Don’t spare the beauty for the new Roman Missal

  • June 1, 2011

Canadian parishes will begin preparing soon for the new translation of the Mass, to be implemented in Advent 2011. Yet one decision needs to be made sooner; parishes must order their copies of the new Roman Missal (the book of prayers for Mass used at the altar).

The missal must be beautiful. Anything that is not beautiful should never be on the altar. Our supreme worship of the Lord requires beauty. We too require beauty — which is why we dress up for important functions, decorate our homes by the season and use beautiful things for special occasions. Mercifully, the age of ugly vessels upon the altar is largely passed, and increasingly one sees beautiful vestments, church decor and architecture.

Most people never see the missal. Yet the priest who offers Mass and the servers who assist him need to be constantly reminded that what they are doing is not routine. The long tradition of missals that were themselves works of art was aimed at assisting the priest to be mindful of just that.

The current English missal for Canada is not ugly, but it is excruciatingly plain. A typical junior high school yearbook or appliance manual is more attractive. It’s not only a Canadian problem; other countries too are afflicted. The new missal gives everyone the opportunity to correct this. Will the publications service of the Canadian bishops’ conference do so?

With less than six months to go, there are no sample pages for review, and, according to sources, the decision about including artwork is still being taken. At this stage, two-colour images are being contemplated, not the four-colour standard that would permit usage of the great treasures of Christian art. The current plan is to wait until after all the missals have been printed in the fall to see if there is interest in producing a beautiful edition, rather than a merely functional one. Parishes which desire beauty on the altar will be penalized, having to buy two missals rather than one.

Until now, Canadian parishes have been a truly captive market. They had to buy liturgical books from the bishops’ conference publications service, as no one else produced Canadian liturgical books. But the new translation of the missal is the same for the entire English-speaking world. The only Canadian adaptations will be in the instructions for offering Mass and our local saints. The instructions have been available and in force for many years, and the prayers for the few Canadian saints are readily available elsewhere. If the Canadian missal is not a worthy product, parishes may well look abroad for better options.

It may already be too late for a worthy Canadian missal. In order to get the new missals in time for Advent, better-prepared publishers are already taking advance orders. The Catholic Truth Society in England is publishing the missal for England, Wales, Scotland and Australia. It is a splendid book, which can be seen on the CTS web site, complete with sample pages. The cost will be $375 (U.S.) — a clear bargain if the Canadian edition, priced at $250 (Can.), is as plain as the current one.

In the United States the bishops have authorized seven different publishers to produce missals, offering a real choice to parishes. Magnificat, the publishers of the excellent monthly liturgical booklet, has produced a missal that “aims at reviving the great tradition of illustrated liturgical books.” It too can be seen on its web site, and is priced at $170 (U.S.).

Midwest Theological Forum, another of the seven American publishers, has already distinguished itself as a producer of extraordinarily beautiful liturgical books. The publication of its Latin missal a few years ago was a landmark in recent liturgical publishing; there are now plans to do the same in English. The work is already up on its web site, priced at $350 (U.S.) or $500 (U.S.), depending on the quality of bindings and paper. For a book intended to be used daily on the altar for years, either would be good value.

Canadian parishes are thus in a difficult spot. International publishers are ready to take orders, with the missals available to be previewed online. Prices are set and the quality is known — CTS, Magnificat and MTF all have good track records. The Canadian option cannot be ordered, cannot be viewed online and does not aim to meet the standards of the Australians, Americans or British.

There are few things more important in a parish than the sacred items used for Mass. Canadians should not tolerate inferior standards in the worship of God. Parishes should not have to choose between beauty and buying Canadian, but it appears that they might be forced to do so.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

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