Saturday, July 05, 2008

Latin Consecration and Moving the Peace

A recent Italian publicastion, Panorama, reports that the Pope is considering two changes to the Order of Mass which would affect Mass in every language.

One is that the sign of peace be moved from its current point - just before communion - to immediately before the offertory.
The second is that the words of consecration ('This is my body' - 'This is the cup of my blood', etc) in each national language mass, should instead be said always in Latin.

It needs to be made clear that this is very much at the level of rumour, and even if true what is happening is that the Holy Father is asking for consideration of these ideas rather than firmly proposing them.

Let's deal with these one at a time.

The first one - the peace - is easily explained. Already Pope Benedict has suggested such a change be considered. Immediately before the offertory is the oldest known place for the peace - it is mentioned by Justin Martyr in the second century. It is the location of the peace in the Ambrosian rite, used in Milan, and is common in liturgies of other Christian bodies, notably anglicans. The current place, before communion, while it has great symbolic significance, can also be a point of disturbance at a moment which should be one of reverence and recollection. There are some good arguments for the the change - it is ancient, it is ecumenical, and it enhances the reverence of the Mass. And we might also add that it is in keeping with earlier revisions of the liturgy by looking to ancient forms, rather than following the practice of the Tridentine Mass (the extraordinary form, as we now call it) in which it had become only a clerical gesture. I think I am right in saying that this would have been an option in the proposed English translation of the Mass which was thrown out a few years ago for being too divergent from the Latin Missal. As a change in the Mass this would be rather ironic, considering the trend at present towards the extraordinary form - but it has a lot going for it. If I were a betting man, I'd go for this change coming into effect, though I think the odds are narrow.

The second idea is rather different. This is the first I have heard of re-introducing Latin into the vernacular rites. It has some arguments in its favour. It guarantees the universality both of doctrine and the varying translations of the keys words, if the formula of consecration is in Latin, that's to say the same language in every translation. It also fits with the long held intention to preserve the use of Latin even in translated rites, though this has usually related to the sung parts of the Mass only: Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so on. It gives a particular solemnity, reverence and of course prominence to those particular words. Furthermore in international gatherings, or places where many language groups may be worshipping together (like my parish) it gives a common core which all will know.
However, I also see a big problem. The reason for translating the Mass from Latin was always to enhance both the participation and understanding of the laity. While it may be extraordinary now to think that 'hoc est enim corpus meum' might not be obviously understood by the people worshipping, who are so familiar now with the words in their own language, some time down the road we may not be able to make the same assumptions. Surely it goes against the whole principal of vernacular translation to mask the most important words, the words of consecration or other sacramental formulas, in a tongue which is not spoken by any of the worshippers. We would be in danger of making the sacramental formula look and sound like 'magic words', a spell from Harry Potter. No, I wouldn't put any money on this at all - if may be a viable option for a limited number of appropriate occasions, yes, but as the normal practice, I trust not.

There is just one further brief point I would like to make. There is a big difference between a point for discusssion and a proposal. When something is offered for discussion, there is sometimes an assumption that there is a firm intention that this should happen. In fact, Benedict XVI has already shown himself open to discussion on a number of issues, without necessarily expecting immediate changes. I can think of matters surround divorce, annulment and admission to communion and the possible ordination of older married men as two such issues. Let's not mistake consideration - if it is taking place - for a firm intention to proceed.

1 comment:

Gopher MPH said...

Personally, the fact that the vernacular is used is what re-inforces the universality of our beliefs. We all know our central dogmas are not really universal with all other Christians. Do they say "this is my body" in English if I were to visit Kenya or "hoc est enim corpus meum"? Do I care? How often does the ordinary person go to Mass in some other country?

However, I do attend worship services occasionally here. In English. Whether it's been at an Episcopalian or Lutheran or Methodist service, we all say similar prayers. This is what drives home our beliefs as universal, truly catholic in the sense of catholic with a little c, rather than a big C.

Making such a central prayer in an obscure (or dead, depending on one's point of view) language is ill-conceived. I've taken friends to Mass, and even if they don't subscribe to our beliefs, they are at least able to understand us. Being in Latin makes it a bit too much like the secret handshake for a private club.

What if the Lutheran church would revert to German for its central prayers? Going to church would exclude most from fully understanding the central beliefs of these Christians.

And, isn't our primary purpose as Christians to bring the word of God to all Nations in order for them to understand and live the message of Christ?

I don't mind including Latin in the music occasionally. Or even making Mass available in Latin. I happen to think the Agnus Dei is beautiful. But rejecting Latin in toto is as silly as rejecting the vernacular.

My last parish refused to have anything Latin or any music that isn't 'modern'. It is abysmally sad that they should so strictly reject a part of our cultural heritage in an effort to be "modern".

I understand if the Vatican wants to retain Latin as its official language. In a practical sense, they can keep it a static language unlike, say, English; therefore keeping it a universal (if perhaps limited) communication tool.

As an aside, regarding the accessibility of our beliefs:
I just attended a production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass last night. It is another example of making the meaning of the words applicable and accessible to all. (an awe-inspiring performance by the way).