Ralph Keifer (1940-1987) was a professor of liturgy whose last assignment was at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, before dying of a long illness. He left this earthly existence while the status quo of liturgical reform was very much in the hands of progressives, and his published works for general Catholic audiences would have played a bit fast and loose with the rubrics. And yet, even as a stopped clock is right twice a day, he was not wrong about everything.
It is buried somewhere in this writer's library, a 1980 commentary on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal entitled To Give Thanks and Praise. Within its pages, Keifer reminds us that the sacred liturgy is a work to be performed, as opposed to a series of words and texts to be gotten through. He put it another way, as memory serves.
On the night he was betrayed, Our Lord said, “Do this,” not “Say these words.”
As the third editio typica of the English-language translation of the Novus Ordo Missae (ordinary form) has been introduced today, most of what is new, indeed most of what has been discussed up to now, has been about the different words to be used. When the priest proclaims “The Lord be with you” today, the people will no longer reply “And also with you” but “And with your spirit.” The latter is what “Et cum spiritu tuo” actually means.
Sadly, for much of the English-speaking world, including the United States, the transformation is at risk for stopping there. Even as the Order of Mass in the altar missal, and the same in the worship aids produced by the major publishers, will hand the opportunity to them on a silver platter, many will ignore the wishes of most Popes in the last century -- we include those who wear their orthodoxy on their sleeves in that number -- and continue to reduce singing to something merely done at Mass, as opposed to singing the Mass!
On the other end of the ideological spectrum from the late professor, is the current executive secretariat director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the commission of representative bishops from all eleven episcopal conferences of the English-speaking world, which has been charged for nearly three decades now with the revised translation of the Roman Missal. Msgr Andrew Wadsworth, in addressing the Southeastern Liturgical Music Symposium in August of 2010, made essentially the same point as Keifer, if more eloquently:
Maybe the greatest challenge that lies before us is the invitation once again to sing the Mass rather than merely to sing at Mass. This echoes the injunctions of the Council Fathers in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and reflects our deeply held instinct that the majority of the texts contained in the Missal can and in many cases should be sung. This means not only the congregational acclamations of the Order of Mass, but also the orations, the chants in response to the readings, the Eucharistic prayer and the antiphons which accompany the Entrance, the Offertory and the Communion processions ... Chant is proper to the Roman Liturgy, whether it is celebrated in Latin or in vernacular languages. This is a fact established in all of the major documents which treat music in the liturgy from the time of the Council onwards. Why has there been such a universal loss of experience of the chant? I am personally convinced that part of the reason why we lost our chant tradition so easily was that so few people understood the intrinsic link between the chant and the liturgical text. Chant is not merely words set to music; in its simplest forms it is essentially cantillation – it arises from the text as a heightened manner of proclaiming the text. In this, the Church continues the Jewish tradition of a sung proclamation of the Scriptures.
“Chant is not merely words set to music.” It is “a heightened manner of proclaiming the text.” Pay attention to this, dear reader. Beat it over the head of your parish priest, as he dismisses such initiatives by claiming that "I can't sing." We must be clear on this point: At least not in the sense that either is traditionally understood.
In the ancient world, there was little or no distinction between public oratory and what we would recognize as chant. We see remnants of this practice today, in everything from the town crier who roamed the streets proclaiming the news of the day, to the vendor selling hotdogs at the baseball stadium, to the old man selling roses on the sidewalk of any major city. Although it was not necessarily what took the process of revision so long, one might daresay that the most radical change to the Roman Missal, is not the words, but the role of singing, specifically chant. Furthermore, this role is official.
We should give credit where it is due, to our hometown Archdiocese of Cincinnati, as being among those who introduced a guide to an official "Revised Order of Mass." This 32-page-plus-cover guide, appearing in the pews of all parishes and oratories of the Archdiocese, contains the Order of Mass, along with the accompanying Roman Missal chants, including those which appear as the "Ordinary of the Mass" (the Kyrie, the Gloria, et cetera) in the Missal itself. It also includes four other musical settings of the Ordinary, composed by artists under commission of various publishers of Catholic worship aids -- some of them new to this revision, others adapted thereto.
