Spinning the new Roman Missal

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"And with your spirit" is finally upon us: Next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, 40 years of renewed Sunday Masses in the vernacular go out the door for something described variously as “more courtly, more theologically rich, and more scripturally poetic than the current prayers” (Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire ministries) to “a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church” (Benedictine Anthony Ruff of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville).

Which is it? Catholics love to go the “both/and” route on almost everything, but I’m not sure that’s possible here. The history of this translation is marred by well-documented interventions from Rome, the creation of a special body (Vox Clara) to circumvent the explicit will of the Second Vatican Council on liturgical translations, and, finally, secretive revisions to the final text that were never sent to the English-speaking bishops conferences for approval. There is no dispute that thousands of changes were added in the final moments by a single American priest in a Roman office—who introduced errors to the final text. This story is well-documented, with the best journalistic work done by the U.K. Tablet. Read them for yourself: here, here, and here. Or read John Wilkins account here.

There has also been a shocking abdication of pastoral responsibility, first by the bishops of most English-speaking countries, who, with one single exception in this country (Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania), did nothing as their rightful pastoral authority was usurped by Roman functionaries, many of whom (Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez) were not even native speakers of English--much less competent ones. This is all well-covered ground.

Pastoral and academic liturgists and educators, publishers and musicians, have instead tried to recast the new missal as an opportunity to learn about the liturgy. That would be fine, if these texts indeed could make that possible. Unfortunately many prayers are so convoluted and unproclaimable that one liturgy resource publisher has printed a workbook to help priests read the new prayers. Get that? These one-sentence prayers are cast in such poor English that a presider needs a roadmap to get through a single opening prayer.

Then there is the propaganda that has accompanied “welcoming the new missal”: It’s more “faithful” (by what measure?); the old one was “rushed” (with nary a reference to the actual history of the 1970 translation); the 1970 translation was inaccurate or even contained theological error (despite the fact it was approved by all the English-speaking conferences of bishops and the Holy See under Pope Paul VI); nothing has been done in 40 years (other than an entire retranslation, submitted to Rome in 1998 and rejected for political reasons, inclusive language among them). My favorite is that “And also with you” is the equivalent of “Back at you.” How many people do you know respond “And also with you” to a greeting outside church? Either we are dealing with an enormous case of amnesia or someone is lying. Both/and?

And for what? Will this new translation do anything to bring back the 30 million former Roman Catholics in this country? Will it restore to the bishops their utterly spent credibility? Will it confirm and support the weary hearts of those who remain? Will it serve any pastoral function whatsoever? I certainly don’t think so.

I'm convinced that most American Catholics don't really know the extent of these changes and have no idea what they will actually be like. I doubt seriously—though I wish deeply—that Mass-goers will take one look at these texts and stamp them “return to sender,” or that finally priests as a group will just say no and refuse to carry water for those bishops and others who are completely clueless about on-the-ground pastoral reality.

But Catholics will continue to vote with their feet--as they already have in their tens of millions--tired of having no one bother to ask them what they think, as if they have no stake in this, as if, though baptized, their share of the Spirit is unable to speak. The time when Catholics would do what they are told has long since passed. They rarely announce when they go, but go they do, and go they will.

Many commentators are operating under the impression that God will be better served by a more “elevated” tone in the liturgy, forgetting that God has no need of our liturgy. Liturgy is for our sake and for the world--literally it is the “people’s work”--and this translation is a tool that I fear does not support us in that work. To the extent that it draws us away from the world to worship some distant Olympian God other than the one “in whom we live and move and have our being,” it is a millstone that would be better cut from our necks.