VIEWS ON CELEBRATING MASS
ARE VARIED AND PASSIONATE
Catholics take their worship seriously. However, they tend to disagree about what constitutes serious worship.
The main divide is between those whose emphasis is on ritual correctness — that is, adhering to a strict interpretation of traditional liturgical norms — and those who are willing to accept, or even encourage, a more casual ceremonial atmosphere for the sake of a more emotionally engaging worship experience.
Now, to forestall the predictable objections from traditionalists, let me acknowledge that a formally structured liturgy can indeed be engaging, especially when it includes such time-honored Catholic elements as Gregorian chant (that is, Gregorian chant well executed by an adequately staffed and properly trained choir).
Anticipating casualist objections, let me point out that there need not be a conflict between emotional engagement and maintaining proper focus on the Eucharist as the object and purpose of Mass (that is, as long as basic decorum and reverence prevail).
To Protestant readers, who likely see all this as just so much Catholic preoccupation with ritualistic works, let me note that faith is the foundation of worship in either style — indeed, faith comes first — or the whole exercise becomes pointless.
Introduction of the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal at Advent 2011 represented a swing in the traditionalist direction. That work, which offered revised translations of prayers spoken by the priest and responses by the people, stirred controversy, since it departed in numerous places from language which had been used at Mass since the 1970s. As I noted in a post dated November 9, 2013, the new missal was…
“greeted with jubilance in many quarters and discomfort in others. A lot of people welcomed it as a step toward greater sanctity and prayerfulness in Catholic worship …. At the same time, numerous objections were raised about the altered English phraseology which was intended to hew more closely to the international Latin standard and was therefore less colloquial.”
I was honored to contribute an essay to the Catholic journal, New Oxford Review — one of two articles that ran in NOR’s November 2013 issue examining the effects of the translations two years after their introduction. It was a pro-con pairing, and I took the con (or “thumbs down”) position.
Having recently completed the annual full liturgical immersion of the Easter Triduum, I am given to reflect once again on these verbal changes. I find myself pretty much confirmed in the views I expressed in NOR six months ago, and I invite any of my readers who may not have seen that essay to consider the points I raised. New Oxford Review has graciously extended its permission for me to reproduce the article on this blog.
If you’re not familiar with New Oxford Review, I strongly recommend that you take a few minutes to peruse its website. It offers a good sampling of the thoughtful analyses offered regularly by this intelligent, well written, and generally conservative publication, which is based in (of all places) Berkeley, California. Swing over there when you can.
In the meantime, give my essay a read, and see what you think…
By Bill Kassel
During the early 1980s I was involved in a Catholic music ensemble that had started out as a typical “guitar group,” accompanying at Vigil Mass on Saturday nights, but grew into a freestanding music ministry involved in diocesan events and evangelistic outreach. Through my involvement in music ministry I was frequently exposed to the prickliness of left-leaning Catholics. Once, when we were to give a concert for a community of religious women, we found our repertoire subject to pre-approval. A song containing the line “Keep going onward till the battle is over” raised eyebrows. We had to explain that the lyrics were metaphorical and the battle in question was merely the struggle of life.
Playing for a variety of parishes and retreats, I witnessed such post-Vatican II novelties as question-and-answer homilies, extemporized Eucharistic prayers, and of course, liturgical dance. Performing at a large religious-education conference, I was introduced to a colorful array of “progressive” Catholic characters — both clerical and lay — as well as to diverse theological speculations that stretched the limits of Christian orthodoxy.
In other areas of my life, too, I have encountered the outlook of the Catholic Left. Working as a freelance writer and creative director, I once developed publications for a Catholic women’s college with a highly regarded nursing program. The nursing director objected to a photograph I intended to use as a cover image: a student receiving her pin signifying completion of the nursing curriculum. The director, a nun, explained that featuring an individual student so prominently “doesn’t reflect our charism,” which was oriented to group sharing rather than individual accomplishment.
I cite these incidents not to disparage nuns — or free-thinking theologians or liturgical dancers, for that matter — but to illustrate my firsthand experience with the Catholic Left and its ideological sensibilities.
I do not consider myself a man of the Catholic Left. I am pro-life, I am suspicious of many of the things that pass under the name “social justice,” and I don’t advocate for women priests or for reorganizing the Church along congregational lines. I’m a daily communicant (when possible), an occasional lector, and I fill in as a cantor at a parish in the town down the road when they can’t get anybody to provide music for Mass. Essentially, I’m the guy in the next pew. And since words are my trade, I’m also an inveterate reader of the Catholic press and Catholic-oriented blogs.
