A few weeks ago, a young boy asked me on his way out of church as I was greeting people at the door, “Do you have everything memorized?” I suppose he asked the question because he had noticed that I was singing the recessional song without a hymnal in my hand as I processed down the aisle. Perhaps he had noticed several times during the Mass that I was not looking at the Missal on the altar praying the Eucharistic Prayer or that I was not using notes while preaching. I assured the young boy that I really didn’t have everything of the Mass memorized, but that after 30 years being a priest praying the same words in the Missal and singing many of the songs even longer it all just kind of sticks in your head. I bet there are things he remembers from repetition, too, and he just didn’t realize how much he already remembers in his shorter life than mine.
Liturgists tell us that knowing prayers “by heart” is a good thing, a characteristic of ritual that helps us get beyond the words and to experience prayer at a deeper level. I have found this to be true. Not distracted by noticing words on a sheet of paper in a book, the words of the prayer get into our consciousness and open themselves up to being interpreted in new ways. And as sometimes the words aren’t that important, it’s the act of praying a familiar pattern of words and actions that opens the mind, heart and soul to encountering the one who will never be contained or understood through the limitations of words. Such is the purpose of ritual language and actions. They are to be the created vehicles that transport us to the experience of the Holy One beyond words and human understanding expressed in the symbols of words, things and actions we use to pray.
And so it is with a bit of anxiety that I am awaiting next Sunday. The first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011 marks the day that the English Speaking Catholic Church in the United States begins using the new translation of the Roman Missal. No longer, at least for a while, will I be able to pray the Mass and lead the assembly in the ritual of the Eucharist without looking almost continually at a book. It will be like when I was first ordained. The prayers that in the repetition of thirty years have come to roll effortlessly over my tongue, that have brought me comfort and insight will be different. The words that have opened up meaning and a profound experience of The Holy will be replaced by strange sounding vocabulary and sentence structure, almost like another language. Indeed the new translation is meant to follow as much as possible the Latin words and sentence structure. It will be like going to Mass in another country, I suspect. The ritual will look familiar yet sound different. Still the same Mass, but different.
I guess, as a parish priest, I am grieving. I am grieving the loss of a familiar friend. I am angry that the translation we’ve been given doesn’t flow like the old one because of the insistence of those who oversee the liturgy that the new translation be literal instead of respecting English’s style and use archaic words because of their theological preciseness that people in the pew don’t understand. I am anxious because I want to celebrate well the liturgy, leading people to enter the holy but am afraid I’ll be self-conscious trying to do the “right” words on the page and become a distraction to prayer of the people. Perhaps this is something like how my brother priests of another generation felt after Vatican II when the first translations of the Latin novus ordo of Paul VI began to be used in the vernacular.
Yet, the time has come. Loyal to the church, for the liturgy is not my personal property (as our bishop likes to remind his priests), I will begin the process of learning how to preside at the Eucharist “by heart” anew. Hopefully and eventually I’ll get over the agitation I experience when I try to pray phrases like “ the abasement of your Son” (From the 14th Sunday of ordinary time. Does Jesus live in a house with a basement? That’s what it might sound like if I’m not careful in proclaiming the prayer). I’ll have to concentrate on using the correct words at the consecration (“Chalice” instead of “Cup” and “for the many” instead of “all”) instead of being humbled I am permitted to speak such profound mysteries into being by God’s Spirit and the “order” of the Catholic Community to their priest.
Next Sunday and for many weeks I will be reminding myself that the Mass is still the same re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus and anticipation of the banquet feast of eternal life no matter what words are used. There will still be bread and wine become his body and blood and the assembly will still gather to be feed by word and sacrament in order to be transformed into what they receive.
Calling to mind the big picture, another generation of priests will probably grieve and fuss about another “new” translation that comes their way in 40 years or so. I’m sure all of us priests of every time and place will have a chance at the great concelebration of the eternal Eucharist of Heaven to discuss (and laugh) how inadequately any of our translations lived up to the task of communicating in earthly language and ritual the reality of the bliss of the eternal banquet of life when we see God face to face.