Louie Verrecchio
The revised Roman Missal: a Mass of potential
By Louie Verrecchio
December 15, 2011

After years of discussion, preparation and anticipation, the new English translation of the Roman Missal — Third Edition was officially implemented in the United States on November 27th. The "reviews" are now starting to show up in newspapers, blogs and other media.

As I read them, it seems as though most of the "people in the pews" are either positive about the new text, or they are at the very least willing to approach the changes as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Some media outlets, however, are doing their level best to trumpet the negative by highlighting the opinions of a disgruntled minority composed largely, it seems, of aging liberals and self-anointed cognoscenti.

The Washington Post Blog, for example, featured the insights of a guest writer who boasted of a "theological degree" and having "studied the liturgy for thirty years" presumably as qualifications for summarily dismissing the new translation as an exercise in "what the hierarchy wants" as opposed to "what the Catholic faithful actually need."

As compelling evidence that the new text is unacceptably "complex and clunky," this liturgical-expert-come-blogger highlighted changes made in the Eucharistic prayers, pointing out, "In the story of the Last Supper, retold at every Mass, it used to be that Jesus took 'the cup.' Now, instead he takes 'the precious chalice.'"

O' the horror of it all!

This sort of sophistry would be amusing if not for the sad truth being made plain; namely, not even three decades of liturgical study and a theology degree is enough to guarantee that one is able (much less willing) to conceive of the Mass according to "the mind of the Church." Neither, does it seem, is Holy Orders.

On this note, one report in particular caught my eye, coming as it did from a bishop in his weekly diocesan newspaper column.

While acknowledging that the faithful's reaction to the new Missal was "overwhelmingly positive," he went on to write, "Nearly all the priests I spoke to expressed regrets that the new language made it difficult for them to enter deeply into prayer during the Mass because they were distracted by the book. A change of just one or two words created an obstacle that will take some time before our priests are able to celebrate the Mass in [a] prayer-filled and zestful style..."

With all due respect, this commentary makes it clear that the new translation alone — for all of its poetry, elevated language and faithfulness to the original Latin — isn't going to do much to deter the liturgical priest-as-centerpiece mindset that has so plagued the Church for the last forty years. Furthermore, it raises some serious questions.

Does the bishop mean to suggest that a priest simply praying the Mass reverently and devoutly, believing and intending what the Church intends and believes, is somehow deficient? It would seem to me that this is all that is truly required (even desired) of the priest; in fact, as far as I'm concerned anything ostensibly "added" on his part can only serve to subtract from the liturgy.

Also, what does "distracted by the book" mean? Distracted from what, exactly? Taken in context, this comment seems to imply that the text in the new edition of the Roman Missal, thanks to our priests' relative unfamiliarity, is somehow handcuffing their creativity. And this is a bad thing, how?

Perhaps the most troubling and revealing questions these comments raise concern the notion of "style."

What on earth is meant by a "zestful style?" To what end is this necessary or even desirable in the celebration of Holy Mass? Is it imagined to be for the benefit of the assembly — a sign intended to reassure those present that Father is "all-in" with the prayers of the Mass, or is it for the benefit of Father himself — a way for the priest to reassure himself that he's giving the liturgy, and the people present, the help they presumably both need?

Taken as a whole, the bishop's commentary seems to suggest that he and the priests with whom he spoke simply assume, in the manner of Protestant ministers, that it is incumbent upon them to bring a certain stage presence to the Mass wherein "style points" are earned by those clerics who offer (perform, perhaps) the prayers of the liturgy with the kinds of expressive intonations they consider necessary to somehow enhance the celebration.

Well, I have some good news and some bad news for all concerned. The good news is that the pressure to perform that these clerics are feeling is artificial and largely self-imposed; having little to do with what is actually required of them and even less to do with the liturgy's true nature.

The bad news is that too many of our priests and bishops (and by natural extension, laity) don't seem to get it.

