As you may know, Pope Francis has apparently ordered a review of the 2001 Vatican document that currently undergirds any new liturgical translations, viz. Liturgiam authenticam. No one in the Vatican is answering any questions about the alleged committee performing the review, including its alleged director, Archbishop Arthur Roche. For those who hoped that under Pope Francis a new age of transparency would appear will be sorely disappointed by now.
If this committee of review really exists, then Gerard O’Connell at America Magazine, lists two reasons for it which touch on truth. One reason is that it serves to promote the agenda of Pope Francis to effect a more radical decentralisation of the Church by radically empowering that novel, post-conciliar creature the bishops’ conference. Decentralisation has a nice sound to it. Centralising tendencies must always be resisted, yes? Let’s ignore for now its less helpful bedfellow, fragmentation. That’s for another post.
The second reason O’Connell gives is to do with opposition to the revised English missal of 2011. There has been a concerted campaign against the new English translation of the Missal long before it was formally introduced in 2011. Many see in the more precise translations and the preference for a more sacral language a more or less open move to undo Vatican II. This is the line that one will find in the articles and letters’ page of The Tablet. Given that any translation to the vernacular of the Roman Missal for actual use in the liturgy is itself a product of the post-conciliar period (though finding the thinnest justification in the conciliar documents themselves), to say that re-working a translation is undoing Vatican II is the product of hysteria or conspiracy theorizing.
Of course, their real fear is not the translation per se but that the current translation signals a strengthening movement towards resacralization of the liturgy, undoing the secularization of the liturgy that blighted the post-conciliar new Mass of 1969. Their fear is justified. There is such a movement and its adherents have a vastly younger average age than the devotees of the 1975 Missal replaced in 2011, or even the rejected draft of 1998.
This is the elephant in the room for devotees of the reformed liturgy. Most active and committed young Catholics find far more to nourish them in the revised Missal than the 1975 edition. In fact, a considerable number of them—cradlers and converts alike—find even richer nourishment in the pre-conciliar Mass so reviled by the reformers. In other words, a liturgy was newly constructed with a dangerously loose association with the liturgical tradition that had developed organically before it, and with the most tenuous of foundations in Vatican II’s liturgical decree Sacrosanctum concilium, and newly constructed precisely to meet the needs the reformers ascribed to modern people. What cannot be avoided is the stark reality that as soon as the new Mass was introduced Mass attendance began to plummet at a steady and almost inexorable rate.
Any rational and impartial observer would draw the obvious conclusion from these premises: that the liturgical reform has failed on its own terms, failed to achieve its own end. Blaming secular society will not cut the mustard, if only because the Church has endured social revolutions just as great, in fact far worse in many respects, and emerged alive to grow anew, and always without having felt the need to change its liturgy. Indeed, the liturgy was a rock of security and sanity in times of great social and political change. What people seemed to need was not the liturgy to conform to the spirit of the age, but that the liturgy should do the very opposite.
Three responses have emerged to this perceived but too-often unacknowledged fact of liturgical failure in the wake of Vatican II: (1) stick to it for grim death, for it needs time to take root (which is, of course, an argument for not revising the newly-revised English Missal), or change it even more till we get the formula right; (2) make a wholesale reform of the reformed liturgy and restore the baby that had been thrown out with the bathwater; and (3) given up the reform of the liturgy as a lost cause and return to the pre-conciliar liturgy. This third option alarms the most those who hold to the first option. They should be alarmed: the average age holding to response 3 is immensely younger than that of those holding to response 1.
So this grasping at apparent papal straws by the devotees of liturgical reform and more radical reform is ultimately rather pathetic. Even if their arguments are sound on historical, liturgical, spiritual and human levels (and they are not), biology has decided already that they will lose. The restorationists will outlive them.
However, back to the specific issue of revising the revised Missal. There is one obstacle to it, merely practical but significant nonetheless: no parish or monastery wants to spend hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros etc yet again on another set of freshly-revised missals, which will certainly be fought over even more bitterly than the current one.
What really concerns me is that those who seek a more idiomatic and accessible vernacular —read bland, banal and substantially inaccurate—mistake the whole function of the liturgy has contained in any missal. It is to worship God not please the taste and ecclesial predilections of any one group of people in any one age. To be blunt and take things to their extreme: there is no need for the people to understand immediately and completely (an impossibility anyway if there is any real content at all to them) the prayers of the Mass as they are not addressed to the people at all, but to God. In which case their content is all important, especially so that Latin-rite Catholics in whatever the language in which they worship are all united in praying for the same thing, and not locked in a local ghetto obsessed by local issues or the latest fads of the parish oligarchy.
This simple, fundamental fact of liturgy is lost on the zealous post-conciliar liturgical-reform devotees, which is why the liturgies they celebrate (and see the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference for hideous examples – Youtube it!) are always people-centred not God-centred. This anthropocentrism has no basis in the 1900 years of Church history prior to the post-conciliar reforms of the late 1960s. It is little better than self-worship, a bastard child of the Age of Aquarius and the Brotherhood of Man (and I do not mean the band, though they are not free of guilt; and sorry to the younger readers who have no idea what this band is – Google it!).
The campaign to roll back the revised missal and return to the banalities of the 1975 missal is something that should worry us all. The elderly zealots of the Aquarian approach to liturgy will not give up without a fight, and their’s will be a scorched-church policy leaving the young generation with a Church in the West denuded of worshippers and places of worship, with a fatally-flawed liturgy that has been tried and found wanting for decades that will require as much rebuilding as the more physical structures of the Church.
In other words, it is probably best not to tamper again with what has already just been tampered with and had been tampered with even more about 40 years before. It may be clunky in places but at least it has authentic content and continuity with the rest of the Catholic world. Let’s not go back to the anglo ghetto asking God to be nice.