Virtues of the Newer Vernacular Mass
As a priest I have been privileged to walk in the “wide Church.” That is to say, I have been able for all 21 years of my priesthood to say the Traditional Latin Mass while at the same time celebrating the newer, Ordinary Form of the Mass in some very dynamic parishes.
I have always loved both forms of the Roman liturgy and this sometimes gets me in trouble since there are dynamics within the Church where, at times, people on both sides want me to choose sides. I have no problem that people have their preferences, but as a priest I think I am required to serve a very diverse Church. I thank God too for the gift to be able to do this and to really love the current diversity. I realize too that diversity has its limits and, thus, I stick to the rubrics in both forms of the Mass: “Say the black, do the red!”
I have discussed in the past why I like the Traditional Mass and the video at the bottom of this post is a PBS interview where I speak of my love for it. I would like to take a moment however and also say what I like about the newer Ordinary Form of the Mass and also my acceptance of the fact that the old Mass did have need for some attention.
1. Rediscovering the value of subordinate roles and ministries in the Mass – There was a tendency in the Traditional Latin Mass for the action of subordinate ministers such as the deacon, subdeacon, choirs and cantors, to be non-effectual. In other words, what they did, didn’t really count. The schola (or choir) might sing the introit, the Kyrie and Gloria, but what they did still had to be recited by the priest quietly as well. In effect, their singing didn’t really count. It might sound pretty and all but it was really only what the priest recited that mattered. The last version of the Traditional Mass in 1962 had begun to remedy this. Thus the priest was no longer required to read the Scripture readings quietly if the Deacon and Subdeacon were chanting them. It was OK for him to listen to what they were chanting. But the schola’s chant still had to be re-read by the priest to “count.” The newer, Ordinary Form of the Mass has restored the subordinate ministries to their own proper function. Hence, if the readings are read by a lector or deacon the priest does not have to re-read them. If the choir sings the communion verse or song, this suffices and it is not required that the priest re-read it. I like this about the new Mass.
2. I love the cycle of readings in the newer Mass. It is rich in its sampling of Scripture. The three year rotating cycle means that most of the New Testament is read every three years along with a rich sampling of the Old Testament. The Traditional Latin mass usually offered only a brief reading from the New Testament epistles and a Gospel pericope. It is very limited compared to the richness of the current Lectionary which includes, on Sundays, an Old Testament passge, a psalm, a New Testament epistle and a Gospel passage. Further the sequential reading from one of the four Gospels along with a matching Old Testament reading is helpful. The readings from the Traditional Latin Mass tended to skip around and its logic was not always clear. As a preacher and lover of Scripture I have been richly fed by the new lectionary. I could wish for a slightly better translation than the current NAB we use here in the States but in the end I feel very well schooled by the newer liturgy when it comes to Scripture.
3. Restoration of the General Intercessions – There is a strange moment in the Old Mass when, after the homily and creed the priest turns and says to the people (Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you) and they reply et cum spiritu tuo (and with your spirit). He then says, Oremus (Let us pray). But there is no prayer. He simply turns back to the altar and the people are once again seated. Many centuries before there had been bidding prayers here similar to our current “Prayers of the Faithful” or “General Intercessions.” They had been composed by Pope Gelasius but were later suppressed by Pope Gregory since they prolonged the Mass. But somehow the call to prayer (that odd little “oremus“) stayed there all those centuries.
There was need to attend to this. Either restore the prayers or drop the call to prayer. The current, Ordinary Form of the Mass has restored these prayers or general intercessions. I think this is a valuable aspect of the Ordinary Form of the Mass if it is done correctly. We ought to to pray for others as is so beautifully done in the Eastern Rites of the Church. It seems suitable that, after hearing and reflecting on God’s Word, we be drawn to pray for ourselves and the world.
However there is a tendency in some parishes to misunderstand the nature of these prayers. They are general intercessions, not particular ones. The prayers ought to be of a general nature not for every one’s sick cousin, aunt, or brother, mentioned by name with a full medical report included in the prayer. Rather we pray for the sick in general, for the poor, for Church leaders, Government leaders, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, for peace and so forth. Specific political and idiosyncratic prayers are wholly to be avoided.
If these norms are observed, the general intercessions (or prayer of the faithful) is a beautiful and ancient practice restored in the ordinary and newer form of the mass and it also links us more to the practice of the Eastern Rites.
4. The general rediscovery of the existence and role of congregation is a good part of the newer Ordinary Form of the Mass. In the Traditional Latin Mass, especially in its recited form the congregation had little to do but watch the Mass. The priest interacted only with the servers who made the responses on behalf of the people. Even when the priest turned to say something to the congregation he was instructed to look down.
If members of the congregation did wish to interact and make Latin responses this was made more difficult by the fact that the Mass was largely whispered by the priest. In the 1950s attempts were made to remedy this by encouraging the people to learn their responses in the Mass and use missals to follow the Mass carefully. Permissions were given for the priests to say the Mass in a louder voice and microphones were even added to some altars. But the lengthier Latin responses were still difficult for many ordinary Catholics to make and keep up with.
Today, in the newer liturgy the role of the congregation is respected and they are expected to play an active role in the Mass and make responses proper to them. It is true that there has been some obsession with this by overzealous liturgists. At times some of them demand that the people do everything and that there is never a place for a choir to sing a more advanced setting of something. But in general, the integral involvement of the congregation in the newer and ordinary form of the Mass is something I value highly.
5. The Vernacular is also a positive development. I love the Latin Language but I also know that it is a great advantage to have many parts of the Mass in the local language. This has assisted in greater participationof the faithful in the Mass to an immense degree. It is difficult to expect the congregation to take a routinely active role if the Liturgy is almost wholly said in a language they do not know. Simple Latin responses are one thing, but try to get the whole congregation to say the confiteor (I Confess) well together. It can be done in some self-selected congregation where there is interest in Latin, but in more general settings it would be difficult.
That said, it is a true loss that most of the faithful have become completely separated from any experience of the Mass in Latin. This is something not envisaged by the Council which permitted a wider use of the vernacular but also commended the use of Latin and foresaw it’s continued common use in the liturgy.
A further point here is to lament how poor our vernacular translations have been for years and how good it is that a more accurate translation is on the way. Praise God.
6. Flexibility and the wider possibility for inculturation is also something I appreciate about the newer Ordinary Form of the Mass. Careful balance is needed here and rubrics need to be followed but the greater allowance for wider forms of music and cultural expression has allowed the Liturgy to flourish in different settings. I have a vibrant African American Catholic Parish wherein gospel music and extended preaching along with a charismatic enthusiasm give real life to the Mass in an authentic manner.
It is true that not every experience of inculturation with the new Mass has been as successful. This is especially true in more suburban American settings where culture is more secular and ephemeral and too many worldly forms find their way into the Mass. But where is a sacred tradition to draw on, it is nice to have some flexibility to incorporate this.
There is no doubt that the newer Ordinary Form of the Mass has some serious issues. It emerged in a time of great cultural tumult and emerged as if out of a whirlwind. We are still waiting for the dust to settle in many respects. But there are good and wonderful things as well. Pope Benedict is helping a great deal to reconnect us to tradition and to see both forms of the Liturgy as beneficial to each other.
It is fine to have a preference but I am blest to love both forms and serve vibrant and passionate communities using both forms. Both communities love the Lord and are serious about the liturgy and deeply connected to it. What a blessing to look out each Sunday and see, not boredom, but engaged and passionate people, alive and aware that the Lord is ministering to them in the sacred liturgy. What a blessing, a double blessing!