Sound and Fury
J. Peter Nixon November 22, 2011 - 1:24am
Like most parishes, mine has been preparing for the introduction of the new Roman Missal. We'vehad a series of homilies on different parts of the liturgy, with the new words being introduced and explained when appropriate. The choir has also been using new musical arrangements for theGloria and theSanctus and these seem to have gone over reasonably well.Its almost (but not quite) enough to make you think that this may not be a complete pastoral disaster after all. Over the last few months, various parishioners have pulled me aside and aired their frustrations. I had one retired military officer of a generally conservative temperament tell me that he has no intention of saying and with your Spirit when the time comes.While I am very frustrated about the process by which we received the new translation, my feelings about the text itself are more mixed. Im actually fine with most of the changes to the peoples parts. I suspect, though, that I will always wince when I hearcalix translated as chalice during the Institution Narrative. Bread and Cup make a nice monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon pair and chalice doesnt really work at all. As for the collects, well lets just say that after 40 years of experiencing the problems that result when dynamic equivalence is taken to an extreme well probably spend the next 40 years learning the same lessons with respect to formal equivalence.In the end, though, one question we will probably be asking in a few years is was it worth it? In truth, I expect that both opponents and supporters of the new Missal are going to be surprised at how little impact it actually has on the celebration of liturgy at the typical parish.My own experience is a case in point. I first learned a musical arrangement of the new Gloria at a Life Teen mass. The teen choir did a good job with the arrangement which was, of course, accompanied by electric guitar and pounding drums. I suspect this is not quite the sense of reverence and awe that advocates of the new translation had hoped it would inspire. The aspects of contemporary liturgy that are the most problematicpoor preaching, low quality hymns, and an almost oppressive informalityare unlikely to be affected by the new translation.Watching the translation wars play out over the last few years has been so dispiriting that it has led me to question some central assumptions that underlie both the old and new liturgical movements. Since Pius X, it has been argued that active participation in the mysteries of the liturgy has a power to draw us more closely to Christ. Lately, though, I have begun to wonder whether the direction of causality actually runs the other way. Perhaps we need a deep, personal commitment to Christ before we are capable of participating in the way the liturgy demands.I first began to wonder about this during the time when I was a lay student at a Jesuit seminary. The Tuesday celebration of the Eucharist was resolutely contemporary, often including precisely the kind of hymns and accompaniment that usually grate on my nerves. Yet I almost never failed to be moved by these services. Virtually everyone present brought a deep intentionality to their role. There was no question that this community took the liturgy very seriously.I had a similar experience the first time I attended a traditional Latin Mass. Although the homily was simply awful, I was moved by the vigor with which the entire congregation intoned the various responses and chants. Here, too, was a group that understood the seriousness of what they were undertaking.Parish life provides other examples, as those who have attended the Triduum services during Holy Week can attest. Nevertheless, it is also in the parishes where the liturgies of Advent and Lent often come across as heavy-handed efforts to engage a passive congregation. The efforts of parish liturgy committees to select themes for Advent and Lent and install temporary artwork are, of course, well intentioned. All too often, though, these efforts convey the impression that the liturgical texts and rites themselves are insufficiently interesting to command attention.The irony is that the process of developing and implementing the new translation comes across as yet another effort to try something new and different to engage Catholics in the pews. Itdoesn'thelp that the catechesis that has accompanied the translation has had all the forced cheerfulness and optimism of a Soviet Five Year Plan.Maybewe'vehad it backwards all along. If there is a problem with contemporary liturgy, perhaps it is not, to mangle a phrase, in our words but in ourselves. We may look back ten or twenty years from now and realize that the time and energy put into getting the words of the liturgy precisely right would have been better spent supporting movements and institutions that can help Catholics develop a more passionate and personal faith in Jesus Christ. Future generations may well come to regard the liturgy wars as full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.