Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Will the New Translation Be Granted Its Full Voice?

The new Missal marks the end of a long-lasting problem in the Catholic Church, and the beginning of a new era of fidelity to the liturgical structure of deeper tradition. For several generations, people in the pews have only experienced liturgical texts that followed a dated translation fashion of a half century ago. The new Missal restores the accuracy and solemnity that had been lost. The new Missal provides a second life for the Missal of Paul VI.

However, there is a serious question as to whether under current practice, this new Missal will truly be permitted to be heard in the Mass itself. Over the decades, practices have emerged in most parishes where the Missal itself plays only part of the role in determining what transpires in the course of the liturgy. In many cases, the use of extemporaneous, improvised, and exogenously produced texts with no official standing at all have begun to even dominate the liturgy.

Consider for example the common habit that many celebrants have of improvising a kind of “welcome to Mass” talk before the Confiteor. They do this as an effort to warm up the environment and personalize the message of Mass. The goal is to make people feeling welcome and happy to be there. This necessarily means an undue focus on the personality of the priest.

It also risks missing the mark with many people in attendance whose state of mind and outlook at the moment are radically heterogenous: a welcoming message that pleases a new college graduate may not connect equally with a person who just lost his job. This is a major problem of all departures from the Missal text. They inevitably seek to connect with people “where they are” whereas the main purpose of liturgy is precisely to take people away from where they are so that they can experience the divine presence.

Another point in the Mass where the Missal does not speak occurs at the Prayer of the Faithful. This is the point in the Mass that permits some liberality to address additional concern, from local problems of the parish to national news events. Many people do not realize that these texts have not come to us from the Church or the liturgical books. Many parishes use texts that are made up by the staff. There are many published resources that offer a year’s supply. I suspect that it is extremely common to use the resources as provided by the same publishers who provide music editions and pew resources. Why a music company should be providing extensive spoken texts at Mass, none of which have been vetted or come from any deeper tradition, is a puzzling question. But it is the reality.

The “elephant in the living room” of non-liturgical texts at Mass comes through music at Mass. The problem is not the Gloria, Sanctus, or Agnus, since those are prescribed texts and carefully regulated as such (though there is no active regulation over the style in which they are sung). The real problem comes with the songs that the musicians on their own choose to sing at the entrance, the offertory, the communion, and the recessional.

In larger parishes, these additional pieces can be fully six long songs sung at Mass, with as many as 4 or 6 or more verses. There are suggestions in the rubrics that these should be appropriate and speak to the season but ultimately the choice of what to sing is left to the discretion of the musicians themselves. Pastors are not inclined to watch over these selections carefully, even if they had the time to do so. It means that most of the main music has Mass can have absolutely nothing to do with the season or venue.

If musicians are given discretion and lack anything like a serious formation in the Roman Rite, they end up looking for some kind of affirmation of what they do. Being musicians, they look to the audience and begin to regard themselves as performers. They seek praise. They seek evidence that people are emotionally affected by what they do. That means choosing music that connects with the secular and not liturgical sense of what music should do to people, which is not permit prayer but entertain. This trajectory is entirely understandable but deeply regrettable.

Nothing in this new release of the Missal itself will provide a curb this habitual practice or the restrain the publishers who encourage it. That’s because the main musical contribution of the Missal affects the ordinary and dialogue chants of the Mass. It provides no required music for the propers of the Mass: entrance, Psalm, alleluia or tract, offertory, and communion.

To be sure, there is enough in the introductory matter of the Missal to figure out that the propers of the Mass itself should be sung. Paul VI affirms that the music for the Mass is found in the Graduale and the General Instruction clearly states the most preferred options. But the sliver of a loophole to make choices about texts means that there will be no change in the prevailing practice, mainly because most musicians and priests are unaware that there is anything fundamentally wrong about it. They might not like the style of the chosen music, but they don’t feel themselves on firm ground to address that issue. So they end up deferring to the status quo.

Someday you should try an experiment. Count up all the words sung in these non-liturgical songs from the beginning to the completion of Mass. You will find that they are roughly similar to the total words used in the readings of Mass or the homily at Mass. And yet consider that there is no guarantee at all these texts have anything to do with the Mass or the season. Most likely, these songs just offer general spiritual encouragement, which is fine, but this has nothing to do with the liturgy as such, even if the publisher of the music assures us otherwise.

Put all this together and you really draw a disturbing picture. The Missal itself covers half or less, even as little as one third, of the message that people gain from the hour plus time in the week that they spend within the Catholic milieu. They come to Mass and a large part of what they get is something else. When you consider the decades of work that went into this new translation, and the incredible hours of effort and expertise spent on it, it is rather shocking to consider that the net results might not be able to penetrate through the fog of non-liturgical texts that have crept into the Mass over the years.

On the hopeful side, the language of the new Missal is so solemn and beautiful that it will perhaps inspire people to do less by way of improvisation. In addition, there are new resources becoming available that make singing the propers ever more possible. Perhaps the new Missal will inspire everyone to take the entire liturgy more seriously. I think that this is likely and even probable but these are long-term changes that will not be experienced at the outset of the Missal’s first use on the first Sunday of Advent.

But know this. If when the new Missal comes to your parish, and you leave Mass with a sense that not much has changed at all, there is no reason to blame the Missal itself. It represents the best-possible effort to take on the core of the problem in Catholic liturgy today. Sadly, however, it is not the end but just the beginning of a much longer process of reform.