I’ll miss the Missal
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that I have no misgivings about the new translation of the Mass we will all be praying with come this Sunday. Forget the infelicities of language; forget the disconcerting process that produced it. I’m open to the change. I hope it will become the opportunity for revitalization and renewal that I keep hearing about. And I don’t doubt that it will be an improvement on the old translation in at least some respects. But I will still miss the old Missal. I think a lot of people will. And I don’t think downplaying the significance of the change is the way to go about making it.
Back in 2008, the Catholic News Service quoted Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship: “In terms of the people’s part, it’s not gong to require too much adjustment…. Not much of the people’s part is changed, and I think once or twice after they use it, they will hardly notice the change.” I hoped then that this was just an ill-considered off-the-cuff remark, and not a sign of the bishops’ rollout strategy. But as the deadline drew nearer I kept hearing similar dismissive comments, intended, I think, to calm nervous laypeople. A “sample homily” distributed in the Archdiocese of New York (available as a PDF here) says, “The first thing about these changes is that they are not huge, and not hard to learn.” The priest who presided at Mass in my own parish on Sunday followed this lead, saying something like, “Most of the work will be the priest’s.” I’m sure he has been doing a lot more work than I have to prepare. And I do understand the impulse to downplay the magnitude of the change when preparing a congregation to accept it. In some cases I think it’s motivated by discomfort with the process that produced the new translation, along with dissatisfaction with the translation itself, on the part of priests and liturgists who must nevertheless make the transition and bring everybody else along. They’re trying to shoulder the burden cheerfully. Even priests with few misgivings about the process or the product must be aware of the difficulty in explaining the new missal’s value to a congregation that hears about this and wonders what the Church’s priorities really are. Saying “It’s not that big a deal” is a way of saying, “Don’t freak out.” But I think it’s patronizing, and I think it’s a mistake.
There are a few reasons I bristle at the suggestion that the “people’s part” won’t be changing much. First, it isn’t true. The fact is, nearly everything that the congregation says during Mass will be different as of this coming Sunday. We will all be fumbling with something that we used to know by heart, and pretending it’s not a big adjustment only adds insult to injury. Second, putting it that way suggests that all we pew-sitters should concern ourselves with are the words we say, and not those the priest says on our behalf, which are changing dramatically. “You’ll hardly notice the difference!” Do we really want that to be true?
If our leaders want us, the laity, to be fully participating at Mass, fully involved and invested in what we’re saying and hearing, they have to acknowledge that changing all the language is a major adjustment, and even a loss. I’ve been praying with this Missal all my life. I know it backwards and forwards. Suddenly, next Sunday, I won’t recognize the words I hear, and the words I say in response will sound awkward and unfamiliar. How could that be anything but profoundly disorienting? I’ll fumble, and I’ll adjust. And in time—after several decades, if it sticks around that long—this version of the Missal will be just as much a part of my subconscious as the about-to-be-retired one is now. It’s strange for me to think that my infant son will never remember the Mass I know so well. He won’t have to get used to the new version, but we adults will, and being told it’s not a big deal won’t make it easier.
Maybe the new translation will wake me up a little and give me a new appreciation for the liturgy. Maybe having to make this change will energize my parish. I sincerely hope so. But I also know there are people for whom this can only be a source of confusion and frustration, and I don’t like to pretend otherwise. I’m thinking, for example, of my grandmother, who’s ninety-two years old and living in a Catholic nursing home. Her short-term memory started failing a while back, and she hasn’t been able to retain new information for many years. By now even her old memories have faded. But she can sing you any mid-century showtune or standard you can name, and she can pray. Daily Mass is one of the few places where she knows just what to say and do. Like everyone else her age, my grandmother already made one major adjustment in her life as a faithful Catholic—she was well into adulthood when the postconciliar reforms changed everything she’d grown up with. She won’t be able to make another change. It’s sad for her and people like her to have to lose the comfort of praying as they’re used to. Maybe it can’t be helped, but it’s still a loss.
So, I can make the best of the change. But I can’t bring myself to pretend that changing the language of the Mass is no big deal. I don’t know why I should want to.