Cuthbert Johnson on Translations

Jimmy Mac forwarded me Abbot Cuthbert Johnson‘s piece in The Tablet on translation, “A place for mystery and formality.” Abbot Johnson turns to a number of Benedictine and/or British liturgists and their post-conciliar observations on the liturgy. Though informative, I cannot say I’m impressed with the essay. I’m not at liberty to offer more than a few quotes for observation, first about Dom Henry Ashworth:

In June 1966 Dom Henry attended a meeting of the National Liturgical Commission and came away severely disappointed. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated barely 18 months previously, had underlined the need for organic growth in the development of the liturgy. Dom Henry already saw the dangers of what would be described today as the failure of a hermeneutic of continuity. He expressed it explicitly when he wrote to the ICEL secretariat: “There is a movement which wants to throw everything overboard and start from scratch.”

To begin with, one mention in the constitution is hardly an underlined principle. Other principles were far more in the forefront of the minds of the bishops as they grappled with liturgical reform. For one, the ceaseless mention of “active participation” and the hope this principle would involve and engage the laity not only in the rites, but also in their Christian witness to the world.

The greater context of reform, not the careful attachment to the past, guided the council bishops. And while certainly the value (not to mention the marshalling of energy) afforded by not “starting from scratch” clearly guided early reform. We still have the Mass. We still have the other sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours, the saints, and the treasury of devotions. All the things that “worked” for preconciliar Catholics–all the essentials–emerged officially intact. One might argue that misguided liturgists and pastors messed things up in particular communities–I wouldn’t disagree. But these people did not act with the mind of the Church. Likewise, I don’t see the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” as being in the forefront of the mind of the Church either.

On the other hand, a good quote from Dom Henry Ashworth:

Our liturgical texts were the work of men steeped in the Bible and what is now called patristic theology. Neither the Bible nor the theology of the Fathers is out of date. The crux of the whole problem is that the people are ignorant of the Bible, a good many of the clergy also; that Vatican II has urged the study of salvation history as given by the Bible and the Fathers; that the liturgical texts have to be explained to the people. In other words that a biblical and liturgical catechesis has to be given. The answer is not to eliminate the texts which cause difficulty, but to study them and explain them to the people.” (25 June 1966).

I would agree with Johnson there is indeed a temptation to minimize or eliminate the more involved liturgical/biblical connections at Mass. I remember a priest friend who preached about “Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews,” who, when I asked him about his throwaway reference (it had nothing to do with his homily) responded that the people weren’t current in who actually wrote what in the Bible, and that it didn’t matter. Could be true, but still, a wholly unnecessary smoothing over, if not falsehood.

In principle, it is contemporary liturgical music, and less the “treasury” that satisfies this great need. But perhaps it would lead Abbot Johnson and other reform2 folks on a path they wouldn’t care to tread.

Among others, the St Louis Jesuits addressed one aspect of Catholic biblical illiteracy in the songs they composed for Mass. Consider the texts of their most popular titles from the 70′s: “For You Are My God,” Psalm 16; “You Are Near,” Psalm 139; “Sing A New Song,” Psalm 98; “Sing to the Mountains,” Psalm 118. And if the psalms one would expect to see (literally!) in the antiphon + verses format weren’t enough, an expansion to other biblical texts not employed for the Mass propers, but still Scriptural: from Saint Paul, “Earthen Vessels” and “Dwelling Place,” and from the prophets “Come to the Water” and “Be Not Afraid.” Even the Didache (“One Bread One Body”) and the saints (Ignatius of Loyola, “Take Lord, Receive”) were part of the tradition handed on not to those looking for continuity, but for those more interested in tackling the issues that would actually improve liturgy and literacy and making the needful connections between tradition and the actual living of the faith.

I have yet to be convinced the Mass propers are always a superior choice. For a thoughtful and discerning parish, the wealth of songs and hymns that draw on Scripture and tradition may well be a better way. While I revere the Psalter both as the core of my own prayer and the prayer of the Church, perhaps we limit ourselves when we sing only these psalms. The Liturgy of the Hours is the locus for this. Why shouldn’t the Eucharist be enriched with a repertoire that includes Isaiah 43 (“You Are Mine”) or Philippians 3 (“The Love of the Lord”) or something vaguely suggestive of Hosea or Isaiah 6, or even a blending of many scriptural sources in a single piece like Steve Janco’s “We Shall Rise Again”?