In the aforementioned column, the bishop chose to highlight the thoughts of a local pastor who offered the following commentary in his parish bulletin:

"My unfamiliarity with the new translation has led to a rupture in my ability to enter deeply into prayer with all of you. I realize now the great gift I have been given in such a community that prays so well together. It is more than simply good liturgy (although we have that in spades) or careful preparation. It is about the way we come together as the Body of Christ to listen to and to support one another in prayer and in sacrifice."

What inspired the bishop to share this pseudo-catechetical exercise in clerical self-pity with the entire diocese is a mystery all its own, but be that as it may, here's some more good news; it's not all about you, Father! The liturgy isn't even, as you suppose, about the community assembling "to listen to and to support one another," as though "entering deeply into prayer" at Holy Mass is some sort of Christian group hug abetted by familiarity.

No! It's about entering into the Redemptive work of Christ; it's about Divine worship; it's about sacred mystery.

If my frustration is showing, forgive me. Yes, the new Missal offers the potential of helping the Church take a major step in the right direction, but my God! How much longer must we suffer under the weight of this decades-long liturgical crisis in which so many of our people insist on behaving as though Christ is no more present and operative in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass than He is when two or more Baptist boy scouts are praying 'round a campfire?

And just for the record, I'm not simply talking about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist alone, but rather the transcendent presence of Christ in the entirety of the sacred rite wherein He is uniquely active among us.

Speaking in September of 2010, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations, Monsignor Guido Marini, addressed this distorted view saying, "[The liturgy does not] deal with a mere assembly of persons who share an ideal and intend to form a community; rather, it deals with a celebration by which we truly enter into a relationship with the mystery of our salvation..."

He went on to talk about what it means to truly "enter" the liturgy, saying, "To enter into a reality... involves man in his every dimension: intellect, will, emotion, sentiment, action, etc. The external nature of action and its interior foundation result as complementary and necessary. And so it is for the liturgical life..." he continued, "if there is participation that comes about by means of comprehending a text, it is also a form of participation that occurs when the soul is uplifted as it encounters the beautiful."

As for the erroneous suggestion that liturgical texts must be eminently comprehensible on a merely human intellectual level, Monsignor Marini said, "It seems to me that, according to the law of the pendulum, if at one time the lack of adequate participation [in the liturgy] may have been due to a defect in understanding and action, today such a lack of adequate participation may be due to an excess of rational comprehension and external action, to which there is not always present a sufficient and complementary understanding of the heart and attention to the interior action, so as to re-live in oneself the sentiments and thoughts of Christ."

With all of this said, it must also be noted that even in the sentiments expressed by those who are largely positive about the new Missal there are red flags waving.

My pastor, for example, said to the assembled faithful following Mass on the First Sunday of Advent, with neither malice nor negativity intended, "Three or four weeks from now, it will be as though nothing has changed."

I fear he is right, and this is why we must confront head-on the very real danger that the faithful sons and daughters of Holy Mother Church may ultimately find themselves encouraged to accomplish little more than to adopt new words; remaining deprived of the prescription put forth by the Council Fathers who said, "Pastors of souls must zealously strive to promote the full and active participation of all the people in the sacred liturgy by means of the necessary instruction of the faithful" (cf SC 14).

This "necessary" liturgical instruction, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is best considered "mystagogical catechesis;" i.e., teaching that illuminates, to the extent that this is possible, Holy Mass as sacred mystery, that we might deepen our participation therein as we "grow in our awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relationship to daily life" (cf Sacramentum Caritatis).

If we're honest, we must admit that in spite of all the Roman Missal workshops, bulletin inserts and homilies over the last year, the official implementation milestone is really just a small first step in preparing the way for the Roman Missal, that it might be the impetus for renewal it has the potential to be.

Sir Winston Churchill's famous 1942 quote after a decisive WW II battle seems entirely apropos in this case as well, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

© Louie Verrecchio


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