Why we shouldn’t change the translation of the liturgy again
I am visiting my hometown hospital, where I have brought Holy Communion to Dorothy, whom I have known all my life. She was a cook at the parochial school that I attended. Her husband Leonard tended bar for the Knights of Columbus. He would sell my father a beer on summer Sunday afternoons when lawn work was finished. Dorothy chats about Ellen, my classmate, who is now a Catholic school principal.
This concord is what pastoring was meant to be. I know my own, and they know me.
When it is time to receive Holy Communion,Dorothy and I pray the Lord’s Prayer together. I hold the host over the open pyx and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” Dorothy and I both offer a response. Dorothy speaks of herself being unworthy to receive him. I refer to him entering under my roof. The latter is more biblical, more poetic. But the deeply pastoral question, desperately needing to be raised, is this: Should a 90-year-old woman encounter dissidence when she prays, publicly, with the church? Should she or, for that matter, those whom we might call the “seldom-churched” be surprised and unsettled by new words and phrases when they reconnect with us?
If one more revision of the Mass is truly needed, then let us resolve that it will be the last in our lifetimes.
On the first Sunday of Advent 2011, English-speaking Catholics began using a new, more literal translation of the Mass. It sought a more sublime language. Many feel it produced something stultifying. Pope Francis has now called for greater involvement of national episcopal conferences in the revision of liturgical texts. Some hope that this will lead to an “improvement” on the 2011 “improvement.” But as a trained liturgist and active pastor, I would urge the Holy Father and our bishops to leave the liturgy alone.
They should surrender the search for the perfect translation of the Roman Missal. Why? Because somewhere, somehow, those pastoring the church seem to have forgotten a fundamental requirement of all ritual: its need for stability. If one more revision is truly needed, then let us resolve that it will be the last in our lifetimes.
I will pass on evaluating the quality of the 2011 translation and focus instead on its very act of existence, which is to say as a substantial change in Catholic ritual. At this point in the church’s liturgical history, perhaps more requisite than any critique of content is a clear explanation of why Catholics of all hues—and whatever their differences—were rightly reluctant to accept the 2011 missal and, furthermore, should be loath to make future changes to the liturgy.
Why wary? Because on that first Sunday of Advent in 2011, something occurred in English-speaking Catholicism without precedent in the long history of the Roman rite. To cite “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the Second Vatican Council’s apostolic constitution on the sacred liturgy, for the first time the laity experienced a full, conscious and active awareness of their language of prayer being altered. In that regard, the historical exemplars for this event are not the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, when the typical lay Catholic would not have been capable of comparing the then-new vernacular prayers to their prior Latin formularies. No, to find a precedent for the vernacular itself, altering in the very ears of the congregation, one must look to the Church of England, which was the first to create and then to re-create a vernacular liturgy in English, The Book of Common Prayer.
King James and his courtiers had already learned one lesson from the first 50 years of a changing vernacular: The less the liturgy appeared to change, the better.
‘As little altered as the truth of the original will permit’
What did the Anglican church learn upon entering the vernacular? Certainly among its lessons was the recognition that new theologies, when made patent in English, produced immediate and strong reactions. This lead to the rapid release of three distinctly different editions of The Book of Common Prayer: that of 1549, the first, and rather conservative, edition of King Edward’s reign; that of 1552, a more radically reforming text of the same court; and that of 1559, which represented the Elizabethan religious settlement.
Both the Edwardian and Elizabethan liturgical changes were introduced by royal committee and regal edict, but as the Cambridge church historian Eamon Duffy amply illustrated in The Stripping of the Altars (1992), the faithful of England had not been clamoring for a reform of the church’s liturgy. In fact, for decades afterward, members of the established Church of England stubbornly resisted these changes, sometimes violently, and not primarily out of loyalty to Rome. They did so because of the very nature of liturgy. They knew that, whatever the putative values that liturgical changes might offer, common prayer—as the book was so aptly named—should not be become labored, intrusive or jarring.