On the other hand, the Diocese of Arlington produced a laminated 8.5 x 11 two-sided card with only the words to be changed. Unlike a paperback pamphlet, it will last for years after its usefulness has come to an end, and it will not encourage anyone to sing anything.
After all, it's only about the words, right?
The Rubber Meets the Road
IMAGE: From the The Huffington Post, a bishop celebrates Mass, using a glass chalice and flagon to contain the Precious Blood of Christ, instead of precious metal as is required (and which doesn't break as easily).
The news in the field on the First Sunday of Advent, if we are to believe the secular press, is a mixed bag. A recent poll taken showed that over half of older Catholics favored the previous translation, but that about two-thirds of younger Catholics favored the new one. Among the contrary opinions are these two little gems from The Huffington Post:
Kathleen McCormack, a church volunteer and former school teacher, said she didn't like the new translation and didn't understand why the church needed a translation closer to Latin.
"Consubstantial? What is that word?" McCormack said, referring to a term in the retranslated Nicene Creed that replaces language calling Jesus "one in being with the Father."
+ + +
Maribeth Lynch, 51, a publisher from the Milwaukee suburb of Elm Grove, said she was "distraught" over the changes and would refuse to "learn the damn prayers."
"It's ridiculous. I've been a Catholic for 50 years, and why would they make such stupid changes? They're word changes. They're semantics," she said.
"It's confusion. All it's doing is causing confusion," she said. "You want to go to church and be confused?"
So, a former school teacher has trouble using a dictionary to look up big grown-up words like "consubstantial," and a publisher from Milwaukee forgets that he has been a Catholic just long enough, to remember how much more confusion there was when the Novus Ordo Missae was promulgated in the first place.
Of course, it could only be worse in Canada, whose bishops as a whole have been in a state of virtual schism for over a generation. One wonders how many ad limina visits it is going to take for them to get the message. Maybe the next round.
In some parts of Canada, that exuberance was admittedly tempered by the fact that with the implementation of this new translation of the Roman Missal have come some decisions in some dioceses (it is not universal) regarding matters of gesture and posture at communion time which have met with no little controversy -- the most controversial of which being the move to set the standard posture for the faithful as standing until the very last person has received communion (the more usual custom being that people would return to their pew and kneel in prayer). There has even been a Facebook page started around this ...
Maybe an ex-nun with latent attitude problems will be hired as the Über-usher, walking along the pews with a ruler to rap the knuckles of reverent malcontents.
Meanwhile, south of the border, down Alabama way, Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of the magazine Sacred Music, author of the blog The Chant Café, and a leader in the restoration on Gregorian chant in Catholic parish life. As a witness to any one of a number of islands of liturgical sanity, he reports from Saint Michael's in Auburn, where he is musical director.
The experience was beyond anything I believed would come in my lifetime ... The changes are few compared with the overall effect. There was a new decorum, a new seriousness. The words are said to be more opaque but the real-life experience in the opposite. The new text peels back the cloudiness that has shrouded the Catholic Mass ... At last we have a real match between the language we use and the things we believe. Both are now serious and robust ... At the Incarnatus Est at the creed, 100% of the people there bowed their heads. At the end of communion, 100% of the people there were kneeling with heads bowed in prayer. I cannot remember ever seeing this kind of unity of purpose ... In the New York Times today, Fr. Anthony Ruff is quoted with extremely critical remarks to the journalist: "The syntax is too Latinate, it’s not good English that will help people pray," But on this blog today, he writes: “It all went quite well at the abbey, and I was struck by the beauty of the liturgy ... Overall, I liked it much more than I expected.”
From the looks of things, many of those who were favorably inclined are even more so, and many of those who were skeptical are now more favorably inclined. Even the parish in my hometown in Ohio, where the repertoire has been mostly contemporary in recent years, is giving serious consideration to the use of plainchant from that little red book (see above). Imagine the transformation that would bring, as a small town parish rediscovers a heritage they did not even know they had lost.
(This is a work in progress to be continued. Stay tuned ...)