Monday, August 11, 2008

The Mass, Translated at Last

I've been spending some time with the new texts of the Mass from ICEL, and one can't but breathe a sigh of relief. We've gotten so used to a text that departs from the Latin to a shocking extent. It requires something of adjustment to adjust to the new versions, realizing that we can finally attend Mass and participate in an actual English version of the universal Missal written in the holy tongue.

We will actually be using the words of the actual creed. We will say a real translation of the Gloria, one that actually follows the text line for line, word for word. Our responses in the dialogues will actual parallel the Latin.

What we've had up to now has can't really be called a translation at all but a new text entirely, one cobbled together by folks who somehow believed that they were smarter than the whole of history that had put together the Latin text. It sort of gives one chills.

Somehow it is more alarming in retrospect, now the poor rendering is being replaced, that we lived with this stylized paraphrase for nearly forty years. I know we should let bygones be bygones, but those who had a hand in giving us such weak excuses for translations in the past really are without excuse. The arrogance of that generation or that committee or whomever is responsible boggles the mind.

There is a way in which the new translation represents a much-welcome and thorough repudiation of the immediate past. That the bad rendering lasted so long underscores how difficult it truly is to change things in the Catholic Church. This is usually a good thing, except when matters get on the wrong track. At the same time, tremendous credit goes out to those involved in pushing for and getting the changes made. The frustrations and battles they faced must have been immense but what a glorious victory in the end!

Four distinct opportunities present themselves:

1. With a new text comes a pedagogical obligation, which also means a tremendous opportunity. An entire generation has lived amidst a separation of their liturgical language from the universal language. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that many Catholics, even most Catholics, are today unaware that their Mass text is not an autonomous thing but actually has a direct link to a parent language that is normative.

The new text will be described as a better rendering of the Latin. This alone serves to heighten consciousness that the English itself, that the national language of the Mass, is accountable to something else that is ancient and universal. This fact alone will help reorient people in terms of how they should judge what takes place at Mass: not in terms of their own needs and cultural expectations but rather the requirements of a universal liturgy.

2. In parishes that are accustomed to merely saying the text, pastors will find that a change will create confusion as people stumble over the words of the Creed, for example. Actually the best way to teach a new text is to make it into a song. This is why so much children's' pedagogy uses music to teach: it helps everyone remember. Everyone learns differently, of course, but in my own case, memorizing Latin—and English for that matter—is far easier when I have a song in my head. Even memorizing the Latin Ave Maria, Pater Noster, or mealtime blessing, proved a challenge for me until I knew the music. So if parishes are not currently singing, this is a great chance to get people singing and also teach the new text.

The GIRM presumes that the Credo as something that is sung as the first option but I can't remember ever hearing it sung in any parish I've been to. Maybe the new texts will inspire a change in the practice of merely saying the creed. As the Second Vatican Council said, "liturgical worship is given a more noble form" when the texts are sung.

3. New texts will require new musical settings. Many will regret this. Many will see a profit opportunity in the change. Actually, we have here a chance to not only embrace the true text of the Mass ordinary but also the musical sense that is intrinsically connected with it.

Problem: Many of the Mass ordinary settings that are in use in American parishes have no connection at all to the liturgical aesthetic. They are borrowed from popular commercial sounds and beats. They show off the choir and instrumentalists and seek to engage people by presenting catchy tunes and rhythms. What is lost here is the greater purpose of music at Mass: to engage us more fully in the Mass itself which seeks to take us to God.

Solution: The most ancient and effective musical approach here is plainsong. The texts under consideration are not poetry but prose. Plainsong lets the prose sing in a natural and normal way without the force-fit of musical metrics. This kind of music also elevates the senses and directs our attention upwards. It keeps the peace within the liturgical space and directs our hearts and minds toward prayer. Plainsong is integrated with the chants of the priest so that Mass is not an hour-long song sampler but an aesthetically seamless period of solemn spiritual drama.

There would be no great loss if all this music were to vanish, I'm sorry to say. Yes, there are always exceptions but on the whole, it is just not suitable. In an odd way, the music that went with the poor textual renderings were an integrated package: both departed substantially from the intrinsic qualities of the Roman Rite.

Nor is there any reason for parishes to shell out the big bucks for new music. As a service to American Catholics, the Church Music Association of America will be making available free downloads of suggested ideas for the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. They are based on Gregorian, Ambrosian, and psalm tone settings. In the coming weeks and months, they will appear along with audio samples. They will be copyright free (but for the text; ICEL still insists on copyrighting the Mass text).

4. Some pastors and parishioners may find themselves frustrated at the change and wary about the idea of plunging into another English settings. People have limited patience for liturgical language change, so why not just avoid the issue altogether by embracing the Latin text? Those who have already done so won't have nearly the transition problems of parishes that have not. The beauty of the Latin is that it has not and will not change. What the Church sang in the year 1000 it still sing today. Here is the timeless workaround to continuously shifting vernacular.

Some new text will need to be taught regardless. One might as well go the full way and do what we should have done all along. After all, both the Second Vatican Council and the GIRM both say that everyone Catholic needs to know the basic parts of the Mass in Latin. All the music for them is available for free as well. There is a pastoral benefit too. At first people don't like learning the Latin; there is a sense in which learning all new things is slightly painful. But after a time, the people in the pews develop a sense of accomplishment once they can sing it and stop stumbling over the words. One might say that they take pride in it, and the very act of singing the Latin increases our sense of being part of something larger than our own time and place.

Once the text is taught through a simple song, a new world of music opens to us. The choir can begin to sing polyphonic settings of the ordinary of the Mass, and people will recognize the way the Gregorian melodies are related to the polyphonic tradition. If you have never explored 16th century liturgical music, you will be astonished at how much is available to you. You will see why it is that the Second Vatican Council singled out this music for special mention as appropriate to the Roman Rite. There is nothing in English to compare.

So there we have it: an opportunity to connect with the true text of the universal Mass, to sing the rite, to sing with better music, and so finally embrace Latin as our primary language of worship. We have been given a wonderful gift.

(Coda: It seems that Todd at CS made the same points before I did.)

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