Monday, November 26, 2012

New Words - One Year Later

One year ago today, we began using the new translation of the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal. We did a lot of preparing for the new translation – a lot more than was done when the post-conciliar liturgical reforms were dropped out of the blue onto a largely unprepared population, beginning 58 years ago this same week. Prepared or not, of course, not everyone was thrilled by this year's new language. Change is never easy and rarely welcomed – even when it is an improvement. We are all products of our past and generally not so adventurous about alternative futures. Even with the best of intentions, new words were inevitably going to be awkward words at times. We are all creatures of habit, after all, and 40 years of habit had become somewhat second-nature, if only physiologically in how our vocal muscles had been trained to work. Learning something new is always an effort. Remembering what was learned long ago is much easier. (I can still sing the Nicene Creed in Latin, accurately remembering both words and notes having heard both so many times in my childhood!)

Given all that, the transition went wonderfully well on the whole. Most people managed to learn their new lines. And, if a year later many are still relying on their pew cards to get the Creed right, that’s hardly a serious problem. And we keep practicing. So, for example, as part of our observance of the year of Faith at my parish, we have included recitation of the Nicene Creed in our 1st-Friday Adoration and have made the Nicene Creed a standard part of the opening prayer at parish staff and pastoral council meetings, etc. That serves the purpose in this Year of Faith of helping us all to internalize and appropriate the central doctrines of our faith, while at the same time getting more practice learning the words which express our common faith.

Of course, it is the priest who has had the most unlearning of old words and learning of new ones to do. The 1970 translation was so weak, so pedestrian, and so unfaithful to the actual text that almost anything might have been an improvement. Still, old words and old phrases linger in one’s linguistic reflexes. So it has been a real effort to re-learn familiar prayers. And, while there is a lot to be said for longer, more complex sentences, we have all of us in this Twitter generation lost a lot of our literary culture - with the result that speaking in longer, more complex sentences (as people routinely used to speak not that long ago) has become that much more of an effort. It requires actual attention to the text - preparing by reading the collects over beforehand, for example. One side benefit for me is that careful attention to the text and a text that is longer and more complex have resulted in a slower, more deliberate style of proclamation on my part. Since I still tend to speak at New York speed, a slower, more deliberate style of proclamation is probably a net benefit!

The bottom line, of course, is that the text is what it is, and my obligation is to recite it faithfully, neither adding nor subtracting nor otherwise altering words in any way. The liturgy is not about comfort, much less about creativity. It is about fidelity. It belongs not to any individual but rather to the Church. As Vatican II insisted: “Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 22, 3). With that in mind, let us pray!

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