The New Roman Missal is Not Better

I rarely make declarative statements regarding liturgy. As I’ve mentioned before I have had exactly one course in liturgy in my education; it is, to be sure, not my area of expertise. So at the risk of stirring the pot, let me say:

The new translation of the Roman Missal we will be using this fall is not a better translation than the old translation.

Now before you head to the combox,  let me explain.

I get very uneasy when I hear people say that the new translation will be “better” than the old. This implies that a) what we have been saying is somehow wrong or deficient, and b) that what we will be saying this fall is what we should have been doing all along.

But I think this is comparing apples to oranges. You can’t really compare the two because the rules for translation changed. If the rules had been the same, then we might be able to claim that one is better based on a shared criteria. But the old translation was a “good” translation in so far as it followed the rules of dynamic equilelency in force at the time; the new translation is a “good” translation in so far as it follows the rules of formal equilelency that are now in place.

Now we can debate which set of rules is “better”; but we can’t fault the old translation for following the rules the Church had in place at the time.

Setting the Context for the Roman Missal, third edition

At our January 20 meeting of DREs in the diocese, our director of worship and the catechumenate, Eliot Kapitan, delivered a great presentation addressing four common questions about the new translation of the Mass. Because of bad weather, many DREs couldn’t attend so we recorded the presentation:

The Roman Missal: Re-Focusing Our Attention

I am reluctant to enter into discussion of liturgical theology and practice. It is not the field in which I work and I have little education on the subject. That having been said, my diocese, like many others, is preparing for the Vatican’s recognitio of the translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. While we may not know when the final approval will come (most people seem to suspect it will be sometime this spring, with mandatory implementation at Advent 2011) we will need to prepare for its use in our parishes. This means a concerted catechetical program for all: priests, deacons, musicians, liturgists, catechists, people in the pews   — and maybe even people out of the pews!

A couple weeks ago a small group of our diocesan directors met to begin envisioning what that catechetical process will look like. During the course of the conversation, one thing became clear: in order to prepare people to pray the new translation in a meaningful, intelligible way, we need to be able to articulate why the Church is changing the words of the Eucharistic liturgy in a way they can understand and accept.

In other words, we need to find the marketable message for the changes.

I won’t claim that we came up with all the answers, but I think one of the priests at the table got us started the right path. He noted that, during the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, the message was that the laity will no longer be passive observers but will be called to “full, active participation” in the liturgy. For forty years this has been the mantra of liturgical catechesis, for better or worse. It was, in a sense, the “marketable message” on liturgy following the council.

He contrasted this with the new missal and translation which have shifted attention from the action of the congregation back to the object of worship: Jesus Christ. Without diminishing the importance of the council’s reforms or denigrating the progress made in liturgical theology, the heightened language of the new translation pulls us out of the mundane and reminds us that while we participate in the liturgy, the liturgy is not about us.

With that in mind, a useful way to enter a wider conversation about the new missal — and a way to point towards a “marketable message” — may be to pose the following three questions:

  1. Who calls us to participate in the liturgy?
  2. Why do we participate in the liturgy?
  3. How then do we participate in the liturgy?

This series of questions begins with the invitation to worship, points to the object of our worship, and then asks if the manner of our worships honors that end. I’m not completely satisfied with the wording (I’m open to suggestions!) and obviously not everyone will agree on the answers to these questions — especially the third! But they at least focus the conversation in a constructive manner that can lead to further exploration about our theology of liturgy, why we have a shared liturgical practice in the Church, and why the changes make sense within that context.

And without resorting to, “Because the Vatican says so!”