Friday, September 09, 2011

Watch Your Language!

Surely you remember the old joke: "What's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist." The joke was funnier in the 1970s, when people still thought it might be true.

We attended a fascinating assembly of the local ministerium today, which included two presentations on the liturgy. Both were in Hungarian, and although our translator did yeoman's labor, he was also pushed close to his limit; afterward, he said, "Now I go outside and smoke ten cigarettes." Ah, Eastern Europe!

One presentation, by the professor of practical theology at the nearby seminary, was restricted to the pending reforms of the Lutheran liturgy in Romania. Since the work hasn't gone very far yet, she didn't have much to share: a little background, and some inconclusive survey results from Germany. Just a thought: We're not sure that survey results are the wisest basis for liturgical reforms.

The other presentation was by Jakabffy Tamás, the leader of a very fine schola cantorum here in town. He and the professor collaborate on a regular Gregorian-chant Vespers service at our church. (Well worth a visit, if you happen to be in central Transylvania on the first Monday of the month). Because of the language barrier, we've never had a chance to pick the fellow's brain, but we don't think he worries much about survey results. Our distinct impression is that one doesn't really negotiate with him. If you see what we mean.

Still, his presentation, on liturgical language, was fascinating. He made the same basic point that, say, the New Liturgical Movement people often do: After Greek and Aramaic, Latin is the next language of Christianity; it is the first language of the Latin church, and enjoys pride of place over other languages, even when those are permitted. Likewise, Gregorian chant is the church's proper song, and enjoys pride of place even when other kinds of music are permitted. If, frankly, they must be permitted. Which, ahem, they shouldn't be.

Underneath this rather forcefully-stated legalism lay the same sort of theoretical basis that most of us were educated with: that the liturgy is both a public service and a divine service, both the "people's work" and the opus Dei; that in it, the presence of Christ is communicated [in the literal sense, close to "mediated"] to the People of God; that the liturgy is itself a language, with a grammar like any other, and that like any other language it may change slowly over time, but resists sudden or inorganic change, especially by determined individuals.

Basic enough, but worth remembering once in a while.

Afterward, there was only one question, from, double-ahem, a foreign visitor: Given the reform-of-the-reform under Benedict, and the effort to re-evaluate Vatican II documents (such as Sacrosanctum Concilium) by taking literally their frank embrace of liturgical Latin, does he see a renewed place for Latin in the regular public worship of his church?

We figured this was a softball. He'd say yes, and then we'd drop a broad hint that the monthly ecumenical Vespers would be a lot more fun for some people if it were in a language other than Hungarian. Everybody would boo and hiss, but we'd have done our bit to support "full and active participation."

Instead, we got this sad and strange surprise. It seems that, eight years ago, a local group petitioned Rome for the privilege of a monthly Latin Mass. They never heard back. So the cathedral took it upon itself to offer one; a visitor from Rome was dispatched, who -- if we understood correctly -- didn't so much forbid the proceedings as criticize them out of existence. (We have no idea whether this was an EF or OF Mass, or even whether we understood the story correctly).

But he concluded by looking a little stricken and saying "We are a Latin church without the Latin language."

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