At long last, we are back to the liturgy wars. In the past month, Pope Francis has reopened the debate over Pope Paul VI’s reform of the Latin Rite in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the debate over the translation of the reformed Roman Missal. Most notably, the pope has given episcopal conferences the authority to prepare translations of liturgical books, subject to confirmation by Rome. Progressives, especially those whose feelings were hurt by the process leading up to the 2011 English translation of the Missal, couldn’t be happier. Conservatives see yet another setback. But in this moment, there is an opening for Catholics to demand a beautiful translation of the Mass.
On August 24, Francis gave a speech to Italian liturgists. The speech was reported widely in the press, thanks to this remark: “We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Just who ever said the liturgical reform was reversible is a bit of an open question. For example, in his cover letter to the bishops for Summorum pontificum, Benedict XVI said that, just as the traditional Latin Mass could not be suppressed in one stroke, neither could Paul VI’s Mass. So one is inclined to regard Francis’s remark as hyperbolic, of a piece with his critiques of rigid young priests shouting at transsexuals.
On September 9, Francis issued his Apostolic Letter motu proprio data Magnum principium. In technical terms, this motu proprio emends canon 838 of the 1983 Code to authorize episcopal conferences “to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages,” which would be submitted to Rome for confirmation. An unsigned note released along with Magnum principium explains that the Roman confirmation will be “ordinarily granted based on trust and confidence.” This change in the law has been seen as a major move on Francis’s part, taking authority from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s Congregation for Divine Worship and granting it to episcopal conferences.
The canonists can debate the precise meaning and significance of Magnum principium. What’s certain is that the liturgy wars are back on. Progressives, still smarting over the rejection of the 1998 ICEL translation, which was a revamp of the translation of the 1975 Sacramentary, may see Francis’s move as a rejection of the Vox Clara process and the 2011 translation. Some may go so far as to demand a new translation incorporating all of their 1970s-era wishes and dreams.
But perhaps Magnum principium has given orthodox Catholics an opportunity. The English translation in the 1975 Sacramentary was extremely bad, in an idiom redolent of the 1970s. And though the translation in the 2011 Roman Missal is an improvement on the Sacramentary, it still is not a masterpiece of English. Seeking to correct the theological problems of the 1975 Sacramentary, the 2011 translation opts for the technical and the Latinate. This is how we get to say, for example, “consubstantial” at least once a week.
The 2011 Missal has some beautiful moments. Consider Eucharistic Prayer II, once thought to be the work of Hippolytus in the catacombs and now known to be the work of Louis Bouyer and Bernard Botte in some Trastevere café. The imagery of God sending down the Holy Spirit upon the offerings on the altar “like the dewfall” is quite lovely. Lovelier even than the Latin text. The 1975 Sacramentary lacked the image altogether, containing only a sort of general epiclesis. It cannot be said, therefore, that the 2011 Missal is nothing but technical, Latinate English designed to satisfy Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There is poetry in it.
The problem is that neither the 1975 Sacramentary nor the 2011 Roman Missal shows much acquaintance with an idiom that is recognizable as “Church English.” Rather problematically that idiom happens to be the liturgical English created by Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. English-speaking Catholic liturgists, however much they admire Cranmer’s Eucharistic table, have ignored Cranmer’s lessons about the English language. Fr. John Hunwicke (among others) has argued that the dialect of English arising from the Prayer Book is the hieratic register of English, no less than the Latin of the Roman Canon is the hieratic register of Latin. An English speaker intuitively knows that the English of the Prayer Book is Church English.
Perhaps it is time to ask our bishops for a translation of the Roman Missal into the English of the Prayer Book. The missal used by the Anglican Ordinariates, Divine Worship, approved by Pope Francis in 2015, is already largely such a thing. Catholics today are hungry for beauty. Macramé chasubles and guitar settings of bad hymns, though perhaps the most traditional form of Pope Paul’s Mass, no longer satisfy many Catholics, particularly young Catholics. Producing a genuinely beautiful translation of the Missal would go some distance in satisfying their hunger for beauty.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.