South Africa & Liturgical Change

In many ways South Africa is a laboratory of social change. Most unexpectedly, our little Catholic community has become an experiment in the minor religious department of that laboratory. I refer of course to the new English texts of the Mass which have generated such surprising friction. It appears that the South African church has jumped the liturgical gun and we find ourselves well ahead of the rest of the anglophone Church in the process of implementation. Our experience seems to be providing some valuable food for thought.

There are some unintended outcomes worth noting. One is that for those people for whom English is a second language this change is simply not their first priority, and therefore they are unlikely to assimilate it easily. I was in Zimbabwe recently to give a short retreat to a group of young male religious from all over Africa. When I asked them whether we would be using the new texts, they looked completely blank. Many had never even heard of them. On reflection it was of course obvious that in a country where in some places the sign of peace has been discouraged because of cholera, liturgical language is way down on their present scale of concerns.

So it would seem likely that because this second-language group is less concerned about the issue than native speakers, they will keep the old ICEL text as a kind of ’default’ version. Most probably won’t have enough practice to get the new texts into their heads even if they think it worthwhile printing the leaflets. We are actually talking about a lot of people – countries like India, the Philippines and Nigeria where there are substantial populations of second language English-speakers who sometimes do celebrate in English.


In similar vein, I recently led a workshop for some religious sisters in Johannesburg, most of whom were second-language English-speakers. We didn’t have any leaflets available so we decided to use the old ICEL version with the exception of including the response ’And with your spirit’. It was an awkward hybrid, and probably not the first or last!

Another potential force for liturgical division lies in the recent permission given to celebrate the Tridentine rite. Among native English speakers I have heard several people remark wryly that if the Latin Mass Society has the right to use the Tridentine version, what is there to stop a ’Vatican II Society’ claiming their right to stick to the old ICEL Mass? If the Church was unable to resist the demands of a small group like the Latin Mass Society, it’s unlikely to be able to say no to the much larger numbers that might to want to celebrate in the old ICEL version.

I cite these examples point to the possible unintended outcome of a kind of Protestant fragmentation. We could end up with four versions of the Roman rite in the English-speaking world – Tridentine, Vatican II Latin, old ICEL and new (Vox Clara) ICEL. Plus hybrids.

One also needs to bear in mind here that a widely-spoken language like English tends naturally to break up into dialects. So when one has a generally accepted text being used over such a broad language group, one has to think quite carefully about how to go about changing it. Chipping away at the statue, even with the admirable aim of improving it, might just cause it to shatter. The irony of this is that diversification was definitely not the aim – rather the opposite: a universal use was envisaged, which is precisely what we might lose.

It would seem from reaction so far here in South Africa, that there is considerable unhappiness with the texts themselves among first-language speakers. Perhaps this should have been foreseen. It’s hard enough to be told how to speak one’s own language under the best of circumstances. If those circumstances are that the prescribed speech feels like a clumsy, clinging translation (’faithful, but not beautiful’ as the French would say), and that rather better texts have been sidelined, one must expect a reaction. But presumably the assumption was that the reception would be a smooth matter. A miscalculation perhaps, and something to be noted by other English-speaking regions.

I wonder if the memory of the change from the Tridentine to the vernacular rite may have played a part in the forming of this assumption. Because for all the unhappiness caused for a minority by that change, the move from Tridentine Latin to vernacular English (and all the other languages of the universal Church), went remarkably smoothly and was generally well received. I suspect that the theological ’tide in the affairs of men’ was just right for such a shift. The texts themselves had a simple beauty and power, we had been prepared by the Council, the change came with the full authority of that Council. Do similar conditions hold today I wonder?

Where to from here? It probably all depends on what happens in the English-speaking ’big five’ – the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia/New Zealand and Ireland. If the new texts are received with open arms in these countries then fragmentation probably won’t happen or will be limited. On the other hand if there is considerable resistance we could end up with a very messy dog’s breakfast indeed. Any hope of a single international version for the English liturgy could be lost forever.

It might be prudent, therefore, for the ’big five’ to do further research to avoid the possibility of worse versions of what is happening here. The liturgical unity of the English-speaking Catholic church might depend on it. A simple, practical step would be for English-speaking hierarchies to implement the new texts as an experiment in a few selected dioceses and after a year or so gauge the reception. If the new texts get a full and joyful reception among priests and people in those experimental dioceses, all well and good. If not, then there will still be the chance to think again and commission something more suitable.

My personal conviction is that the people of God understand that only the best is good enough for the sacred liturgy and that they will recognise that best when they hear it.

Chris Chatteris, S.J.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 11 months ago
And for those of raised in post VII, we'll finally get a glimpse of the awe that was, by all accounts, present in the Tridentine Mass.


The latest from america

Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019
In preparation for the gathering in Abu Dhabi, I find myself asking why my conversations with the future Pope Francis so powerfully affected both of us.
Abraham SkorkaJanuary 15, 2019
Photo: iStock
Included on the list is John T. Ryan, S.J., who from 1989 to 1994 was an associate editor for development at America.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 15, 2019
Did you ever wonder why Jesus was baptized? What sins did Jesus have to repent of? Nothing.
James Martin, S.J.January 14, 2019