Music and Liturgy

We have a new organist at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, where I teach RCIA and Adult Faith Formation.  One of the things Chris has done since his arrival is change the format of the worship aid that provides the music for Sunday Masses.

For the Voluntary he plays on the organ before and after the Mass each week, rather than simply identify the composer and name of the piece, Chris includes a brief explanation of the music.  For example, this past weekend, he opened with Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, and the aide included this:

Nineteenth-century English organist and composer Herbert Howells based this piece on a melody by Thomas Tallis, hence the reference to “Master Tallis,” in the title. That same melody is the basis for the choir’s anthem at the 11:00 mass.  Its somber, melancholy nature fits well with the text for the anthem, with the overall ethos of the season of Lent, and with the foreshadowing of Jesus’s death in today’s Gospel. Eventually the piece builds to a loud climax, which parallels the Second Reading’s description of Jesus offering “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” (Cf. Hebrews 5:7)  The quiet, plaintive end to the piece connects with Jesus’s humble acceptance of his fate.

Is any of this necessary?  No, of course not.  I can participate fully in the sacrifice of the Mass without reading any of it.

But we know that music has the ability to greatly enhance the worship experience.  And for me, reading the explanation beforehand allowed me to enter into Jesus’ experience as I listened to the piece – to feel both his “loud cries and tears” and his “humble acceptance.”  It was a wonderful preparation for entering into the Sacrifice of the Mass.

What Are We Looking For In A Translation

The other day I read yet another article on the new translation of the Roman Missal that will go into effect in Advent of this year. I have heard many defend and applaud the changes in the language of the Mass, while others lament many of the particular changes as well as the broader shift they fear the changes signal.

I have read or heard any number of people laud the changes as being more faithful to the literal meaning of the Latin phrases in the Mass. In fact, that is not consistently the case. (For example, the Latin Word astare in the Eucharistic Prayer, which literally means “stand in your presence,” is being translated as “be in your presence,” apparently because of the fear that a literal translation might suggest to people that it is acceptable to stand during the Eucharistic Prayer.) More importantly, however, it is legitimate to ask whether literal translation of the Latin is the most important consideration in the language we use for the Mass.

While I appreciate a desire that the language of liturgy be beautiful, there is also a value in clarity and intelligibility, especially since is language the congregation is hearing, not studying. The article I just read says that the average number of words per sentence in the new Eucharistic Prayer is 35.4, an almost 80% increase in sentence length. (In Eucharistic Prayer I, all but one of the sentences is longer than 40 words long, with the longest at 82.)

More than length, some of the phrases are downright confusing. The article gave as one example a Mass preface that reads, “For when you children were scattered afar by sin, through the Blood of your Son and the power of the Spirit, you gathered them you yourself…” Absent careful recitation by the presider, people are likely to hear that the Blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit scattered God’s children. The author of the article lamented that “[e]ven read well, this prayer will likely lose all but its best-educated and most highly attentive hearers.”

Part of me cautions to await Advent and the usage of the new translation before making a judgment. Part of me, however, is concerned that the new translation has elevated a desire to be faithful to a literal translation of the Latin (except where it has decided for other reasons that a literal translation is undesirable) over the goal of language that will be meaningful to the congregation. I pray I am wrong in this concern.

Hearing God’s Word in Every Sound

My friend John just pointed out to me the Alternative Opening Prayer for today’s Mass. The alternative was not used in the Mass I attended this morning and I’m guessing I’m not the only one for whom that was the case. It is much too beautiful a prayer to escape attention, so here it is:

Lord our God,
all truth is from you,
and you alone bring oneness of heart.
Give your people the joy
of hearing your word in every sound
and of longing for your presence more
than for life itself.
May all the attractions of a changing world
serve only to bring us the peace of your kingdom
which the world does not give.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.