Monday, February 08, 2010

Critics of the Vernacular Shouldn't Read This

Not a day goes by when I don't hear about the objection to the introduction of Latin in the OF Mass. Even after all the progress that has been made. Or the progress we think we've made. And this is not just from the faithful. It is mostly from pastors and music directors who themselves have objections to Latin!

I was speaking with someone yesterday who served at the altar in the early 1960s, before everything changed. He remembers that he and the other altar boys were the only ones reciting responses. He would turn around and see the congregation not paying attention at all, were disengaged, obviously didn't understand the Latin and had no idea of what was going on, or were otherwise occupied with private devotions. In his eyes the change to the vernacular (lets leave out all of the other things that changed) was a good thing, in that it opened up the Mass to the people. They began to participate.

Are his comments borne of a young boy's insecurity? Are they borne of a sense of discomfort with doing something he was supposed to do, yet saw that others, not even grown ups, were doing it? Or are they observations of someone looking back after all these years and assessing the situations then and now, and making an informed judgment? We'll never know.

But it got me thinking. With the new translations looming (and looming and looming), maybe this is a good opportunity to stop talking about Latin so much – for the time being. Yes, tradition is important, and Latin is the language of the Roman rite. So we can't ignore it. I'm not proposing that.

But isn't it also true that lack of solemnity and decorum is one of biggest problem that we face? Maybe even a bigger problem than the choice of language itself? One can celebrate an OF Mass in English in a dignified way, after all.

Does suddenly forcing people to sing a Sanctus or Agnus in Latin change things all that much if they don't understand what is at stake — that Mass plays an essential role in the sacramental life of the Church, and is not intended as a vehicle for their own pleasure or an opportunity to wear their new flip flops? This is an abrupt change for them – and in their eyes — as inexplicable as the sudden changes that ravaged parish after parish after Vatican II. Wouldn't it make more sense for them to first understand that the Mass is as "apostolic" as anything else, and that the way we celebrate is borne of tradition and a mark of who we are in the Christian world?

Of course the new translations will have to be taught. In all honesty, I think the learning will happen on its own and without long pedagogy sessions before Mass. A few weeks or months of repetition, and they'll be learned — ingrained. It won't be a problem.

Right now so many of us our busy printing the English in our programs so people can read along as we sing or say something in Latin. Providing a translation has been argued as a way to make the Latin accessible. I think it helps. And when the new translations come out, many will want to print the new English responses, Creed, Gloria, etc., in their programs. Publishers of hymnals and other "newsprint" worship aids will be doing the same.

How about we turn things on their heels? Up the ante just a bit? How about instead of just the new translations, we print the Latin, too, right next to the new responses. The way we do with the English now – for transparency purposes. People may gain some sense that the changes are not just a result of the desire to update things for our times. It might show them that language is serious business, and that the language we use at Mass carries with it an obligation to tradition.

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