In December 2009, in an article on the new Roman Missal (Am.,12/14/09), I asked the question: “What if we just said ‘wait’?” I proposed that the new translation be “road tested” for a year before being widely implemented. More than 23,000 people from around the English-speaking world liked that idea and signed on to a Web site to say so. Now, after several months of using the newly translated Roman Missal, I find myself asking a new question: “What’s next?”
On the first Sunday of Advent, after carefully preparing my parishioners, I swallowed hard, read the prayers, chanted the chants and did what I was required to do. I told myself it would get easier over time. Now I am not so sure. The overloaded sentences and convoluted syntax of the collects and other prayers may be less jarring than at first, but by calling attention to themselves they continue to get in the way of prayer, at least for me. The same is true for frequently recurring words like “humbly,” “graciously,” “beseech” and “grant, we pray.” And I have an almost visceral reaction when it comes to “precious chalice,” “oblation of our service,” “summoned before you,” “conciliation,” “consubstantial with the Father” and “shed for you and for many.”
Perhaps it is a bit different for the people in the pews. My own parishioners have joined in the new responses in fairly good spirit (though with some initial eyebrow-raising), and if our varied renditions of “Lord, I am not worthy” occasionally sound like we are speaking in tongues, their “and with your spirit” comes across loud and clear (even if it sometimes sounds like “There, we did it!”).
An Early Report Card
So how does the report card look? Is the worst over? Apart from critics like me, has the new Missal been well received? Can it be called a success? I do not think so. The Missal continues to be an obstacle to prayer and to raise many more questions than it answers.
First, there is the question of justice. In spite of the outspoken concerns of liturgists, theologians, pastors and lay faithful (and some bishops, too), the new Missal, a book as heavy, awkward and clumsy as the new texts themselves, was rolled out right on schedule—in far more timely fashion than the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, although to considerably less acclaim. This was no small achievement given that, after the Missal finally received the approval of most, not all, of the bishops’ conferences of the English-speaking world, its test flight to Rome resulted in hundreds of last-minute, behind-the-scenes changes made by some nameless Vatican editors.
Second, there is the question of language. Some of the Latin originals of our prayers are wonderful compositions—simple yet profound and expressed with classical economy of language. Not so these translations, where “Roman brevity” is nowhere to be seen. On almost every page, there are passages so turgid as to be distasteful and, in many cases, downright baffling. Here are some cases in point:
• Look kindly, we pray, upon the handiwork of your mercy….
• This oblation, by which divine worship in its fullness has been inaugurated….
• As you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed (Awkward language aside, the clear implication that Mary needed to be “cleansed” should get the attention of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine)….
• Just as the Savior of the world, born this day, is the author of divine generation for us, so he may be the giver even of immortality....
Lent and Easter provided even more egregious howlers that left priests and people scratching their heads and, if not beating their breasts, then perhaps beating their pew cards and missalettes against the pews.
• Accept, we pray, O Lord, the sacrifice of conciliation and praise, and grant that, cleansed by its working, we may offer minds well pleasing to you….
• May the venerable exercises of holy devotion shape the hearts of your faithful….
• [S]urpass, for the honor of your name, what you pledged to the Patriarchs by reason of the faith, and through sacred adoption increase the children of your promise, so that what the Saints of old never doubted would come to pass your Church may now see in great part fulfilled.
• But now we know the praises of this pillar, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor….
• Grant, we pray…that we who have been renewed by paschal remedies, transcending the likeness of our earthly parentage, may be transformed….
• Overcome by paschal joy (Happily, at this point in the Easter Vigil, most people were so overcome by paschal joy that they failed to be overcome by this rather amusing overstatement)
To read these prayers is difficult; to call them prayerful is to redefine the word; to pray them is almost impossible.
How Is It Being Received?
Third, there is the question of reception. A large number of the Catholic faithful seem to have shrugged helplessly and gone along with the new program, but can their passive acceptance be read as approval? I think not. An informal, admittedly unscientific survey offered by www.whatifwejustsaidwait.org indicates that 70 percent of those who have responded have a negative or strongly negative reaction to the Missal (in spite of feeling “very well prepared” by their parishes for the transition).
Many mainstream Catholics, the people who fill our pews and our collection baskets Sunday after Sunday, are quietly asking questions: Why? Whose idea was this? Who said it would improve our prayer life and deepen our relationship to God? Who thought this was a good idea, when the church has so many more pressing issues to deal with? Who authorized the massive expenditure of money that was required? And who came up with these awkward, clumsy, tongue-twisting and, in some cases, virtually unintelligible translations?
The acquiescence of priests cannot necessarily be read as approval, either. In many cases, our willingness to go along with the program can be chalked up to: our powerlessness to do anything else, our fear of reprisals or our unwillingness to sacrifice the unity of the communities we serve.
Speaking for myself, it was difficult to make the decision to implement the Missal, but I took hope in the thought that our people, once they heard it, would speak out. Some have. But most people have been quiet. A friend recently asked me how realistic it was to expect the people to speak up about the Missal. “I don’t know,” she wrote, “if you’re right to hope that your people will resist even as you yourself are yielding and going along with a diminished Mass. They trust you and they will follow your lead.” Her question has kept me awake some nights.
So I come to the question I hope we will respectfully but insistently ask: What’s next? That triggers a series of other questions.
Can our bishops begin at once to talk about necessary modifications: correcting the most egregious flaws in the new Missal—errors in translation, grammatical problems and theological anomalies? This would provide some temporary relief.
Can our bishops begin to engage scholars, liturgists and poets in a conversation about the art of translation and the principles that should govern it? Can they talk about how to treasure our long tradition while also treasuring the great breakthrough of the Second Vatican Council, which called not just for a translated liturgy but for a genuinely vernacular liturgy? Can they then bring the fruits of this dialogue to Rome?
But it is not enough for the bishops alone to talk. A more general conversation is called for. Instead of carping in private, can we all talk openly and honestly about the texts we have been given? Can we talk about what works well and what clearly does not? Can we talk about tortured texts being forced into lines of music with all the comfort of an ill-fitting pair of shoes? Can we talk about what contributes to prayer and what gets in the way?
Can we talk about a new edition of the Missal, not someday, but soon? (A costly question, for sure, but something tells me that many a priest would gladly help foot the bill.) Can we even talk about the beautiful 1998 translation of the Missal—the product of 17 years of labor by seasoned professionals?
If we do not talk, we may face two very unfortunate outcomes. The first is that the people will simply tune out the texts when they realize how much effort is required to make sense of them. (This is clearly already happening.) The second is that we will see a kind of liturgical free-for-all in which celebrants alter the texts to fit their comfort level—whether theological, literary or both. (This, too, is already happening.)
So can we keep talking, not letting weariness with the whole business or indifference or fear of reprisals prevent us from talking and listening to each other?
We need to talk about what’s next.