Saturday, July 17, 2021

TLM Celebrants: Keep Doing the Readings in Latin — Add Vernacular as Appropriate

The deacon chants the Gospel of the Mass
The new Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes is illicit on numerous grounds and should be ignored or resisted rather than accepted and implemented. However, it would take a much longer article to make the case for this position in a way that would be convincing to most or all of my readers. Besides, whatever we may think of the motu proprio, it is upon us, and we cannot stop it from being treated as law, at least by some, until a future pope rescinds this act of violence so contrary to the common good of the Church.

As bishops scramble to come up with temporary policies (since, contrary to all custom, courtesy, and prudence there was no “vacatio legis” that gave them time to prepare for its implementation) and then settle on permanent policies, we must be aware of some of the problems that will arise — problems caused in part by what appears to be an almost total ignorance of how the traditional Latin Mass actually functions in practice.

A case in point is Article 3 §3, which states “In these celebrations the readings are proclaimed in the vernacular language, using translations of the Sacred Scripture approved for liturgical use by the respective Episcopal Conferences.” This statement should be interpreted as generously as possible.

1. Note that the formulation does not prohibit (nor could it) the reading or chanting of the readings in Latin, as included in the official liturgical books of the Missale Romanum of 1962 (and preceding years), following immemorial tradition. The Epistle and the Gospel may still be read or chanted in Latin, and ought to be — not least because of the pastoral expectations of the people, who have come for the Church’s official liturgy, not for substituted vernacular readings.

Here is the moment to “proclaim the readings” in the vernacular

2. What this statement would require, strictly speaking, is that in celebrations according to the old missal, readings shall be proclaimed in the vernacular language at some point. In keeping with longstanding custom, this can surely be from the pulpit before the homily, when there is a homily. But it is always understood, as in the liturgical legislation for the Novus Ordo, that an extra step like this may, “for appropriate pastoral reasons,” be omitted. The motu proprio says, in the English text published by the Vatican itself, “the readings are proclaimed” and not “must be proclaimed”: the former grammar describes a generic state of affairs compatible with something not being done every time.

3. The classical Roman Rite has its own official liturgical books for the chanting of the Epistle by the subdeacon and the Gospel by the deacon at the solemn Mass. Since it is a non-negotiable principle that liturgical texts should be read in their integrity and liturgical books utilized as per the ceremonial, in a solemn Mass it is clear that the Epistle and Gospel must be chanted in Latin. Similarly, the altar missal used by the priest at Low Mass or at a Missa cantata has the proper readings printed in it as integral parts of the texts of the day’s Mass, and therefore they too should be read or sung at the appropriate time from the missal (or from a book that exactly reproduces the readings of the missal), NOT read or sung in translation. A translation may be read later from the pulpit.

4. Translations into modern vernacular languages currently approved for the Novus Ordo Missae do not match the readings printed in the Missale Romanum of 1962 or earlier years. The vocabulary of the old Vulgate and the new translations based on (sometimes questionable) modern biblical scholarship are sufficiently different that one would be hard-pressed to maintain their exact equivalency. As a frequent reader of NLM pointed out, the New American Bible significantly departs from the Vulgate in the psalms and in bits like the Johannine Comma read on Low Sunday, which is altogether absent from the NAB. Someone who read only the NAB (quod absit) would therefore be violating the spirit and the letter of the liturgical celebration, contrary to liturgical laws of universal application. Furthermore, the NAB as used at Mass is not the same as what is sold by publishers, nor is it what will be used in the new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours and the new edition of psalms for the lectionary, which have been revised. In other words, at least in the USA, matching a currently approved vernacular edition to the lections of the old Missale Romanum would be to some extent impossible, and in any case a complicated business and pastorally inopportune.

Readings in the old rite are done from specialized liturgical books
(and, at a low Mass, that book is the altar missal!)

5. Prior to the liturgical reform, the Church had already approved translations for liturgical use that actually correspond to the content of the old missal, such as the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine New Testament, which is a straight modification of the Douai-Rheims. To read from this would technically be to read from a version that has won the approval of the US bishops at the time that corresponds to the missal in use. There may be other versions printed in hand missals that would be suitable for their quasi-liturgical function prior to the sermon.

6. There are many ironies in Traditionis Custodes. One of them is that Article 3 §3 seems to wish to require for the old Mass something that is not even required in the new Mass. It is a perfectly licit option, although exceedingly rare, for the readings at the Novus Ordo to be done entirely in Latin (said or sung), with no translation being given. Indeed, according to its governing rubrics, one could licitly celebrate an entire Mass in English but do the readings in Latin. Needless to say, no one does this, but it is compatible with the rubrics and the pertinent canon law. It seems strange to require at the old Mass something that is not even obligatory for the new.

I write this article because, in the flurry of reactions to the motu proprio online, I see a disturbing lack of imagination and flexibility among some, who do not seem to understand the nuanced reading one must bring to every piece of legislation. In particular, they seem to think that it is not a great loss to substitute vernacular readings for Latin ones. This, however, would be both a mistaken reaction to the motu proprio and a mistake in liturgical praxis itself. It is crucial, whatever we do, not to lose the tradition of reciting or chanting the readings in Latin in the Mass of the traditional Roman Rite. This is a non-negotiable part of its heritage; it is an element in the integrity of the Missale Romanum and has a theological meaning that we would do well to rediscover at this inauspicious moment.

The liturgy of the Mass is a seamless Latin garment,
from Psalm 42 all the way to the Last Gospel

My colleague Matthew Hazell has just published a very important article on this same topic at Rorate Caeli: "Demanding the Impossible: Traditionis custodes and Vernacular Readings." I highly recommend it.

For further reading on the subject:

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