Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"You Can't Turn Back the Clock"...

...SO SAY CRITICS of Pope Benedict's granting permission for wider celebration of the older Latin Mass.

But this is nonsense. You can turn back the clock; in fact, I turn my clocks back every Autumn, at the end of Daylight Saving Time, as well as turn them forward again in the Spring.

OK, what the critics mean is that you can't go back in time and ignore the present, and they are correct. I do prefer the old Latin liturgy, and think that it is objectively superior; however, I write of these things on a computer, and I drive my car to Mass (as well as sometimes walk). However, the critics may believe in the false doctrine of inevitable progress; but if you make a mistake, you do often have to retrace your steps, turn back the clock.

The critics do have a point about the strength of having the liturgy in the vernacular instead of Latin, and certainly that has catechetical value, although the unifying value of Latin in both space and time is of very great importance, as recent Popes, the Second Vatican Council, and venerable tradition constantly remind us.

There was an opportunity in the 1960s to translate the liturgy into the vernacular, but as far as at least the American English version was concerned, it was poorly executed; so much so, that even the concept of a vernacular liturgy is now suspect. Now, this was a poor translation of an already controversial and problematic Latin text of the new Mass, which hardly helps matters.

English is a magnificent, incredibly rich language, and its writings and poetry are widely recognized as some of the best in the world's literature. Also consider that most of the great English writers, especially those who wrote about high, exalted things and of heart-breaking beauty, were for the most part Catholic or else at least highly influenced by Catholicism. There was no excuse whatsoever for having a poor English translation of the liturgy, but that is what we got: a flat, timid, awkward translation, deficient in beauty, precision, and sense of tradition. Liturgy in the English language should instead be awesome and memorable. But for the time being, I'll prefer the Latin, which already inspires awe and memory.

Even before the Second Vatican Council, vernacular liturgy did exist in versions of the Divine Office for the laity and some religious orders. This liturgy is made up mainly of Psalms and canticles, and since these are of supreme importance, few in number, and are already poetry, contemporary translations of these ought to be some of the best English poetry available, but they are not. I take this personally: it is doubtful that I will ever learn enough Latin to pray well the Divine Office in that language, so I do need a good official English translation.

Poets held an honored place in western society from at least the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans up until the early 1960s. Then, a violent change took place in all the arts, and poetry became unreadable and no longer spoke to or for all of the people. Now, serious poetry is only read by other poets, and those are dwindling in number, and remain mostly unpublished. Unfortunately, this was also the time of the English translation of the Mass, and the unpoetical language of that era is painfully obvious. Listen to Dr. Peter Kreeft's lecture the Language of Beauty for some insights.

According to Pope Benedict's latest motu proprio, both the old and new liturgies will be acceptable, and he hopes that they will positively influence each other. The old Latin liturgy is magnificent, exalted, and memorable, and should be the model for future vernacular translations.

I suspect that, ironically, if an exalted, magnificent, beautiful English translation of the liturgy had become official, then there would not have been such a bitter rejection of the existing Latin version. Nobility, after all, recognizes and honors other nobility.


  1. So well put, Marcus. Your own use of the English language is admirable.
    You may be interested to know that Baronius Press will be publishing a new edition of the "old" Latin Breviary, and they got Anthony Esolen of Touchstone Magazine to translate the psalms. (Prof. Esolen recently translated Dante's Divine Comedy and has received raves.)

  2. Hi, there. I'd like to invite you and your readers to stop by my blog.

    (You can read my translation of the Stabat Mater there!)

  3. For if such holy song
    Enwrap our fancy long,
    Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
    And speckled Vanity
    Will sicken soon and die,
    And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
    And Hell itself will pass away,
    And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

    [From The Hymn in John Milton's poem Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity.]