The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Should the Mass reflect a pope’s personality?

The liturgy belongs to the whole Church, across time and space; it is not to be manipulated according to the whims of each individual pope.

Pope Francis uses incense as he celebrates a Mass marking the closing of the Dominican order's 800th anniversary celebrations at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome Jan. 21. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis has announced the formation of a committee to review the Church’s governing document on liturgical translation, Liturgiam Authenticam. Father Michael Ryan of the Archdiocese of Seattle—a leading opponent of the new English translation of the Mass that followed from the principles set forth in Liturgiam Authenticam—has greeted this news with joy in an article on America magazine’s website.

Father Ryan unloads his usual barrage of charges against the new translation, calling it a “wooden, woefully inadequate, theologically limited Missal that is low on poetry, if high on precision.” A few words must be said in answer to this before we proceed to the areas of greater concern.

Firstly, these complaints are largely a matter of aesthetics; one man’s “wooden and lifeless” is another’s “solemnly reverent and beautiful.” We must remember here, too, that “solemn” does not mean “somber” or “depressed”; it rather well described by C.S. Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost:

This quality will be understood by anyone who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modem English “solemn.” Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a “solemnity.” The feast at the beginning of “Gawain and the Green Knight” is very much of a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp—and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of “solemnity.” … Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. …The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.

In sum, “solemn” language reminds us that what we do in Mass is not an everyday activity. It is something holy, sacred, literally “set apart.”

Second, complaints that people don’t know words like “consubstantial,” “oblation,” or “regeneration” suggest another problem is at play. Decades of poor catechesis have caused the average layperson’s theological vocabulary to atrophy, so that once commonly understood terms are now mysterious. This says less about the fittingness of the words themselves than of the failure of the Church to impart their meaning. People could learn these terms again, if they were used and explained. We should always be wary of those who doubt the capacities of others—whether it’s their ability to learn, or to understand, or to live the moral life.

One last curious point arises when Father Ryan complains about the tenor of the new translation over that of the old, “emphasizing merit over mercy, sinfulness over dignity.” First, there is no opposition between merit and mercy. Indeed, it is only by the mercy of God in gifting us with His own life and regenerating us (to use another dirty word) that we are able to merit and cooperate with God’s grace at all.

But the primary problem with this critique goes deeper, because Father Ryan is talking here about substantive differences, not merely aesthetic ones. This is not a matter of tone or taste, but of what the prayer actually says. If the prayer speaks of merit, shouldn’t that be reflected in the English?

What he is suggesting here goes far beyond translating the universal Latin text. He does not simply want to express the essence of the Latin in a more contemporary English mode; he wants to change what meaning of the Latin text itself. Where the Latin speaks of our sinfulness, he wants to insert references to our dignity. This is akin to a priest telling you to name your accomplishments instead of your sins in the confessional—that is, it misses the point. This shows a desire not to retranslate the missal, but to simply to rewrite it. Translation should not be used as a Trojan horse to introduce novel concepts into the Church’s liturgy.

But the greatest danger in Father Ryan’s proposal is the kind of support he claims to have for his argument. Father Ryan writes:

But there is more to consider here than style and syntax and questionable theology. There is Pope Francis and the transformational moment he has ushered in for the church—the fresh air, the invitation to dialogue, the resetting of priorities, the quest for simplicity. And there are also his writings, especially Evangelii Gaudium. Although the pope does not focus on the Mass or the Missal, he does talk about language, communication, modes of expression, and cultural adaptation—all of which have significant implications for the way we pray.

Pope Francis points to the importance of simplicity, clarity, directness and adapting to “the language of the people in order to reach them with God’s word… and to share in their lives” (No. 158). In light of this, how can we justify using words like “consubstantial,” “conciliation,” “oblation” or “regeneration”?

Father Ryan makes two subtle moves here. First, he applies Pope Francis’ words on communicating the Gospel message to the question of how the Mass ought to be translated. But this is an illegitimate move. While the Mass is itself a primary means of communicating the Gospel, the mode of the liturgy itself is wholly different from that of a homily, conference talk, or conversation, because the liturgy is firstly an act of worship, and it is within the context of the Mass as act of worship that its language must be understood and evaluated. To return to C.S. Lewis’ point, the Mass is not a chat with your friend, but a more solemn affair, which requires another kind of language. The discussion we ought to be having is this: what ought liturgical language to be like?

Father Ryan implicitly claims to answer this question: in speaking of Pope Francis’ “transformational moment” in the Church, Father Ryan suggests that Pope Francis’ personality and preferences should be the determining factor in the shape and style of the liturgy. He later states bluntly: “The principles of Liturgiam Authenticam run precisely counter to Pope Francis’ vision.” For Father Ryan, the question is not whether the Church’s governing document on liturgical translation has sound principles, or ideas that conform to the Church’s traditions and theology on the matter, but whether it mirrors the characteristics of the current pope. Is this what the liturgy ought to do?

