Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Liturgical Vernacular, and Listening with Reverence

Fr Z recently posted a poll about one's language preference for the Mass (i.e., Latin or vernacular), so these thoughts seem timely.

I grew up with the novus ordo in English (with the occasional Spanish Second Reading at Midnight Mass).  When I first fell in love with the Traditional Latin Mass, one of its strongest draws was precisely that it was not in English, that I had to put forth some effort in order to pray it effectively.

Just over a year ago, I posted about the perks of praying in Latin.  My arguments basically boiled down to the fact that we fallen humans just don't listen, so Latin (with translation provided, of course) would be a way to wake people up and help them to enter in.  (Leaving aside entirely the theological points of universality through space and time, and of undoing both the Babel event and the fall.)

But, as my regular readers may remember, I have recently had to reexamine how I look at things in light of the huge blessing that is my opportunity to study the Sacred Liturgy, for the service of Holy Mother Church.  So I have found myself wondering.

For this was one of the major aims of the Liturgical Movement, to have the Mass in the vernacular, and since I seem to be continuing in their footsteps, I thought I'd best address our major points of divergence (the other being Mass celebrated versus populum, which is a forthcoming post).

I began to wonder about the mother of the young child, who knows what's going on in the heart of the Mass, but cannot pray the propers or orations (or, in some places, even the readings) because she doesn't have the time to open her missal and read them.  About the old man who's losing his sight.  About the foreigner who has no missal.  About the illiterate man who sits in the back.  About the child.  Sure, all these people can pray, principally through the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy.  But how can they enter deeply into the liturgical prayer of the Church, as their baptismal priesthood both entitles them and calls them to do?

Certainly /I/ prefer Latin, but I'm an intellectual and an avocational linguist.  My mother, on the other hand, is put off by it.  If Jesus Christ descended to become incarnate as man so that we could know Him on our own level (if you will), then why can the Sacred Liturgy not speak our own language, so that we could know Him there?

This blog is aptly titled, for I find myself musing here with greater frequency.  Not concluding, mind you, merely musing.  When all is said and done, I don't know which is "better."  I know which I prefer, but is my preference a devotional-like attachment to praying the Mass the way I want to pray it, rather than how God has asked me to pray it?

Considering that Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ, has asked that we continue to pray in Latin as well as in the vernacular, and that modern popes and magisterial documents have requested that every Catholic know at least the Ordinary of the Mass and common prayers in Latin, my desire is clearly not contrary to God's perfect will.

Still, these objections must be considered.  Were I to simply voice my assent for a universal application of what practices I find beneficial in my own spiritual life, I would be a poor scholar, and perhaps even poorer a Christian.

Even more practically: I do not have the option of going to a Mass where everybody does everything the way I want.  The very concept is laughable, and selfish.  My responsibility as a Christian is to offer my heart to Our Lord at every liturgy I find myself attending, to always place myself upon that paten to be offered up as a sacrifice.

When I'm at a Mass in English, that means listening.

I've always been bad at listening, but my listening skills do seem to have deteriorated over the past year or two.  Admittedly, I was spoiled at Steubenville by dynamic, intellectual homilists.  But even back home (especially at my EF parish) I heard my fair share of excellent homilies - and still had to keep mentally slapping myself to attention because my mind had wandered off several sentences ago.

As I summed above, we fallen humans just don't listen.  But, by virtue our very participation in the Sacred Liturgy, we are called to rise above the fallen state of our humanity and enter into the heavenly worship.  By our offering of ourselves upon the sacrificial altar, we are called to let go of our sins and weaknesses.  By our sharing in this our wedding banquet, we are called to intimate Communion with our divine Bridegroom.

We are called to listen.  And not just to listen: to listen with reverence.  We are called to make that listening our prayer, just as we make prayers of our standing and sitting, our signs of the cross and bows of the head, our dressing in finery and speaking of the assigned responses.

We are called to listen to Him, as He listens to us.  Regardless of the language of the liturgy (but especially so when it's in our native tongue): listening to Him in the liturgy can be the first step to listening to Him in our hearts. 

Domine, exaudi orationem meam...


  1. The forthcoming new translation will be a wonderful opportunity to listen anew to the prayers of the Mass, and to listen more carefully at Mass...even if it is out of a desire not to experience humiliation for an auto-pilot reversion to the previous translation! BTW, Every Saturday at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, we have the option of attending the Ordinary Form in Latin. The seminary does not train sems in the EF, but there was a recent sign that the faculty are considering it...

