Parishes across the country have been getting ready, in one form or another, for the release of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, which happens officially this coming Sunday. Like many Catholics, I’ve been dreading this for awhile, but unable to really figure out why. After all, change is inevitable and it isn’t like Holy Mother Church has said we have to go back to actually celebrating the Mass in Latin (although some fear this may be the next step), simply that the wording needs to more accurately reflect the original Latin translation. My writer’s ear and publication background are offended by the violation of a cardinal rule of writing – don’t use a fancy word when simple will do - since this translation moves us from clear, certain, understandable language to more obtuse, complicated, awkward language. But, overall, will those wording changes seem so convoluted a year from now? I’m not so sure.
Still, there was an upset in my heart and not simply because of the homilies I’ve heard in different parishes over the past month or the reports from friends of the homilies they’ve heard — homilies where not one positive word was said about the gift of Vatican II, the simple joy of being able to come to a Church and actually understand what the heck was going on. The fact that many priests (and/of bishops) are using this time of change in translation to issue, in one priest’s unfortunate choice of words, “a corrective” in liturgical habits of particular parishes, has also been more than a little irritating. (One very active, faithful mid-20-something Catholic said hearing her pastor’s sermon condemning her parish’s habit of holding hands during The Lord’s Prayer felt hurtful and she couldn’t understand why he felt the need to – in a time of translation shock – take away something most in her community find unifying in prayer. “It isn’t ‘My father,’ it’s ‘Our Father,‘” she said, explaining why it make sense to the laity to hold hands.)
That said, I didn’t think it was the homilies per se that were upsetting me until I read the thoughts of Fr. James Martin, S.J. today. One of my favorite Jesuits (and definitely Colbert’s favorite), Martin said he was sad about losing the Sacramentary, or the book of Mass prayers the priest uses to celebrate Mass. Those prayers are being part of the new translation and he said there’s been no real mention of the “appreciation for the riches it brought to the church for the last few decades.”
Ah, there it is. I’m sad because what we’re losing with this translation is just as important as what some people say we are gaining and I’ve not heard that from any priest. Our grief over the loss of the words that brought us to God (or kept us there) has not been acknowledged. Instead we’ve heard that this change is necessary because what we had before was wrong. We went too far astray. We got too familiar with God, too familiar with the Mass, too familiar with each other (all that holding of hands!). The message many Catholics have been getting from the “instruction” on the new translation is that Rome needs to rein us in with more high-minded language so we’ll remember what we’re doing and how important the Liturgy is – intimating that we haven’t recognized the importance of the Liturgy all these years.
These messages have had the effect of a kick in the stomach to most of the people in the pews. Martin’s piece is the antidote to that. A snip:
It would be odd, therefore, not to acknowledge some sadness over the passing of something so central to Catholic life as what will soon be called the “old” Sacramentary. Even if you are eagerly anticipating the new translations, something significant is moving into the past, and is being lost.
And loss requires some acknowledgement. It seems most of the clergy are intent on ignoring the sadness many of their parishioners feel in this moment, so busy are they kow-towing to the group that thinks these changes are long overdue or using it as a moment to make “correctives.” (Or maybe, as some Catholics have suggested, they’re just clueless.) Surely there is a balance between who-hooing the changes and recognizing the gift that they were to the Church. It is not that the old translation of the Mass prayers was horrible; it wasn’t. Indeed, as Martin so honestly writes, those prayers were full of language that was “simple, clean, clear, direct, unadorned, beautiful.”
It is language that resulted in thousands of conversions to Catholicism in the past four decades in the U.S., conversions were not wrought in a Latin-speaking Mass setting. There should be some acknowledgement of that fact, and so I say, “Amen, brother,” to Fr. Martin for giving voice to what many of my Catholic friends and I are feeling. And, I’m glad you’re keeping your Sacramentary. May you be able to pray the old as you get used to the new.