Monday, 28 January 2008

Vernacular readings: treat with caution!

On his site The New Liturgical Movement, on 23 January 2008, Shawn Tribe posts this:

"The Vernacular Option for the Lessons; A Call for Discussion

One of our readers sent in this story: Aufer A Nobis: Missa Pro Pace at St. Mary's in Washington, DC. The Mass, offered in the ancient form of the Roman rite, occurred in relation to the Pro-life March in that same capital city.

What I found particularly interesting however was that the celebrating priest, a European priest from the Institute of Christ the King, employed a practice that -- to my knowledge -- tended to be employed within continental Europe, and in particular France: while the celebrating priest quietly read the Epistle and Gospel from the altar in Latin, another member of the clergy read the lessons in the vernacular aloud concurrently.

For whatever reason this practice had not found liturgical expression within the English speaking world -- enough so that to even see or hear of this might seem novel to some -- with the preference instead being for the proclamation of the readings in Latin from the altar and later again from the pulpit (in the vernacular) prior to the homily.

The former, more European practice has always seemed to me to be a more elegant solution that meshed better with the flow of the liturgy. Today however, the option for the use of vernacular readings has been made available to us by the Pope, therefore firming up a development that had been already occuring:

‘In Masses celebrated in the presence of the people in accordance with the Missal of Bl. John XXIII, the readings may be given in the vernacular, using editions recognised by the Apostolic See.’ (Article 6, Summorum Pontificum)

Simply put, the readings proper to the 1962 Missal may be spoken or chanted by the priest at the altar in the natural course of the liturgy.

While it is a point of legitimate disagreement amongst those of us attached to the ancient Roman liturgy, I myself believe that if one is going to have vernacular readings proclaimed (rather than simply read as we might do elsewhere in the liturgy with our missals) then doing so in the way described in article 6 of Summorum Pontificum is a preferable option to exercise given the right conditions -- i.e. pastoral preparation.

Previously we were more limited in this regard and so the aforementioned workarounds were implemented. These have served their purpose in the context of their day, but in the present situation I think we need to now re-analyze our approach to this.

In my mind, neither of the aforementioned practices are the best liturgical solution any longer. After all, if we wish to have the readings proclaimed in the vernacular, why have the priest say them in Latin at the altar while having someone else do so concurrently? Likewise, why have the same epistle read twice and why have people stand and listen to the same gospel proclaimed twice?

In the case of the latter, what I have often found mentioned is the aspect of the preserving the chanted Latin readings. I'd propose that we need not be all or nothing about this. A vernacular equivalent can be worked out using those same melodies -- thereby preserving the chanted aspect -- and if a community wishes to preserve the tradition of the Latin readings (a good thing as well) why not simply make the translation of the readings available to the faithful so that they might read along as the priest or deacon says/sings them in Latin, just as they might at other times in the Mass?

Some might say that I am myself being rather ‘all or nothing’ in promoting a choice between using either the vernacular or Latin for the readings of a particular liturgy -- rather than both-and. However, it seems to me there is something to be said for preserving the normal place of the readings in the context of the natural ebb and flow of the liturgy itself with its associated prayers, tracts, alleluias and ceremonial. So perhaps we need to just make our choice for that Mass, Latin or vernacular readings, and proceed with it accordingly.

There may indeed be some need for preparation of course. Perhaps all that will be required in one community is a simple explanation by the priest of this in the light of the Pope's motu proprio. Perhaps time will be needed for priests to learn how to chant the reading in the vernacular. Perhaps it will take time to source out an approved edition of the readings in question. Moreover, perhaps one's congregation is peculiarly sensitive to this issue, in which case it may be best to work in such possibilities gradually over a more extended period of time.

This is all fine of course. We have had enough rushing into things to last us for quite some time and we need measured, prudent and responsible applications. I am not interested in promoting such rushing in. However, I think it would also be a mistake to not at least begin to approach the issue, or to simply assume that there will be a negative response, particularly now that the Pope has made it a formalized option.

With that in mind, I would be curious to hear your comments either in support, caution, or disagreement. Let's hear your thoughts. In particular, I would be interested in hearing from our clergy celebrating the usus antiquior."

A reader replied to him thus:

“Dear Shawn,

Well! That certainly generated a discussion!

The temptation to change for the sake of compromise is very great but, alas, the itch for compromise and change is what got us in a mess in the first place.

I think there is something mystical at work, here, if it’s not too dramatic to say so.

Why did God allow the virtual suppression of the TLM? In one sense, I suppose, God has preserved His treasure by allowing foolish men to act as if it were suppressed. Thus it has been curiously preserved whole and intact, amidst all the liturgical chaos of the last 40 years.

That seems providential, indeed.

In times past, as the English bishops said in response to Apostolicae Curae in the early 20th century, the idea that anyone could make substantial changes to the liturgy was utterly unthinkable and like a kind of sacrilege. Additions, yes, but subtractions, no, and the vernacular was viewed cautiously because it so easily lends itself to mistranslation and misinterpretation.

The Eastern Churches have a horror of such (and their liturgies are in a sacred vernacular, like Old Slavonic or Geez, which seems to give them, like 1662 Anglicans, an extra sensitivity to the unbridled vernacular). Their view is that the Last Supper was like what we would call a ‘collegial’ or ‘conventual’ mass and that our Lord used Hebrew, as was used in the Temple worship, and not vernacular Aramaic or Koine Greek. And, today, liturgical Aramaic and Greek are not at all colloquial or ‘vernacular’ but more akin to the relationship between Classical Arabic and vernacular Arabic.Which translation of Scripture would be used?

The Earl of Clarendon said, in his history of the English Civil War, that three words had destroyed all peace and stability in the nation. They were: ‘Search the Scriptures’. He did not mean that there was anything bad about Scripture but rather that men wrought Scripture to their own damnation.

For this reason it is better kept in a sacred language and not broadcast promiscuously to the people who may then wrest the meaning to their spiritual destruction. Better that the learned understand it and the clergy explain it (in sermons etc).

When Vatican II urges greater reading of Scripture, that is, of course, right, but that surely meant under the guidance of the Church and not simply by promiscuous reading of Scripture in the vernacular so that the people might make of it what they will.

Liturgically, it seems odd, too, since it can interrupt the flow of the dramaturgy like, say, a man walking on stage during a Shakespeare play to explain in modern English to the audience what the dialogue means.

Yes, more than one thing can happen at a time in a play/liturgy but it can destroy the harmony of the whole if it does not fit the drama or is intruded into the drama.

Some will say that this is just the ‘old guard’ moaning again. Actually, it was a twenty-something black student who made the comment to me.

I think it is wiser to treat phrases like ‘it always seemed to me’ or ‘in my mind’ with caution.

Whenever Tradition is set aside or dismantled it is usually in the name of someone who has had a bright new idea and wishes it to replace what has been handed down for centuries.”

Any views, folks?



Ttony said...

In an era when, in the western world, there is near universal literacy, one might wonder what the point is other than change for change's sake.

The important thing, however, is to get hung up about Tradition, and not about Latin.

Tribunus said...


Although, Latin is also important since it is a sacred language and the language of the Church which is, and was intended by God to be, Roman.