Saturday, March 26, 2011

How teaching James Joyce ruins appreciation of liturgy


Here we go again, he sighed. The “Spirit of Vatican II” has once more spoken against the new translation.

This time, it’s in the person of Fr. Joseph S. O’Leary, graduate of that Maynooth College seminary which Abp. Timothy Dolan of New York recently recommended closing, now a professor of English at Sophia University in Japan. (In case you have any doubts, Fr. O’Leary has “Spirit of Vatican II” posted at the top of his “About” page.) I assume he is still a priest in good standing, although neither his blog nor his profile at Sophia’s website say “Rev.” or “Fr.”


The bishops of the English speaking world have disgraced themselves in their handling of the new translation of the liturgy. They have failed in their primary duty of ensuring that the faithful have access to a decent celebration of the sacraments. Their treatment of critics of the new liturgy is particularly disheartening — I refer in particular to how 300 US bishops snickered at Bp. [Donald W.] Trautman [of Erie], who had the bad grace to point out that only 5 of them had submitted any written comments on the texts they somnambulistically rubberstamped, and also to a shoot-the-messenger speech from one Bp. [Leonard P.] Blair [of Toledo].


Would that Fr. O’Leary had stopped there. But no:

But now it is the turn of the lower clergy. What are we supposed to do? Like many bishops we know that this linguistic dreck is an insult to the People of God — in addition to being transparently part of the rollback of Vatican II, as if the Church had anything better than Vatican II to put in its place. Will we subscribe to the mendacious culture of spin, reciting prayers we know to be near-gibberish?

Before I illustrate how far off-base Fr. O’Leary is, let me explain for my non-Catholic audience: The majority of the prayers offered during the Mass are fixed or with very limited options. The Ordinary of the Mass comprises these prayers and the order in which all the prayers and readings are said, complete with the congregation’s responses. There are, however, other prayers that vary with the seasons or with special dates in the Church’s life; together with the readings that are appropriate to the days, these all make up the Propers.

One such prayer is called the Collect, which precedes the Scriptural readings for the day. For example, here is the Collect for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, according to the 1973 revision:

Father,
you have taught us to overcome our sins
by prayer, fasting and works of mercy.
When we are discouraged by our weakness,
give us confidence in your love.

Now, here is the Collect for the same day in the new translation:

O God, author of every mercy and of all goodness,
who in fasting, prayer and almsgiving
have shown us a remedy for sin,
look graciously on this confession of our lowliness,
that we, who are bowed down by our conscience,
may always be lifted up by your mercy

Here is the 1973 post-Communion prayer:

Lord,
in sharing this sacrament
may we receive your forgiveness
and be brought together in unity and peace.

And now the new translation:

As we receive the pledge
of things yet hidden in heaven
and are nourished while still on earth
with the Bread that comes from on high,
we humbly entreat you, O Lord,
that what is being brought about in us in mystery
may come to true completion.

Not only are the new translations of these prayers closer to the Latin of the Missale Romanum, they point out just how flat, insipid and darn near non-denominational the 1973 translation is. If “what we pray is what we believe” (lex orandi, lex credendi), the soon-to-be-replaced prayers should be kicked out for that reason alone.

I’ll agree with Fr. O’Leary that the laity deserve a decent celebration of the sacraments. However, so far as the bishops are to blame, it’s for not cracking down on priests who tolerate or engage in liturgical improvisations, who treat the GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) as half-hearted suggestions rather than norms.

As far as his complaint that the new liturgy is “part of the rollback of Vatican II”—much of what has passed for “progress” in the last 46 years were not intended by the bishops of the Council and in many cases go against the letter of what they wrote.

For example: Sacrosanctum concilium § 116 states specifically, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” According to the “Spirit of Vatican II”, this “pride of place” has been understood to mean near-total abandonment.

In his penultimate paragraph, Fr. O’Leary states baldly, “I suggest that the only honorable thing to do is to quietly boycott the new texts. We should not buy them. Continued use of the 1973 translations … is the morally correct course.”

No, Father—the morally correct choice, even if I were to grant your aesthetic gripes, is proper submission to the magisterium of the Church. Stop kicking against the goad (Ac 26:14); stop trying to sell us the watered-down “Catholic Lite” of your “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd. Accept the possibility that the other three hundred American bishops were right and Bp. Trautman wrong.

Even granting that individual bishops make occasional mistakes, still, the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit is granted to the successors of the apostles (Jn 16:13). Since it was the bishops who gave us Vatican II, the best way to discern and apply its teachings should be left to the bishops as well.

If you don’t like it—hey, you’ve still got a job teaching English lit. And, frankly, I wouldn’t care for a liturgy approved by a fan of James Joyce anyway.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering when you would get round to the bit about James Joyce. I think that I once began to read a book by James Joyce and which one it was is every bit as forgettable as James Joyce the author is to me. If anyone had a chip on his shoulder he did. I think also that I have come across this cross-grained priest before as well. I do hope that he survived the Tsunami.

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