Friday, December 23, 2011

Notes on the New Translation and Matters of Worship

In keeping with principle, I generally decline to comment about matters liturgical; however, I feel compelled to make a short post about this most august of subjects, especially in light of the fact that the new translation of the Roman Missal recently made its debut here in the noble Diocese of Novaliches-- whose Bishop, the Most Reverend Antonio Tobias, is a known stickler for 'correct liturgy.' Let me first state how much of an improvement it was over the monosyllabic monstrosity that was the ICEL translation, of the shelving of which I can only utter a hearty 'Good riddance.'

That said, however, while listening to the post-Mass chatter on the First Sunday of Advent, I failed to notice any sense of lingering excitement from the congregation. I myself was taken by surprise when the Celebrant for that day announced that, henceforth, our Diocese would now be using the new, more dignified translation (and off hand, I must say it is about time the Nicene Creed was recited here, and not just the Apostles' Creed!) of the Missal; but aside from a (slightly) more enthusiastic response from the congregation, I did not note any exclamations at how much more reverent and dignified it was. To be sure, the people have noticed; but the awareness that it was supposed to present Catholic teaching in greater clarity has, to some extent, been lost on the Mass-goers. This has been the case for some weeks now.

Earlier this year, I wrote that much of our liturgical consciousness today has largely been modified to accept the Mass as primarily a textual artifact: a thing read and listened to, in other words, an object that requires literacy to understand. Corollary to this, any sense of "participatio actuosa" would necessarily seem to lie along the lines of information: THIS is what is happening right now; THIS is what the priest is saying; THAT is what happens at this precise moment of the service; THAT is the point when we can leave. In some sense, it would be correct to say that the Missal (or rather, what is in the Missal) is the Mass, insofar as it contains the 'secrets that lie behind the veil', as it were-- only this time, they are printed in red ink and size 8 font between leather covers.

But of course, the Mass, in essence, is so much more than that. Of late I have been thinking that it was the High Mass that served as the great 'epic' of Christian Europe-- it certainly has a lot of the characteristics that make an epic, not limited to, among others, telling the story of a great Hero (Jesus Christ), sonorous and lengthy speeches (the Priest's parts), and surely the overall tone must count for something. Piety leads us to believe that every Mass is essentially the same event as Calvary itself: not a sui generis ceremony arbitrarily made up from disparate elements, but a 'mythical', nay, divine, return to that one event, by which all creation is restored and renewed in God. That the Mass used to be chanted and sung immediately calls to mind that epics, too, were chanted and sung; but that is not really the point of this post, so much as why it was done. I think the simplest answer to to this question was because it was the easiest way to tell the story of the Mass, and its Great Hero. To tell a story, in pre-literate societies, was more than a matter of delineating a sequence of events, and having done that, calling it a biography: rather, it was a more fictive process, in the sense that it also depended on how it was received by the audience. Song, dance, and theatricality in general were crucial ingredients in bringing the story alive, and this was not something lost on the opinion-makers who would later come to influence the development of Christian liturgy(ies).

Again, please bear in mind that I am only an amateur; as such, I should hope that my humble reader, if he spot anything that merits a correction, would notify me. The Protestant reformation and the technological revolutions that came therewith (and also the Counter-Reformation, I guess) essentially turned the liturgy into a battleground. Competing theologies would gradually try to wrest the form of the liturgy from centuries-old Tradition in order to conform it to the tenor of the times, the gradual re-assessment, or so they claim, of Christianity's internal logic. To make a long, complex, convoluted, and impossibly technical story short, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, via the Council of Trent, deigned to keep the liturgy from being 'weighed down' by the accumulated debris of popular piety and whimsy (which zealots argued alienated the faithful from the "True Christ") by redacting it to its simplest, most 'pristine' form: the so-called Tridentine Mass. Skipping ahead some four centuries later, we now have Vatican II, which, not content with the purgation of the Tridentine Mass, sought to further conform it to Apostolic principles, giving rise to the Novus Ordo.

My point in writing this brief excursus is not to theorize about the development of the liturgy, as there are others who write, and will write, about it much more impressively than I can. My point here, rather, is that such textualization of the liturgy represents, at least for this blogger, the closing, if not the collapse, of the Catholic imagination. Because it is a very self-conscious liturgy, it loses that factor which makes liturgy (at least in theory) so efficacious in the first place-- its ruse, its deceit, its identification with the 'founding event' of the religion. The Mass is Calvary, says the  Catechism: the same Sacrifice, extended through time and space, albeit in  a bloodless manner. The simple truth of the matter is that the success of the mission of Calvary depended on Christ's true nature being concealed from the powers of Hell; His ruse worked, and Hell eventually was harrowed, and made powerless forever by the Cross. In the same way, liturgy would not be able to nourish us if it did not believe what it taught itself to be; if it persisted in being "helpful" to the congregation; if it sought therapists, and not committed actors, to run the show.

A popular tradition usually observed in Good Fridays past in the Philippines was the ceremony of the Descendimento (Descent from the Cross), known as the Pagtanggal sa Krus in the vernacular. I believe I have blogged about it before; but what happens is essentially this: after the Adoration of the Cross has been finished, and the Crucifix-- usually a life-size one, as is traditional in the Philippines-- has been unveiled, the corpus would be taken down from the Cross for the procession of the Sto. Entierro. These statues of Christ usually have thick leather straps that attach the arms to the shoulders, allowing the arms to be held close, as the statue is eventually placed into a glass coffin. The ceremony itself is quite moving; usually, it is the men who take Christ down from the Cross and help secure the statue in the ceremonial casket. They dress in white; some are crowned with flowers, while others are garbed in black, their faces veiled, carrying the symbols of the Passion on long poles for all to see. The effect can be so startling, that such ceremonies have given rise to the false belief that Christ dies for the sins of man every Good Friday.

While that is deplorable, it is nevertheless the reaction that liturgy should inspire in the faithful. The greatest tragedy, I think, of the Catholic Counter Reformation is the suppression of the various rites that have developed in different parts of Europe, in favor of the streamlined, non-mythical Missal of 1570: as such, we have lost many moving para-liturgical ceremonies which have articulated so well the popular genius of the Catholic faithful. The procession of the Palmesel*, once so common and beloved in German Catholicism, is now almost extinct, reduced to a cultural relic that bears little to no resemblance to how the faith is actually lived there now.

Reverence, because it is a concept common to all cultures, is consequently one of those words which mean everything and nothing; which straddle both the Dionysiac and the Apollonian. The genius of the Catholic imagination, as I have said in the past, has always lain in its ability to synthesize elements of terror and grandeur into a cohesive, coherent whole. As such, there is space in our worship for the fantastic and the profound, the terrifying and the numinous; but never for the bland, dull, and boring. Recall that line about vomiting the lukewarm and whatnot. I believe that, if the Church truly wants to revitalize its worship, then  it must cease trying to turn the Mass into something that has none of that: let it speak for itself, in all the fiery colors available at its disposal.

For what it's worth, though, I will sleep soundly tonight knowing that I do not have to see that ghastly translation of the Gloria again!


*Curiously, this has a parallel in Philippine Catholicism, with the procession of the Humenta-- Christ seated on a donkey, being wheeled to the church by the faithful, while women lay their tapis (a sort of cloth attached to the skirt) on the ground as a royal carpet.

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