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   /   Ministry & Liturgy - Volume 38 -2011   /   June/July Issue   /   Beyond Words

David Haas


Words matter. They always have. Whether they be in normal conversation or more highly crafted discourse, the words we use, whether written or spoken, shape what we believe and think. They have the potential to transform or destroy.

The same is certainly true in our prayer lives. I know that my spirituality and beliefs are deeply formed by some of the earliest prayers I learned as a child, such as “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” “Angel of God, my guardian dear,” “Glory be to the Father,” and of course, the earliest Latin prayers that I learned as an altar boy. More powerfully, the words of praise and prayer that were sung when I was a young boy continue to shape me to this day: “Holy God, we praise thy name,” “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” “Lord, who throughout these forty days,” and so on. The spoken texts and sung prayers that have evolved since the Second Vatican Council have had an equal presence in my memory and in the heart of my spiritual journey. For many of us, the words of our prayer (both spoken and sung) have shaped the ritual language we use to express and celebrate our faith.

The words that form our religious imaginations are sacred to us. When such words are adapted even slightly or changed more dramatically, the differences can hit at our core and cause a rupture that is upsetting both emotionally and spiritually. I remember very vividly, as a young altar boy having struggled with the Latin prayers for more than a year, going to church one Sunday with my older brother to serve Mass. While I was putting on my prized cassock and surplice, the priest handed each of us a laminated card, saying: “Good morning, boys. Today we will be having Mass in English.” I remember being devastated and a bit angry, to tell the truth. I was ready to do the prayers at my very finest, and even though I did not know much of what the Latin words meant, they had become part of me. Something was being “messed with” in my religious understanding. Obviously I got over it (and I am most certainly happy now that the vernacular has become normative in our liturgical life), but the memory is still strong. The important message for me in reflecting on this experience is that such changes reveal new chapters not only in our liturgical practice but also, more importantly, in our understanding of our beliefs.

In this particular example, words had become important to me, even though I did not realize that until the change had come. However, I have learned that words are not what center me in my faith—and this is key to accepting the upcoming implementation of the new Roman Missal. The words of the Mass and the drama currently surrounding them are not our primary anchor on the journey we make with Christ Jesus within our living, breathing, celebrating, singing, and initiating church. While the texts that we have prayed with over the years have become very precious to us in our daily movement of dying and rising with Christ, the dying and rising are what actually help us to survive and celebrate life with vigor and passion. When I remember my own experiences of loss, gratitude, joy, disappointment, success, and failure and the times of hopelessness turning to hope; of darkness moving toward light; of angst leading to peace; and of sadness being reborn to bring about true rejoicing—I realize that these are the things that I need to cling to. Our liturgical language and even our wonderful liturgical symbols and rituals are only important if they reflect a deeper realization of our life with Christ. With that in mind, as we worry our hearts over the challenge of this coming Advent, I have a few thoughts about how to approach this particular adventure.

Remain calm

Telling myself to calm down has become my own personal mantra. All of us who serve as liturgists, music directors, and pastors need to remain calm and get a sense of perspective. In these times, when a devastating economy keeps so many people unemployed; when tornadoes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters are destroying the homes and lives of many; when members of our families are dealing with the realities of cancer and Alzheimer’s; when our young people are facing real fear about their futures—with these and so many other realities staring us in the face, we should be embarrassed at the energy we are spending on how the new translation of the missal will be accepted.

A parish music director approached me recently and cried out in anguish: “What we will do, now that your present version of the Mass of Light Gloria will be no more?” My response to her was (and is, to all of us who are worrying ourselves sick over such things), we will be just fine. We are called not to glorify our favorite musical setting of the Gloria; we are called to glorify God. We will be able to continue to do so with the new settings of the Gloria. Life goes on, friends.

Push back against misinformation

I am amazed at the rumors and downright falsehoods that have emerged over the new translation. First of all, the Mass has not changed. Let me repeat, the Mass has not changed. The translation has changed, but the structure, intent, flow, and theology of the ritual moments have not changed at all. Read the liturgical documents, especially the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. No moment of the Mass has been changed or deleted. There are no new ritual innovations. The words alone have changed, and while many of the changes are significant, the underlying deep structure and intent have not.

The principles of full, conscious, and active participation are no less in force than they were when first uttered at the Second Vatican Council. The aim for robust and passionate participation by the gathered assembly is not being compromised or abandoned, and while some would like to chip away at this (especially certain musicians who want to promote the role of the schola, cantor, and choir over the gathered community, giving them a chance to “perform” more), the intent of the church and the liturgy still remains clear. Our efforts are to continue, and be given renewed energy, to empower the assembly to find and celebrate with their voice. Any voices that are trying to tell us the opposite are voices that we need to block from our ears and our hearts.

