söndag 30 augusti 2009

Is swine flue the work of the Holy Spirit?

Today at Mass we were told that, to prevent the spread of swine flue, we were not to make the sign of peace, that only the Body of Christ would be distributed at Holy Communion, and not the Blood of Christ, and that Communion would be given on the tongue, not in the hand.

Good. Is it too much to hope that this will be the last we shall see of these three practices, seeing that the Vatican has now come round to expressing its disapproval?

What next? Can we expect to be asked to receive Communion whilst kneeling, to avoid infection? Should the Priest not be facing the same way as the congregation (ad orientem), again, to avoid infection? And would it not reduce the risk of infection if the Canon of the Mass was recited silently?

And whilst on health and safety matters, should the altar rails go back so as to get rid of the trip hazard due to the sanctuary step? Otherwise the step will have to be marked with yellow tape which would not be nice.

lördag 22 augusti 2009

Language in the liturgy - new translation

The definitive liturgy for the Catholic church is always in Latin, and the vernacular translation normally used are translations from the Latin. The English version was prepared by a body going by the initials ICEL and dates from the late 1960s. It is, to put it mildly, a free adaptation rather than a translation, and the authorities have requested that a new translation be made, faithful to the Latin. This is due to be introduced in a couple of years.

It is an improvement on the present one, there is no doubt about that. How well it will be accepted is another matter. It has a curiously seventeenth century ring about it. That will make it difficult for many to accept on account of its evident strangeness. This applies not just to people in the UK and US with English as their mother tongue but poor command of the language, but also in ex-Commonwealth countries. I can't see it going down well in those oddly mixed congregations that for some reason attend English masses here in Sweden, for example.

Vernacular language is political and that is why dead languages are used for liturgy, since they provide neutral territory. Moslems use Classical Arabic, Jews use Classical Hebrew, Hindus Sanskrit, etc. Language useage is always closely linked to social and economic class, with strong overtones of regional and ethnic loyalty. Vernacular language is inherently divisive. This is evident in Britain but more acutely even just across the Channel in Belgium.

There are also going to be difficulties over musical settings. The 1970s things need to be consigned to oblivion. But "Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" with 15 syllables is translated by "and on earth peace to people of good will" with 10. So the Gregorian settings can't be used. The same verse in Swedish is "och frid på jorden åt människor som har hans välbehag" has 15 syllables. The translation was made long ago for the Lutheran church and makes it possible to use the original Gregorian settings, which is what happened. So when the Catholic church here adopted the vernacular, there was a mass of music available, based on the Gregorian chants, with the result that the liturgy is perfectly acceptable - the problem being that to many priests speak with a heavy German accent which makes it difficult for people to understand.

So the new translation leaves us without musical settings. If the old Church of England translations had been permitted as an option, this would at least have opened up the possibility of using the large body of Anglican music, though that has the severe drawback of having an irredeemably Protestant feeling to it.

What with the linguistic difficulty and musical problems, I am left wondering if it is even worth spending money on books. The same money could go towards buying a set of the simpler Gregorian chants and using the next two years to get congregations used to Latin. If one then takes account of issues such as the direction the priest is facing, the further question arises - whether to persist with the Ordinary form of the Mass at all? The EF form with a revised calendar appears to side-step the problems. It could be easier to spend the next couple of years getting congregations used to the EF mass, which would provide the opportunity for much-needed catechesis at the same time.

Sample texts for the new translation can be viewed here

lördag 15 augusti 2009

Participation in the Mass

In the Tablet's report on Archbishop Nicholls’ speech to the Latin Mass Society’s recent training event, the comment made was that the old form of the Mass precludes participation. In what way? (Tablet, 8 and August)

Congregations can sing the Ordinary of the Mass and the responses in both new and old forms. In the old mass, whilst the priest is reciting the Canon silently and in Latin, the congregation is meant to be doing the same thing in the vernacular. So where is the lack of participation?

Because of its flexibility, the post-Vatican II liturgy can, and often does, exclude. Hymns are often unfamiliar or difficult to sing. The responsorial psalm is a challenge to anyone whose hearing and short-term memory are not 100%.

Participation is also impeded when the Mass is celebrated in a vernacular which is not one’s own language, or when the priest is celebrating in a language in which he is not fluent - which is by no means unusual in some countries.

Reciting the Canon of the Mass aloud is also no guarantee of participation. In either form of the Mass it is easy to let one’s mind wander towards thoughts about what one is going to have for lunch. The discipline of having to follow the text in a book whilst the priest is reciting silently is, if anything, an aid to concentration and engagement.

