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Using poor language in the liturgy

  • 17 January 2013

The most pressing issue for the Church over the last year has been sexual abuse. Given the Royal Commission and other enquiries, it will surely also dominate this year's news. So it is understandable that there has been no space to celebrate such anniversaries as that of the introduction of the New Mass Translation. But this bears reflection because language is the underlying canvas on which life and conduct in any community are painted.

One year on it is clear that the more dramatic hopes and fears about the new translation were not realised. There were no reports of widespread rebellion in the pews, of continuing cacophony as different versions of responses mingled, of mass defection.

But nor has the introduction of the new translation been accompanied by the great spiritual renewal, the fresh understanding of the liturgy and the heightened sensitivity to scriptural echoes within the liturgy that some promised. The reverence and sense of transcendence claimed for the translation seem to have been perceived by few of those exposed to it. Nor has it changed the way in which people conduct themselves in church.

The lack of spectacular consequence is hardly surprising. Few people attend church services simply for the beauty of the language. Their faith is more deeply grounded and has endured worse challenges. The ways in which they engage with the liturgy, combining variously participation in a ritual duly conducted, identification with a community gathered in prayer, space for personal prayer and reflection, and presence to memories and hopes, are unlikely to be touched substantially by a change in wording only half attended to.

Nevertheless, the new translation is important because it will shape in small ways the sense of what it means to be Catholic. It is hard to see that it will be helpful in the longer run. Any change from the familiar to the new inevitably makes new boundaries. In this case it divides regular participants who are familiar with the new responses from occasional church goers who are rendered silent. Such discriminations are not helpful at a time when links with the Church are already so strained.

But perhaps the more important challenge facing any community is to find words that its members can identify and