If we consider the bimillenary history of God’s Church, guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we can gratefully admire the orderly development of the ritual forms in which we commemorate the event of our salvation. From the varied forms of the early centuries, still resplendent in the rites of the Ancient Churches of the East, up to the spread of the Roman rite; from the clear indications of the Council of Trent and the Missal of Saint Pius V to the liturgical renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council: in every age of the Church’s history the eucharistic celebration, as the source and summit of her life and mission, shines forth in the liturgical rite in all its richness and variety. … The difficulties and even the occasional abuses … cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal, whose riches are yet to be fully explored.
Discussion about the new translation of the Roman Missal has become sterile. The same points are repeated, tit-for-tat, in blog after blog and post after post. If we are to learn anything, we need a different conversation. Here are five assertions that might help move toward that.
1. The new translation will be with us for a good while.
It has the support of power and authority in the Church, right up to the Pope. Some of us see this as a bad thing, others as a positive. But it is here and we have to deal with it. Some celebrants may improvise or quietly change prayers or ordinary parts of the Mass. A few may try to stick with 1973 or even try 1998. Every priest I know has adopted the new translation either because he likes it better than the previous one or as a matter of obedience. Perhaps changes will be forthcoming but given the massive logistical challenge of getting new material published and distributed, I doubt that these will appear soon.
A more productive conversation might be about how best to use the new translation in a parish – musical settings and its consequences for liturgies other than the Mass.
2. Many of the arguments about the new translation will be difficult to resolve and therefore may not be worth more time.
Let me give just two examples:
- Aesthetics. To my mind, the new translation is simply bad writing – verbose, sloppy in its usage, and filled with errors of syntax. Large parts of it can’t be recognised as English of any known period or style. Many priests, academics and laypeople agree with this assessment. Many others, including theologians and a professor of English have called it “splendid,” “muscular,” “poetic,” etc. And, as noted above, we have no choice but to use it. I have concluded that the argument from aesthetics is largely a waste of time. Those disposed to like the new translation will call it “sacral” and “elevated”; those disposed to dislike it see it as “stilted,” “clumsy” and the like.
This isn’t to argue for relativism. It may someday be possible to hold a discussion about the quality of prose in the various translations. It isn’t possible now. We should agree to disagree about this and stop the bickering.
- Vatican II and the “hermeneutic of continuity.” The fruitless argument here revolves around whether we can somehow discern the mind of the Church – not just the hierarchy, but the whole body of Christ – around developments in the liturgy. Do we rely strictly on the letter of conciliar documents? Or is there a broader trend, a “spirit of Vatican II” that needs to be taken into account? I am inclined to the latter view, primarily because the developments that led to the Ordinary form of the Mass didn’t start at the Council, or after it, but at least 100 years earlier, with the likes of Dom Guéranger and Pope Pius X. Nonetheless, discussions about whether the spirit of the Council was upheld or betrayed or whether Consilium strayed from its brief will be as unproductive as the argument around aesthetics.
The “hermeneutic of continuity” slogan is of no help here. Depending on your preconceptions, “hermeneutic of continuity” seems to mean either that nothing changed at Vatican II or that everything changed. The latter is the view of the Lefebvrists, who were the original target of Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” idea. It has now been turned on the progressives. “Hermeneutic of continuity” doesn’t provide a lens for interpretation. At best it is a slogan; not a hermeneutic at all.
3. We can expect continued ambiguity from the Vatican.
Official and less official communications on the liturgy have been hard to interpret, in a way that upsets conservatives and progressives alike. Some claim that Pope Benedict has a secret master plan to roll back liturgical reform, that his view of today’s Mass was set out in his preface (written as Cdl. Ratzinger) to Klaus Gamber’s book:
We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it – as in a manufacturing process – with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.
And yet Pope Benedict continues to celebrate the Novus Ordo; as far as I know, he has yet to celebrate the Tridentine Mass either as cardinal or as Pope. The quote that opened this essay is not from some lefty liberal, but from Pope Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis.
This ambiguity is unlikely to go away. We can all speculate about the pope’s plan to implement a new, hybrid rite, or to make further changes to the prayers of either form of Mass, but I doubt we will see any clear direction from the Vatican, other than to allow a multiplicity of forms.
4. We can expect liturgical pluralism.
A single, uniform liturgy for the Latin or Western Rite Church seems increasingly unlikely. Operating completely within the rules of the game we already have the Novus Ordo (in Latin and in the vernacular and in various combinations thereof), the Tridentine form and various forms of Anglican use. At a lower level, there are further choices, and once we go beyond the strict letter of the law then not only the Novus Ordo but also the Tridentine Mass contains further options. And then there are many options for the celebrant: facing the people or not, communion in one kind or both, choices about candles and bells and incense. This variety multiplies, of course, if you go outside the Latin rite.
We can expect continued pluralism and argument about what these rites are called. Some traditionalists object to the term “Tridentine Mass,” even though it has been used for decades and shows up on the title page of the Missal. I dislike the term they have arrogated, “Traditional Latin Mass” (TLM), since the Novus Ordo is also celebrated in Latin and is every bit as “traditional.” Even worse are terms like “Mass of Ages” and “Mass of All Time,” but let’s not dwell on those.
My Anglican and Episcopalian friends say that they have been living with this kind of pluralism for a long time. It requires parishes to find ways to identify themselves, so that a new punter knows whether to expect “smells and bells” or Morning Prayer. Like it or not, we are already there: Catholic parishes in central London, for example, vary hugely in their liturgical style.
5. A critical issue for those who cherish the Novus Ordo is its celebration in Latin.
There are many reasons for this. Celebrating in Latin completely sidesteps the new translation. In our parish, we have a beautifully designed “Latin Mass book” for the people with the Latin in one column, with notated chant where appropriate, and an English translation in the other. The English is not strictly the English of the 1973, but a translation done many years ago by our Jesuit parish priest. This was done not for liturgical use, though it reads clearly and easily, but to help people understand the Latin. Any parish could do this, perhaps using the 1998 for the English, as long as it was labelled something like “Translation for reading purposes only.”
Latin also works well in a multilingual community, one with a constant flow of visitors from distant countries.
More important, though: with the translation problem”‘solved,” the traditionalists’ next line of attack is on the Novus Ordo itself, including the Latin. It is “watered down,” it misrepresents the offertory or the sacrifice, it doesn’t say enough about sin – etc. Those who believe that the Novus Ordo represents a significant improvement on the Tridentine rite should focus on this Mass in Latin, not on any vernacular translation.
What would be fruitful to discuss about the liturgy? Lots of things, many of them very practical: how to operate a parish that celebrates the ordinary and extraordinary forms of Mass, especially after the unfortunate decisions in Universae Ecclesiae? How to develop a liturgical sense in children, not only for the Mass but also for other liturgies and for devotional practices? How to sing the Mass in the new translation? How to help the Church thrive in a liturgically plural environment?
The time may come when we can have a calm and reasoned conversation about the aesthetics of the new translation, but I don’t think that time is now. We are either reduced to squabbling on blog pages, or, as Anthony Ruff put it in a recent post, “de gustibus and all that.” Perhaps better to set the issue aside for awhile.
Jonathan Day is a consultant and writer; he is also a member of the parish council of the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception (Farm Street) in central London.