In England and Wales September sees the introduction at last of the revised English translation of the Roman Missal, or at least a large part of it (it will not be used in its entirety until November). For the vast majority of parishioners their first encounter with it was at Sunday Mass yesterday, though daily Mass-goers may well have experienced it from 1 September. Here I offered conventual Mass on Saturday, the feast of St Gregory the Great, using not only the new ordinary of the Mass but the proper (the specific prayers) for St Gregory. Naturally we used the revised Missal at the abbey Mass yesterday.
What was most striking is that for the congregation there is not actually that much new to cope with directly; that is, there is not really that much new for them to say. The majority of the burden of change falls on the priest and his words. New Eucharistic prayers are one thing, but there are new versions of the sotto voce prayers the priest makes (for example, before the Lavabo, before Communion, when purifying the sacred vessels). Moreover the music of the Missal has changed a little, and it is the little changes that are more likely to throw him than the big ones – and I imagine this will hold for the people as well.
Certainly priests are going to have to prepare the Missal carefully before offering Mass now. The priest who turns up without even glancing through the Missal before mass will trip and tumble over the words, or perhaps will get them out but totally fail to convey their meaning intelligibly. Obviously, since the priest is actually addressing God, we can be sure God has understood! However, since one of the virtues of the vernacular is that the people can perhaps more consciously and intensely unite themselves with the prayer offered by the priest, then it is reasonable to expect them to hear it declaimed intelligibly. That said, even after preparation, both priest and people will find themselves stumbling occasionally, or falling back into the ingrained habitual words of the previous Missal, in which case goodwill and effort should be acknowledged, and we should cut each other a little slack.
It was also quite noticeable that a more elevated atmosphere prevailed, though Mass here is hardly informal. Not only the more solemn register of the words of the new Missal, but the very depth and richness of the content of its prayers, fostered a greater spirit of recollection and gave greater substance to our prayers. Perhaps in the future, when the new Missal has become familiar, we might lose some of this augmented recollection. That said, the prayers themselves offer far more meat for meditation than the ones replaced (though for many the proper of the Mass – the opening prayer, prayer over the offerings, prayer after Communion – will not be heard until November). Throughout the Missal the echoes of scripture are louder and clearer as a result.
Some have argued that the formal register of the new Missal’s English, and its relatively complex syntax, are often beyond the comprehension of the average Catholic. As others have noted, this is rather a condescending attitude and underestimates the average Catholic entirely. Moreover, while many might not use the more complex sentence structure that was once more prevalent in both speech and the written word, it does not mean that the average person cannot understand it. The vocabulary we understand (our passive vocabulary) is always greater than our active vocabulary, the words we actually use in speech or writing. One study holds that the average person has a passive vocabulary one-third greater than his or her active vocabulary. It seems nonsensical to suggest that mysteries of the faith can be adequately expressed in the active working vocabulary of the average person. Or to take another approach, why should the liturgy embody the deterioration in general language effected and fostered by bite-sized media grabs and the truncations of SMS texting?
New words, or even complex words, should not scare us. Observe the child. A child learns language precisely by hearing new words and beginning, by trial and error, to use them. Children indeed have a seemingly limitless capacity to absorb new words and understand them. This is partly assisted by their natural curiosity – they want to know. Alas many adults when faced with an unfamiliar word merely complain and ignore it rather than make any attempt to discover its meaning. In the final analysis, a work of good literature will always have a vocabulary that outstrips the average person’s active vocabulary. That is one reason why we have dictionaries (and now Google!).
In this vein, it was heartening to read the first Pastoral Letter of the new Bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert OSB (formerly Abbot of Pluscarden). He understands the principles involved and is providing the positive leadership that too many English bishops seem reluctant to show:
When we gather to worship we come together in a building – not usually in any building, though, but in a church, a building dedicated for worship. The ministers who lead our prayer don’t wear just ordinary clothes, but vestments. We stand, sit or kneel, but each of these postures now has a special meaning. We come together to listen to readings – not any readings though, but words inspired by the Holy Spirit, words that are now the word of God. We gather round a table – but not any table, rather a holy table, an altar. We eat and drink – but not any food or drink, rather bread and wine which have become that holiest of things, the Body and Blood of the Lord, his very Self. In the Liturgy, ordinary things are taken up by Christ and the Church and become vehicles of something greater than themselves. And so it is too with the words, the language, we use in prayer. Christianity has always, to some extent, created its own language. It took the words of ancient Israel or the Greco-Roman world and filled them with a new meaning. And so, in the Liturgy, we use words that carry the resonances of a long tradition, words that express our faith, and are rich with many centuries of experience of the God who has spoken to us in Christ. The new translation of the Missal is very aware of this and tries to be loyal to it. And, once again, when these words are sung, they can lift our hearts even more.
The materials of the liturgy are never the ordinary or the banal. We use the best we can get, worthy of the greatest treasure we can be said to possess, Christ in the Eucharist. We use silver and gold, not pottery and glass. We use vestments not ordinary street dress. And so we use a liturgical English and not the English of the pub or the playground.
Bishop Hugh’s reminder of the power of singing the words of the liturgy reminds of my one regret arising from the experience of the last couple of days, though it thankfully only a temporary one. The interim Missal includes the new Prefaces, but does not include their setting to music. This is doubly regrettable since the music for them has changed slightly but significantly – the old Preface tone does not work with the new texts. If the priest is prepared to go to the trouble, he can find the texts set to music at ICEL’s website, where they are freely downloadable. Of course, from November, this lack will be remedied with the arrival of the full Missal.