Prevenient grace: a reflection on the new missal
I have done my best. I have given the revised Roman Missal a fair wind. I have used it faithfully since its introduction, tried hard to become comfortable with it, struggled earnestly to like it, even hoped that I might eventually come to love it. But to little avail. Words matter. Some of the ponderous, heavily Latinised translations which we received in Advent 2011, are truly dreadful in their syntax and choice of vocabulary. No amount of positive goodwill can change this unavoidable conclusion. In spite of this, I continue to celebrate Eucharist with genuine joy. Increasingly however, I find myself devising a range of liturgical survival strategies in order to circumvent those revised texts which are too wordily unwieldy, difficult, and in some instances impossible to use.
My problem with the revised text rears its morale-sapping head, almost as soon as Mass begins, with the linguistically stilted and clumsily confusing congregational response: and with your Spirit. What does this mean? What exactly is it intended to convey? Will we ever get used to this piece of unnecessary theological nuancing? On those increasingly rare occasions when I am concelebrating or participating from the pews, I still find myself reverting to the more naturally pleasing: and also with you. Whatever the liturgical translators found to be unsatisfactory with this neat response for the last forty years, I entirely fail to see. Words matter. What has been gained, if anything, by this particular example of liturgical and theological thinking, is simply beyond my ability to recognise or comprehend.
The new Confiteor is pastorally problematical. Expecting predominantly aged and ageing congregations of faithful Catholics to seek forgiveness because they have greatly sinned, is massively unreflective of the sinning potential, great or otherwise, of most of those good and decent people who attend Mass regularly. During the revised Penitential Rite, I am constantly scanning the body of the church to see where these great sinners might be lurking. For the most part, I have spectacularly failed to find them. During Masses with children in attendance and recently at Masses with more than one hundred variously sick pilgrims on our annual diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes, the revised words of the Confiteor are revealed in all their pastoral and linguistic unsuitability. Words matter. For this reason, I now choose to avoid using the revised words of the Confiteor whenever I can.
The Opening Prayer, or Collect as we are now obliged by the revised Missal to call it, along with its sister Offertory and Post-Communion prayers, must surely qualify as gold-medal winners for their sheer linguistic density and lengthy unreadability. Probably one of the best or worst examples of this occurs in the Offertory Prayer for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Some of the language employed in this specific instance is obscure in the extreme, beyond the everyday experience of parish congregations. I suspect it is also a good distance removed from the theological memory or vocabulary of many parish clergy. Words count. I’m afraid these words will never trip lightly from our increasingly tangled tongues. Stumbling inarticulately through them, the first time I encountered them myself, I was not so much inspired, as driven to poetry:
Eighth of December, Immaculate Conception:
prevenient grace tripped me up like Latin declension.
Close to stumbling, words tumbling
like those from a Longman’s Grammar long ago.
Prevenient grace: theological ace, winning the race,
taking the prize for God-speak.
Theologically obscure, transcendent as God herself,
parsing the prayer like a piece of Latin prose.
Diverting through multiple subordinate clauses,
until prayer’s end, the final Amen,
blessed relief, a chance to draw breath.
A kind of death.*
Many of the revised prayers of the Mass have also lost their fluency, resonance and prayerful rhythms, recently and unwisely jettisoned in their liturgical revisions. The same language and phrasing difficulties arise in relation to many of the Prefaces and even to the newly drafted Eucharistic Prayers themselves, particularly One and Four. There is little probability of restorative revision during the remainder of my lifetime. In the meantime, my own rather drastic and unsatisfactory solution is to shorten the prayers in part or in whole, or to entirely redraft them in my own words. Do I know better than those experts who spent many years working on the revised texts? I claim no particular liturgical or theological competence in this regard. However, after more than thirty years of celebrating parish liturgies, I think I have some instinct for what works linguistically or doesn’t. Words matter. Many of these revised prayers simply do not work and never will. They are too long, clumsy, cumbersome, too replete with subordinate clauses, too difficult linguistically and too technical theologically, to have any meaningful resonance within parish celebrations of Eucharist.
One other unsettling feature of the revised prayers of the Mass is their recurring reliance on merit theology and the entirely unattractive language of profit and loss. What image of God is being conveyed through such language? One image that springs to mind is the book-keeper God of former times, keeping a divine tally of our virtues and vices. Is this the kind of image we want to foster in our relationship with the God of Jesus? Is this really the kind of relationship we gather to celebrate at the Eucharist? It seems to me that this recurring reliance on the notion of merit, has as much place in our relationship with the Lord, as within our closest and most intimate human relationships, which I would suggest is hardly any place at all.
We may very well have to merit the respect of colleagues and casual acquaintances. This is entirely fitting. If we fall short of expected standards in our chosen profession or place of work, a system of sanctions may apply. No such system applies however, within our closest and most intimate human relationships. Here, mutual acceptance and respect are constants, not bargaining chips in these most intimate relational communions with parents, children, spouses, or closest friends. Similarly, in our relationship with the Lord. This constantly recurring theme of merit, which appears to define much of our relationship with the Lord within the revised texts, and the consequent, not to mention rather impoverished quality of relationship which it implies, is most unwelcome. I suspect too, that this recurring emphasis on merit theology within the revised texts may still prove problematical to ecumenical relations and dialogue.
The Eucharistic Prayers have also been weakened in the new Missal. Previously, we could happily choose any one of the four beautiful Eucharistic Prayers provided. Currently, I find myself opting almost exclusively for revised Eucharistic Prayer 2. Words matter. This prayer is more linguistically accessible and consequently more pastorally acceptable than the turgid revised alternatives. Even in revised Eucharistic Prayer 2 however, we are pulled up short by a combination of words slipped in towards the prayer’s conclusion: we may merit to be coheirs to eternal life. This phrase is difficult to pray for the relational reasons explained above. Its insertion at this precise liturgical moment is also frankly baffling. Words matter. Just as we are approaching the sacred intimacy of Holy Communion, this highly technical formula seems to strike precisely all the wrong relational notes.
The substitution of: my sacrifice and yours, for ours, chalice for cup, are minor but not insignificant irritations, amounting in my view to liturgical correctness of the most trivial kind. The substitution at the consecration however, of many for all, is an altogether more worrying shift that continues to be much discussed and debated, running as it does entirely contrary to the inclusive spirit of the Gospel. Who are these unfortunate souls, between the all and the many, who now appear to fall into this newly created version of liturgical limbo? The substitution of many for all, also runs contrary to St Paul’s desire for the universal redemption of humanity. Did he not pray that that we might be all in all?
When the Lord gifted his beloved disciples with the Our Father, he simply and succinctly counselled them: pray like this. Now however, at the beginning of the revised Communion Rite, we find an entirely different kind of formula: At the Saviour’s command, and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say. Words matter.This revised, formally stilted, frankly rather pompous invitation, is anything but conducive to prayer.
Words matter. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s definition of poetry comes to mind: the best words in the best order. Sadly, his definition cannot be applied to the revised Missal or to many of the language and phrasing choices which now robe the revised liturgical texts. The emperor has no clothes. Rather, what linguistic clothes he has, are poorly made and poorly chosen. The liturgy deserves better. So do we.
Michael Maginn is a priest of the Diocese of Dromore, 12 Tullygally Road, Craigavon, County Armagh.
* Sands of Time, Still More Prayers from Life,
Carmelite Publications Glenvale, 2012