Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One Month Out: Reactions to the Revised English Translation of the Roman Missal

We are now just about one month into the new English translation of the Roman Missal and it seems fitting to take a moment to review some of the reaction so far.

One common refrain I have heard is that of excitement about progress being made on the front of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Many of these same people, both priests and laity, expressed great satisfaction with the translation. Still others felt that while there was room for some further improvement in the translation, or that further liturgical reforms were required, they nonetheless felt it was an important step forward and were generally appreciative. Others felt quite angry about the new translation, preferring the now defunct translation, and felt quite comfortable venting their anger within the NLM inbox to that effect. Still others felt unsatisfied, taking the line that this new translation was simply "not enough" and that deeper reforms are needed. Finally, others commented that while they had been very excited about the new translation, they felt somewhat let down since when they came to their parish church that Sunday morning in November, there was still the "same old music," etc.; in short, they were hoping that the new translation would have influenced other liturgical aspects as well.

Obviously, such a mixture of reactions was only to be expected. That some have reacted negatively, even angrily, is certainly no surprise. Change generally, let alone in relation to the sacred liturgy, is not easy as it affects patterns, routines and habits. Now at times this reaction can be for legitimate reasons (i.e. as a legitimate reaction to poorly conceived or unnecessary change); at other times it is not legitimate, being instead ideologically motivated resistance, or resistance based simply upon the principle of avoiding any change, whether that change be demonstrably or reasonably beneficial or not. Regardless, there is a teaching moment in this which we should not fail to grasp. Namely, this human reality is surely demonstrative of one of the reasons why (legitimate, long-standing) liturgical customs should be treated with real weight and gravity and not changed arbitrarily; it is further a poignant reminder of just one of the reasons why parishes should not treat the sacred liturgy as an object of their own whims and creation, modifying it at will as though they were masters over it. Indeed, it is also a pertinent reminder of one of the general norms and principles laid out in Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 23, with regard to the sacred liturgy: "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them..."

Of course, in this particular instance I believe the case is very easily made as to why this re-translation was both for the good and was indeed necessary. Aside from re-connecting the English language OF liturgy with traditional liturgical wordings and phrases, which thereby brings a sort of continuity to bear, and aside from aligning it better with the Latin typical edition and other vernacular editions of this Missal, more significantly it has also brought greater theological richness and precision to the English texts -- and that indeed is of manifest benefit, particularly in the light of the principle, lex orandi, lex credendi.

As for the objection that this translation is "not enough" or with the feeling of "let down" that other liturgical expressions have yet remained the same in many parishes, I think this is an instance of managing expectations and being reasonable in them. It would be unreasonable to expect this revised translation to be a "cure all" for all or even many of the problematic aspects of modern day parish liturgical life and culture. Further, to those who say "not enough", this may well be true (and I would personally agree that more work, a great deal of work, remains to be done), but once again, this revised translation is also not the sum total goal of the "reform of the liturgical reform"; it is rather just one piece of a much bigger puzzle which certainly involves deeper and more far-reaching questions.

But all of this said, lest one be left with the impression that I have mainly heard complaints (coming from one spectrum or another) about this new English translation, the reality is in fact just the opposite. The majority of the correspondence I have myself been privy to has been generally positive, appreciative and hopeful, focused both on the goods of the new translation in and of itself and focused on this new translation as an aspect and manifestation of the reform of the reform within the English speaking world.

By way of closure, I wanted to share an article which our friends at the Cardinal Newman Society made us aware of a late last week. In the piece, they review some of the response to this new translation at some Catholic colleges in the United States.

Photo courtesy of Fr. John Boyle

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At Catholic Colleges, Mass Translation ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

The prophecies of the calamitous consequences of the introduction of the new missal were heard around the country. But was it much ado about little?

There were warnings from some Catholic publications that the new translation was “unreadable” and an “inhibitor to authentic prayer.”

One news story suggested that “New missal could drive away Catholics.” Another fretted, “Liturgists Worry About Upcoming Implementation.”

But according to a number of priests and campus ministry professionals at faithful Catholic colleges, it seems that all the worry about the new missal translation is a bit like Y2K – prophecies of doom and gloom followed quickly by rather smooth sailing.

“There was no fainting, no shrieking, no embolisms,” assured Director of Campus Ministry at Belmont Abbey College Patricia Stevenson. “We haven’t had anybody sort of whining or complaining or objecting.”

She told the Cardinal Newman Society that the introduction of the new translation is going smoothly.

Fr John Healey, Chaplain of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, told CNS, “It certainly hasn’t come to pass that people who were predicting difficulties were in any sense correct.”

Magdalene Riggins, Assistant Director of Campus Ministry at DeSales University said she thinks the new translation will allow students to engage more deeply with the Mass. “I think this will help students and everyone more deeply understand what the liturgy is all about,” she said.

In fact, some said students seem to like the new translation.

So too does the Rev. Joseph Fox, O.P. of Christendom College, calling it “a far superior translation.”

Fr. Fox said much of the screaming about how this would negatively affect the faithful turned out to be “much ado about nothing.”

He said that while the priests have much to remember, the changes are not very significant for the faithful. In fact, he laughed at all the fuss. “Some places have made such a big deal about educating the people about the changes,” he said. “I don’t mean to make light but all of this for ‘and with your spirit’?”

Fr. Fox said the concerns and protests over the new translation weren’t coming from young people. “This was made a cause célèbre because now finally we have a translation and not a complete reformulation of the liturgy,” he said.

Fr. Healey agreed, saying the fuss was primarily from “the chronic complainers.”

Stevenson said she suspected it was one last battle of the Vatican II generation. “I think this was about some fighting the old Vatican II fight and climbing one more hill to plant a flag on,” she said. “But students don’t relate to those old discussions. For most students this is completely uncontroversial. They don’t have any dogs in the fight.”

She said she believes students today have shown greater receptivity to move with the Church as a whole and not see actions by the Church as “a tyrannical takeover” of their free will.

Stevenson says Belmont Abbey College laid the groundwork by reviewing the changes with students before Mass and having a diocesan priest visit to explain the changes more fully.

Of course, in the pews are the cards to help students follow along with the changes to the language. Stevenson called them “cheat sheets” and said she suspected they’d become less necessary over the next few months.

Fr. Healey said he believed that the new translation was actually helping students see the Mass in a new way. “One has to stop and read the words carefully and reflectively pay attention to what the church is really trying to offer in terms of instruction,” he said. “And it’s a far superior translation so it’ll certainly be easier to understand.”

Fr. Joseph Fox of Christendom College said that if people want to avoid it altogether they can do as many of the students there do – attend the Latin Mass.

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