A furor has erupted in the South African Catholic Church over the first round of English-language changes in the Mass.
The Southern Cross, a southern African Catholic weekly newspaper, reports that clergy, liturgists and laity are up in arms about some of the new language being used during the constant parts of the Mass, saying the changes are confusing and fail to reflect the common usage of the English language and culture in the region.
Some commentators have said the changes fail to recognize the different ways English is spoken. Many fear that similar confusion and anger will rise up in some of the 10 other English-speaking countries governed by the revisions should there be no recognition of language and cultural differences.
The Southern Cross has reported extensively on the changes and reaction to them in recent weeks. The newspaper also has devoted more space on its Web site to its bloggers, such as Jesuit Father Anthony Egan, and more space in its print version for opinion pieces, commentary and letters to the editor since the Dec. 1 changeover.
What kind of furor are the changes causing? Well, consider this, from a letter written by Bishop Kevin Dowling: (all emphasis added--E.M.)
To me there is no cogent reason why the language which the People of God in any place use to express their faith and spirituality, and to celebrate the Eucharist, the sacraments and so on has to conform to a Latin text. People ask why — and rightly so. I am concerned that this latest decision from the Vatican may be interpreted as another example of what is perceived to be a systematic and well-managed dismantling of the vision, theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II during the past years.
I believe the English-speaking conferences of bishops should have stood their ground and challenged the decisions taken at the Vatican as an expression of collegial discernment. We should have communicated to the Vatican that “it seems good to the Spirit and to us” that we proceed with our discernment together with the whole People of God about what is the best way we can express and celebrate our faith in English and every other language.
Our objective as Church should surely be that instead of making everyone conform to a dead-language text we need to allow diversity in cultural and linguistic expressions of faith communities around the world.
Bishop Dowling has, I think, however unwittingly, illustrated just why we so desperately needed a new English translation in the first place.
The Mass is not supposed to be a vehicle for cultural and linguistic diversity. Nor is the Mass supposed to be a reflection of what the community thinks is the best way to express and celebrate their faith.
The Mass, instead, is supposed to be the highest form of worship, the fitting sacrificial prayer offered to the Father in Heaven. What it is, and what it is supposed to express and convey, is very much expressed by those "dead language" texts, which are then supposed to be faithfully and carefully translated into the vernacular--or left alone in the Latin language, if faithful and careful translation is considered too difficult to accomplish for some reason.
There are plenty of devotions, prayers, etc. by which a community can express their faith with all the cultural diversity wanted. I've seen lovely examples of this, such as processions in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, wherein the ethnic and cultural celebrations blend beautifully with ancient Catholic customs and prayers. But the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass transcends the here and now, and transports us all back to Calvary. When we kneel as the Eucharistic Prayer is offered by the priest, we are not there to express ourselves in any way, but to unite ourselves to Christ's sacrifice, re-presented in an unbloody way upon the altar.
And the "vision, theology, and ecclesiology of Vatican II" does not contradict this. Only a false imposition of agendas far removed from the Council itself, and left to run riot for the last four decades, saw in the Council a chance to reshape the Mass into a vehicle for cultural expression and communal self-importance, in a way that was very much at odds not only with the Council, but with the Church throughout the ages.
Now, at last, some of the disruption and chaos packaged as authentic worship is being reined in, and a new focus on the proper sort of worship we offer to God through the celebration of the Mass is being seen. The good efforts to retranslate some of the more loose and problematic of the English texts, especially those which stripped the language of majesty, reverence, and a celestial focus, replacing those things with familiarity, irreverence, and a very mundane focus, are finally underway--but, as can be seen from the reaction in South Africa to an early version of those new texts, it's going to take a lot of education about what worship is and why it does, indeed, matter how closely our prayers resemble those Latin texts before people--and even bishops!--understand why this must be done.
I hope that the situation in South Africa will be handled well, and that the new texts will eventually be accepted by all Catholics there. There is much to be celebrated in the new English translation of the Mass--but we should probably take the example being set by our South African brothers and sisters seriously, and be prepared to offer our enthusiastic acceptance of the new prayers when they are given to us here, so as to offset some of the agitation by those who fear, rightly so, that they are losing their chance to use the Mass as their own personal plaything, a blank slate on which they can impose their own agendas, personalities, and desires quite apart from the Church's understanding of what worship really is.