Friday, February 13, 2009

'Tis a puzzlement

This post is going to be about Latin in the Mass. I promise.

Each year, my wife and I attend a few events in the Lively Arts concert series at nearby Stanford University. It's quite an eclectic mix, and once we've chosen the presentations we're pretty sure we'll like, we always pick one or two that could be kind of a stretch. And so we found ourselves last week at a concert by the Malian rock / folk singer Rokia Traoré.

It was a bit loud (OK, way too loud) for me, and way too repetitive, but for me that's true of most rock. What struck me is this: Ms. Traoré sang entirely in French and Bambara and other languages that, it's safe to say, the great majority of the nearly sold-out crowd did not understand. There were no lyrics printed in the lavish program, and although it said she would announce the program from the stage, she usually didn't. It's safe to say that the meaning of what she was singing was basically lost on almost everyone in the audience, except for the people who had memorized the songs on her CDs.

She was rewarded with a standing ovation.

So here's what bugs me. Fellow Catholics of a certain age (mine) often complain to me that they want nothing to do with Latin in the Mass or sacraments, because they can't understand what's being said. This, despite the constant presence of side-by-side English translations in the missalettes that are provided. It's the same complaint as forty years ago, when it was oh-so-important that we dump Latin. When for a few bucks you could buy a missal that would tell you, word for word, what every darned Latin prayer meant througout the entire year's Sunday liturgies.

So how come a rock singer from Mali, performing a program that couldn't be understood except by those ardent fans who had memorized her songs' lyrics, gets complete acceptance -- when millions of Catholics tell their Church they just can't abide going to Mass unless everything is translated for them? That it's just too hard to understand things if they're in some foreign language?