English Mass 2.0: Test Case for the Reform of the Reform?

I am a skeptic by nature. As far as the corrected translation of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Mass is concerned, I still will believe it when I see it, or rather when I celebrate it the first time and hear the people say And with your spirit back to me. We have waited to so long for the new translation, and there has been much angst over its inception, execution and implementation. And I have watched the process unfold closely, but with the jaundiced eye of a cynic in the liturgical wars. But why?

Do I believe that the new translation will be a marked improvement over the current translation? Of course I do. Will I enjoy using the new translation more than the current translation? You betcha! Am I glad I am not in parish ministry when the new translation hits the ground? I thank my lucky stars…

Having grown up as a Baptist, and then wading around in the Thames before finding my way to the Tiber, I grew up with the Jacobean English of the King James Version. Young men in the South have grown up thinking of God and praying to Him in a language far removed from that of the streets ever since the colonies were founded. The hysteria that some feign because of a translation which is not even close to the sonorous English with which I learned to pray in my youth is just something I find rather overwrought. One of the hardest things about exchanging the English Missal of the Society of Ss. Peter and Paul for the English Missal of ICEL was that everything I heard and said just sounded artificial.

As the corrected translation, worked through and over time and time again, wended its way towards the light of day, I continued to be a cynic about the whole thing. My chief objection was this: I have routinely celebrated Mass in different languages throughout my priesthood. I celebrated Mass in Spanish every Sunday for five years, and have celebrated in Latin, Italian, French, Portuguese and German. So I have gotten to know intimately all of those other Missals. And the thought occurred to me: especially in Spanish and Italian, the translations are for the most part extremely faithful translations of the Latin, with no need for Liturgiam authenticam. The faithful have heard the prayers of the Ordinary Form, and not paraphrases, for forty years, and Italy and the Spanish-speaking countries are still not even on the radar screen as far as what most readers of Chant Café would recognize as even tolerable, much less, good, liturgy. There has to be more than just a decent translation to ignite the spirit of the liturgy in the Church.

And so I have remained very guarded about the possibilities of the new translation. My big fear is that it will be business as usual in most American parishes, and that even the great opportunity to commission new liturgical music will be hijacked by warmed over reworkings of the music we have grown so tired of on the American scene.

I am beginning to rethink my earlier cynicism, however. The corrected translation of the English Mass is more important than we might realize. It is no secret that the English language is perhaps the most important for the dissemination of the Catholic faith right now. Even though there are probably more Spanish-speaking Catholics and certainly more speakers of Chinese than English, our language remains a world force. That is why “getting it right” is so important: wherever the English language goes, the faith celebrated in the English language will follow. The new translation has a potential to recondition the way the Ordinary Form is thought of and celebrated all over the world.

But there is more. From one point of view, the corrected translation is nothing more than a response to Liturgiam authenticam to produce a text of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Missal closer to the Latin typical edition. But could there be more here?

We must remember that Pope Benedict XVI is now gloriously reigning from the Chair of Peter. The ecclesial context in which episcopal conferences go about responding to Liturgiam authenticam is different than it was at the end of the reign of Blessed John Paul II. While the rich teaching of Joseph Ratzinger on the liturgy is not invested with any Magisterial authority (although it is devoutly to be wished that this pontiff will give the Church a great gift of an encyclical on the liturgy!), it clearly is having its effect in many quarters.

After the tremendous “event” of Advent 1969 and the extension of the Missal of Paul VI to the Church, all subsequent liturgical texts had as their reference point that Missal and everything that came with it. Liturgiam authenticam is another exercise of that unfolding of the Pauline Missal in our time.

But by the time the English response to that document has come around, the Church finds herself in a very different liturgical situation than she was when the document was drafted. The Vicar of Christ Himself has called for a Reform of the Reform. He has also recognized the substantial unity of the Roman Rite in two forms, and finally rejected the idea that the classical Roman liturgical heritage is something to be discarded from the Church.

Advent 2011, with the use of the corrected English translation, represents the first time since Vatican II that a significant change in liturgical text will affect the faith lives of a significant portion of the Church Catholic. In this new context, the new translation is not business with the Missal of Paul VI as usual. It can be seen as a test case for the Reform of the Reform. Even though the text is still the Ordinary Form, it is very clearly a re-form of the previous English text. It is proof that the liturgy can be re-formed according to principles which bring it closer to the mind of the Church than what people in the Church have experienced for the past forty years. It also will provide a tremendous opportunity not only for catechesis about the true nature of the liturgy, but for wide questioning all throughout the Church about how the liturgical reform has been carried out.

Is English Mass 2.0 a test case for the Reform of the Reform? I have no way of knowing whether that was part of the plan all along (I doubt it!). But in any case, the way in which the corrected translation will be received in the Church will give us many clues about the practical possibilities for even greater reform in the liturgy. This is why no one can be indifferent to the corrected translation of the Ordinary Form. Its effects will not only condition how people pray the New Rite, but it will also open up all kinds of questions and possibilities for how the Church prays in every rite.