16Nov Translators of new Mass prayers neglected cardinal rule: Consider your audience

As the days dwindled before their triumphal entry, the new liturgical changes had not yet risen to even an underwhelming response.“One in being” in the creed pretty much satisfied the mass of still-loyal Catholics, since they neither understood what it meant nor cared enough to Google it. And its replacement, “consubstantial,” is hollower and even less intriguing. Parishioners’ only real problem is why such stuff even matters.

When the official church has to publish a booklet explaining, step by step, why “this is good for you,” bet your bottom dollar it’s not going to be any help at all— especially not where Catholics really need it to help, in their weary and puzzled souls.

To any objective mind, the new changes to the Mass are unarguably not food for ordinary people’s souls. It would be an unusual step, but all authorities would have to do is just ask the people: “Does this bring you and God closer? Does it really make you feel part of a bigger life with the people who share this space and time today?”

On the contrary, the changes are palliatives to the specialist minds of theologians, liturgists, and church historians. In a conversation with several priests, I was dim-witted enough to ask, “But what about the audience?” And one said, pretty intensely, “The audience doesn’t matter. It’s the message that matters!”

And just what is that message? Freedom from the fear of sin and death? Or conformity and obedience? Even the liturgists’ rarefied toolbox of now-required terms springs from some transgalactic thesaurus. Idoubt too many parents wonder if their college kids “have missed liturgy this week.” Epiclesis is not even in my 45-year-old dictionary, and it sounds like some eye disease. I strongly doubt that those who have taken a summer theology course and now speak of “mystagogy” also refer to a horse as an “equine quadruped.”

For some time I helped out in a parish every Sunday. But a personal quirk of mine had long conflicted with the personal quirk of whoever had the final word on the previous Mass prayers. I simply could not use th eugly phrase “our spiritual drink” in a conversation with Someone who gives me reason both to be celibate and to put up with his stubborn refusal to fulfill my expectations. So I would say, “Heavenly Father, we offer you these ordinary gifts—bits of bread and a cup of wine—and we ask you once again, by that great miracle, to infuse into these gifts—and through them into us—the living presence of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our brother.”

But a woman in the choir, a member of a pontifical prelature, took a (quite long) list of my liturgical depredations to the long-suffering pastor—among them, substituting “his friends”for “his disciples.” I spoke personally to her and said, “If you’re distracted by those finicky details, you miss the whole essence of the Mass!” She replied, “I like your homilies, but I want a liturgy not only valid but licit according to the Roman ritual.”

And there you have it. The rulebook versus the needs of the family.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan had the courage to ask our advice on how to invite the 30 percent of recently disenchanted Catholics,the fastest-growing Christian group in our country, back into community with the rest of us. Like any good executive, the archbishop is calling in his staff because the “product” has nosedived in desirability. But the staff keeps prescribing remedies without even a cursory consultation with the “buying public” about their true tastes and needs.

There’s the answer: The only place the life of the ordinary Catholic touches the life of the visible church is at weekly worship. What if we give them a Mass that speaks to their honest, confused adult souls? Mass might seem desirable again. If the American bishops could corral the best poets, dramatists, and songwriters to come up with a Mass that preserved the long-ratified structure but also moved the soul, the church might still have a chance.

Both the words “humble” and“human” are rooted in the Latin word humus, which means “dirt.”Would it be thinkable to make the words of our prayer together both humble and human—that is, down to earth—rather than riddled with stilted theological distinctions? Could the language of our prayer be dictated from the bottom up rather than from the top down?

As a simple example, in the eucharistic prayers, where we pray “for our pope and our bishop and all the clergy,” might we also pray for the poor, the lonely, the sexually confused, those who feel like losers, and those who crave some dignity, all of whom we should warmly welcome?

Years ago, because of my unease with the stiffness of the church’s official morning and evening prayer—prayers written by people with concerns other than my own—I wrote three books called Daily Prayers for Busy People. Some examples may clarify the tone suggested here:

Living God, at the Incarnation your Word took on himself what you had never felt before: vulnerability, woundedness, doubt. Welcome! Amen.

Or perhaps: Great Friend, we live hemmed in by mirrors, criticizing our lack of progress, power, popularity, security. Help us to shatter the mirrors. Amen.

Perhaps those are too “breathy” for publicuse, but they might be a step in the right direction.

We need not descend to the fireworks and screaming that draw 20 million viewers to American Idol or to the diametrically un-Christian Survivor. We surely don’t need to stoop to the level of personal agonies exposed in trashy morning talk shows, or even emulate the former queen of daytime TV Oprah Winfrey—although she may have been closer tounderstanding and touching the human heart than we are. Why not aim the prayersof the Mass at an audience savvy enough to understand Jon Stewart isn’t just kidding? Somewhere between The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

This is not merely a matter of getting our numbers backup. It is a matter of our doing precisely what we have been commissioned to do: Offer the Good News, the liberating message of forgiveness and resurrection.Beyond question, in its present state, our message does not yet appear to be desirable to those most in need of it.

Such personal, rather than punctilious, concern for soulsover doctrines would also be welcome to those of us who have resolved to stay. No matter what.

By Father William J. O’Malley,S.J., who teaches at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx and is the authorof Choosing to Be Catholic: For the First Time or Once Again (Ave Maria, 2004).This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 12, pages 37-38).

18 Responses

  1. Martin

    The writer complains about obscure theological terms and then has the audacity to use words like ‘punctilious’.

  2. Joseph Deegan

    This article makes perfect sense to me! Thank you for putting a Solid Christian foundation under a very shakey translation of the Roman Missal!