So, for example, when it became politically expedient to accompany The Book of Common Prayer with a new edition of sacred Scripture, the very King James who gave the English-speaking world the incomparable translation of sacred Scripture that bore his name, knowing that its primary use would be liturgical, commanded his appointed translators that “the ordinary Bible read in Church commonly called the Bishopps bible, [is] to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the Originall will permitt.”
The Bishops’ Bible had been introduced into English worship under Henry VIII. James didn’t want his new translation to sound markedly different from the earlier one. Wasn’t the liturgy the very presence of God among them? Had God changed? Then why should the people hear God speaking differently now that he addressed them in the heightened timbre of their native tongue? James and his courtiers had already learned one lesson from the first 50 years of a changing vernacular: The less the liturgy appeared to change, the better.
Summarizing the Anglican experience in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, Charles Hefling wrote:
This is why it has always been regarded as a serious business to alter the wording of its services or even (and sometimes especially) its rubrics. The reason was formulated long before philosophers began to insist that language is what bestows meaning on the workings of the human mind and heart. Whoever invented the adage lex orandi lex credendi knew that already. According to this venerable saying there is a correspondence between the beliefs of those who pray and the articulate form their prayers take. So, to paraphrase, the way in which God is addressed in worship is what settles the conviction that worshipers adopt and hold about the God they address. Doctrine is believed inasmuch as it can be prayed.
For at least the coming decade, English-speaking Catholics will not pray orally—or sing settings to the Gloria and the Sanctus—without the awkwardness that unfamiliarity breeds.
Neither pedagogical nor prophetic
No one familiar with the worship of the ancient church would question the soundness of the liturgy that St. Pope Paul VI gave us or the deeply spiritual and learned work of those who produced it under the aegis of the Second Vatican Council. But as Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, the architect of the new order of worship, himself noted, the great drawback of the new liturgy was its birth from a committee.
What is wrong with a committee? Its rationally reductive and deliberative approach assaults the very nature of liturgy as ritual, as enacted expression of belief. Put another way, liturgy is meant to be lived, not debated. Whatever else one would want to say about liturgy as an attestation of Christian belief, as a human reality liturgy is ritual, and ritual, by its very nature, calls for glacial, almost imperceptible alteration, not for changes introduced by committee, however well intended.
Then, less than half a century after the work of Archbishop Bugnini’s scholars, a new committee questioned the theology taught by the conciliar reformers, asking if it was sufficiently transcendent. It is a legitimate theological question, but the problem with imposing theological questions and reformist agenda upon the liturgy is that each act of rewriting worship lowers the very transcendence of the liturgy. It subtly teaches the faithful that liturgy is something that we write, not a gift that forms us in the Spirit of God.
In their own efforts to enhance the liturgy, a common error has been made, for much too long, by too many parochial liturgy committees and presiders. Theirs seems to be the very attitude toward ritual taken by Mrs. Proudie in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. The bishop’s wife is of decidedly low-church tendencies. For her, the liturgy is “play-acting,” which needs to give way to productive pedagogy:
“Did you ever in your life, bishop, hear anything so like play-acting as the way in which Mr. Harding sings the litany? I shall beg Mr. Slope to continue a course of sermons on the subject till all that is altered. We will have at any rate, in our cathedral, a decent, godly, modest morning service. There must be no more play-acting here now”; and so the lady rang for lunch.
Baby boomers, raised upon rejection of the status quo, still see their task as finding a way to make the liturgy “different.” Shake people up! Make them think! Of course the unexamined presumption is that the discord of difference produces greater meaning. The epitome of the “rewrite” was Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical 1971 Mass, in which he has the priest deliberately drop the chalice. If the goal is to “get everyone thinking,” this will do it!