I have noticed that a certain tone has become prominent in Catholic media of a conservative bent (the media, in fact, that I tend to read most regularly). A detectable sense of triumphalism has taken hold — specifically in regard to the new translation of the Mass. It began seeping in during the months before the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal was inaugurated at Advent 2011, reflecting the heightened anticipation of reform among people understandably weary of the liturgical irregularities that had become all too common, and which I had often witnessed.
An early harbinger was an article in the NOR by Rosemary Lunardini (Nov. 2010), author of The Mass in My Life: Cries of the Heart in the Prayers of the Mass (2008), who foresaw a “momentous improvement of the Mass in the vernacular” coming on the heels of the new translation. “It is not too early to say,” she wrote, “that there are abundant signs that we are living in an age of true liturgical renewal and thus an exciting time in the life of the Church.”
Whether or not her expectations are realized remains to be seen. But two years after we began beating our breasts to the three-fold confession of fault for our grievous sins, those Catholics who long for a renaissance in orthopraxis (proper procedure) — what’s often referred to as the reform of the Vatican II liturgical reform — sense that the wind is at their backs and blowing in the right direction. Their enthusiasm, however, was diluted somewhat by Pope Francis’s washing the feet of women and non-Christians this past Holy Thursday, which suggests that the age of liturgical innovation may not be entirely behind us. But still, a certain optimism prevails.
Indeed, I have read any number of gleeful observations about how parishes are embracing the new language and how, as a consequence, the atmosphere at Mass is moving toward greater sanctity and worshipfulness. These commentaries tend to parrot certain themes rapidly becoming clichés: that using the new language hasn’t caused the Church to collapse, even if people find the word consubstantial hard to say or can’t picture the Holy Spirit descending “like the dewfall.” Occasionally, one comes across the veiled (or not-so-veiled) insinuation that anyone who misses the old words must surely harbor neo-Protestant or even pro-Masonic sympathies or is a secret devotee of the dissident group Call to Action.
Triumphalism abounds across the spectrum of conservative Catholic punditry. For instance, its distinct touches can be found in the writings of George Weigel, an astute and sophisticated observer of the Catholic scene (and, I should point out, a particular favorite of mine since reading his monumental biography of John Paul II). Weigel invariably ascribes discontent with the new translations exclusively to those who tend to gather, as he puts it, on the “portside of Peter’s barque.”
But perhaps the triumphalist attitude was most perfectly crystalized by a New Oxford Note in this fine publication, titled “The Revolution That Wasn’t” (Mar. 2013). Commenting on an article by Fr. Anthony Ruff, O.S.B., who apparently had opposed the translations, the NOR’s editors observed somewhat mockingly that “it must drive Fr. Ruff to tears that his grand stand against ‘the system’ failed to spark a revolt against the new missal, a broader rejection of hierarchical authority, and ultimately the revolution in the Church that the progressivists believe to be the inevitable outcome of what they consider the historical ‘rupture’ that took place at Vatican II.”
I’m not familiar with Fr. Ruff, so I’ll take at face value the NOR’s representation of him as a man of leftish sympathies, an assessment given heft by the fact that Fr. Ruff’s article appeared in the very lefty National Catholic Reporter. But I can’t help bristling a bit at the caricature the NOR editors have drawn up in order to dismiss anyone with reservations about the revised language and to decry “the ambivalence of those who are content to roll with whatever comes down the pike, put in their time at Mass, and get on with their otherwise secularly oriented lives.” These the editors identify as the “chaff” of the Church, as opposed to the “wheat” — those who have shown “resilience” through the long years of liturgical travesty.
The NOR editors and other “reform of the reform” folks may be pleased as punch with the new missal and its alleged positive impact, but forgive me if I don’t share such confidence. I think that the reality of current liturgical conditions is somewhat different. Average Catholics in the pew — at least in the typical Midwest parishes I frequent — have not embraced the new translation with enthusiasm; neither are they rolling contentedly with these new words that have come down the pike. For the most part, the changes are seen merely as substituting one set of prayers and formulaic responses for another, nothing more than a quirk of the hierarchy or a papal preference. It’s not open arms that one observes in the Catholic faithful; it’s a shrug of confusion.
The old words may indeed have sounded prosaic and didn’t reflect their Latin sources accurately, but the most frequent reaction to that is, “So what?” Were they so prosaic as to confuse people about the fundamentals of the faith, so inaccurate as to lead us into error and schism? Most people don’t believe that. Whether or not this change was truly necessary, the Church hasn’t made her case to the great body of believers, or to all her priests, for that matter.