  3. Joseph O'Leary

    Which of the 4 new Eucharistic Prayers should we say on Nov 27th? I read through them again yesterday and they are all ghastly. I’ll probably just stick with the current translation of EP II. We cannot give a pastoral slap in the face to the already much-disheartened faithful.

  4. Martin

    You can’t do that Fr Joe. On that date, the old missal will be officially abrogated and so it will be illicit to use it. You are confusing your own preferences with the rights of the faithful to receive the new translation.

  5. Marcella

    Why does Martin’s latest retort remind me of those who condemned Jesus for breaking the Sabbath? The actions of Christ were scandalous to many who regarded themselves as the arbiters of all that was seen as religiously proper and mandated by religious law. I thank God that there are priests who will stand against these latest impositions.

  6. Eileen

    Well said Marcella!

  7. Mary Burke

    Sounds like the sensible thing to do, Joe. If the traditionalists can still use the Missal of 1962 there is no reason why we can’t use the Missal of Paul VI.
    The law-makers in this case have brought the law into disrepute because of the deplorable translation, the result of a process which effectively reversed and therefore, undermined the decision of Sacrosanctum concilium to give bishops’ conferences the responsibility of producing their own translations which were then to be sent to the Vatican for approval.
    The real question is whether such a decision of the CDWS is licit.

  8. Sean (Derry)

    Fr Joseph O’Leary,
    rather than impose your own personal preferences on your congregation, I think you should take Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s simple advice and just: Say the Black, Do the Red.

  9. Joe O'Leary

    Sean, I certainly do not want to impose; but should I read the text of EP I or IV exactly as written next Sunday, and then ask the congregation if they want to use that text the next time or go back to the current text?

  10. Mary Burke

    Sean, are you requesting Fr Joe to use the text of the new translation which the bishops approved or that text with its estimated 10,000 changes made since then?

  11. Wendy Murphy

    I see from today’s ‘Times’ (UK) that certain Anglican congregations (you know which sort) are keen to use the new translation. Could we not cut a shady deal with them to take the repulsive thing off our hands? The proceeds could go to impoverished parishes which have just coughed up £700+ for new, almost entirely unwanted texts.

  12. Sean (Derry)

    Mary Burke,
    To the best of my knowledge, from 27th November, it would be a violation of Church directive, for a priest, here in Ireland, not to use, The Roman Missal, new English translation 2010, (granted recognition by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, for the dioceses of the Bishops’ Conference of Ireland, 18 June 2010 ).

    Therefore, I think it best that Fr Joe O’Leary should read all text, ‘exactly as written’, next Sunday, and he should not worry about seeking approval from the congregation to do so.

  13. Gail

    Sean is incorrect. A priest celebrating Mass in Irish is not obliged by any directive to use the new English text. Any Mass using the existing (old) Englsh text would be perfectly valid though possibly illicit.

  14. Mary Burke

    Well, Sean, the bishops haven’t approved those 10,000 changes.

  15. Joe O'Leary

    Fortunately, I find that I am not listed as celebrant next Sunday after all! Some bishops urge that celebrants use the new translations but make adjustments to suit the circumstances of their flocks. In the case of non-English speaking immigrants the new translations are really a nasty imposition.

  16. M. de Diego

    “In the case of non-English speaking immigrants the new translations are really a nasty imposition.”

    Another point that you have got totally wrong, Father. The new translation is a lot closer of the Liturgy that non-English speaking catholics have on their own countries. Going to Mass when I couldn’t fully understand English, was not the problem: I made the responses on my own language. The real problem was when I could understand English: your “translations” were completly different of what I new from the Liturgy of the Mass; like “and also with you” or “We believe”.

    On the other hand, thanks to this “change” on your ‘translations’, made it possible to me to discover the Usus Antiquior of the Mass, which I was unaware of it.

    With the New Translation, I will have a Mass as I used to have in my own country, since I can remember.

    The final point is that, it looks to me that for a very long time you (English speaking Catholics) had an incorrect translated missal; now that you have the correct translated misal (the one you should have from the very begining) you don’t want it. So it appears to me that some priests think that they deserve their own missal completely different from the rest of the Universal Church.

    And not only that; it looks that some priests are defiant to what the Catholic Church comands them. Exactly the same position that some other traditionalist priests held.

    Dear Father: The REAL missal that Vatican Council II promoted is the one that you regard as ‘nasty imposition’. I find it unbelievable that not a single member of your congregation would find your obstination with the old missal a ‘nasty imposition’.

    Sorry for any spelling mistakes.

    God bless.

  17. Joseph O'Leary

    M de Diego: the Roman Canon, which I love in the original Latin, is quite effectively translated in the outgoing 1973 version and is very prayable. A booklet issued by the translators gave a line by line justification of their translation. The new translation is more accurate only in the sense of more unimaginatively literal. It lacks all true linguistic grace and beauty.

  18. M. de Diego

    Dear Father:

    Today the old english missal is officially abrogated and so it is illicit to use it; so there is not point to have a discussion over linguistic ‘grace and beauty’ versus a Liturgy more reverent, more mysterious, more deeper more beautiful, and that above all, it lacks all linguistic inaccuracies that will be distorting Catholic truth.

    Now… the good news is that the Missal in the original Latin version, that I’m very pleased to read that you love, HAS NOT BEEN ABROGATED!

    So why don’t you ask your congregation about Holy Mass in the original Latin version? You may get surprised with the answer.

    God bless.