Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 34

Vatican Website translation:

34. The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.

Latin text:

34. Ritus nobili simplicitate fulgeant, sint brevitate perspicui et repetitiones inutiles evitent, sint fidelium captui accommodati, neque generatim multis indigeant explanationibus.

Slavishly literal translation:

34. The rites should be radiant with noble simplicity, they should be of brevity, of clarity, and avoid useless repetitions, they should be accommodated to the power of comprehension of the faithful, and generally should not stand in need of many explanations.

The norms articulated in art. 34 have been rather fiercely contested in the past fifty years. What are the textual and gestural characteristics of “noble simplicity”? Is this principle to be extended from the rites themselves to the setting in which the rites are enacted, i.e., the music employed, the vesture worn, the objects employed, the architecture constructed or renewed? What characterizes “brevity” or “clarity” in ritual actions? On the basis of what principles are ritual repetitions to be considered “useless” (e.g., the 25 signs of the cross made during the Canon vs. the single sign of the cross made in Eucharistic Prayer I)? How are the rites to be accommodated to the faithful’s capacity to comprehend them so that they can “fully, consciously and actively” participate in the rites, i.e., how are the faithful to attain “ritual competence”?

Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss how the EF and OF of the Roman Rite embody these principles.

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16 comments

  1. There’s been no lack of scholarly (or other) commentary on this passage over the years…

    But to point out one more that may have escaped the notice of many, Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J. had a short provocative essay up a few years ago at New Liturgical Movement examining the turn-of-the-century (1899) understanding of noble simplicity of English liturgiologist Edmund Bishop – and how it led, even then, to unexpectedly contradictory results. “At the heart of Bishop’s aesthetic preferences lay austerity and reserve informed by canons of beauty expressed in the developed Gothic style… While it would be absurd to expect the Second Vatican Council to have embraced the Gothic Revival, there is no harm in knowing Bishop’s expectations when he coined terms that led to such contradictory results.” Link: http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2009/05/noble-simplicity-and-liturgiologist.html

    Google Books seems to have the original essay by Bishop in full here: http://books.google.com/books?id=EZMrAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=The+Genius+of+the+Roman+Rite+edmund+bishop&source=bl&ots=9g3qjRBhFc&sig=xAJeQaMzinwjYBmixV7qYC_ajHw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=N8UvUfWdJ4640AGmgIHQCQ&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA

    It’s an interesting peek at an early understanding of the term.

    It will not come as a surprise to those familiar with my posts here that I find Art. 34 to be one of the most problematic passages of Sacrosanctum Concilium. But that is not to say that I cannot detect worthy motivations lurking, at least in part, behind it. I look forward to hearing what others have to say about it.

  2. I’d like to comment on two phrases in the Latin:

    ‘…nobili simplicitate fulgeant’ – well re-translated as ‘be radiant with noble simplicity’. ‘Fulgur’ is the Latin for ‘lightning’! So the simplicity required here is not a dumbing-down, but something powerful because of its clarity. Think of the Japanese tea-ceremony.

    ‘…fidelium captui accommodati’: ‘captus’ is not cerebral ‘comprehension’. It’s more ‘grasp’ without necessarily understanding what’s happening. We are dealing here with the kernel of ritual that defies rational explanation. Here too ‘fidelium captui accommodati’ doesn’t mean dumbing-down. PT contributors might like to suggest what it does mean.

    1. @John Ainslie – comment #1:
      John, where do you see a call for “dumbing down”? That seems like a straw man to me.

      And, on your philological point that captus is not “cerebral comprehension” — even more strongly, that what is captus necessarily defies rational explanation — can you do more than assert that?

      From other uses of the term (and of capio) I would think that here it means something more like “capability” or “capacity” or even “culture”.

      1. @Jonathan Day – comment #5:
        I think we would agree, Jonathan, that captus is not well translated by ‘comprehension’. But I think it is more than just a capability, more the use of it.

        How does one describe our approach to ritual? Even if we think we understand it, is rational comprehension what is required of us when we take part in it?

        Perhaps – as a joint effort! – captus might be taken to mean ‘capability to grasp’? ‘Grasp’ is the nearest noun I can find, but do we grasp ritual or does ritual grasp us? Should it?

