Buy a beautiful missal

  • July 13, 2011

A few weeks back I wrote in these pages that the new Roman Missal, which will come into effect this Advent, should be beautiful, worthy of being on the altar during Mass. The missal is the book used by the priest which contains all the Mass prayers. A new English translation of the missal has been done, and so new missals are required in every Catholic parish.

The current missal produced by the publications service of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is most unworthy, lacking even the creative design of a low-end recipe book. Canadian priests were hoping that the new missal published this fall would be a true work of art, not a mere functional instruction manual. We saw that publishers in England, Australia and the United States had sample pages posted online, drawing upon the long tradition of Catholic art adorning the altar missal. I wrote that if the CCCB version was as unimaginatively plain as their existing work, Canadian parishes should consider buying a British or American missal. All the prayers are exactly the same and the minor adaptations for Canada — local saints and variations in the rubrics for Mass — are easily enough obtained elsewhere.

Dr. Glenn Byer, director of the CCCB publications service, referred to me as an “unofficial spokesman” promoting “American publications.” I am a spokesman only for my own views. He of course is “official” insofar as his job is to sell these missals.

As far as promoting American products, I want a beautiful missal, not an American one. If Canada’s sole missal publisher cannot get the job done, then being of catholic sensibility I would be happy to get one from Britain, Kenya or the Bahamas.

The new missal should be an occasion for the CCCB publications service to show that it is the equal of anyone in the world.

Dr. Byer writes that the CCCB missal is entirely Canadian-made and that “there is a beauty in this too.” Really? Wrapping an ugly thing in moosehide and soaking it in maple syrup does not make it less ugly. Being made in Canada does not make something beautiful. It accomplishes other goals, but why set in opposition beauty and local production?

More troubling still, Dr. Byer seems to miss the entire point of publishing beautiful things for Mass. He argues that there “is nothing more beautiful than the contents of the antiphons and prayers . . . these are the stars of the book, not an abundance of colour plates.”

Yes, obviously the words are more important than how they are printed, but in that case why not just print off a daily sheet in the office and save all that flipping of pages in the missal? The book should be beautiful because the words are important; Dr. Byer gets it backwards, arguing that the book should be plain so as not to distract from the words. That argument was used for generations to justify hideous vessels for Holy Communion, but no serious person argues now that a beautiful ciborium or chalice distracts from the Eucharist itself.

Dr. Byer is altogether too defensive about his project to inspire confidence among the parishes which will soon be asked to spend considerable sums on it. Indeed, seeking to justify his decision to use black and-white drawings from a 19th-century French artist rather than full-colour reproductions of the masters of Catholic painting, he argues that “hundreds of colour plates” would distract from the words. Perhaps, but no one was arguing for a coffee-table art book, just a suitably decorated missal. The British version has 15 colour plates, and the most elaborate (horrors!) American version has 49. There would be an illustration for the most solemn feast days, and perhaps a few others for the ordinary of the Mass. That should not prove overwhelming, even for the most esthetically deficient priest.

The CCCB approach is deeply discouraging, saddling Canadian parishes with inferior products for the foreseeable future. Dr. Byer writes that after everyone has bought one of the CCCB missals, perhaps a more “deluxe” version might be produced. But such a version would not be for “everyday use” but only “special occasions.”

Therein lays the major difference between this “unofficial” priest and the CCCB’s official director of publications. I rather think every Holy Mass is a special occasion, worthy of the best we can manage as Catholics. And I don’t think being Canadian is an obstacle to that.

Parishes should not buy American. Or British. Or Canadian. They should buy beautiful.


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