One priest I know — no leftist he — expressed a certain resentment at the changes, which he took as a personal affront to priests like himself. “This is a slap in the face of the guys who always played it straight,” he told me. “We weren’t the ones who were tinkering with the prayers.” He laid blame for the whole situation at the feet of the bishops. “If they had enforced the rubrics in the first place, we wouldn’t be going through all this.”
Even a recent USCCB survey, which purports to “prove” widespread popular support for the new language, hardly seems conclusive. There are, after all, several competing surveys, such as those conducted by the lefty journals U.S. Catholic and The Tablet, which “prove” that people hate the translations. Which reports are we to believe? Whose methodology is better, and which reflects a more accurate sampling?
The laity can recognize and appreciate important differences in liturgical wording. For instance, to state that Christ’s sacrifice was salvific “for many” as opposed to “for all” reflects a key theological point that calls out for clarity and justifies a change. On the other hand, what can be said for the response, “We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again,” or either of the other two memorial acclamations? These changes are hardly justified by theological precision. Moreover, all three acclamations are considerably less definitive than the familiar, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” which is a much clearer and confident assertion of our fundamental Christian belief.
Likewise, the new rendering of the Nicene Creed actually blurs an important dimension of what Christ endured for the sake of our salvation. It states merely that “He suffered death and was buried,” which is to say, He died. The old version, in contrast, spelled out that “He suffered, died, and was buried,” thus emphasizing the pain Jesus endured before He died.
I have a personal gripe about the translations — specifically the new casting of the response to the Ecce Agnus Dei, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Never mind that this isn’t even an accurate quote of the centurion in Matthew 8 (it was a servant the centurion was concerned about being healed). I’m a convert, and I first encountered the statement “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…” upon coming to the Church in my thirties. Once I grasped the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence, I found special significance — and a good deal of comfort — in making that little confession of my unworthiness before going up for Communion. What a miraculous thing that, despite my failings and imperfections, I could receive the Eucharistic Lord through the love and forgiveness of God.
I shared my thoughts on this in a letter to the editor of the NOR (Mar. 2011) in response to Lunardini’s article, as well as in a note to my bishop. Both Lunardini and the bishop expressed their hope that I would eventually find significance in the new translation, which could provide me as much comfort as the old one did. Unfortunately, I haven’t; and I doubt I ever will. As I said back then, the phrase about Jesus entering under my roof takes something that was once profoundly tangible and makes it abstract, and then requires me to infer its actual meaning — a triumph of literalism over communication if ever there was one. Indeed, I feel as though an important statement of my faith has been stolen from me and, I have to admit, I resent that. Which brings me back to the triumphalism of those Catholic pundits and publications I read so faithfully.
Catholics in the 1960s must have been profoundly shaken by all the changes wrought by Vatican II — changes that were far more extreme than the verbal adjustments we’ve gone through over the past two years. I can appreciate that cradle Catholics of a certain age might find vindication in the new missal, but why many younger Catholics appear to share that feeling isn’t quite so clear to me. Nevertheless, I would like my favorite media folks to grasp an essential truth: You don’t have to be a flaming lefty to have reservations about the altered liturgical verbiage. Plenty of Catholics — I dare say most Catholics — are still wondering why all this was considered so important. It’s not a matter of ideology with us. It’s a matter of common sense.
As members of Christ’s beleaguered Church, we face the combined challenges of radical secularism and radical Islam, not to mention the fallout from the clerical sex-abuse crisis. And the appropriate response to these grave challenges has been to change the words of the Mass. Really?
The triumphalist answer is, of course, that getting the words right strengthens faith — lex orandi, lex credendi, loosely translated, as one prays so one believes. That case might carry more weight if the alterations had been more substantial. But truly, honestly — gee whiz, guys — the old words just weren’t that far off the mark. And anyway, most of the changes fall on the celebrant, as my priest friend complained vehemently. So why bug the people? We’d like an answer to that.
In the end, I guess what I’m asking of the Catholic commentariat is a change in tone. Lighten up, drop the self-satisfied condescension, and provide catechesis that makes sense and persuades. We’re not out of the woods on the liturgy issue. Trust me, the question has not been settled among the laity. We have quite a bit further to go before the Catholic faithful can feel true unity at Mass.
© 2013 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved. November 2013, Volume LXXX, Number 9.
One especially useful feature of the New Oxford Review website is an excellent log of current articles of Catholic interest from a wide variety of outlets. The NOR editors have a good eye for the timely and pertinent, and I find it useful to check their listing regularly…
The article that took the pro side on the new translations is accessible for a modest fee here…