  3. Within the power of people’s comprehension is also relative to the degree of Christian education on the part of the people attending. I remember reading last year or so about the removal of some important biblical imagery from an Anglican baptismal rite on account of the biblical illiteracy of the people presenting their children for baptism.

  4. “Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty, from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.”

    While this sentence does leave me feeling like I’ve been struck by lightning, I’m pretty sure it’s nothing to do with the noble simplicity of the many-layered interjections and the huge separation of subject from verb and verb from object.

    The endless repetition of “victim” could be seen as unnecessary. It is also worth noting that the very next sentence contains “holy sacrifice, spotless victim.” Again, highly laboured repetition of already established concepts. Unnecessary, in my opinion, and serving to make the language itself stand out front-and-centre, instead of quietly and unassumiungly conveying meaning.

  5. The phrase “should be radiant with noble simplicity” in the “slavishly literal” translation jumped out at me as aptly descriptive! I have seen this in many an OF celebration (I have also seen the “non-radiant” opposite!) and it is extremely prayerful and very conducive for the active participation of the full assembly. I cannot comment on it’s presence in the EF as I have not attended one of those since I was 12 years old.
    It has been my experience that RM3 has done nothing but take away the “radiance” and the “noble simplicity” from the English celebration of the OF. I see presiders with furrowed brows attempting to give the text some modicum of intelligibility, trying to connect subject and verb amid myriad clauses and endless “we beseeches”. And these are well prepared and prayerful presiders! The assembly just tunes out….it is sad. I want the radiance of noble simplicity back!

  6. I probably can’t define “noble simplicity” but, as Justice Potter Stewart said in a different context, “I know it when I see it.” I think of the Blackfriars Chapel in Oxford, or some of the vestments that were produced in the 40s and 50s as part of the Liturgical Movement. To my mind, “noble simplicity” involves an integration of form and function that does not degenerate into mere functionalism. I also think it shouldn’t be associated with a single style: the best of the Baroque can have a noble simplicity about it.

    On the question of “useless repetitions,” I remember being in class with Aidan Kavanagh and being struck as if by a bolt of lightning (not for the first time that semester) when he asked, “”how do you quantify ‘useless’?” It really made me question some of the reforming orthodoxy I had absorbed regarding the liturgy.

  7. I’ve been waiting for this: “useless repetitions”

    I wish it would have gone on to say something like, “nevertheless, keeping useful repetitions” Obviously, there are such things.

    In the old rite, for example, there are five collects for the blessing of candles. I find them useful for three reasons: 1) they’re not exact repetitions, 2) they approach the subject from different angles and give fuller meaning, 3) they somehow add the right amount of ‘weight’ to the liturgical moment.

    I’m sure there are posters here who are already convinced that I’m absolutely wrong and utterly uninformed on the matter. : )

    If anyone is so inclined and has the time, I’d appreciate an explanation as to why it was thought advantageous to have only one collect of blessing for palms (another example of a reduction). I think it an impoverishment, a loss of richness, sort of.

    1. @Christopher Douglas – comment #8:

      One collect was thought to be the early Roman practice and, therefore, the ideal.

      There were three beautiful collects for blessing the fire at the Easter Vigil before 1955 which I was sorry to see eliminated later on. The High Anglican Holy Saturday vigil has retained them.

      More to your point, I too found more than one collect giving a fuller meaning. In the Sarum rite and other local missals in Europe that fuller meaning can be profoundly expressed with as many as seven collects at the start of Mass, at the offertory, and at the post communion prayer. What about more than two lessons from the OT and from the epistles as in some of the Oriental Orthodox liturgies, as in the Ethiopian and Coptic churches.

      I don’t understand the obsession with strapping the liturgy into some schematic straightjacket. Preventing greater flexibility in choosing texts and more prayers to convey a fuller understanding of the rite .

      1. @Dunstan Harding – comment #13:
        Thank you for your response!

        Ah, yes, “early Roman practice” (The cynic in me wants to say, “So for some doctrine can develop but liturgical practice shouldn’t, or at least not until 1970,” but I’ll pass over that.)

