What's Next?: A pastor reflects on the new Roman Missal.

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.”

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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.

More Questions

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.

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Janet Hauter
5 years 5 months ago

REPORT CARD:


JUSTICE: Failed miserably to serve the needs of the constituency by not listening to their concerns and needs. Imposed on us so to earn anything more favorable than an F is nothing short of untruthful.


LANGUAGE: The language is bizarre and challenges most English speaking people to know anything about the intent, the message or how the words awkwardly strung together have any lucidity at all. Another F.


RECEPTION: The sheeple accept it though awkwardly and falter now and again but they trudge on as obedient Catholics who obey and pay no matter the cost to them. Those, like myself, refuse to mimic this nonsense and continue the old responses bristling now and again when we welcome Jesus under our roof and gag at the non-inclusive language. The people do not like this blather evidenced by the raised eyebrows, the giggles, the faltering... which has earned it a universal F in my book. I say "Take it to the curb!"

5 years 5 months ago
Rev. Michael Ryan's article on the glaring defects in the New Missal are well presented.  However, considering that little, if anything, will be done to correct these faults, I suggest we make our non-liturgical prayers to conform more closely to the convoluted type of prayers we now hear at our Sunday liturgies.  Let's begin with the traditional prayer before meals:

We beseech you, O Lord, to graciously bless us, we pray, and these Thy gifts which we assume to receive by your gracious and merciful bounty.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Even if no one else sitting around the table understands what was just said, God knows. 
5 years 5 months ago
Thank you Fr. Ryan for your article.  You capture the frustration that I and many other priests feel as we are attemp to "celebrate the Eucharist."  In fact, I feel embarrassed when I try to "pray" these texts, when I can scarcely make sense of them for myself.  Yesterday (Feast of the Most Holy Trinity) when I came across the text in the Preface that referred to "a Trinity of one substance," I could only wonder: What is that?  What is it in Latin?  The sooner we can mount an outcry for change, the better.  Please, Fr. Ryan,  keep up your crusade.
Helen Hoeffel
5 years 5 months ago
The mass has completely changed for me.  My head tells me to keep attending mass and try to get past it, but my heart is slowly drifting away.  I am sad and angry and very discouraged by the changes.  There is one parish that is not mine where the priest said the "old" Eucharistic prayer and my heart leaped with overwhelming joy and was comforted and warmed.  Alas, it was only temporary.

By your title of the article, I actually thought you meant "What's Next?" in the broader sense, like what are "they" going to do to us next?  (I had a hard time not making that last sentence more colorful. I am trying to make a point, not vent.)  If "they" can make these top-down changes, especially without a test run, I fear for the future of the Church.  I don't want further cracks made before we can begin repairing the current vast and wide ones.

That leads me to the conclusion that we must respond and VERY LOUDLY.  We cannot afford to give the impression that massive, unwise and disconnected changes like this are acceptable to us.  I want a warm, nurtured heart. Not a sad, distant one.
PAUL BYRNES REV
5 years 5 months ago

I just celebrated my 50th anniversary of ordination and have often had myself lifted up to God while praying the "old" translation. This new translation is ugly English. I am chagrined at offering God such a shoddy gift. I am still sumbling through it. Since I wanted to pray my anniversary Mass celebration, I used the old sacramentary.


Hardly a week goes by that somebody doesn't ask me, "Why did they do this!" What I have found even more telling is that no one has told me that they like this new translation.


I wonder if this insistence on an exact translation from the Latin doesn't smack of idolatry, putting Latin in place of God. It shows no concern for helping our Catholic people to grow in their relationship with God, no concern for helping them to lift their minds and hearts to God in worship.


 


 

5 years 5 months ago
For many of us the new translation of the community portions
of the  Mass are remarkably familiar: The wording is
essentially identical to what we had in the missals we
used  in the years before Vatican II to follow the Latin
of the priest at Mass. That's why it feels like such a giant
leap backwards!
 
Having some Latin words, notably,
consubstantialem and incarnatus in the
Creed, simply left untranslated makes it worse.

As to complexity, the problem which lectors have
struggled with for years, mostly without success,
when trying to proclaim orally long sentences of St. Paul,
sentences held together in the original Latin by
word endings and a rich collection of personal
pronouns but allowed to ramble in English, with its
almost total reliance on word order, in such a
manner that they can be understood aurally by
a community unaccustomed to hearing, or even
reading, long, complex sentences seems to have
spread to other parts of the Missal.

Inevitably, probably soon, most of us will simply
comply, since we are so very well trained in following
the rules and getting the form correct. Will that be
the end of hope for something better?

MARCIA JACINTO
5 years 5 months ago
Thanks to America and to Fr. Michael G. Ryan for publishing "What's Next" (AM., 5/28/12). I am one of the "silent majority" who has found it difficult to pray the Mass from the new Roman Missal in particular because of the language used. Fr. Ryan gave are true examples of the convoluted sentences translated by evidently non-English-speaking Vatican editors. I hope that soon, one of them will write an article in America to explain to us, the laity, what prompted them to enact this change and how they came to formulate the present text from the Latin originals.
     May I suggest that the Bishops Conference designate a website that lay people can use to give their comments on the new Roman Missal, also to compile more examples of "passages so turgid as to be distasteful, and in many cases, downright baffling" (Michael G. Ryan, "What's Next"). To help me pray the Mass, particularly the Collect, I find myself using the prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, which luckily, the Vatican has not translated yet. Even if there is a new Roman Liturgy of the Hours, I will still keep and use the present one.
 
Richard Greene
5 years 5 months ago

A priest in our parish had the audacity to read your arrogant article for his homily this Sunday. And just like your opposition to the authority of the Church I found his choice highly inappropriate and UN-Catholic.




Need I remind you that the most basic tenet that separates Catholics from Protestants is our adherence and obedience to the authority of the Catholic Church and the Vicar of Christ? If you, and the rest of your followers (so evident here in the comments) do not wish to follow the directions laid out by it's bishops then you are free to either join one of the thousands of other Prostestant denominations or simply start your own. (Especially you Father as you obviously think you are greater than your bishops!) And I see that some have already done this with some of you still calling yourselves Catholic while partaking in the Anglican Eucharist.




It is doctrinal to say that Mary was cleansed by God through the death of Jesus "as He foresaw." Remember Mary said that she is "the mother of my savior."




You say that we need to change the Missal because 70% of us American Catholics don't like it. Well I guess by that logic you think that Catholicism should now allow birth control because it is reported that 98% of Catholics use it. But on the flipside, over 90% of the Catholic world has been using this new translation by 2000. So by your logic I should hope that our minority of American Catholics just shut up and stop whining!

Louise Gregg
5 years 3 months ago
"Shead for you and for many"  is the part that gets me (the most).  When did that change?  Has theology made that much of a turn?!  The article was right on target with my experience.
 

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