You and I all have our bones to pick with most all of the songs I’ve mentioned above, especially musically. But my point is with Abbot Johnson’s accurate discernment: a lack of biblical literacy in both the clergy and the laity. Composers after the council, probably and especially the contemporary ones, addressed this issue more directly and more effectively than pretty much anyone else.

It was Bob Dufford who put the Easter text “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice” in our mouth. Not Tallis. Not Palestrina. It was John Foley who got people singing from the texts of the early Patristic Era. Not Monteverdi. Not Tavener.

I think Abbot Johnson and the more thoughtful of the reform2 advocates are indeed on the right track. The mindless and uninformed criticism of aspects of Catholic liturgy doesn’t do their cause justice. But it’s undeniable that Catholic liturgy enjoys a greater continuity with the past than many suspect. And if Liturgiam Authenticam is somehow seen as a vital corrective in this regard, I’d say that analysis suffers a great disconnect from what’s actually happening in many parishes.

That’s enough for today on this topic. Feel free to offer comments and observations. I’ll continue with more of Abbot Johnson later this weekend.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to Cuthbert Johnson on Translations

  1. Gabriel Austin says:

    The problem is simple. The compilers of the new/old translation as well as the new hymns have tin ears. But a high opinion of their skills, which they always excuse by claiming that it is the benighted worshippers in the pews who need their efforts.

    The poetry of the new hymns is banal. The music comes from the cocktail lounge.

    The old hymns, the old music [I write not of Palestrina but of the popular hymns] have been deliberately driven out by these vaunters of their own abilities, and collectors of royalties. It is enough to make one a Protestant, to be able to sing the beautiful hymns of such as the Wesleys.
    One has but to hear

    • Todd says:

      Hymns were not the goal of the post-conciliar composers; songs with antiphons and verses based on Scripture were.

      Looking to hymn texts, there certainly are people producing very nice work these days: Genevieve Glen, Ralph Wright, not to mention many folks from the Anglican tradition.

      The point of the post is that the much-maligned SLJ’s and others were composing with more of the mind of the Church and with a closer connection to continuity than the organ-n-choir crowd that dominated Catholic liturgical music for the generation after the council.

      I don’t see post-conciliar composers as a group being anything other than humble, granting a few exceptions.

  2. Liam says:

    In terms of the propers, I would not argue that they are always the superior choice. I would venture, however, that if it sounds strange for a Catholic congregation to encounter the propers – if ordinary Catholics are strangers to their liturgical music heritage and birthright – then that should be seen as something to be remedied over time. A good balance might be said to be achieved when the congregation no longer finds encounters with the propers to be strange or unfamiliar.

  3. smf says:

    I have never been to a mass in my entire life (at least the portion that I remember) that the propers were sung or chanted. Thus I think it fair to say they are entirely alien to many, many Catholics.

    As to the first quote, the church did not so much reform its liturgies in the usual Catholic sense of things being reformed, but rather it was a far more radical reformation of the sort seen in other institutions. Thus, much was indeed discarded that may have been of value, much new was created virtually ex nihilo, and what remained was altered in various ways. This applies to the mass, the hours, the calendar, and any of several other topics. This does not mean the reforms were necessarily bad, but much of it was far from being organic. Any honest person can admit that, both the strongest supporters and the strongest critics of the reforms.

    As to the second quote, it certainly does seem lamentable that things that were seen as difficult were discarded and replaced with things meant to be easy (but often at least as cryptic themselves to common folk). Why is it necessary that modern music provide this scriptural material now? Could it be because something was lost that now must be made up for? Further, where are the patristic sources being made up for now? (I know the liturgy of the hours is perhaps even better on the fathers and doctors now than in times past, but to most people that is a completely moot point.) Finally, I am not sure that songs having some scriptural inspiration is always such an enrichment. Sometimes, the scriptures are only the loosest of inspirations, such that the connection is virtually lost. Other times, several texts are mashed up in a rather nonsensical (though perhaps pretty) way. Yet other times the texts chosen are not particularly good renderings. Finally there are plenty that cherry pick flowering language, warm fuzzy feelings, and imaginative imagery while being devoid of any stronger content (not a bad thing from time to time, but not good when it becomes the dominant type).

    I suspect in the fullness of time some sort of via media will be found in all these things, but for now we seem to have a variety of rather harshly conflicting extremes in too many instances. Perhaps when everyone now living is long dead and buried… it would be nice to look in on things and see matters had been at least somewhat resolved… maybe even moved onto something like renewed evangalization.

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