        I like your larger point. I would imagine that the Sarum and Gallican (said to have the Eastern influences) Missals and Processionals and whatnot are full of riches. I’m finally coming round to the fact, made by people I normally disagree with about many things, that they are right about how Trent Romanized and suppressed so many wonderful things. I guess I’ve got more research to do; I’ll have to save my money and start getting some of those Archdale King books I’ve been procrastinating about.

  8. “They should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.”

    Which “people” were they thinking of when crafting our current Missal translation? People with advanced theological training and liturgical experience who can appreciate every nuance of the Roman Missal? People who are fluent in several languages, well-read of the world’s great literature, and possessing expansive vocabularies? This is all true of the people who did the translations, and many of those who implement them, but not of the majority of the faithful.

    When MRIII was introduced, every critique saying the language would be over people’s heads was met with the same response—catechesis, perhaps extensive, detailed and ongoing. Not catechesis to unpack the depth of meaning, but just to understand all the jargon and dense construction of the prayers themselves. “Well, what they were trying to say here was…”

    Doesn’t sound like “should not require much explanation” to me.

  9. Since I am the source of the “slavishly literal translation,” I should probably weigh in on the “captus” dispute. I simply worked with my trusty Lewis and Short, finding there “I. A taking, seizing; that which is taken or grasped; … II. power of comprehension, capacity, notion…”. There was a helpful reference to a usage in Cicero that would be translated as “for this people’s capacity.” I went with the second set of meanings since it seemed to me that the context of the sentence of art. 34 was not of a physical seizing, but of a transferred meaning to the world of thought. Of course I am always willing to be corrected by those whose Latin is better than mine and whose resources are more extensive. (BTW, thanks for appreciating my “radiant with noble simplicity”.)

  10. Hmm…

    Thanks Michael.

    I assume the characteristics of noble simplicity, brevity, clarity, no useless repetitions, comprehensibility, and not needing much explanation apply as much to the words of the liturgy as they do to actions.

    How then does the new ICEL/Vox Clara translation pass through this gate if, for me as one of the people, the words appear simultaneously pompous, turgid, florid, unctuous, prissy and abstruse — in short diametrically opposite of what they ought to be (and were in the previous translation)? Or does noble simplicity et al. now not apply to translations?

    Interesting too how article 34 provides a powerful justification for the use of vernacular — after all, how “accommodated to the power of comprehension of the faithful” is Latin?

  11. When ever these discussions about a translation from Latin, I wonder what happened to the idea that Latin so long dead and so universal was a clear way to unite the church in teaching and in prayer.

  12. If I understand Mr. Harding and Mr. Douglas correctly, they are arguing that those who produced the Missale Romanum 1970 were misguided in opting to provide a single collect for a single Mass formulary because these collects are not “useless repetitions,” but provide enrichment. I suspect there were at least two reasons why the Consilium made such a decision: 1) Jungmann had argued that “The Roman Mass for a thousand years had only one oration.” If SC directed that the reformed rites were to return to the norms of the Fathers, this would be a case where distinctively ancient Roman Rite practice would be restored. 2) The collects that were allowed in the MR1570 and its successors often did not so much enrich the celebration (in the minds of the Consilium) as distort the focus (as when the oration for Our Lady of the Rosary was followed by the oration for St. Mark, Pope and Confessor, because both feasts happened to fall on 7 October at a certain point in the Roman Rite calendar).

    What I LOVE about this discussion is that it reflects exactly the concern Amalarius of Metz had when he visited Rome. Gallican customs differed from the “unam tantam collectam” custom of the City, so Amalarius has to assure his readers that other parts of the Mass will cover their particular prayer desires. He does hold open the possibility of a priest saying multiple Masses for multiple offices on the same day, a custom which eventually led to the missa bifaciata or trifaciata, and the missa sicca, neither of which was ultimately seen as a positive development in eucharistic celebration.

    Isn’t it interesting how often historical study reveals the same kinds of tensions (in this case between the austerity of a single oratio formula in the ancient Roman Rite and the possible multiple collects of the medieval Frankish rites responding to multiple worshipers’ self-identified needs) that we face today?

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