Mass should be enlightening and elevating, not a cookie cutter ritual

Father John A. Kiley

Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, PA, has taken great exception to the proposed new translation of the Mass into English.

In a recent article in America magazine, his Excellency quoted the following Advent prayer as an example of the new rendering of the text: “Accept, O Lord, these gifts, and by your power, change them into the sacrament of salvation, in which the prefiguring sacrifices of the Fathers have an end and the true Lamb is offered, he who was born ineffably of the inviolate Virgin.”

Apparently references to the prefiguring sacrifices, Christ’s ineffable birth and Mary’s inviolate virginity stuck on the prelate’s tongue. What will John and Mary Catholic make of these phrases, he asks.

The bishop takes exception to other phrases employed by the English translators: God, who suffused blessed John with the spirit of mercy; Cyril, an unvanquished champion of the divine motherhood; consubstantial to the Father; incarnate of the Virgin Mary; sullied; unfeigned; gibbet; wrought; thwart.

The bishop points out that elsewhere in the liturgical translations the priest is provided with a sentence eleven lines long and a phrase totaling 56 words.

Translators are facing two separate challenges: one committee is translating the liturgy; another committee is translating the Bible. The work of neither is appreciated. English-speaking priests, deacons and lectors can sympathize with the bishop’s remarks. The scriptural translations into English have been particularly lamentable – not so much because of vocabulary, but because of style. And rare is the priest who might choose an alternative collect for a Sunday Mass. They are a glossary of mixed metaphors.

Yet, with all due respect for the episcopal office, the bishop from Erie seems to be calling for a further dumbing down of America’s liturgical life. The church in the United States has already gone through its burlap banner and polyester vestment stage. Earthen goblets substituting for chalices and ceramic candy dishes passed off as ciboria have happily seen their day. Kumbaya and Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore are an embarrassment best forgotten. The American clergy have been relentless in bringing the liturgy down to the level of the people and the result is a drop of 40% Mass attendance in one generation.

A celebrant does not have to challenge his congregation with obfuscating verbiage. But worshippers should realize that they are in church — not at the water cooler or inside a convenience store. A word or two might be unfamiliar the first time they hear it, but how can the church promote an authentic air of mystery, of the supernatural, of the transcendent, if the Mass never surpasses the level of a backyard picnic? It is precisely because the church brought the Mass down to the level of the people that the people stopped going to Mass. Why go to Mass if the Mass is just business as usual? The ambiance, the decorum, the manner and the utterances at Mass should all speak powerfully of another world. The ceremonies of the Mass should be elevating if they are truly to be enlightening.

A priest recently shared a quote from the writings of President John Adams which notes perfectly the supernatural atmosphere which should permeate a Catholic Church and a Catholic Mass: “Went in the Afternoon to the Romish Chappell and heard a good discourse upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in justice and Charity. The Scenery and the Musick is so calculated to take in Mankind that I wonder the Reformation ever succeeded. The Paintings, the Bells, the Candles, the Gold and Silver. Our Saviour on the Cross, over the Altar, at full Length, and all his Wounds a bleeding. The Chanting is exquisitely soft and sweet.”

This Roman liturgy apparently touched Adam’s heart and mind because it employed the finest elements that the late 18th century had to offer. And, apart from the sermon, not an intelligible word was uttered.

Certainly, the Mass should not be mere smoke and mirrors. But it should lead the worshipper to a greater appreciation of that other world, the kingdom of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal life which Christ’s death and Resurrection restored to the worshipper. Indeed, some things are ineffable: eternity, grace and God among them. The Mass should celebrate this.