But liturgy cannot be treated as pedagogy, even though it does teach, and at a profound level. And there we find the deep dilemma posed by the latest set of liturgical changes and, now, the prospect of even more. For at least the coming decade, English-speaking Catholics will not pray orally—or sing settings to the Gloria and the Sanctus—without the awkwardness that unfamiliarity breeds.
Ritual binds disparate individuals together. Its uniformity allows their own particularity to find a place within the commonality of the group.
Ritual’s relationship to the real
It is a mistake to think that the sacred stands beyond the liturgy and therefore that ritual can be changed at will without affecting any transformation in the sacred itself. In his masterwork Ritual and Religion in the Making of Antiquity (1999), the anthropologist Roy Rappaport insisted that to view ritual as no more than an alternative symbolic medium for expressing or accomplishing what might just as well—or perhaps better—be expressed or accomplished in other ways is, obviously, to ignore that which is distinctive of ritual itself. It seems apparent, and few scholars writing today would disagree, that ritual is not simply an alternative way to express any manner of thing, but that certain meanings and effects can best, or even only, be expressed or achieved in ritual.
One can certainly see why indigenous peoples do not believe that their rituals are subject to change but rather are eternal. Indeed, two different notions of eternity are evoked in ritual: endless repetition and absolute changelessness. The sacred returns, ever again, in ritual because the sacred stands as a steady pivot in changing time. This is why ritual must be rather unthinkingly uniform. It is the moment of stasis in which history, which can never be uniform or settled, renews and settles itself outside of time, through participation in the eternal.
Yet the liturgy, unchanged, is eternally new because of what might be called the “Tintern Abbey” Effect. Because we change as we move through time, we never encounter the same phenomenon twice. In the poem “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth, the abbey ruins remain the same, but the effect that they have upon the one who encounters them alters as the visitor ages between visits. That fecund combustion between the ever-changing and the changeless cannot occur if one of the two elements does not remain stable.
In his now-classic How to Do Things with Words (1962), the philosopher J. L. Austin laid down a first and most basic condition for the performative success of ritual. Just as an underlying grammar is requisite to the formation of any successful sentence, so “there must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, the procedure to include the uttering of certain words [or the performance of certain symbolic acts] by certain persons in certain circumstances.” Or, as Rappaport puts the same, “Conventional effects cannot be achieved without conventions for achieving them.”
Here is an illustration of Rappaport’s point. Once, while presiding at a Sunday parochial liturgy, I noticed two women who had arrived late sitting in the front pew with two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The women appeared to be mother and daughter. I couldn’t help but wonder if grandmother had insisted that mom and the grandchildren accompany her to Mass. The teenagers did not seem to resent the request, and I noticed that the mother figure several times appeared to be explaining the ritual to them.
Let us presume that both teenagers were baptized but non-practicing Catholics. In what sense can one speak of them as participating in the liturgy? Virtually everything about the experience was foreign to them, and nothing is more antithetical to the nature of ritual than unfamiliarity. Watching them, I realized that an entire lifetime of familiarity with Catholic ritual with countless hours spent within liturgy separated me and most of the congregation from these two young people. They could scarcely be informed by the liturgy, because they had not been formed by it.
Ritual binds disparate individuals together. Its uniformity allows their own particularity to find a place within the commonality of the group. When graduates throw their caps into the air, they all do the same thing, at the same time, and yet no two of them feel the very same about what they are doing, no pair summons up identical images of challenges overcome or of a future ready to be embraced. Each expresses, and thus comes to possess, something uniquely his or her own, and yet each does so through a common act.
In our almost unconscious communal participation in ritual, regions of deeper consciousness come to the surface. Make the act labored, take away one’s ability to participate in it without conscious thought, and the power of the subconscious cannot arise. Liturgy loosens the human spirit as it calms the mind and charms the body. The sociologist Emile Durkheim’s well-known thesis is that religion motivates in a way that abstract speculation never can:
A philosophy may well be elaborated in the silence of the interior imagination, but not so with a faith. For before all else, a faith is warmth, life, enthusiasm, the exaltation of the whole mental life, the raising of the individual above himself.
