Friday, November 25, 2011

Same Mass... Increased Density

This Sunday the Roman Catholic Church will be implementing the first significant changes to their English liturgy in Southeast Michigan since its translation from Latin in the 1970’s following The Second Vatican Council. A comparison of the old version and the new version of the Mass can be found HERE.

The changes are supposed to be a more literal rendering of the language of the Latin Mass and are intended as part of a world wide effort to commonize the vernacular liturgies so that they are as similar as possible. For the most part the result of the changes is that the wording is more conservative. For example, in the old liturgy the priest would greet the people by saying “The Lord be with you” and the people would respond “And also with you” but now the response will be “And also with your spirit” which seems a bit less intuitive to modern ears. Another example is during the recitation of the Nicene Creed. The old language spoke of Christ as “One in being with the Father” but now Jesus will be said to be “consubstantial with the Father”. The two versions mean the same thing but the new language is clearly less user friendly for the average person. Many of the changes are similar to this in that they are focused more on a precise translation of the Latin and less on ease of understanding for the layman. The new Mass also involves a change to some music and more singing.

These changes have caused quite a stir among many Catholics. Some see them as a good thing. They view them as an elevation of the language of the Mass that further sets it apart from common discourse. Others, however, see these changes as a partial repudiation of the advances made at Vatican II and worry that people will be driven away by the apparent conservative shift in the language of the liturgy. They worry that the Mass will be less accessible for people after these changes.

From a purely theological perspective nothing in the Mass has changed. This isn’t surprising because even the sweeping liturgical changes of Vatican II itself did not change the underlying theological understanding of the Mass or Catholic doctrine. The changes at that time and now are a matter of how those beliefs are communicated and presented. Whether the shift to a more conservative presentation will be beneficial or not to the Roman Church remains to be seen.

When I speak with many of my Catholic friends and family one of the things they often mention is that the Mass gives them a feeling of history, connection, and separation from the broader culture. There is a sense of connection that they find in their liturgy that transcends the chaos of their modern lives. These changes will likely strengthen that response. Though many oppose the changes I think Rome may indeed understand very well what it is doing.

People have a desire to connect to something stable and unchanging. In a time when so many Protestant churches, in an attempt to be seen as relevant, are more likely to reflect the culture rather than confront it the decision by Rome to become more formal in its liturgy may further strengthen the differentiation and the power of the Catholic sub-culture. As an alternative to both widespread Protestant oscillation and Roman formalism I pray that our churches would focus on the unadorned preaching of the Gospel because only God Himself is unchanging and transcendent and we can only truly have fellowship with Him through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The greatest and most valuable tradition of all is the Gospel. It is the message of the Prophets and Apostles and it alone is the power and message of salvation. By God’s grace, let us forego undue focus on liturgy and focus instead on the clear preaching of the Gospel. For as the Apostle Paul reminds us “…since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-24 ESV)

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