Loss and Gain

January 10, 2012

As even the general-interest secular press has been noting, the whole English-speaking Catholic Church (at least that majority of it that follows the Latin Rite rather than the various Eastern Rites), has been more or less convulsed by the introduction before Christmas of an entirely new English translation of the Mass, both of the invariable and of the immense body of daily variable texts (except for the biblical readings, which have their own translations). The nature and quality of the English had been much discussed over the past four decades, as well as attendant musical issues — prime among them the place of Gregorian chant in the modern world.

Loss and Gain, the title, as it happens, of a remarkable novel by John Henry Newman, is the theme of so much development in human affairs. A much-forgotten passage by Pope Paul VI in 1969, it seems to me, sums up much in this and other questions of human culture:

Clearly the most noticeable new departure is that of language. From now on the vernacular, not Latin, will be the principal language of the Mass. For those who appreciate the beauty of Latin, its power, and aptness to express the sacred, substitution of the vernacular certainly represents a great sacrifice. We are losing the idiom of the Christian ages; we become like profane intruders into the literary sanctuary of sacred language; we shall lose a large portion of that wonderful and incomparable, artistic and spiritual reality, Gregorian chant. We indeed have reason for sadness and perhaps even for bewilderment. What shall we put in the place of this angelic language? We are sacrificing a priceless treasure. For what reason? What is worth more than these sublime values of the Church? The answer may seem trite and prosaic, but it is sound because it is both human and apostolic. Our understanding of prayer is worth more than the previous, ancient garments in which it has been regally clad. Of more value, too, is the participation of the people, of modern people who are surrounded by clear, intelligible language …. If our sacred Latin should, like a thick curtain, close us off from the world of children and young people, of work and the business of everyday, then would we, fishers of men, be wise to allow it exclusive dominion over the speech of religion and prayer?

— Paul VI, Address to a general audience, on the new Ordo Missae, 26 November1969: Notitiae 5 (1969) 412-416 (Italian) English translation, Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979 [ICEL] (The Liturgical Press, 1983)

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