Dec 31, 2007

The Revision of the Roman Liturgy: A Review

Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 1: March 1997

The Revision of the Roman Liturgy: A Review

Changes in Catholic Worship were needed, but not all have been benign

by Michael Dummett

LITURGY IS AN ART FORM: one especially in the service of God, but an art form none the less. But when the new liturgical books appeared, no one wrote reviews of them; only now, when complaints have been building up over the years, is something of the kind occurring.

We must distinguish sharply between the new Roman liturgical books and their translations into English. It is not possible to say anything too unkind about those responsible for the English translations. I write as one who for many years longed for the liturgy to be translated into the vernacular; and I was sustained by the thought that, when it happened, it would be carried out by people who would have such sensitivity to language and exercise such care as the contributors to a wonderful little book published in 1956, English in the Liturgy, edited by C. R. A. Cunliffe.

Gloria not Glorious

Alas! it has been carried out by people with tin ears both for English and for Latin, who moreover thought themselves entitled to revise the liturgy when it did not please them, not just to translate it. The Gloria is an ancient prayer, shared (in slightly different forms) by West and East. A schoolboy who translated "qui tollis peccata mundi. miserere nobis; qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram; qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis" as "you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our prayer" would deserve to be kept in to do many extra lines.

A whole essay could be written on the mangling of the Gloria. The translators did not notice that the phrases"Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens" and "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris" were intended to balance one another; nor that the progression "tu solus Sanctus, … Dominus, … Altissimus" used words of an increasing number of syllables to achieve a climax.

No further revision of the liturgy will be of much value to people in English-speaking countries unless the task of translation is taken out of the hands of those currently in charge of it and given to people sensitive to the language into which, and to that from which, they are translating.

Many Post-conciliar Changes Benign

Many of the salient features of the revised ordinary of the Mass were agreed upon by virtually all liturgists before the revision was undertaken; most can surely be accepted as benign.

We should feel greatly relieved that, at High Mass, the celebrant is no longer obliged to recite in a mutter everything that is sung or chanted by others; this in itself teaches the important theological lesson that the Mass is an action in which different people participate in different ways.

We should be relieved that the Biblical readings are now clearly proclaimed, once only, to the people (rather than, as the Gospel used to be, chanted to the wall, with, sometimes on Sundays, a different Gospel read in English from the pulpit).

We should be relieved that the prayer over the offerings is clearly enunciated instead of being said silently as the result of a linguistic misunderstanding.

We should be relieved that the congregation is dismissed at the end of the Mass, rather than before some elements which had been introduced later.

We should be relieved that the Sanctus is treated as the conclusion of the Preface, and no longer split in two, to be sung while the priest is getting on with some prayers that we are supposed not to need to follow, cannot hear and should not understand.

Latin or Vernacular-Pro and Con?

For my part, I should have been content if only the variable parts of the Mass had been rendered into the vernacular; but the translation of all of it (if carried out in language with dignity and cadence) was surely a great step forward.

Those who know enough Latin to feel quite at home with it may regret its replacement; they ought to remember how few they are. We forget how little of the liturgy was understood at all by most of those who attended it. Back from Army service in Malaya, where they had the custom of ringing the bell at the Little Elevation, I did that when serving at a Low Mass in my English parish church: the congregation started coming up for Communion. At a Holy Hour, I once offered my neighbour to look over my hymn book when we were singing a Latin hymn; she declined, saying that she did not know Latin. We should feel relieved that all that is in the past.

The same applies to the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer, and most of the others, aloud: it is important that the congregation, of which only the middle-class members will be happy to follow in books, should know what the priest is saying.

Other Changes…

I sympathise with those who complain how little occasion the Mass now provides for silent private prayer; but this is principally the fault of celebrants. The official liturgy provides for such occasions: before the Confiteor and before the Collect and the other variable orations; celebrants usually ignore these or reduce them to a perfunctory length. Possibly other periods of silence ought to be prescribed; but not until there is some chance of their being observed.

I disagree strongly with those who deplore the position of the priest facing the people. It is true that the position with his back to the people symbolised his representation of the whole congregation in addressing God; but that is outweighed by the new ability of the people to see what is going on. The Little Elevation, for example, used to appear only an obscure scrabbling; now all can recognise it as the solemn culmination of the whole Eucharistic Prayer. The demand to restore the old position of the celebrant should be resisted.

The creation of several anaphoras [Eucharistic Prayers] was not, in my view, necessary; there was no need to bring the Roman rite into line in this regard with the Eastern rites. But, now that they exist, it would be a pity to suppress the new ones. They have, however, a serious blemish: they provide no opportunity for prayers on behalf of specific people, living or dead, unlike the Roman Canon, with its "especially those for whom we now pray". Most parishes include in the bidding prayers on Sundays the names of parish members who are ill or have recently died! It would be better if, in line with an ancient practice, they could be included, instead or as well, in the Eucharistic Prayer itself.

