Embracing change to renew communal worship, faith

By  Christine Way Skinner, Catholic Register Special
  • November 23, 2011

NEWMARKET, Ont. - As the catechist in an active suburban parish, I have been responsible for helping parishioners and teachers in our parish schools prepare for the changes that English-speaking Catholics will experience now that Advent is here.

When I first learned that we would be using a new translation of the Mass a few years ago, I knew that it would be very important to prepare people for the change. In my 20+ years of experience in pastoral ministry, I have learned that change in general is difficult for people. Change in peoples’ traditions and rituals, however, can be exceedingly difficult. 

In many ways, the changes that have been made to the words we speak at Mass are minor compared to other changes that we as a Church have been through. More is staying the same than is changing. Nevertheless, the changes are significant enough to have caused some consternation among Catholics. 

It has been interesting to listen to what has moved people — either to rejoice in or to mourn — regarding the coming changes. What one person loves, another disdains. What one disdains, another loves. One of my liturgy professors used to say that in any given liturgy there had to be “room for everyone to play.”

The truth that he was naming is that there must be something that touches each person in the gathered assembly. This is not easily accomplished in any congregation and is a special challenge for a Church like ours. Communal prayer in the Catholic tradition is inherently inclusive.

On Sundays, we gather together rich and poor, educated and uneducated, newborn babes and 100-year-old grandparents. You can find folks from almost every ethno-cultural group and national affiliation. This is what led James Joyce to describe Catholicism as “here comes everybody.”

When the language, ritual and pastoral ministry of the Church serves an assembly this broad and wide, everyone will find something that moves their heart and something that leaves them cold. Can we really expect that the new translation of the Roman Missal will work any differently?

The very prayer that evokes beautiful new scriptural images and stories in one person will be distractingly wordy to another person. The formality which seems dignified to one will seem stuffy to another. This is what it means to belong to a universal (the very definition of Catholic) Church.

There are some other significant reasons for us to rejoice in the changes. At least for a while, we will be compelled to pay more attention to the words that we speak on Sunday. Because we learn our liturgical prayers by heart, it is easy to fail to go through the motions without being conscious of what we are saying. Having to use new expressions will, hopefully, make us more attentive and we will move towards that full, conscious and active participation for which the Second Vatican Council called.

This new English translation will also unite us with other language groups. Using the same words in many tongues, we will raise our voices throughout the world in praise of our loving God. Perhaps this may help us to realize more profoundly that Christ is truly present in the neighbour with whom we worship.

As well, because the language is more formal, it may help us to reclaim some of the reverence and mystery of liturgical celebrations of former times. While it would likely be a mistake to return to the strictness that once characterized our churches, a little formality may serve as a necessary corrective in a culture both inside and outside the Church that has forgotten its good manners. 

Anglican liturgical scholar Thomas Talley wrote that “Too many communities have already been brought to despair by the discovery that, having rearranged the furniture of the sanctuary and instituted an offertory procession, they still don’t love one another.”

The new Roman Missal that is being welcomed into parishes this Advent will not be a perfect translation nor will it be the last. Our task as Catholics is to seek out those words and gestures which touch our hearts and move us to be more loving and kind. It is our job to focus on those words which lead us to conversion and make us more just, more prayerful and more courageous. If we find ourselves becoming annoyed or petty, then perhaps those words are not the ones that are meant for us. They are for other “players” in the liturgy.

Let us welcome this opportunity to renew our communal worship, and thereby, our faith.

(Way Skinner is a catechist at St. John Chrysostom parish in Newmarket, Ont.)

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