Liturgiam Authenticam claims to be a genuine expression of the Church’s liturgical principles and traditions. Father Ryan’s argument shifts from “this is not what I think the liturgy ought to sound like” to “this is not what Pope Francis thinks the liturgy ought to sound like,” yet he bases this argument not on Pope Francis’ actual comments on the liturgy, but on more general statements spoken by the Pope in other contexts.

Father Ryan’s implicit argument in all of this is a form of ultramontanism: this is what Pope Francis likes, so that’s what we should do, because he’s pope. Yet this is not the way to approach something as integral to the faith as the liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council teaches has an inherently didactic or teaching function. The liturgy belongs to the whole Church, across time and space; it is not to be manipulated according to the whims of each individual pope.

To use an analogy, think of the place of the Church Fathers within our faith. Something is not part of the Sacred Tradition simply because St. Augustine or St. Basil are Fathers and they said it; rather, they are revered as Fathers because they expressed the tradition so well. Likewise, something does not, or ought not, become an integral part of our faith merely because it fits the style of the present pope; rather, it is the pope’s duty to ensure that his words and actions conform to the substance and traditions of the faith. Imagine the chaos of re-shaping Catholicism to map to the characteristics of each successive pontiff. Imagine the hysterics from Father Ryan if, say, Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Sarah become pope and institute their own vision of what the Church’s liturgy ought to be (one, we could reasonably guess, to which Father Ryan would object). Yet if this is a true principle, it should apply regardless of who sits on the throne of Peter—and Father Ryan should not have objected when Pope St. John Paul II ratified Liturgiam Authenticam as his own “preference.” Rather, this appears to be an attempt by Father Ryan to play off of the popularity of Pope Francis’ public image to put forward his own agenda. It is a political move, not a pastoral one. Such moves have no place in the Church or the Church’s liturgy.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Nicholas Senz 28 Articles
Nicholas Senz is Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children.


  1. I agree with you that it is about politics, not pastoral. As you hinted at, it is also not about principle. Another article ( references principles and/or objective truth as being beyond time and circumstance. The definition of a principle is that it is “first” or “foundational”, that if something came before it and influenced it, it wouldn’t be a principle. If two or more things mutually influenced each other and are otherwise principles, then I might coin them as “co-principles”, assuming such a thing can even exist.

    I find it interesting the idea that if one doesn’t believe in principles or objective truths that go beyond time and circumstances, then it might be impossible to not be a hypocrite. Hypocritical is defined as someone who literally “not critical enough”. It seems that “no principles” will inevitably imply hypocrisy when reasoning is used to justify an idea, kind of like just guessing at Minesweeper rather than using the number-data. It seems that reasoning depends on principles in order to work, otherwise it gets undercut or contradicted, making it worthless if it is a real contradiction.

    For a specific example, it doesn’t make sense for someone to argue that one pope should be able to change the liturgy to the way they want because it is the pope, while being against another pope changing the liturgy even though he was the pope. That basically contradicts one’s argument if one holds such a position. In general, a good that that works, especially in politics, whether one has principles on an issue or not, is the “Shoe on the other foot” test.

    Now, to say that Fr. Ryan is a hypocrite here is innuendo to my knowledge, as I don’t know he holds such a position, rather than agree that it applies to any pope, though you seem to imply that he has said or implied such a thing in the past.

    I agree with you that if Fr. Ryan has contradicted himself here, then it does seem political, not pastoral, and I would add hypocritical, as opposed to principled.

    Yet, if one isn’t principled, then it would be a principle for one to not be surprised at being called hypocritical, as one isn’t principled. The irony is that one doesn’t/can’t even see this (in the case of no principles, not in the case of an insufficient covering of principles), that in not having any principles (or not sufficient coverage in terms of principles also), one is therefore has room/potential for hypocrisy, and could even be in principle a hypocrite in trying to deny all principles, while using reasoning. Here, one isn’t applying reasoning as though it were a principle but merely to persuade, even though a reasoning seems to necessarily have/imply principles.

    Some of or any of the good from that last paragraph I blame on Chesterton from listening to him recently, even though I haven’t heard him say this stuff.

  2. Edit: I failed to edit out my initial words to reflect what I later said, but the initial comments were my gut feeling of what was probabilistically more likely to be true, though applying probabilistic/stereotypical things (and I mean stereotype in a positive way of corresponding to what is probabilistically true) to individuals is a fallacy and a serious ad hominem error risk. So, my guess (if I had to) is that he corresponds to being what I initially said, but I presume innocence until guilt as one of my own principles that I think is superior than the alternatives.

  3. Why is it that the Church focuses attention on the poor so much when there are serious challenges to both doctrine and at this present time such sinful clerics. I think this constant reference to the poor is used to divert attention to the things going on. As a poor person myself I am sure I will be just fine without Pope Francis mentioning me every day. Better that he should teach sound doctrine and the fullness of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.