Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thoughts on the Canadian Edition of the Revised Roman Missal

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have recently launched a website for the new English edition of the Roman Missal in Canada:

Evidently this is encouraging in and of itself, particularly as we look forward to the use of the richer translation. That said, as with everything at the service of the sacred liturgy, it must speak to the overall dignity and importance of the same. Indeed as Benedict XVI has commented, "Beauty is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation."

Many times we here at NLM have spoken of this, including with regard to the production of our liturgical books. It is for this reason that I was markedly disappointed with the design choices made for this Canadian edition when it was first showed to me a few months back:

I cannot comment on the actual quality of materials or the binding itself, not being in possession of a copy of this new edition of the Missal, so on that point I can only remain silent. As regards the design however, at least for me this new edition seems a step backward by comparison to the present Canadian Sacramentary which had a richer and more substantive iconographic presence by comparison:

What has been opted for is a style that has not really proven itself lasting -- already being jettisoned, certainly popularly, but even ecclesiastically. Let us compare the designs of the bindings of two other editions of the revised Roman missal.

(Left: LTP edition. Centre: CCCB Edition. Right: CTS Edition)

As well, the internal art of this new edition of the Missal, which is "based on the work of Jacques Joseph Tissot", a 19th century artist, struck me as rather lack-lustre from what we are shown of it. Indeed, it seems to lack iconographic depth and richness in my estimation and strikes me as the sort of illustration that might better accompany an illustrated book than a Missal which is to adorn our altars. Indeed, I find the much debated art of the new Italian lectionary of greater substance, interest and inspiration -- and this despite my own hesitations about that particular type of art within a liturgical context.

An image showing more interior artwork from the new Canadian missal

Strange too seems the idea, presented in the explanation for the rationale behind these choices, that there is going to be a future determination as to whether there "is a need for a deluxe version, one with a limited use of four-colour plates and leather binding. Such an edition would clearly not normally be for everyday use, but would be reserved for special occasions." Evidently one can understand the idea of that which is more ornamental for more solemn liturgical occasions (a thing we see is vestments, sacred music and so on), but it seems to me what is proposed should rather be the base standard for an altar missal and not rather the higher bar for "special occasions."

We all certainly look forward to the implementation of the new English translation of the Roman Missal that much is certain. But one thing seems clear to me, and this is that the Canadian edition pales by comparison to its American and British counterparts. In that regard we seem to have a case of a lost opportunity.

The British/Australian Edition published by CTS

It would seem that I was not the only one who was so struck:

Missal's artwork lacks Catholic tradition

By Fr. Raymond de Souza
The B.C. Catholic

A few weeks back I wrote in these pages that the new Roman Missal, which will come into effect this Advent, should be beautiful, worthy of being on the altar during Mass. The missal is the book used by the priest, which contains all the Mass prayers. A new English translation of the missal has been prepared, and so new missals are required in every Catholic parish.

The current missal produced by the publications service of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is most unworthy, lacking even the creative design of a low-end recipe book. Canadian priests were hoping that the new missal published this fall would be a true work of art, not a mere functional instruction manual.

We saw that publishers in England, Australia, and the United States had sample pages posted online, drawing upon the long tradition of Catholic art adorning the altar missal. I wrote that if the CCCB version was as unimaginatively plain as their existing work, Canadian parishes should consider buying a British or American missal. All the prayers are exactly the same and the minor adaptations for Canada - local saints and variations in the rubrics for Mass - are easily enough obtained elsewhere.

Dr. Glenn Byer, director of the CCCB publications service, referred to me as an "unofficial spokesman" promoting "American publications." I am a spokesman only for my own views. He of course is "official" insofar as his job is to sell these missals.

Concerning the promotion of American products, I want a beautiful missal, not an American one. If Canada's only missal publisher cannot get the job done, then being of catholic sensibility I would be happy to get one from Britain, Kenya, or the Bahamas. The new missal should be an occasion for the CCCB publications service to show that it is the equal of anyone in the world.

Dr. Byer writes that the CCCB missal is entirely Canadian-made and that "there is a beauty in this too." Really? Wrapping an ugly thing in moosehide and soaking it in maple syrup does not make it less ugly. Being made in Canada does not make something beautiful. It accomplishes other goals, but why set in opposition beauty and local production?

More troubling still, Dr. Byer seems to miss the entire point of publishing beautiful things for Mass. He argues that there "is nothing more beautiful than the contents of the antiphons and prayers ... these are the stars of the book, not an abundance of colour plates."

Yes, obviously the words are more important than how they are printed, but in that case why not just print a daily sheet in the office and save all that flipping of pages in the missal? The book should be beautiful because the words are important; Dr. Byer gets it backwards, arguing that the book should be plain so as not to distract from the words.

That argument was used for generations to justify hideous vessels for Holy Communion, but no serious person argues now that a beautiful ciborium or chalice distracts from the Eucharist itself.

Dr. Byer is altogether too defensive about his project to inspire confidence among the parishes, which will soon be asked to spend considerable sums on it. Indeed, seeking to justify his decision to use black-and-white drawings from a 19th century French artist rather than full colour reproductions of the masters of Catholic painting, he argues that "hundreds of colour plates" would distract from the words.

Perhaps, but no one was arguing for a coffee-table art book, just a suitably decorated missal. The British version has 15 colour plates, and the most elaborate (horrors!) American version has 49. There would be an illustration for the most solemn feast days, and perhaps a few others for the ordinary of the Mass. That should not prove overwhelming, even for the most aesthetically deficient priest.

The CCCB approach is deeply discouraging, saddling Canadian parishes with inferior products for the foreseeable future. Dr. Byer writes that after everyone has bought one of the CCCB missals, perhaps a more "deluxe" version might be produced. But such a version would not be for "everyday use" but only "special occasions."

Therein lies the major difference between this "unofficial" priest and the CCCB's official director of publications. I rather think every Holy Mass is a special occasion, worthy of the best we can manage as Catholics. And I don't think being Canadian is an obstacle to that.

Parishes should not buy American. Or British. Or Canadian. They should buy beautiful.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary Parish on Wolfe Island, and chaplain at Newman House at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

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