It has now been about four months since the implementation the English translation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition. How are we doing?
I’ve had the opportunity in these months to visit many different churches and to talk with liturgists, priests, and the like about their strategies for making this inevitably clumsy transition into one that will truly deepen the spiritual life of the English-speaking Church. My impression after this unofficial survey is that the results are mixed, which is to be expected. By far, the biggest factor in how successful the changes are implemented is the attitude of the ministers who are introducing them. However, especially when it comes to learning new texts and music, there seem to be several pitfalls I’ve experienced in a number of parishes that are probably more likely caused by oversight than by negative attitude. Here are some of my observations on ways that this opportunity in the Church is not being realized and how we might do better. I mean this not as a rant but as a way of raising questions and challenges to make our liturgies more intentionally prayerful.
Why are we doing this?
In the months preceding the implementation of the new translation, I saw varying degrees of effort in preparing assemblies for the upcoming changes. Some practiced the new words together, others provided brief explanations within Mass, others offered study groups, and others simply “winged it.” I was disappointed to see in many cases that preparation was merely a pragmatic consideration, aimed at avoiding too much of a train wreck. Rarely have I seen intentional catechesis on this “work of preparing hearts and minds to enter more deeply into the mystery of faith.”1 These prayers, which some call complex and lofty while others call them dignified and beautiful, are in either case begging to become part of the preaching at Mass. If the Eucharist is truly the “source and summit of the Christian life,”2 how can we draw more broadly on the many resources that can be found within the Mass itself?
What did you say?
Being in a religious community and celebrating Mass each day, I have quite the advantage over the Sunday-going Catholic. After years of having one text that is so familiar (remember that many have never known anything outside of the previous translation), it will take a while until memories are retrained, especially when practice comes only once a week. While those handy cards and guides are crumpled up somewhere in the pew, I find myself the only audible voice in my pew amid a mix of vague mumbling, bold memory slips, giggling, or outright silence. This is a hard learned lesson: when anything becomes confusing or taxing for the assembly, they just stop trying. How can we help people learn and to verbally participate according to their role without resorting to a demeaning or overly pragmatic attitude?
Sing to the Lord a New Song?
As a liturgical musician, I love to see well-prepared and creative musicians who add real beauty and solemnity to the liturgy. Yet the more time I spend in the pew, the more I realize that there is often a disconnect between musician and assembly. Especially when it comes to parts of the Mass which are rightfully the assembly’s (responses to dialogues, acclamations, etc.), the musician must have the prayer of the people always at the top of the list. There are many practical questions that flow from this: Have we added harmonies too soon or is the melody overpowered, so that the assembly (most of whom have not been musically trained and often do not sing outside of church) cannot find their way? Is the music singable and within the assembly’s comfort level, suited to the ritual in a community’s context, and musically substantive?3 Is there a readily available copy of the words and music? Again, it is disrespectful to demand participation from the assembly and then make it nearly impossible for them to sing, let alone enter into prayer through the ritual action.
I have certainly seen many good things come about in liturgy as the Church scrutinizes and interprets “the signs of the times”4 of the 21st century. I also encourage us to think critically and creatively and to act with patient urgency and respect as we seek to worship and pray as the people of God. The old Latin maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,5 still holds true.
2. Lumen Gentium, 11.
3. cf. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (USCCB, 2007), 126.
4. Gaudium et Spes, 4.
5. “the law of prayer is the law of belief is the law of life” – i.e., The way we worship reflects the what we believe and affects how we live.