Saturday, December 10, 2011

Eye-Openers from the New Translation

Now that we have the new, vastly improved English translation of the Roman Missal, for the first time since childhood, I need a hand missal for the Ordinary Form of the Mass.  Of course there are pew cards at church with the new, corrected versions of the people's responses; but I want to savor the new translation with my eyes as well as my ears.   My local Catholic bookstore did not carry any nice missals with English on one side and Latin on the other, and there wasn't time to find and order one, so I picked up a copy of the New Saint Joseph Sunday Missal for 2012 -- a very good investment for just a few bucks.

There are a few realities to which the new translation has opened my eyes.  Firstly, when samples of the new translation began to come out a few years ago -- before I ever attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form -- it became clear to me for the first time that the Mass is full of scriptural allusions and signs of the supernatural that had been effectively blotted out in the now-obsolete translation.  Now that we have a translation more in line with the original Latin, these little treasures have been restored: it is like getting a pair of glasses after a lifetime of myopia, and realizing for the first time that you hadn't really been able to see. 

The second eye-opener was that the Ordinary Form of the Mass has actual propers -- introit, offertory, communion -- that should be sung.   All I have ever gotten all my life was the four-hymn sandwich.  It was embarrassing to be a cradle Catholic and not know until this summer -- when my chant schola was asked to sing the Simple English Propers for a Mass in the Baker Diocese -- that Mass in the Ordinary Form is supposed to have sung propers, and that the four-hymn sandwich is supposed to be the option of last resort.  But that one Mass this summer was the first Ordinary Form Mass I have ever attended with all the sung propers...and I haven't been to another one since.

The third thing I have come to realize, now that I require worship aids for the Ordinary Form, is...just how hard the Ordinary Form is to follow.

It is a common complaint about the Extraordinary Form of the Mass that it is too complicated and difficult to keep track of.  However, once you get past the Latin, the structural simplicity of the Extraordinary Form becomes evident.  Whether it's Low Mass, Missa Cantata or Solemn High Mass, the Extraordinary Form has one penitential rite; a single, one-year cycle of readings; one Eucharistic prayer -- the Roman Canon -- one set of prayers post-consecration; and a few variable parts which are dictated by feasts or seasons, and are therefore entirely predictable.  In this rootless age, the world considers this stability to be boring.  The reality, however, is that it has the two-fold advantage of being (a) comforting and reassuring, and (b) memorable.  Constant repetition plants  the liturgical texts firmly in the memory, where they become seeds for meditation and aids in the cultivation of virtue.

The Ordinary Form, on the other hand, seems to consist almost entirely in variations, the use of many of which is determined entirely by the pleasure of the priest.  There are three forms of greeting; three forms of the penitential rite; eight possible Gospel acclamations for use during Lent; two possible professions of faith; no fewer than ten (10) choices of Eucharistic prayer; three possible memorial acclamations; and four options for dismissal.  Unless you know your priest well enough to be acquainted with his customs and preferences, there is absolutely no way to know which of any of these he is going to use, which leaves missal-jockeys at a loss.  By the time a person figures out which Eucharistic prayer the priest is saying, and then finds it in the missal, it's half over.  One questions the extent to which all this freedom of choice conduces to the ability of the average pew-sitter to participate in the Mass.

Indeed, it is often said of the Tridentine Mass that it makes passive spectators out of the faithful in the pews; but one has to wonder whether that is not in fact more true of the Ordinary Form of the Mass, especially as it has been celebrated in so many places for so many years.  The anti-traditionalists make much of the fact that the older form of the Mass is in a language that the people (allegedly) do not understand; the music is (purportedly) beyond the ability of most people to sing along with; and the people don't get to say anything because the responses are (frequently) said for them.  What the "active participation" crowd fails to grasp is that this freedom from exterior bustling actually leaves one with enough time and energy to participate interiorly, and that this is aided by the structural constancy of the Extraordinary Form. 

The Ordinary Form, however, creates a new set of problems.  The vernacular Mass, coupled with the proliferation of options, has the effect of excluding those whose vernacular is other than that in which the Mass is offered.  At least when the Mass was always in Latin, a Spanish-speaking Catholic could attend Mass in Nagasaki and still feel at home, supported by the knowledge and experience gained from the constant repetition of the same texts, over and over.  The same problem arises when it comes to singing along with the music: will that Spanish Catholic be able to sing Japanese songs in Nagasaki?  Besides which, the stuff that (contrary to the mind of Vatican II) has supplanted Gregorian chant is often so terrible as to be truly unsingable.  On top of this, the lousy English translation of the Roman Missal did a lot to obscure the supernatural aspect of the liturgy and and distort Catholic theology, thus barring Catholics from receiving the truths contained in the Mass; thankfully, this is now being corrected.  But the renewed need for worship aids occasioned by this new translation brings home the fact that the person regularly attending the Ordinary Form is ceaselessly buffeted by the vicissitudes within the Ordinary of the Mass itself that are the product of so many zillions of options.  You may well ask: why don't I just forget about the worship aids and just sit and listen?  You mean -- quit worrying about trying to follow the Mass and become...a passive spectator?

If there is one thing to which the new translation of the Roman Missal may open many eyes, it is that the attempt by the post-conciliar experts to construct a whole new Mass may have been very ill-advised, and that we would perhaps have done better to just leave the Mass alone.  But then, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once pointed out, it is a mark of our fallen human nature that we always make things harder than they need to be.


  1. At The Offertory, "Pray, Bretheran That My Sacrifice & Yours", finally delineates the Role Of The Priest & People.
    In reading the Latin, one has to realize that what occurred for 42 Years was no Translation, but a Humanistic Interpretation, utilized in Anglican Broad Church & Lutheran Liturgies.
    Since WHEN did "Anima Mea" become "I", when Anima means Soul, which gives life to us from God?

  2. It's true, Michael. In a lot of ways, the old "translation" wasn't a translation at all, but a betrayal. The resulting disaster has been incalculable.

  3. I just wrote an article on this in my blog. It should be noted that Catholic Doctrine was Underplayed in the Interpretation. As I was reading the Latin, I found a lot was missing, including the Spiritual Element, as well as the CATHOLIC Element of Who We Are.
    BTW, my prayers are with the two Dominican Postulants.

  4. Michael, thanks for your prayers for my two brothers -- they worked!