Helping American Catholics Learn the New Missal

The U.S. bishops’ point man on implementing the new translation of the Mass speaks to the Register.

Msgr. Anthony Sherman puts on his thickest Brooklynese when talking about preparing people for the forthcoming translation of the Roman Missal.

“Don’t do nuttin,’ ” he says in tones reminiscent of “The Sopranos.” “But make sure you do sometin.’ ”

Msgr. Sherman will be doing plenty during the next several months as he directs training workshops for priests and diocesan leaders on implementation of the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued its formal approval of that translation April 28. Americans could be hearing and using it beginning in Advent 2011.

Msgr. Sherman’s workshops began April 15 and continue to November in 21 states.

Executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship, Msgr. Sherman is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Catholic Academy of Liturgy. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

He spoke with Register correspondent Anthony Flott from his office in Washington, D.C.

Where were you born and reared?

I grew up in Queens, N.Y., which is part of the Diocese of Brooklyn. I went to a Catholic grammar school from first grade through sixth grade in Jackson Heights in Queens.

When I was getting ready to go into the sixth grade, we moved to St. Bartholomew’s in Elmhurst, Queens. It was the first time I ever had Franciscan brothers. It took a little bit of adjustment.

On their part or yours?

Probably on my part. They could be demanding at times. They provided me with a very good education.

By the time I got to the eighth grade, I had to make up six months in order to catch up. That was a little bit of a traumatic thing. They just moved you along, and then you had to cover twice the amount of work.

Which every kid wants to do.

Yeah. The brothers got us through it, thanks be to God. It was really there in the eighth grade that things started to develop in terms of my interest for the priesthood. At that time in the Diocese of Brooklyn, we had — we still do, as a matter of fact — a Cathedral High School for young guys thinking of the priesthood. The first priest I went to in the parish to ask “Should I go to Cathedral?” said “No, you shouldn’t get involved in that. You’re too young to be doing this.” I went back to the brothers, and the brothers said, “We want you to talk to one of the other priests in the parish.” I talked to this priest, a wonderful man [Msgr. Francis Evans], and he said, “No, no, if you feel you’re being called to this, this is the direction you should probably move.” In fact, he became my spiritual director until about seven years ago [when] he died. He was a real powerful influence in my life.

How would you characterize your faith formation?

I was raised a Catholic in the day when we still celebrated the so-called ’62 liturgy. I was born in 1945. I served Mass in Latin and had to learn Latin. My mother would look at the card and make sure I was getting the responses down correctly in Latin. I sort of facetiously say in those days you would kiss anything that moved — ceremonial kisses. You had to learn the intricacies of all these actions that were done under the liturgical celebration.

Another significant discovery I had in my life was when my brother, who went to Fordham University, came home one day and gave me a copy of the Latin Missale Romanum. At that point I was in my first year in college. I had enough Latin to be able to sort of understand that the priest would not always be too exact in reading the Latin at Mass. I finally discovered the power of being able to celebrate the liturgy well.

When I went to St. Bernard’s in Rochester, the rector of the seminary … his Mass was just absolutely something beautiful to look at, and you could understand when he read the Latin. It was just a real powerful experience. I remember the first time I served it: That’s what it’s about.

From there, I’ve gone through the whole reform of the Second Vatican Council. [I was] ordained a priest in 1970. I was assigned to a parish. I walked in and the pastor said to me, “You know, a lot has changed since the council. You’re in charge of making sure they happen here.” I said, “Okay, I’m a little young.” [He said] “That’s all right; you’ll do.”

And now you’ve come full circle.

Sometimes I feel that way. In my position I get a lot of letters from people disconnected [with the upcoming new Roman Missal]. A lot of the letters I read are very similar to the letters that would have appeared … after the Second Vatican Council: “I don’t believe in these changes” and “It’s terrible” and “The whole Church is going to come to an end.”

It’s not ritual change in terms of the celebration of the Mass; the ritual you’re celebrating each Sunday is still basically the same. The thing that’s being changed is the translation, to some extent, of the words. I don’t think really that the people will have a great difficulty with this because publishers will probably have cards they’ll be able to read from.

My real guess is that within about two months we may not even remember the way it changed or how it differs from the previous Mass. The real challenge is going to be on the part of the presiders, the priests. Those texts in the new translation have in some instances much more content than was there before. The plus of that is that it’s going to provide us with a tremendous amount of material for people to mine from the spiritual perspective. They would be able to go deeper into these texts and therefore become a source of enriching their own meditation and spiritual thought.

When you knew you were being called to the priesthood, did you fight that call or readily embrace it?

I never fought it. Whenever questions arose, I would talk that over with them [spiritual advisers], and somehow or other I kept moving in that direction — even though the times which I was coming through were turbulent, to say the least.

Even after my ordination, it was sort of turbulent, because I went into the parish and the middle associate got married. Then the senior curate got married. The deacon married the girl next door. I said to myself, Are they saying I’m crazy, or am I crazy? It was a very disconcerting time.

I had always thought that I might like to go back and do further studies. I wasn’t sure whether that would be in the area of moral theology or the liturgy. [Bishop Francis Mugavero said] “Could you just hang on there a little more? Because we need some stability there because everyone’s leaving.” I said, “Bishop, I’m a newly ordained priest, how am I able to be a portion of stability?” He said, “I wouldn’t know. You are.”

You went to St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, N.Y., then to Austria’s University of Innsbruck for degrees in theology and sacred theology. How did the jump from Rochester to Austria happen?

Back then you had different committees you had to meet with in order to be able to clear this. I’ll never forget: One committee I met with, their opening statement was “You’re going to study liturgy? That’s interesting. Everyone wants to study pastoral psychology today.”

It was true. In those days, they studied, and then they psyched themselves out. The opening salvo with me was: “Well, with the liturgy degree, you can’t make much money, so we don’t have to worry about you leaving when you come back.”

I came back from Innsbruck in ’78. In 1978 I was assigned to a parish, to St. Benedict Joseph Labre in Richmond Hill … and then gradually was first a member of the liturgical commission, and then one year later, in ’79, appointed executive director of the liturgical commission of the Diocese of Brooklyn. Until 1991, I was in the liturgy office, and in 1991 appointed pastor of St. Matthias Parish. I stayed there until 2002.

And you went to the USCCB in 2002?

In the early days when I was in the liturgy office, there had been some attempts to try and get me to come. By the time I got in here in 2002, my bishop revealed to me there had actually been three attempts. 2002 was the fourth. I went from a parochial experience to the diocesan level, which was very good. It began to give me a whole different experience in terms of realizing that there’s a big dimension to liturgical life of the local Church, and that’s how it gets expressed: through the diocesan bishop and his celebration of the liturgy.

Coming here to Washington [that] got notched into another level, on a national level. People always kidded me, “Why go to Washington? At least you had only one bishop as boss at home, as opposed to 300.”

When will Catholics be introduced to the new missal?

It could be December 2011. It might be possible. The fact of the matter is: We do not know. .... [From] the date on which this final document has been approved, the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship has said a minimum of one year-plus is going to be necessary for … implementation.

Publishers have told us no way [is it possible in] less than a year, in responsible fashion, to get the missal published and still make sure everything is correct. I don’t think that we’ll be able to say we don’t have enough material for education to take place. It’s a question now, I think, of spirit.

In parishes — whoever the leadership is — now’s the time to get ready. Now’s the time to get used to it as an opportunity not only to inform people about the translation, but also an opportunity to inform them about the theology of the Eucharist and how it is to be celebrated. Maybe some of those things were not done after the Second Vatican Council. This is an opportunity to be able to do that appropriately.

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.