Friday 23 November 2012
Failures With The Vernacular
We are often told that we understand Mass better when it is in the vernacular. I certainly believe it can help, and I support its use in accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium 54 (hence I have vernacular readings at our EF Mass) but I suggest we do not understand the Mass better simply because it is offered in the vernacular. Indeed, I think it is possible to say that use of the vernacular can have its problems, namely, superficiality, automatic pilot and lack of understanding. Some examples are necessary...
(1) Superficiality. At Mass last weekend I noted that week by week we request one another to “pray for me to the Lord our God”, and asked how many times we have lived this out by offering –in charity- a prayer that our neighbour be forgiven. A number of parishioners told me they had “never thought about it” and consequently, never really prayed for the forgiveness of our family, friends and parishioners. This is but one example of how we can recite the texts of the Mass by rote rather than consciously and actively.
(2) Automatic Pilot. We have probably all, at times, heard congregations displace the “Amen” into the middle of a Preface when the phrase “Through Christ Our Lord” is used. We have probably heard a displaced “Amen” when the phrase “forever and ever” occurs during a reading too. This is indicative of being on automatic pilot, and worrisome because it suggests there can be little awareness even of which point one is at in the Mass.
None of the above are the result of the new translation; the same problems were present with the former translation too.
(3) Lack of understanding. Occasionally, when I am haughtily confronted with “people understand the Mass better in English” I ask, “Can you tell me the significance of the change in the consecration from ‘for all’ to ‘for many’; or the significance of the change from ‘everlasting covenant’ to ‘eternal covenant’; or the significance of the change from ‘fountain’ to ‘fount’ in Eucharistic Prayer II? Can you tell me to whom the Kyrie is addressed, and to what purpose?” It is surprising how many people cannot answer the first three questions and give an erroneous answer to the fourth and fifth. One can legitimately conclude then that understanding is not necessarily gained by using the vernacular; that what is gained is but ease of response and word recognition. Conscious, active participation is far more than reciting by rote, and understanding far deeper than word recognition.
In case you are waiting for answers: the change to “for many” follows scripture and liturgical tradition, and articulates that while we are all redeemed, not all will be saved; the change to “fount” from “fountain” has a profound significance because a fount is a source, a fountain is not. The change from “everlasting” to “eternal” is also profound: “everlasting” indicates salvation going on into the future; “eternal” indicates it reaches backwards to Adam as well as into the future. As for the Kyrie, this is addressed to Christ alone, and its purpose is to praise Him for His work of Redemption. It is not only surprising but perhaps disturbing when clergy address the Kyrie to Father, Son and Holy Spirit and, at the same time, turn it from giving expression to Christ’s Redemptive work as in the Missal to expressions of our sorrow: “You came to call sinners” becoming “Father, for the times we have... Lord Jesus, for the times we have...Holy Spirit, for the times we have...”. How many have misunderstood the Kyrie this way and consequently both wrongly addressed it and altered its purpose?
So, while I agree that the vernacular can be helpful and give it my support in line with Sacrosanctum Concilium, I don’t think we can pretend it does not permit problems: it can become a pathway to automatic pilot rather than active (attentive) participation, and a route to misunderstanding. This is of course a danger in both the OF and the EF, and I think that minimisation of this danger requires catechesis on how to pray the Mass rather than pray at Mass. That said, making automatic, unthinking responses in the vernacular is perhaps less conducive to spiritual growth than is meditating on the Rosary during an EF Mass, which produced many a holy soul.
All in all, I simply wonder if we have taken too much for granted; that we presumed use of the vernacular was all that was needed to facilitate understanding of and participation in the Mass. Evidently it is not, as is demonstrated by the failure to live–out the Confiteor, the displaced “Amen”, the non-differentiation between everlasting and eternal etc, and the misunderstanding and misuse of the Kyrie.