“I thought I was in a Protestant church….”

The words above hit me like a rifle shot I have to admit. I’d just finished offering Mass in the new edition of the Roman Missal and a regular communicant made that observation/criticism. At first I bridled inwardly; but then caught myself and gave some anodyne answer and moved along.

However, the words above do go right to the heart of one of the issues involved in the production of the new Missal: the use of the vernacular, in our case, English.

It was been observed that however long the Catholic Liturgy was in Latin, there flourished along with it in Europe great “Catholic vernaculars” ( e.g. English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, etc.) in which Catholic faith, piety and worship were known to the people in their own languages. Generations of Catholics were formed by catechisms, prayer books, “primers” and so forth that often drew from the Latin Liturgy and rendered the texts in words and ways that reached them.

We know, for example, that in pre-Reformation England prayer-books and translations of the Canon of the Mass, other liturgical prayers and devotions were in wide circulation and printed in great numbers. Translations of the Bible in whole and in part were well known. St. Thomas More wrote widely about this and added his own prayers all in the English vernacular of his day.

When in the 16th century then, when the Protestant reformers drew up their new liturgies in the vernacular they had an existing religious language at hand. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and others in compiling the Anglican Book of Common Prayer drew upon that already existing “Catholic vernacular” to enshrine their thoroughly Protestant theology. Hence for a Catholic today to peruse the Communion Service of the traditional Anglican liturgy is an experience not found until recently in officially Catholic worship. Words such as “oblation….sacrifices…bounden duty….graciously accept….” and so forth, not to mention the “old English” thee’s and thou’s all seem “more Catholic than we are..” or even, as my commentator said “Protestant”!

What Cranmer et al. did was to use the familiar religious vernacular, bred and formed in a Catholic matrix, to serve a new Protestant agenda. I’ve written on this in an earlier column here.

It is worth repeating though that what was done in our own case in the 1960’s and 70’s was not merely a “new Mass” in English; but in many ways a “new Mass” in a “new English”: an English devoid of the traditional and noble expressions found for generations in any English language hand missal or prayerbook.  It was a deliberate decision to create a new religious “Catholic” English: modern, every-day, prosaic, and it must be said, flat. Efforts were made to avoid Latin cognate words, Latin word order. Ancient liturgical prayers dating back 1500 years were rendered to sound as if they had been composed last week. God never “commanded”, he ( small case ) “asked”; the “merits” of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints were simply not mentioned; and even prayers most of us knew by heart ( e.g., the “Angelus” prayer or the prayer to the Holy Spirit) were consciously re-translated. Even the “Glory be” had to be changed,even though the ancient and official Latin had not changed.

We were lucky that the Lord’s Prayer remained the same; a favor not granted to other language groups. Imagine having to learn a “new” Our Father for communal use!

Now what has been done with this new English language translation of the Roman Missal ( the very term had fallen into desuetude) is to deliberately recapture the look, the sound, the rhythm of Catholic worship through the ages, using the new Missal of Paul VI. What we are using now is NOT the “old Mass” but the “new Mass” rendered for the first time NOT into “old English” but an attempt at a classic or more noble and uplifting English.

It is VERY Catholic indeed, and NOT “Protestant”.

However it may be hard for many of us, clergy as well as laity to “recapture” a language we never really knew. We are like the people of Israel recounted in the Old Testament who returned from their long exile in Babylon and who had forgotten the very words of the Law. The long-lost book of the Law was recovered and read out to them for an entire day. We are told they wept to hear the words of God their ancestors had once known.

Now, of course, our situation is not as bad as that!  We have been offering and attending the Mass for these past forty years and the Faith has been proclaimed and celebrated. But there is a bit of an analogy here nonetheless. We will be hearing the words of the ancient (and new) prayers of our Catholic Liturgy for the first time for many of us in their true and proper rhythm and sense. Of course, with all human products , this new edition of the Missal is not perfect.

It will be  a challenge for us to let the “new English” sink in and begin to work in our hearts as well as our minds. We may be mystified or not sure of what some words mean. I will do  my best as your pastor to explain them. But let us first open our hearts and minds.

November 29, 2011.

First Week of Advent

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