder of the evening until morning prayer.

Sometimes people are reluctant to begin something like this because it is an unfamiliar routine. We do not know the songs and we do not know the drill and how it works. We find ourselves turning here and there in the books, confused about what to do next. I know of several enthusiastic converts to Catholicism who bought the multi-volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours with every good intention of developing a daily prayer life. But then confusion sets in and the person bails out before getting the hang of it.

This is why Compline is really the best beginning for saying the Office. Its structure is more simple than Lauds or Vespers, with fewer changing parts. It seems easier to approach, and this is especially true with Fr. Weber’s book.

For those with a musical inclination, it has been very difficult to find notated versions of anything in the Liturgy of the Hours. Thankfully, this has started to change. An English book came out a few years ago called the Mundelein Psalter. Then last year, Solesmes released its Vespers book for Sundays and Feasts. More are coming out in the years ahead.

But truly, this Compline book from Ignatius is a blessing. It has Latin on the left and English on the right throughout. Where the antiphons and Pslam tones could be maintained and fit with the English, they are maintained. Where this is too awkward, Fr. Weber uses special tones designed to make the terminations work in English while maintaining the feel of the Latin. This approach is in keeping with the hermeneutic of continuity emphasized in this pontificate, helping everyone to see the relationship between the old and new.

Learning the music is a snap. The clef is a C clef so you can easily go to the piano to learn to navigate the pitches — or, for that matter, you can download a piano key application for the iPhone or go to anyone website that gives pitches. This way you can learn the hymns and the prayers. After just a few nights, it will become easy and be a wonderful part of your evening.

I’m sorry that it has taken forty years for such a book to appear and be made accessible to laypeople, but we are blessed to live in times when such resources are now available to us. We should not take this for granted. We should snap up these books and use them, integrating them into our lives and helping to revive the sound and feel of Catholic liturgy as it has always been known to Christians – and that means more than just weekly attendance at Mass.

It is not just Muslims who face an obligation to turn to the Lord throughout the day. They got this idea from us. Lent is a great time to begin to revive this beautiful tradition.

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.