New Missal raises more questions than it answers
Writing on the new Roman Missal in The Tablet, I asked the question: “What if we just said ‘wait’?” I proposed that the new translation be “road-tested” for a year before being implemented.
More than 23,000 people from around the English-speaking world signed on to a website in support. To no avail. The bishops had no interest in road-testing or waiting, and so, on the First Sunday of Advent last year, 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. I was wrong.
The stilted language, tongue-twisting sentences, and convoluted syntax of the collects and other prayers, to say nothing of their persistently obsequious tone, continue to get in the way of prayer for me. And I shudder at “precious chalice”, “for you and for many”, “prevenient grace”, “consubstantial with the Father” and the Pelagian overtones of “merit” and “reward.”
I think it’s no different for the people in the pews, although my parishioners join in the new responses in fairly good spirit (with some initial eyebrow-raising). Their “And with your Spirit” comes across loud and clear, even if their “Lord, I am not worthy” occasionally sounds like they are speaking in tongues.
So what’s the report card? Can the new Missal be called a success? Hardly. It raises far more questions than it answers.
There is the question of justice. In spite of the fact that the bishops’ proper role with regard to the oversight of new liturgical translations was usurped by Roman authorities, and despite the outspoken concerns of liturgists, theologians, pastors, and lay faithful (and some bishops), the new Missal was pushed through.
And there is the question of language. Some of the Latin originals of the Mass prayers are wonderful compositions – simple yet profound, and expressed with classical economy of language. Not so the new translations. On almost every page, there are passages so turgid as to be distasteful and, in many cases, downright baffling. A few cases in point (among many):
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 (Collect, Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Awkward language aside, the clear implication that Mary needed to be “cleansed” should get the attention of the heresy hunters.
This oblation, by which divine worship in its fullness has been inaugurated .. .(Prayer over the Offerings, 23 December)
For on the feast of this awe-filled mystery … (Preface II, Nativity of the Lord)
Just as the Saviour of the world, born this day, is the author of divine generation for us, so he may be the giver even of immortality … (Prayer after Communion, Christmas Day)
To read these prayers is difficult; to understand them – let alone pray them – is almost impossible.
Then there is the question of reception. Even though some recent surveys indicate the majority of the people have accepted the new Missal, can acceptance be read as approval? Not necessarily. I know from experience that many intelligent Catholics are asking themselves: Why? Who said this would improve our prayer life, deepen our relationship to God? Who authorised the massive expenditure of money that was required in order to make this happen? Who thought this was a good idea when the Church has so many more pressing issues to deal with?
Nor do I think the quiet acquiescence of priests can be read as approval. In many cases, our willingness to go along with it can be chalked up to our powerlessness to do anything else, our fear of reprisals, or our unwillingness to compromise the unity of our communities.
Speaking for myself, I had hoped that our people, once they heard the prayers of the new Missal, would speak out. They haven’t. A friend recently asked me how realistic it was for me to hope they would. She wrote: “How can you 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.” I must admit her question haunts me.
My original question was: “What if we just said ‘wait’?” Now I find myself asking different questions.
Can our bishops begin at once to talk about necessary modifications, correcting the most egregious problems – linguistic, grammatical, theological? This would provide some temporary relief.
Can our bishops begin to engage liturgists, scholars, and poets in a conversation about authentic translation and the principles that govern it? Can they then bring the fruits of this dialogue to Rome?
Can we all talk openly and honestly in our faith communities about the texts we have been given, about what kind of language nourishes prayer and what gets in the way?
Can we talk about a new edition of the Missal, not some day, but soon?
If we don’t talk, I fear that people will just stop listening to the texts because of the effort involved in making sense of them; and, as is already happening, there will be a kind of liturgical free-for-all in which celebrants alter the texts to fit their comfort level and make the prayers intelligible.
So can we keep talking – without impugning one another’s loyalty, without silencing dialogue in the interests of a false notion of communio, without letting weariness with the whole business, or indifference, or fear of reprisals prevent us from listening to each other?
We need to talk.
• Fr Michael G. Ryan has been pastor of St James Cathedral, Seattle, USA, since 1988. His article was first published in The Tablet on 8 December. The Tablet is running a survey on the new translation, which you can complete here