As a convert to Roman Catholicism from old Prayer Book and High Church Anglicanism, I resolved to tolerate the current translation of the Novus Ordo (the Latin Mass as revised after Vatican II) because it was the Church’s, not because it was edifying or beautiful. After recently translating the Ordo Missae for use at Christ the King Chapel at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I have become convinced that the Novus Ordo contains much that is beautiful and edifying.
The language of the Novus Ordo is robust, the rhetoric persuasive, and the theology a complement to the “revitalization” of Catholic thought aimed at by the theologians of ressourcement before Vatican II. All this despite the fact that Archbishop Annibale Bugnini’s “euchological pluralism and rubrical flexibility” (his prodigality with forms of prayer and his leniency with liturgical rules), advocated over a supposedly rigid “fixism,” displaced the traditional collects from the Mass, promoted a radically simplified ceremonial that tires the eye and deadens the imagination, and introduced a three-year lectionary that contains too much spread out over too long a period to shape a pious memory effectively.
A paragraph from the Third Preface of the Nativity of the Lord illustrates these points.
Per quem hodie commercium nostrae reparationis effulsit, quia, dum nostra fragilitas a tuo Verbo suscipitur, humana mortalitas non solum in perpetuum transit honorem, sed nos quoque, mirando consortio, reddit aeternos.
Through whom flashed forth today the transaction of the healing of our nature, because, when our frailty is received by thy Word, not only does human mortality pass across to everlasting honor, but it also, by a wonderful fellowship, renders us eternal.
The first clause in this passage is particularly striking, as commercium, a commercial term, is a jarring word to apply to our salvation. Effulsit, too, is vigorous, and in combination with commercium—“the transaction flashed forth”—creates an impressive concept for the mind. At the end of the passage, too, the phrase mirando consortio—“by a wonderful fellowship,”—implying as it does a community of goods, reinforces the notion of exchange that gives this passage its vitality.
Nor is the rhetoric of the passage unsophisticated. The placement of humana before its substantive mortalitas makes it slightly emphatic, and anticipates the more emphatic placement of honorem at the end of the clause with its separation from the adjective perpetuum. A dramatic “sandwich effect” is achieved with the wide separation of nos from its adjective aeternos. The phrase nos quoque also displays assonance, internal rhyme, which adds to the vividness of the clause. Further, this passage employs the “cursus,” a set of standard stress-meter clause-endings used in good late-antique and medieval prose. (The clause-endings reparatiónis effúlsit, tránsit honórem, and réddit aetérnos contain the cursus planus or plain ending—a dactyl and a trochee—while the ending Vérbo suscípitur contains a cursus tardus or slow ending—two dactyls.)
As to the theology of this passage, the application of a term from the world of buying and selling to Christ’s restoration of the human race is patristic. St. Augustine, for example, develops the notion vividly in On the Gospel of John 13.14 (translated by John Gibb and James Innes):
But what shall I say, brethren? Let us see plainly what He purchased (emerit). For there He bought ( emit ), where He paid the price (pretium dedit). Paid it for how much? If He paid it only for Africa, let us be Donatists, and not be called Donatists, but Christians; since Christ bought only Africa: although even here are other than Donatists. But He has not been silent of what He bought in this transaction (in commercio suo). He has made up the account (tabulas): thanks be to God, He has not tricked us. Need there is for that bride to hear, and then to understand to whom she has vowed her virginity.
There, in that psalm where it reads, “They pierced my hands and my feet, they counted all my bones;” wherein the Lord’s passion is most openly declared; the psalm which is read every year on the last week, in the hearing of the whole people, at the approach of Christ’s passion; and this psalm is read both among them and us; there, I say, note, brethren, what He has bought: let the bill of merchandise (tabulae commerciales) be read: hear ye what He bought: “All the ends of the earth shall remember, and turn unto the Lord; and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship in His sight: for the kingdom is His, and He shall rule the nations.”
Such a revitalization of a patristic metaphor fits well with the aims of the ressourcement theologians. As Fr. Henri de Lubac has written, “[T]he renewal of Christian vitality is linked at least partially to a renewed exploration of the periods and of the works where the Christian tradition is expressed with particular intensity.”
These are the elements of the Novus Ordo that ring in my ear and sparkle in my imagination. Moreover, they intrigue and edify my mind. If such passages were few and far between, I would not attempt to justify the ways of the Novus Ordo to frustrated Catholics. However, such passages are found throughout the Latin of the new Mass.
It is reasonable to claim that the Novus Ordo is both beautiful and edifying, despite its novel elements and the banality of its translation. Should the translation that will come into use next Advent be faithful to the Latin and show some literary sensitivity, Catholics will have good reason to rejoice, for delight will be added to the duty of attendance at Mass.
Richard Upsher Smith, Jr. is Professor of Classics and Chairman of the Department of Classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His “Vade Mecum,” A Handbook of Terms in Grammar, Rhetoric and Prosody for Readers of Greek and Latin is forthcoming from Bolchazy-Carducci.