Time to say ‘yes’
New English MissalMichael G. Ryan
- 3 September 2011
After nearly 30 years of preparation and controversy, a key element of the new Roman Missal, the Order of Mass, will be introduced in most dioceses in Britain this weekend. Here, a priest who previously urged delays in its adoption calls on people to embrace the new translation
Nearly two years ago, America, the Jesuit weekly, published an article entitled “What if we said ‘Wait?’” in which I proposed that the new Roman Missal be “road-tested” before being implemented in parishes across the English-speaking world. More than 22,000 people liked the idea (they recorded their support at www.whatifwejustsaidwait.org) but the die was cast: the Missal train, it seemed, had already left the station.
Now, as the Advent date for the train’s arrival draws near – and in Britain it is coming even closer with the Order of Mass about to be used in parishes for the first time – I find myself posing quite a different question: What if we just said “Yes”? Let me explain why.
While the Catholic press has published all kinds of articles on the translation and the blogs are boiling over with postings on the new Missal, the most silent voices seem to have been those of parish priests. This is curious because we priests are the ones with the biggest responsibility and the most work to do (I won’t say with the most at stake because that is clearly the people we serve).
We are expected to introduce the Missal to our largely unsuspecting parishioners, and to convince them that the new translation will strengthen their prayer life, more properly position them in their relationship to God, deepen their understanding of liturgy, elevate its tone, correct decades of “inadequate language and deficient theology”, and put them in closer touch with the Church’s hallowed Latin tradition. By any measure, that is a tall order, especially in the light of the controversies that continue – despite a carefully planned campaign of “catechesis” – to swirl around the new Missal.
The controversies are not surprising, considering both the process by which the Missal came about and the resulting product. Whether you support the new Missal or not, it is undeniable that behind the scenes were power plays, a translation process driven more by ideology than by accepted principles of translation, and loyal but acquiescent episcopal conferences. This is not just a matter of opinion. These are facts that have been clearly and persuasively set forth in a number of responsible, mainline Catholic publications and even by some highly respected bishops who were closely involved (See Robert Mickens’ articles in The Tablet of 18 June, 25 June and 2 July).
But controversies aside, this coming Advent the new Missal will make its appearance in our parishes and all of us priests and people will be expected to get in line. But will we? The more I talk with brother priests, the more I wonder. To be sure, it is a rare priest who declares he will not implement the new Missal. When it comes to the people’s parts, there is really very little choice unless he wants to risk suspension. But when it comes to the celebrant’s parts, the reaction I am hearing more and more is: “I’ll use the new Missal but I will feel free to modify texts whenever I consider them to contain questionable theology, awkward grammar, inaccessible vocabulary, or offensively gender-exclusive language.”
Since most of my priest friends and colleagues are aware of my America article, they ask me what I intend to do. I surprise them by saying that I intend to implement the new Missal and not change a word, no matter how questionable or offensive I may personally find it. Why? Not because I am a legalist or a purist. No, I will make no changes because I am convinced that, after all the years of wrangling and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring (including the shelving of the elegant and accessible 1998 Icel translation), the only way the new Missal will have its full impact is if the People of God can judge it for themselves without edits of any kind.
This is another way of saying that the new Missal should be allowed to stand on its own and be judged for what it is, not for what we priests decide to make of it. I am of the opinion that the Missal will in time – I’m guessing not a long time – be judged deficient, but an informed judgement will never be made if we priests, even for the best of motives, give our people not the new Missal but our version of it. So we should do whatever is necessary to prepare our people for the new Missal but not take on the responsibility for making it work by doctoring or diluting it.
I will understand if our senior priest brothers, who offer their services to parishes that would otherwise not have a priest, want to avoid all this by staying with the present Sacramentary for the celebrant’s parts. (They could make a good case with their bishops that there is already a precedent for doing so in the provision made for the use of the Tridentine Rite or in the liturgical accommodations being made for the new Anglican ordinariate.) The same might be true for some of our international priest brothers who have worked to master the current texts and who may find that the new ones are tantamount to learning a brand new language.
But for the rest of us who are doing our best to face ever-increasing pastoral challenges amid the relentless, though rewarding, demands of parish life, and who still embrace the Second Vatican Council’s vision of a collegially governed Church – and of a liturgy in which the people are able to participate fully – we will best serve our people if we give them the new Missal just as it is. I doubt they will be slow to let us know what they think.