måndag 27 oktober 2014

What is the point of English Masses for students?

The idea has taken hold that because English is amongst the world's best known languages, it is suitable for use for Masses celebrated for students in countries which are not English speaking. The students will indeed probably all know English. Their courses may even be taught in English. With the English language seemingly on the way to taking the place that Latin occupied as a universal language from Roman times until well into the nineteenth century, this seems like an attractive idea.

There are, however, difficulties with this assumption. Latin as a formal language, and particularly ecclesiastical Latin, was largely settled by the sixth century. What people spoke as vernacular languages would have been the dialects of Latin that would eventually evolve into, amongst others, Spanish, Italian and French. English, by contrast, remains a living language. It is constantly changing. The 1970 translation has already been replaced with a new one, which is truer to the Latin, but in the change, the text has become more complicated and includes words, and a style of phrasing, far from what English-speaking people are used to.

English also has wide dialect variations. Some of the US and British colonial dialects, and even of dialects within Britain itself, can be difficult to understand by people not used to them. A further difficulty is that the meaning of a sentence is dependent on both the order of the words and the stress of the voice when spoken. A foreign reader is particularly liable to pick up the wrong meaning.

This explains why, when attending these English language Masses for students, I have barely understood the readings. Listening to some of the celebrating priests can be hard work. If I, as a native speaker of British received pronunciation English, have difficulties, it is safe to assume that nearly everyone present will have much the same experience.

The obvious answer is to use Latin, which would be customary anyway if provisions of the Vatican 2 document Sacrosanctum Concilium was followed, but in the Novus Ordo there is still the question of which language the readings and Responsorial Psalm should be, and there is the long recitation of the Canon. Here is a situation where the Tridentine form of the Mass is ideal. It can all be read and sung in Latin, and everyone can follow in their own language, in their books, or on printed sheets.

There are further aspects to this. Students are the best educated of their generation, and deserve to be given the opportunity to experience the best of the 2000 year-old musical heritage of the Catholic church. It is not good enough to fob them off with indifferent hymns composed in the 1970s, which is what they are getting. We don't drive 1970s cars or wear 1970s clothes, so why are young people being given 1970s liturgy?

If students are exposed to the best that the Catholic church's liturgy has to offer, they are more likely to retain their faith and pass it on to their children. Some of them might possibly discover vocations to the priesthood or religious life. Support for the traditional Mass is strongest amongst the under-30s. There is every reason to expect that it would be well received by students. A good classic  liturgy with high quality music would encourage students to invite their non-Catholic friends and in this way, become part of the church's evangelical outreach.

There are also implications for the host parishes where these Masses are held in a church. They occupy the building for over an hour, take up a priest's time and are often attended by parishioners. Since Summorum Pontificum was issued in 2007, there has been an increase in the celebration of Mass in the old form, but Pope Benedict's expectations have not yet borne the fruit that might have been expected. Partly, this is due to the shortage of priests able to say Mass in the old form. Conversations I have had with priests suggests that even if they want to, they have not had the opportunity to learn, partly due to lack of time and partly due to the shortage of training opportunities. The ability to say Mass in both forms should be a requirement of all seminarians before they are ordained, and that would in due course solve the problem. In the meantime, there is a need for training courses on the lines of the Priests' Conferences organised by the English Latin Mass Society. However, in some parishes, priests are available who are able to celebrate Mass in the old form.

Surely it is a waste of resources to tie up church buildings and the priests' time with indifferent liturgies, which are not comprehensible and of poor quality, when something so much better could be offered?

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