New Liturgy? What New Liturgy?
One year ago, Catholics all across America braced themselves for the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal, which means the liturgy.
The translation promised to be more reverent in its style, more faithful to the original Latin text and more integrated with the Scriptures.
Advocates praised the crisp, formal and more ornate liturgical style of the language: "At last! The 1960s’ popular, popcorn, people-centered, dumbed-down language would be gone forever."
The other side was saddened by the new translation. They had concerns that the language was too lofty, too archaic and stilted.
They worried that the "Joe and Mary Catholic in the pew" would not understand difficult words like "consubstantial" or "incarnate."
Some theologians shook their heads that Jesus was once again dying "for many" rather than "for all."
Complaints were lodged. Requests for delays of execution were made. A website called Misguided Missal was launched.
The founders of the website were not only concerned; they were "deeply concerned" — not only about the new translation of the Missal, but a whole agenda of which they perceived the new translation to be a symptom.
To quote the website, "We are deeply concerned with the new Missal translation emanating from Rome ... deeply concerned with the process resulting in the 2011 Missal translation … deeply concerned with the return to authoritarianism and clericalism implied in the words of the new translation ... deeply concerned with Rome’s retreat from the principles and theology of the Second Vatican Council … deeply concerned with Rome’s need to silence those who express their concerns and with our bishops’ docile compliance."
In order to assess the impact of the new translation, we need to sift through the theological and cultural clutter around the arguments on both sides.
Let’s get it straight: The new translation was not an intentional power play to put the last nail in the Second Vatican Council. Nor was it an intentional move to gradually take us back to all Masses being in Latin.
The new translation was not a triumph of traditionalists over "trendies." It was not intended to make the celebration of Mass a hierarchical, patriarchal, misogynistic tour de force.
Sometimes things simply are as they appear: The 1960s’ translation was always intended to be provisional. It was completed hurriedly, and everyone agreed it was faulty.
The new translation is the result of many careful years of study, consultation, revision and hard work by a whole range of experts.
To understand the impact of the new translation, we have to ask people in the pew and behind the altar. My impression is that the new translation has been implemented smoothly and without problems.
In our parish, I took time in the weeks leading up to Advent last year to explain the reasons for the translation, and I explained some of the difficult words and concepts. People were grateful and understood.
Over the last year, I have asked laypeople how they feel about the new translation, and the usual response is a cheerful shrug and, "It’s fine, Father."
While this doesn’t indicate enthusiasm, neither does it indicate disappointment or difficulty.
When I’ve sounded out my fellow clergy, their response is similarly bland. They say, "No problems," or they comment on particular details of awkward wording or confusing syntax. One or two have regretted the change from "for all" to "for many," but when I point out that in the "Behold the Lamb of God" the priest declares, "Who takes away the sin of the world," they admit that a balance between "all" and "many" has been restored.
What interests me most is that both laypeople and clergy don’t have strong opinions either way.
This means the new translation is a success. One of the principles of good liturgical practice is that nothing in the liturgy should draw attention to itself.
When I train my altar servers, I explain why outrageous hair styles, wacky shoes and extreme makeup are to be avoided — not because they’re wrong in themselves, but because they draw attention to themselves.
I instruct my organist and choir master to avoid any music that is showy, overly dramatic or highly emotional. Nothing in the liturgy should draw attention to itself — either because it is awful or because it is excellent.
If the congregation comes away from Mass saying, "Goodness, aren’t Father Spike’s altar servers wonderful," Father Spike has missed the point.
If the faithful come out of St. Palestrina’s parish oohing and aahing over the choir, the priest has missed the target.
Likewise, if they come away saying, "Sheesh, wasn’t the music at St. Screech just abysmal?" or "Why are the altar servers so slouchy and badly behaved?" the people in charge have messed up.
In this respect, whether the factors of the liturgy are excellent or excruciating doesn’t matter. The different aspects of liturgy should complement one another and aid worship.
If they draw attention to themselves for whatever reason, they have failed.
This is why I say the fairly bland reaction to the new liturgy shows that it is a roaring success. It doesn’t draw attention to itself — either by being exciting or by being execrable.
The language of the liturgy is there to take us beyond the liturgy into the worship of almighty God. The language should, therefore, be serviceable, accessible and ordinary without being mundane, dumbed-down and dull.
The language should also be transcendent, noble and sublime without being arty, highfalutin and ornate.
The fact that the laity and the clergy respond with bland acceptance proves to me that the new translation works for the people — and that reminds me that the word "liturgy" means "work of the people."
It is my hope and prayer that this solid, serviceable and profound translation of the Mass will remain in use for a very long time. It could do with some adjustments here and there, but, on the whole, I believe it is not only very successful, but beautiful in a simple and profound way.
After only a year, it already has the feel of a well-worn and beautiful tool.
It’s been accepted so well and so naturally that if I asked my people what they thought of the new liturgy, I bet most of them would say, "New liturgy? What new liturgy?"
Father Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina.
He blogs at Standing on My Head and is the author of
Catholicism Pure and Simple and many other articles and books.
Visit his website at DwightLongenecker.com.
- December 2-15, 2012