This year, thanks to the adoption of the new translation of the Roman Missal, the First Sunday of Advent is looming like a date with a root canal. As I mentioned in my recent lament on this topic (“Up against the Wall,” July 15), the new missal is intended to steer us back toward a more traditional liturgy. Those who welcome such a move look forward, as one commentator put it, to “a new sense of dignity and decorum,” promoted through “reforms such as an altar orientation toward the East, kneeling for Communion, and better and more dignified vestments and furnishings.”
As a priest who does not welcome these changes, I’m under pressure. No, I’m not having trouble choosing which laminated in-pew response card to install. The problems are a lot bigger than that. I am wondering, for instance, how to reconcile a parish staff grumpy about the changes with a largely unsuspecting parish populace. Or what to do when attempting to explain this Trojan horse of a translation and the pointed agenda it may be hosting. In short, how does one make a sale when it’s tough to believe in the product?
As for parishioner reaction, I expect it to be mixed. Some—those who have been following this issue, faithfully reading their subscriptions to independent publications—will understand what worries priests like me about the new missal. On the other hand, some who have been teetering on the rail since the sexual-abuse scandals, alienated from the church to the point of leaving it, will see these changes as so many deck chairs being rearranged on a vessel that is sinking fast, and might well jump ship. But mostly what I fear is that the majority won’t care. They will dutifully learn all the new responses and musical settings and generally remain unaware of the powerful changes this liturgical language is likely to work on the church their grandchildren will inherit.
So, how to proceed? Do I and other likeminded priests simply refuse to comply? While I admire those who can pull off dramatic Berrigan-esque tactics, I’m not one of them. I love my parish too much to risk losing it; and besides, that’s not the way things work in the church I signed up for. I’d rather look for ways to work within the system. And there is always a way. Finding it is a matter of keeping a sharp eye out for those moments of grace when inspiration comes from a most unlikely source—like the one I stumbled into about a month ago.
I had been asked to bring Communion to someone’s aunt, newly moved into a nursing home after a massive stroke. To be honest, I dread visits like this, especially when the person is unknown to me. The conversation is one-sided and awkward, and I am also alarmed by the fragile nature of the human body, including my own—realizing that in the blink of an eye I could change from visitor to resident.
The family had warned me that their aunt could no longer speak or walk, so when I walked into her room I was prepared for those limitations. What I was not prepared for were her eyes—bright and shining, filled with the kindness and warmth that come from a deeply settled sense of peace. I introduced myself and explained why I had come. When she smiled, fifty years melted from her face. I asked questions and, with a slight movement of her index finger, she would indicate a picture or a letter on a board in her lap. For over an hour we “talked” about her family, her grandchildren, her own childhood. She laughed easily at the familiar stories, and sighed in frustration at her present condition. Toward the end of our visit, this lovely and amazing woman articulated something I doubt I will ever forget. “I keep wondering,” she said, “what the Lord wants me to do next.”
Next? Most people living her life would probably have trouble getting through the morning, let alone thinking about their next mission from God. Such determination inspired me, reminding me yet again how God perpetually offers some new word, some new lesson, even through a person crippled in speech and movement. With Spirit, there is hope. What is required is that we show up, even with dread, and remain faithful to the task.
Perhaps my new friend and the courageous question she posed may help suggest a strategy for implementing the coming liturgical changes. We certainly need to present these changes in context, encouraging such likely and important questions as “What next?”—that is, encouraging everyone to consider and discuss the long-term effects the changes might have on the church. We also must provide a new “word board” for the people in our parishes—a discourse that supplies the language necessary to articulate any number of personal responses, from individual noncompliance to letter-writing to informed acceptance.
Most of all, as that amazing woman reminded me, we cannot forget to laugh; we must never forget the joy that brings us together to worship in the first place. Such joy remains the most important consequence of trusting that the Spirit is at work—even in our silences, and even in our errors.
Related: It Doesn't Sing: The Trouble with the New Missal, by Rita Ferrone