Challenges and opportunities

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Saturday, 09 April 2011 00:00
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Recently our diocese was blessed with two outstanding study days in preparation for the new translation of the Roman Missal.

On February 9 and 10 the Liturgical Institute from Chicago offered a presentation for the benefit of our priests, permanent deacons and pastoral leaders. Another program was offered at the cathedral March 26 for more than 300 laity, religious and clergy, at which the featured speaker was Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth from ICEL (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy).

Bishop Leonard P. BlairThe results of these study days were very positive. Many individuals and groups are now working at the diocesan and parish levels to ensure not only a smooth transition to the new translation this coming November, but also a renewed appreciation of the Mass itself. In the words of Msgr. Wadsworth, challenges, when viewed positively, can be transformed into opportunities.

One of the outcomes I am hoping for is that our liturgical music will be enriched as a result of the new translation. In the renewal of the Mass by the Vatican Council, pride of place was given to singing the actual words of the Mass, and not just singing hymns. The new translation comes with more chants for the Mass texts, to encourage sung responses between clergy and people. Hymns will always remain, but I hope that there will be an increase of chanted texts by clergy and people alike. On a practical level too, the difficulty of overcoming an automatic response (e.g. “And also with you.”) and replacing it with something new (“And with your spirit.”) can be greatly eased by the use of musical settings.

I like to tell priests that if 30 of us were locked up in a room to re-do the Mass, we would come up with at least 15 different liturgies. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of translation, where there is plenty of room for subjective judgments. With liturgical texts, however, certain authoritative principles are at work to guide us in a way that may not apply to other works of translation.

A very fundamental principle is that, for the Latin Church, the Roman Missal is a treasury of theological and spiritual teaching, both scriptural and patristic (i.e. coming from the Bible and the early Fathers of the Church). A translation is not meant to create an “English Mass” which is only inspired or derived from the Latin. Much less is the translation meant to ignore or soft-pedal biblical imagery or theological terminology. The Church has always uplifted the spiritual and cultural level of people by presenting them with the fullness of the faith in all its various expressions.

Some point out that the new translation uses words not always found in common parlance; that it does not reflect the way people speak today. I have to ask: how many people in ordinary speech would say “fruit of the womb?” Yet we don’t hear loud cries to abandon the Hail Mary. To Catholic ears it sounds perfectly natural and “right,” because we have been formed by this prayer. In similar fashion, the treasury of the Missale Romanum is meant to form us through English translations that truly reflect what the Latin text says.

Examples of distinctive language can also be found in our popular culture. Consider our national anthem. Some may complain that the notes of the Star Spangled Banner are too high to sing, but I’ve never heard anyone object to the verses. It’s what people expect of something solemn and sacred to our nation. Far be it for the liturgy, of all things, to sell people short.

As with anything new, you will sometimes hear some negativity or hesitancy toward the new missal translation. Some people harbor a dogged belief that their views are correct and that the work of others is misguided or wrong (remember what I said about the 30 priests locked in a room). All of us are tempted to be very protective of our work and our views, but in a collaborative effort not everyone can have their own way. We have our say, but so do other contributors who have just as much right, and perhaps even more, to shape the final product. In an ecclesial spirit of prayer and humility we work together to make things the best that they can be to serve the Church’s unity and growth, even as we are aware that in this world nothing is flawless.

Still other critics harbor the suspicion that anything that arises from the hierarchy these days must be a secret plot to undo the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The reality is far different. Pope Benedict speaks of the “continuity” which is so evident in the council documents, not “discontinuity.” Those who are determined  to fight old battles will not cease doing so, and a negative minority can always make life difficult. However, I believe that the greatest challenge to the new translation was described succinctly by an English Oratorian of the 19th century, Father Frederick Faber, when he wrote: “All change is for the worst even when it is for the best.”

We Americans pride ourselves on the dynamism of our country, its culture, its economy (even in troubled times). We always want the latest innovative product, the newest home or car. Yet when it comes to changes in the way we personally do things, we are prone to Fr. Faber’s dictum. No one likes to rouse themselves from habitual and comfortable ways, even if in theory he or she knows that a change promises to be an improvement.

The new translation is a golden opportunity to deepen our understanding and renew our celebration of the Mass, which is “the source and summit” of the Christian life. If we are positive and persevering, the new translation will be successfully received and implemented notwithstanding any difficulties and frustration that arise from something new. I am confident that this will be the case, and that our liturgical life will be greatly enriched as a result.

Best wishes for a Holy Lent and Happy Easter.