IT HAPPENS every Christmas now. During the service, I hear someone near me in church stumble over the responses, because, as an occasional visitor, he or she is still operating on the basis of the text of the Roman Catholic mass as it was before it was updated six years ago. People remember the words of that liturgy in the same way as they remember old, familiar Christmas carols.
What these occasionals have forgotten — or not got to grips with — is that, in 2011, the Vatican forced a clumsy, clunky, and convoluted version of the Missal on the English-speaking world. They claimed that it was more faithful to the original Latin, but that meant arcane and abstract vocabulary, and tortured syntax. It has been widely disparaged by Catholics in the pews, but, over the past few weeks, an unprecedented deluge of derision and outrage has filled the letters pages of The Tablet.
The story so far. When the Second Vatican Council abandoned Latin for the vernacular, translators used as plain and everyday an English as was consistent with the spirit of the mass. A more poetic version was worked on by English-speaking bishops from 11 countries around the world, and sent to Rome for approval in 1998.
But, as part of the attempt to row back on the Second Vatican Council under the previous two popes, that rendition was quashed, the translators were sacked, and a literal Latinate version was imposed. The Vatican II principle of empowering local bishops was brushed aside.
Then, three months ago, Pope Francis issued a document, Magnum Principium, which restored power over translations to local bishops. The Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the conservative Cardinal Robert Sarah, immediately issued an order undermining it. The Pope took the unusual step of publicly rebuking him.
But now one of the Cardinal’s officials has written to bishops around the world to say that Magnum Principium does not apply retrospectively, but only to future translations.
The Bishops of England and Wales have responded by pusillanimously announcing that they intend, therefore, to leave the current version in place. “They are like birds who have lived in a cage for so long they are afraid to leave the safety of their prison, even after the door is opened,” one disgruntled Catholic said to me at a Christmas party.
A head of steam for change is building. Fr Gerald O’Collins, an Australian Jesuit who taught at the Gregorian, in Rome, for 33 years, has just published a book calling on the Bishops to reinstate the suppressed 1998 missal. The call has been echoed by Dr Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of Christian History at Cambridge. Declaring that “nothing in the Christian life is more important than prayer,” he has condemned the current version as “ugly and alienating”. The Catholic Emeritus Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Crispian Hollis, has even publicly declared: “With the benefit of hindsight, I confess that I was . . . partly responsible for the appalling texts with which we have now been saddled. I am sorry”.
Perhaps it will stiffen the English bishops’ resolve. Then, next Christmas, the “occasionals” could return to find a liturgy that is more familiar and more attractive.