  2. I am certainly more open to the vernacular than I am versus populum (or, for that matter, the Novus Ordo).

    Language has never been that important to me, and it has been important to me to know the meaning of the prayers. That's why I don't really get (and have never really "gotten") the people who just ignore the propers.

    I think the best solution would be to allow the development new uses of the Roman rite -- uses which would not be translations, per se, but, using the tradition of the Roman rite as a springboard, would develop their own repertoire of sacred music and texts. A good example of this is, in my opinion, the Mass according to the Book of Divine Worship. What an amazing liturgy! Such a development, of course, would have to be guided and slow. Right now it is just a pipedream.

    I hate translations. I think they might be a necessary evil, but they're definitely evil. They are evil primarily because they destroy the integrity of the rite. We don't think of it much in today's world: I'm convinced that both the language and the music (tones, etc) are intrinsic to the rite.

    The major argument FOR Latin, and the one Paul VI mentioned specifically in his general audiences before the Novus Ordo, is that we worship according to the Latin rite. The prayers, the tones, the gestures, the rhythm -- all these things, despite their Greek origins, are thoroughly Latin. Remove Latin, you remove the Latin rite.

    But I'm sensitive to the pastoral argument. So what to do? If we cannot develop uses to serve regions and cultures, we are left with two options: translation and Latin.

    There are, of course, good reasons for maintaining Latin. One such reason is the one you mentioned: Latin serves as an invitation. By partially hiding the sacred action, it means that only those who are willing to pierce the veil will fully see it. This leads to a second and related reason: it preserves the sacredness. We did not maintain the tradition of drawing a veil across the sanctuary. Latin is itself like a veil.

    The arguments can be multiplied, but you know them all.

    In the end, I don't find them convincing enough to forbid vernacular, at least if it is liturgical vernacular.

    So, since we aren't able to allow uses to develop and the pastoral situation really does give good reason to desire vernacular language, I suggest a compromise:

    I suggest that prayers that are most pertinent to the congregation by rendered in English. By "most pertinent" I don't mean the prayers that they say the most, by any means: I mean the prayers that the Church proposes to the congregation for meditation. Such prayers are, in my opinion, the introit, the collect, the whole liturgy of the Word, and the communion, and the post communion, to name a few. Yes. I know. All of these are changeable prayers. I'm not against, in principal at least, some of the ordinary being in the vernacular too.

  3. The one thing I insist should not be in the vernacular, even if the entire remainder of the Mass is in the vernacular, is the Eucharistic Prayer. Some people would argue vigorously against this thesis of mine, and, I'll admit with good reason. The Eucharistic Prayer is definitely the heart of the Mass, and the Roman Canon is the most beautiful prayer ever written. My brother was right when he said in regards to the Tridentine Mass: "Imagine if you went through your whole life never hearing those beautiful prayers."

    The reason why I think the Eucharistic Prayer should never be prayed in translation is that, despite what the GIRM says about it being the presidential prayer par excellence, it is, among all the prayers of the Mass, the one that pertains to the people the least. This is not to say that the people should not pray it in their heart; it is rather to say that this prayer, of all prayers, is not directed toward the people and it is not prayed by the people.* All the arguments for maintaining Latin reach their fullness when it comes to sacrifice itself. If Latin represents sacredness, universality, elegance, beauty, pageantry, etc, it does so no more than in the Eucharistic prayer.

    Of course I would like to have Latin maintained for other prayers: silent prayers, sung prayers, frequently repeated prayers, etc. But I would be content** if Latin were merely maintained for the canon.

    *Of course it's the great privilege of the Christian to be able to enter even into the central prayer of the Mass and offer it along with the priest. I would like to argue, although I have not sharpened any arguments for it, that in all the other prayers of the Mass, the people have a proper role. They add something to them. They dialog with the priest in them. The priest invites them: "Let us pray". It is in the Eucharistic prayer alone the priest's role becomes priestly to the full. It is Christ the head the offers the prayers of the Eucharistic prayer. Our ability to "enter into it" is an invitation for our own sake. Our offering of the prayers is a gift so that we can better "own" the mystery. It fundamentally doesn't add anything to the sacred action whether we accept than invitation or not. We have no proper role when it comes to this one prayer.

    **Naw. That's a lie. So long as liturgical law allows us to silently kill the integrity of the Latin rite by haphazardly introducing Latin here or there and randomly singing random bits to random tones, I'm not going to be fully content.


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