The call came after vespers. They had arrived. UPS confirmed delivery with a “quantum email.” Shouldn’t I go to the office and pick them up right now? No, I decided. Not tonight. Wait until morning and relish the delicious anticipation, like a kid waiting until morning to see what Santa Claus left beneath the Christmas tree.
But this was no surprise. I knew what these were: two copies of the revised Roman Missal. Renewed by decree of the Most Holy Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. Promulgated by authority of Pope Paul VI. And revised at the direction of Blessed John Paul the Great.
The next day after Mass I hurried from the chapel to the office — I don’t even think I said “Good morning” — and there they were, wrapped in plastic but with course-cotton satchels to carry them with so they wouldn’t get damaged. I lifted one from the box and with the careful stroke of a letter-opener freed it from the wrapper and laid it open on the desk.
At last. Some copies came last month, but had to be returned because the corners got crushed during shipping. I didn’t even have the chance to examine them. Replacements arrived but the ribbons seemed small so the business manager sent them back and ordered volumes with the one-inch gold-lined ones. I didn’t get a chance to look them over either. These ones were here to stay and I wanted to show more people. I presented the books to the office staff, bearing them proudly in my arms, like Moses carrying the stone tablets. I thumbed through the elegant vanilla pages and we savored the color artwork, engravings, and drawings placed throughout the volume that tell the story of God in time as rendered by the greatest artists in Christendom: Antonio Tampesta, Emboli, Van Gogh, Van Dyke, portions of the murals painted by John Nava that are displayed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, works that bring the saints to life like friends. There is history in these pages.
Quam pulchrum librum. Our Missal is 8.5 by 12 by 3 inches and weighs 10 pounds. The front cover bears a gold embossed image of Christ at the Last Supper and on the back cover is the Chi Rho with the Alpha and the Omega. Quite regal. The parish bought one for the chapel, the other for the main church and a personal edition for study is on its way. I tucked one beneath my arm and took it back to the rectory. I washed my hands — twice — before examining the tome, to ensure the pages didn’t get soiled because I work with pencil lead, leaky fountain pens, and holy oil. I supposed I could have used white gloves. Appropriate music was necessary: “The Lamb’s High Feast,” sung to the Holy Father in Washington, D.C. during his apostolic mission in 2008. Such magnificence, so high church! I feared opening the book at first, lest I crack the binding. But I did and the shiver-inducing snap sent a sensation up my own spine that felt like a bowl of warm soup poured over my head and down the back of my shirt. This was no ordinary book but a tool to unlock the sacred mysteries and to open the gates of holiness. The artwork amid the pages of antiphons, collects, prefaces, and prayers draws to mind the imprimatur of the Te Deum: “The glorious company of apostles praise you; / the noble fellowship of prophets praise you;/ the white-robed army of martyrs acclaim you/ … Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you.”
I see this formality as part of a rare and important moment in our Church. As a new priest, a member of the class of 2011, I am caught between the old and the new. At the seminary I was trained using the second edition of the Roman Missal, soon to be obsolete. I entered priestly formation in August 2007. Back then my contemporaries and I were made aware of looming changes to what we then definitively referred to as the ‘sacramentary,’ but these revisions seemed difficult to envision. There was so much to study. Four years in any institution, voluntary or otherwise, dragged by like four decades, the length of time since the Missal of Pope Paul VI was promulgated. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). In no better way did I come to understand this but during seminary. Divine time is inscrutable and impossible for humans to calculate. On this I daily dwelt through the wintry windows of academia.
Dom Gregory was a religious priest and it was from him that I learned how to celebrate the Mass. He had once served as provincial in his community but by the time I met him he had taught at the seminary longer than most of the tenures of the other faculty combined. I was impressed by his linguistic acumen. He was the only man I have ever met who could make Latin sound conversational. Hispaniae maxime cadi timber in campo. (“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”) His class on “Liturgical Studies” met thrice weekly, two hours of classroom instruction, and hour of practicum in the chapel on Friday. We seminarians slipped chasubles and stoles over albs and took turns performing the “dry Mass.” The professor’s method was simple, by the book. Si dixeris in nigrum, si quis est in vobis. “If it’s in black you say it; if it’s in red you do it.”
In November 2010 the bishop ordained me to the transitional diaconate, bestowing me with the faculties to preach. I wasted no time in treating the matter of the Missal overhaul, surmising that these changes were significant enough to spend time catechizing from the pulpit. Why hold back? I found that many in the assembly seemed intensely curious and my pastoral supervisor, a voracious reader, took it seriously, consuming a binder filled with hundreds of pages of articles, charts, timelines, and essays provided to the presbyterate. Yet we could not obtain a study edition of the Missal early on because they had been “embargoed” until autumn 2011.
Educating and informing the parish about the changes wasn’t all rosaries and incense. Growth and change are painful and sometimes even the most liberal Catholics fear renewal. After Mass one Sunday a woman cornered me near the entrance and blasted me for the content of my homily. People were going to leave the church because of these changes, she claimed, “just like they did during Vatican II.” I didn’t know, I told her. I wasn’t around back then. This was all the pope’s plan, she said, to ‘turn back the clock’ and to make us pray in Latin again. I shared with her my homily notes and attempted to assure her that this was not a motu propio, that the Holy Father was carrying on the work of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul the Great, who was following through the renewal decreed by Sacrosanctum Concilium, the landmark document on reform of the liturgy from the Second Vatican Council. It wasn’t the Holy Father, I said. It was our Holy Mother:
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of liturgy, and to which the Christian people, ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (1 Peter 2:9, 4-5) have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism (14).
Dom Gregory had made us memorize this passage but the parishioner wasn’t impressed. She stalked off, but that was the first and only time since last Advent when I heard anybody complain about the changes. In fairness to her, many people might disagree with such aspects of the Church but if they choose to leave then they already have made up their minds to go and they only want a reason to push them over the edge. The professor warned us. Praesent in utero. “Stay in the womb, that is, don’t leave the seminary. If you think it’s rough in here wait until your bishop assigns you to your first parish.” Non sumus modica dolebant. Not a little are we aggrieved.
As a writer, I know a magnificent volume when I see one, hold it in my hands, with or without the white gloves. God willing, I will celebrate Mass every day for the rest of my life, and will therefore spend a significant portion of each day poring through these graceful pages fastened within the binding of beauty, truth, freedom, and love. This is more than a book. The revised Roman Missal is a key component in the renewal of the American Church, a veritable springtime, as the Holy Father says. We should prepare our communities well and weigh their needs against the fulcrum of the Missal and its potential to balance our growth, which is necessary to survive. Something that doesn’t grow and change can’t survive. Here we grow again.
On Friday we have adoration in the chapel. I caught the sacristan in the vestibule on his way out and buttonholed him and gave him the tutorial, entrusted him with a copy. He opened the Missal on one of the side altars and ran his fingers across the black and red lettering on its pages. At first he was speechless. “What’re we going to do with them between now and next month?” he asked.
“Why don’t we bless them this weekend at Mass?”
“Do you want to use incense or holy water?”
“What do you think?” I trusted his judgment; he has been at this church longer than I have been alive.
He paused. “I think that’s a pretty nice-looking book,” he said. “We better use both. Just be careful you don’t get the pages wet.”
Collins, John F. A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1985.
The Roman Missal. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Magnicat, 2010
Sacrosanctum Concilium Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican 1963.
Stelten, Leo F. Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing, 1995.
(© 2011 Raymond Tucker Cordani)