The practice of saying Mass facing the people is of dubious value if the aim it to promote participation. This configuration conveys a “them-and-us” message which is reinforced where Masses are concelebrated.

Not everyone who is critical of the post-Vatican II mass is stuck in the past. Whilst it can be celebrated in a satisfactory way, in practice, and especially in the English-speaking world, liturgy at present suffers from serious shortcomings which should not be ignored. But why some so-called liberals dislike the old for of the Mass with such vehemence is a question that calls for an answer. Are they scared of it, perhaps? And why might that be?

Should one become a Christian?

I have come across a couple of people recently who go to church regularly but are not formally members. One has been going to a Catholic Mass regularly for the past twenty years. Another person I met alternates between Catholic and Protestant churches.

What should they do? In the first example, the subject came up over coffee. I said “it was between you and God”. There was no need to discuss the matter except to answer questions.

Much the same applies in the second example. If someone is drawn to attending church, God is obviously at work.But these things have their own momentum and go at their own speed. If and when the time is ripe for taking a more positive step, then they will feel it as something they have to go through with. If one comes across people at that stage of their spiritual life, the last thing to do is to push them.

Someone who is attending both Catholic and Protestant churches also needs to do the necessary background reading to find out what both stand for. It is even more important to take one’s time. The Catholic Church claims to be the lineal descendant of the church that Christ founded, with an apostolic line of succession and valid priestly orders, such that the sacraments are literally the Body and Blood of Christ, as is made clear in scripture. That is why I became and remain a member of the Catholic Church. It is not a decision I have ever regretted, but anyone who joins it is going to be disappointed if they expect perfection. There will be plenty of things they will dislike. But the church is made up of ordinary fallible people so the mistake lies in having the expectations.

That said, there will be plenty of things to like – good company, good conversation, a chance to experience the best of music, architecture and the arts if one so wishes, and an endless round of social activities. But these are not a reason for joining, but the bonus one gets if one does.

But becoming a Christian is not something one does. It is something that happens to people, and it is necessary only to be open to the experience.

A tale of two parliaments

Last week I visited the Riksdag in Stockholm. This was very interesting in comparison with the British parliament. I came to the conclusion that there are advantages and disadvantages in the two countries' systems. What is good about the British system is the one-member one-constituency arrangement. What is bad about the British system is first-past-the-post voting. It leads to unrepresentative democracy which is hardly democracy at all.

But the Swedish electoral system is by area, with multi-member constituencies selected from a party list. This tends to give too much power to party selection committees.

Britain's two-chamber system is also good in that it provides a check on government. However, the Swedish system removes government from parliament. What in effect corresponds to the British cabinet is separate from but answerable to the elected members. Elected members
who become members of the government must resign their seats and as I understood it, new elections are held. Under the British system, if one's MP become a minister, the constituency virtually loses its MP.

Members in the Riksdag sit in seats according to their constituency, not according to party. The layout is an arc of a circle. The government has its own seats in front, where they can be grilled by members.

In my opinion this is a better layout that having members in two blocks facing each other, as in the British parliament. That is a recipe for confrontation and it also leaves no physical space for other viewpoints. The whole notion of holding debates with two opposing sides is based on the assumption that one is right and the other is wrong, or that right consists of some kind of compromise position in between. This implies that both parties to the debate are in agreement on the terms of that debate. If the truth lies in another direction entirely, as seems so often to be the case, then such a debating structure will mean that the right course of action will not be discovered.

As I understand it, the seating layout has its origin in the practice of meeting in St Stephen's Chapel, where the choir stalls faced each other, as is normal practice in such places. But ecclesiastical establishments themselves built chapter houses for this purpose, and significantly, they were circular, thereby giving everyone an equal voice. Which makes me wonder if politics would not develop very differently if parliament met in a building with a different shape? It would be interesting to see how things would go in, for example, the Albert Hall, with the parties all mixed up.

On the subject of the building itself: I was in the Palace in March. I was struck by the odd and uncomfortable conjunction of nineteenth century Gothic and information technology systems like flat screen VDUs. The whole place seems to carry a weight of history bearing down like a heavy blanket. When that history is of the vanished empire of a great power, I am not sure whether it is a good thing. The Swedish parliament is partly in a nineteenth century classical style and part 1970s. Long before, Sweden too had been a great power with an empire, but the parliament buildings reflect the more modest role of the neutral state that the country had become by the time the parliament was built.

What strikes me more than anything, and nearly everyone I speak to says the same thing, is that Britain is failing to come to terms with its role, which means that it is not making the contribution that it could and should. So perhaps a move might be no bad thing, as a chance to rethink what Britain should stand for in the twenty-first century. The Palace of Westminster can then be opened up as a tourist destination.

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