Some folks think that we are “going back to the Latin.” First of all, we never left the Latin. Latin has continued to be the grounding language of the Roman Rite. Every translation we have had since the council (and for most of our history before then) has had the Latin text as its source. Latin has always been and will continue to be utilized in our liturgy, especially in the sung portions of the Mass, and the vernacular is not to be put back in the pre–Vatican II closet. Let us remember that the changes are overwhelmingly and primarily changes of translation.

Do not over-catechize

Although some of the changes to the words are significant, we will cause much more angst and drama if we spend too much time talking and stirring over them. Let us not have parish formation events that dwell unceasingly on formal and dynamic equivalence, the Liturgiam Authenticam document, or the long process that has brought us to this moment. We should address the issues regarding the new texts, but we should stress the importance of why we worship rather than the words we use to worship.

Instead of focusing on the “new words,” seize the opportunity to engage in a serious and intentional renewal of people’s understanding of the liturgy. Come up with strong strategies in your religious education programs—child through adult—to do some good education around the liturgy, and the Mass in particular. It is troubling how liturgically illiterate many Catholics are. Catholic elementary and secondary schools should also implement related topics in their religion and theology classes. Numerous resources are available to help in this regard.

Honor people’s pain,
and respect differences of opinion

Regardless of our best efforts at catechizing, many will be (and already are) upset by these new developments. To try to talk them out of what they are saying and feeling, and to attempt to convince them of how wonderful this translation may be, is to abuse and disrespect what will be for many a grieving process. Remember that for a large number of people, the present translation is the only one they have ever known and prayed with. Let us be honest in affirming that this process of change will be hard. We do not need to overanalyze their displeasure or come up with strategies to help them “get over it.” We need to speak less and listen more to their concerns and angst when it comes out.

On the other side, some people think this retranslation is the best thing since sliced bread. Challenge those who are enthusiastic about the new missal to not judge those who are upset by it (and vice-versa).

Expect an adjustment period

We are in for at least three or four years of chaos. Prayers that we came to know by heart over the past forty-some years are part of our spiritual DNA. We are going to find ourselves stumbling over some of the new words, and our heads will be buried in our hymnals and other worship aids for a while as we struggle to learn. Many of us will subconsciously blurt out “And also with you” many months after the First Sunday of Advent 2011, even though we know we should say “And with your spirit.” Let us accept the fact that this time of transition will be filled with many ups and downs.

Celebrate the liturgy well

Are you are spending so much time worrying about the new words that you have lost sight of the quality of your liturgical celebrations? Most communities can do the liturgy a lot better, and nobody should use the new translation as an excuse to not be continually improving every aspect of worship. What is your preparation process? Are you just filling in slots on a planning sheet? Preparing the liturgy must reflect a deep understanding of the word of God; our choices for music, environment, preaching, and proclaiming should rise up from the lectionary.

Do your ministers rehearse, seeking to become better than good enough? In most of the communities I visit, lectors can certainly proclaim better. Homilies should rise above the “thoughts while shaving” heard in many parishes; they should be carefully prepared and preached with integrity and passion. Ministers of hospitality (ushers) must embrace their vocation as not passing out bulletins and seating people but helping all who enter the worship space to believe that they are of value, truly the Body of Christ. Those who prepare the liturgical environment should think of their work as far more than mere decoration; they are creating visual inspiration to help people engage in the prayer of the community and its mission beyond the celebration itself. Ministers of communion are not just helping Father “distribute” the Body and Blood of Christ; rather, they are a living sign of that Body broken and poured out, so that those who come forward with their hands and hearts outstretched will be humbled to receive and actually become the Body of Christ themselves.

Choirs and ensembles in many communities have yet to see their connection to the wider liturgical community. Cantors should see themselves not as soloists but as people who engage the community to find their voices. The responsorial psalm is more than a nice musical piece; it is an actual biblical proclamation and a bridge to the Gospel proclamation. Instrumentalists need to be constantly reminded that their ministry is not instrumental virtuosity but a service to help set free the voice of a singing assembly.

As one who has been at times openly critical of much of the new translation and who is still grieving over some of this, I believe that I can pray with this new translation. If we do not all come to this belief, we may fall into the sin of worshiping our worship—the styles and words and songs and prayers that we personally like. If we do not embrace this chapter in our faith life as a moment of renewal, we may only remember the fall of 2011 as “the time they changed the words.”

May the leadership in your community come together to reflect, converse, and remember that the God who calls us each by name is truly worthy of our praise, regardless of what words we use. ML

David Haas is the director of The Emmaus Center for Music, Prayer, and Ministry and the campus minister and artist-in-residence at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in St. Louis Park, Minn. A composer of more than 40 original collections of liturgical music, he has been active for many years as a conference and workshop speaker, consultant, concert performer, and recording artist.

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