Look out upon the pews. Heads buried in books mean that the canary has died. It is bad enough that some misinformed priests used to tell parishioners to follow along in the book. At least in the foreseeable future, we’ve now made a script the sine qua non of liturgy. Yet, as every director cajoles, actors can’t truly act until they are ready to go “off book.”
Look out upon the pews. Heads buried in books mean that the canary has died.
The Trinitarian Thou
In his famous work The Idea of the Holy (1950), Rudolf Otto insisted that religion is, above all else, an encounter with the numinous. God is not simply an idea; God is a presence. Otto wrote, “It is in His ‘life’ that this God is differentiated from ‘world reason,’ and becomes the ultimately non-rational essence, that eludes all philosophic treatment.” He added that the numinous “finds its most unqualified expression in the spell exercised by the only half-intelligible or wholly unintelligible language of devotion, and in the unquestioning real enhancement of the awe of the worshipper [sic] which this produces.”
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber made much the same point: We need to understand that liturgy is an encounter with a Thou, not an It. For Buber, ritual, like art, is a hierophany, a manifestation of the divine, but the danger is that it can degenerate into an object when it is seen as possessed, put at our disposal.
In true prayer, cult and faith are unified and purified into living relation. That true prayer lives in religions testifies to their true life; as long as it lives in them, they live. Degeneration of religions means the degeneration of prayer in them: The relational power in them is buried more and more by objecthood; adherents find it ever more difficult to say “You” with their whole undivided being.
God can speak a word that never alters. Human words constantly shift because they take their meanings from their enveloping, evolving worlds. This is why we can (and do, and must) translate sacred Scripture, why liturgy itself can be translated into new tongues, and must be translated into new temporal contexts.
Of course, we cannot reverence the presence of the Triune God in liturgy by never changing the words that we employ. Indeed, they would change even if the symbols on the page and the sounds enunciated never altered. They would change because they would be spoken in endlessly evolving contexts. Because humans live in history, like fish in water, we cannot stop liturgies—or any other human form—from evolving.
And yet the numinous presence of the Triune God whom we encounter in liturgy demands that we not treat the words which we employ as mere instruments, informational bits at our disposal. In the church, the Incarnation, our foundation in Christ, has been given over—and by the Lord himself—to the Holy Spirit. The issue is whether we reference the liturgy as a living manifestation of the Trinity or reduce it to a text to be manipulated. Ideally, liturgies should change as they do in the Eastern Churches, without anyone knowing or—perhaps one should say—admitting to know when the change occurred. The Trinity is among us, but not as a text to be debated or a ritual reduced to a teaching moment.
When liturgy is labored, it not only fails to set our spirits free. It loses its pneumatic presence in a much more dire way. It inhibits our reception of God’s Spirit. We are supposed to encounter the living Lord in our midst. This community, these words, these gestures: They are the ways in which he has chosen to dwell among us. This is why changes in the liturgy, whatever their provenance or potential for the good, should be as gingerly introduced as a surgeon wields a scalpel. There is a person beneath the lethal instrument; there is a pneumatic presence within our purview.
The liturgical issue now is: How can all of our talents and energy be poured into this truly stable medium? As gifts and efforts vary, and as the individual, deeply existential needs of the ritual’s participants alter, the liturgy will live a myriad of different lives, and all of them in a single moment.
However you see the future, whatever changes you envision, whether you are a parochial liturgy committee or a Roman congregation, learn to revere the Trinity made manifest in the liturgy. Ancient peoples reverenced the world around them; we moderns want to remake everything in our image. It is difficult for us to think of liturgy as a presence rather than as a product. Yet Christ is still Lord, as marvelously present to us as he was to the Magdalene outside the tomb. And perhaps, even in our enthusiasm, we need to hear the same command, asking us to encounter him in a new, transcendent way: “Do not touch me” (Jn 20:17).