But what is essential is that there should be two pauses during which all could silently add the names of those, living or dead, for whom they especially wish to pray.

There is, to my mind, a far more serious fault in the manner in which the multiple Eucharistic Prayers have been introduced: one quite different from the usage of the Eastern liturgies. In all of those, it is strictly laid down on what days and in what seasons each of the anaphoras is to be used; in the new Roman rite, it is at the discretion of the priest.

This is a very bad idea. There are a few rules, mostly disregarded. The Roman Canon is supposed to be used on the feast of every saint mentioned in it; and whenever there is one of the proper additions, but it is often not: the fourth Eucharistic Prayer is not supposed to be used when there is a proper preface, but, then, it is seldom used at all.

Systematic variation in the form of the liturgy increases its interest and is more effective in making us aware of the different days and seasons than the color of liturgical vestments; leaving the choice to the celebrant creates only disappointment and annoyance (‘Won’t he ever use … ?’, ‘Not … again’).

Too Many Choices

Leaving the choice to the celebrant is a wholly new practice, and one that pervades the new Roman rite; now there is even a choice of collect. It is a practice wholly to be deplored. We are not there to admire or deplore the celebrant’s taste, but to join with him in carrying out the Church’s official form of worship, according to the rite to which we belong.

It had been generally agreed that the Prefaces needed supplementing and in some cases revising-but the plethora of Prefaces we have now (at the choice of the celebrant) is quite excessive. When chanted, they are often difficult to make out without hunting for them in a missal.

The addition of an Old Testament reading and the use of a three-year cycle were excellent ideas; but the treatment of the other variable parts of the Mass has been far less successful. Most of the Collects and other orations had come down to us from early periods when liturgical composition was truly inspired: they are marvels of terse expression of deeply thoughtful petition. They have been largely replaced by flat language enshrining banal sentiments such as "May our love for you express itself in our eagerness to do good for others".

The abolition of the offertory verse was a mistake: the Introit, offertory and the Communion verse each accompanied one of the three processions occurring within the Mass.

There is a notable drive to reduce the variations which responded to the changes in the season: the Lenten prayer with bowed heads after the Post-Communion has gone, as have the forms of the Agnus Dei and the dismissal proper to Masses for the dead. Almost all variation is now to express the personality of the celebrant.

Changes in Communion

Two recent changes, not due directly to the revision of the liturgy, are in my view to be applauded: Communion in both kinds, and the Host given, for those who wish it, to the hand rather than to the mouth. The latter has become universal (but is rarely offered without choice); the former is rare, but observed in all churches of the city where I live.

The idea that only a priest might handle the consecrated Host was, historically, far from always being followed, and seems superstitious: what is to be received into the mouth can surely be touched by the hand. it seems more fitting that we should be fed with Christ’s Body like human adults than like fledglings in the nest.

It is certainly heresy to hold that Communion under one kind is defective; as Gregory Dix observed, most communions in the very early Church were of this kind, Christians in times of persecution taking the Sacrament to their homes so as to communicate themselves and so avoid too frequent prohibited celebrations. Yet, when there is no particular reason for doing otherwise, communicating under both kinds is a more appropriate way of re-enacting the Last Supper and celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood.

The Divine Office

Where the revision of the liturgy of the Mass has been a partial success, that of the Office has been uniformly bad. it was forgotten, as it had not been by the Anglican Reformers, that Matins, Lauds and Vespers were not originally monastic creations, but descended from primitive parochial worship; the revision was carried out solely with an eye to easing the burden on the clergy, without a thought for the need to restore liturgical worship for the laity.

There is therefore only a little more variation in the psalms used at Vespers, for instance, than there had been before; meaningful readings are retained only in the hour that replaces Matins. The new petitions substituted for the old Preces are couched in an embarrassingly cosy diction quite lacking in dignity. The Council Fathers committed an act of philistinism in abolishing Prime; Compline has been butchered. These were perfect forms of morning and evening prayer; the loss of the one and mutilation of the other is a calamity.

THIS IS NOT AN AGE of inspired liturgical composition. The freezing by Trent of liturgical forms in the Roman rite had the effect that, when at last it was realised that revision was long overdue, it had to be carried out by well-intentioned people devoid of inspiration. Excessive tinkering is obviously to be avoided, but some tinkering will have to be done, perhaps over a long period.

But, for the Church in English-speaking lands, the first priority is to dismiss the members of ICEL en bloc, and replace them by people of the calibre of those who contributed to the marvellous English in the Liturgy.

Such people would accept their commission as being to translate, not to promote liturgical change; their first task would be to replace the existing translations in their entirety. Endless change in wording is irritating to everyone; but any audience would walk out after a single Act from a performance of a Shakespeare play revised by ICEL, and we can hardly be asked to tolerate its renderings of the Latin liturgical texts for many more months.


Michael Dummett is the distinguished British philosopher/linguist, who is Wykeham Professor of Logic Emeritus of Oxford University.



The Editors