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Rev. James Martin, S.J.

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Goodbye to the "Old" Mass?

Posted: 11/24/11 10:12 PM ET

An Elegy for the Sacramentary

There has been a great deal of ink spilled (and pixels posted) over the new English translation of the Mass, that is, the new edition of the Roman Missal, which will be formally introduced into American parishes this coming Sunday. Even the secular media has gotten wind of the changes, with the result that by now most Massgoing Catholics are aware of the changeover, as well as the discussions surrounding the new translations and the process that led to their approval. (Surveys show that less active Catholics are much less aware.) In short -- depending on who you read -- it's a beautiful translation that preserves the majesty of the original Latin; or it's not much of a change at all; or it's an overly literal translation that sounds clunky.

Which is it? It's probably unfair to judge until a few months have passed, and the priests and people have had the chance to hear and speak and pray with the changes.

Yet while there have been an enormous amount of commentary on the initiation of the new Roman Missal, there has been relatively less about the loss of the Sacramentary (the book of the Mass prayers) and an appreciation for the riches it brought to the church for the last few decades.

Any significant change is like a death; and so any change brings about the need for some grieving. You sell a house and buy a new one; and you are sad about the loss of the old one -- even if your new house is more spacious. You move from one job to another; and you shed a few tears saying goodbye to old colleagues -- even if you're looking forward to the new position. You graduate from high school to college, and even if it's your top choice, you cry at your graduation.

It would be odd, therefore, not to acknowledge some sadness over the passing of something so central to Catholic life as what will soon be called the "old" Sacramentary. Even if you are eagerly anticipating the new translations, something significant is moving into the past, and is being lost.

So let me say something: I will miss the old prayers, even as I prepare for the new ones. I'm 50 years old, which means that by the time I was conscious of the Eucharist -- say, around 1967 -- the Mass was being celebrated in English. I dimly remember saying things like "It is right and just" as a very young boy, which was most likely a holdover from the early Mass translations after the Second Vatican Council. But, for the most part, my entire Catholic life has been shaped by the familiar prayers of the Sacramentary, the book that we are leaving behind this coming Sunday.

Those prayers accompanied me as I marched up the aisle, hands folded tight, for my First Holy Communion and Confirmation in our suburban Philadelphia parish; they helped me to pray during some confusing high school years in that same church; they taught me about God during my college days in Philadelphia when I dragged myself (sometimes hungover) to Sunday Mass; they challenged me during my stint as a wannabe executive in New York City; and they startled me at times, and eventually helped prompt me to consider the priesthood, when I was working in Connecticut in my late twenties.

As a Jesuit novice in Boston in the late 1980s, I listened far more intently to those prayers and grew to love their simplicity. One virtue of the prayers of the Sacramentary was their clarity, their economy, their clean lines. They seemed, well, natural, and sounded like the prayers I said when I was alone with God. And in the novitiate, when I began to attend daily Mass (a first for me), it seemed as if I was hearing some of those old phrases for the first time: "You renew the church in every age." "Each year you give us this joyful season." "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you." "Happy are those who are called to his supper." How wonderful that these prayers, which I had said as an eight-year-old, could deepen in me. In this way my adult faith felt profoundly connected to that of my youth.

Over the next few years, during my Jesuit training, I would hear those prayers during philosophy studies in Chicago, when I prayed them with Jesuits from across the country; and in Nairobi, Kenya, where I would hear them said, and sung, with an East African accent. Later, during theology studies in Boston, I began to wonder what it would be like to say the priest's prayers. But I certainly didn't need to "learn" them any more than I needed to learn the Our Father; I had known them all my life. All I needed to do was grow in comfort at praying them in a new way. A few weeks before my diaconate ordination, my sister and brother-in-law gave me a great gift: the Sacramentary, and I began to study it in earnest. And on the day of my first Mass, I could barely believe that I had the privilege to say these words: "Father, you are holy indeed..."

As many priests will tell you, it takes a while to move from saying the prayers of the Mass to praying them. From feeling like you are performing to praying with the congregation. And at some point I know I will feel comfortable with the new English translation.

Last week I celebrated what was probably my last "public Mass" (that is, outside my Jesuit community) using the Sacramentary, and as I moved for the final time through the words that I've known since I was a boy, I became sad. Most likely I would never hear some of these phrases again. And as I stood at the altar, my mind went back to, oddly, my First Communion: I had heard these same words on that day. Other priests have shared with me their sadness as we set aside these familiar words, phrases and cadences.

As we move to the new, let's not forget the value of the old. After all, tradition is an important part of the church, and we would be remiss if there was not an elegy for the old Sacramentary, the prayers of our youth: simple, clean, clear, direct, unadorned, beautiful.