The Roman Missal

The jury is still out, sequestered, leafing through 1,500 pages these past two years deciding thumbs up or thumbs down on the Roman Missal. You would think that, after two years, the conversation around the pros and cons would have settled, but it has not. It has been two years since we put away the 1,200-page Sacramentary and strenuously picked up the 1,500-page Roman Missal. We could write an equal number of pages on how people feel. Just when you think most of the dust has settled, many are still unsettled about the Missal and want to return to the Sacramentary.

Priestly vocabulary has increased in the past two years as priests use some of the language from the Roman Missal in their normal parlance. Those who have great “ardor” (August 10) for the Roman Missal may have little tolerance for those who do not share the same enthusiasm. It is hoped that those who love the new Missal do not treat the others with “abasement” (10th Sunday of Ordinary Time). At times the language is far from normal conversation. This could be argued as the reason why the new translation is necessary. Should not what we do at Eucharist be a bit removed from the normal parlance of day-to-day speech? The secular and the sacred certainly can and do co-exist, but a distinction is nice as well. Incorporating language into the liturgy of the Eucharist that is different does say that we are doing something different. We are not at the beach or a ball game or just hanging out with friends, we are getting in touch with the sacred.

Some of the awkward poetry of the Roman Missal, which poetry can be at times, does remind us that we are doing something different. The imagery of poetry is not something to which I am particularly attuned, so the Spirit coming down like “dewfall” does not add to the sacredness for me. Dewfall conjures up images of impaired visibility and an annoyance when driving, wishing it would soon lift. I assume this is not the image that the Roman Missal is trying to impart. Every venue — be it sports, theatre or the sciences — has its own language and words that are specific to it, so why not liturgy?

The Roman Missal has a sacramental, theological language that is unique to it. The previous Sacramentary had its own as well. The Sacramentary was definitely easier to read and did not take as much effort to proclaim the prayers. But there were times in the Sacramentary that the language was too basic, too “dynamic equivalent” and possibly too secular. One place that comes to mind is the Advent season of the Sacramentary. The prayers to God referring to “preparing for the birthday of your Son” did not heighten the sacred for me. “Birthday” seems to limit to the Incarnation to a particular day only and not to its fullness. I would often just substitute another “dynamic equivalent.” The present Roman Missal has a less secular and a more sacred way of putting this: “as we await” the feast of the Lord’s Nativity (Third Sunday) or “prepare us” for the coming feasts (Wednesday, Second Week). With the Roman Missal, I am not thinking balloons and cake.

Now, all this contextualizing comes at a price. The price is going from 1,200 pages to 1,500 pages since sentences seem (and are) longer. English is a wordy language. When you compare the number of words in English to the number of words in Latin, there are about five times as many words in English as in Latin. When you compare Sacramentary Opening Prayers to Roman Missal Collects, it does not take long to see 40 words in the Sacramentary becoming 52 words in the Roman Missal. What makes these 52 words seem even longer is that they are strung together in one sentence instead of two sentences with about 20 words each.

The sentence structure in the Roman Missal has been the most awkward hurdle for me. Since the Roman Missal is not written in a way that most Americans speak, it takes a few “read-overs” in the sacristy to make sure I am capturing the meaning. As I weed through the overgrown underbrush of clauses and commas and “we pray”s of the Roman Missal, I search for the basic subject, verb and direct object. Once I discover those three sentence parts which can be lines apart, I can begin to focus on the meaning of the prayer. Once I have the meaning down in my head, I have to practice it out loud. The congregation does not have the luxury of seeing the words, they are only hearing them and I only have one chance to say that Collect in such a way they hear the subject, verb, direct object so they too can focus on the meaning that lies within it. There are no “do-overs” in the liturgy.

The Roman Missal has made realize the meaning of liturgy: the work of the people. You do have to work at some of the phrases to assure that the meaning is heard. The worst case scenario is not working at it and leaving the people not able to “hear” the meaning to become mere spectators at liturgy. Anybody near the age of 60 remembers those days. The people did not need to work at the liturgy, they were not invited into “work,” they were not invited to participate — the priest did everything. This is a real fear to many regarding the Roman Missal. Many Catholics long for those days, yet most who long for those days never lived those days. The fear is that the Mass might return to a Mass of people praying simultaneously but not praying together.

Though there are more words in English than in Latin, though the presider needs to place the right inflection on these many words to bring forth their meaning, there is one word in the Roman Missal that has replaced one word in the Sacramentary. This 1:1 substitution has caused more discussion than the wordy sentences and poetic imagery. Substituting “many” for “all” has caused quite a stir. I know priests who have refused to make the change. The numerous workshops and commentaries on the new Roman Missal two years ago tried to nuance the reason, but satisfaction was not achieved according to many (not all). I reconciled with it by reviewing how we use the words interchangeably that really mean the same. “I have so many things to tell you” vs. “I have all these things I want to tell you.” Is anything really that different being said: Another analogous phrase: Is there a real difference when we share condolences with someone when saying: “Let me know if I can do anything for you” vs. “Let me know if I can do something for you”? “Any” and “some,” though different in quantity, would not be telling the person that we are setting limits. When Christ says “many are called but few are chosen,” I do not see the “many” excluding anyone. When God said to Abraham, “Your descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky,” I view “many” as a large number, too. I realize that the “many” seems to be exclusive, and in this world of inclusivity putting quotas on the number of people just seems wrong.

The jury is still out. If the jury had needed to be unanimous for the Roman Missal to be implemented, it never would have been. If the jury has to be unanimous for the Roman Missal to be edited a little, it never will be. The Gospel of Matthew (Mt 13:52) gives a nice perspective on it all. “And Jesus replied, ‘Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.’”

Both books, the Sacramentary and the Roman Missal have something to offer; neither is perfect as they were compiled by imperfect people like all of us (not like “many’ of us). The Roman Missal is at least the third book of Mass prayers in my short lifetime. On Monday of the Second Week of Advent, it reminds us to put it all in perspective: “. . .for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures.” Sacramentaries come and go, missals come and go, and we come and go.  

Father Carrion is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese.