The CNS says the new Missal is the religious story of the year. Well, there’s plenty of competition: but for Catholics at least, they’re surely right

The first Eucharistic Prayer in a copy of the new Roman Missal (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

What would you say was the most important religious news story of 2011? According to CNS, which carried out a survey (of “29 editors and CNS staff members”), it’s the introduction of the new translation of the Mass (I suppose, being the CNS, what they meant was “the most important news story for American Catholics”: I think that’s just American Catholic editors who had votes in this survey):

Roman Missal voted top news story of 2011; Pope Benedict top newsmaker

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The introduction of the English translation of the Roman Missal topped the religious news stories of 2011, and Pope Benedict XVI was again the top newsmaker, according to the annual poll conducted by Catholic News Service.

The continued effect of the global economic downturn was second among the 30 news stories on the ballot, the democracy movement in the Middle East dubbed the Arab spring took third place.

Among the 24 newsmakers on the ballot, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was second and U.S. President Barack Obama was third.

The poll was the 50th annual survey conducted by CNS. This year’s ballots were distributed Dec. 2 and the deadline for returns was Dec. 8.

A very different opinion was expressed by the National Catholic Reporter writer, John L Allen, who is surely right to say that

The most important Catholic story of our time is the demographic shift from the global north to the south, with two-thirds of the Catholics in the world today living in the southern hemisphere, a share that will rise to three-quarters by the middle of the century.

As a result, Latin America, Africa and Asia will play a far greater role in setting the tone for the global church.

Of course, the most important story of our time isn’t the same thing as the “top story” of the year we happen to be in: John L Allen’s most important story will also be the most important next year and in 10 years’ time, as it was the most important five years ago. That in a way disqualifies it as a journalistic “story”: it’s more like a long-term historical trend. The CNS’s list is about things that happened last year, and won’t happen again next. The list is as follows, and it makes it pretty clear that what the CNS survey should have been called was the “American Catholic” story of the year, not the “religious” story of the year (I don’t suppose many American Muslims or even American Protestants could give two hoots about the new translation of the Missal, or the doings of Archbishop Timothy M Dolan):

Here are the choices for top 10 stories and top five newsmakers of 2011, followed by points received in the weighted ballot count and, in parentheses, the number of first-place votes received.

1. Roman Missal, 200 (9)
2. Economy, 189 (7)
3. Arab spring, 126 (4)
4. Health care, 120
5. Irish church sex abuse scandal, 111 (2)
6. Religious freedom, 85 (3)
7. World Youth Day, 84
8 (tie). Sex abuse, 74 (1)
8 (tie). Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 74
10. Natural disasters, 67 (1)
Two first-place votes also went to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

1. Pope Benedict XVI, 107 (19)
2. Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, 75 (5)
3. President Barack Obama, 45 (2)
4. Blessed John Paul II, 28
5. Sister Elizabeth Johnson, 22 (1)

For my readers on this side of the pond, according to the New York Times, “On matters of doctrine”, Archbishop Timothy M Dolan “adheres to the line laid down by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, including firm opposition to abortion, birth control, divorce, gay marriage and any crack in the wall of priestly celibacy”. Sister (also professor) Elizabeth Johnson is a very different phenomenon: she is one of those nuns who never wears a habit, and is a radical feminist theologian (one of her books is entitled She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse at Fordham University, a well-known apostate Jesuit establishment. I’m not sure why either of them was a “newsmaker’ in 2011: perhaps an American reader can enlighten me.

One thing I do think the CNS poll has got right, and not only for the US, but everywhere in the world that the Mass is celebrated in English: that the new Missal is the biggest story for most Catholics in these countries, just as the Mass is the most important thing in our lives. It must be so: for at last we have an English translation which doesn’t – as the superseded version did – not simply reduce but heretically and deliberately distort the theology of the liturgy. We now have a translation which accurately and reverently translates what the Latin says, in English which again and again moves and illuminates; already, I am beginning to do what Anglicans used to do in the days of the Book of Common Prayer: constantly to return to what was left of the propers, effectively in the BCP that was just the collects (mostly, of course, translated by Cranmer from those of the Sarum Rite), sometimes even learning them by heart. I am already reading and rereading that post-communion prayer from the first Sunday in Advent, which I think I have already quoted:

May these mysteries, O Lord,
in which we have participated,
profit us, we pray,
For even now, as we walk amid passing things,
You teach us by them to love
the things of heaven
and hold fast that what endures

I now have the new Weekly Missal, which has already enriched the Mass for me – the Latin propers, the words of which I never really made out, and which I used to regard just as something for the priest to get on with on his own, are now a living part of my experience of the Mass).

So yes: I think the CNS has got that one at least right. For we English-speaking Catholics, the new Missal is indeed the religious story of the year: it certainly is of mine.