15Mar A letter on the new texts from a Scottish Priest

Revising the Mass Texts:  Is this the real issue ?

An open letter to Priests.

For some years now it has been clear from Press reports that a new Rite of Mass in English was in the course of preparation. More recently it has been reported that the new translation

would be introduced in Scotland in the Season of Advent this year.  However, it was not until this morning, Saturday, 12 March, that official notification arrived from Bishop Toal on behalf of the Episcopal Conference of Scotland.

In his letter Bishop Toal recalls that when Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the Bishops of the United Kingdom at Oscott College last September he encouraged them

“to seize the opportunity that the new translation offers for in depth catechesis on the Eucharist

and renewed devotion to its manner of celebration.”

To give that quotation a proper context it is also necessary to be aware of the two sentences which precede the passage Bishop Toal quoted from the Holy Father’s address:

“I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for the contribution you have made,

with such painstaking care, to the collegial exercise of reviewing and approving the texts.

This has provided an immense service to Catholics throughout the English-speaking world.”

So, the press have been reporting on this issue for several years and the Holy Father himself addressed the issue head on last September. Yet, apart from an invitation to priests

to attend an in-service course in Salamanca in May, Bishop Toal’s letter is the first official intimation to priests that they face what are clearly far-reaching and radical changes to their front-line pastoral Ministry.

What reason can there be for this apparent hesitation or reluctance of the Scottish Bishops to inform their priests of the forthcoming changes?   Can it possibly be that they are concerned

that the New English translation might not be well received?   Or could it be that they are uncomfortable about the process which has brought this translation to fruition ?

It is no secret that many people world-wide are unhappy, to say the least, about the New English Missal and perhaps more importantly, how it came to be produced.

As I have always understood it,

  • the teaching authority of the Church subsists in the college of bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome
  • in terms of the governance of each diocese or local church, authority is invested in the Diocesan Bishop
  • however, some decisions are reserved to the conference of bishops in order to maintain unity and consistency.


In order to “manage” the Church, which is so widespread in the world, the “officers” of the Holy See in its various congregations provide the facilities necessary to act as the link between the bishops of the local churches and the Holy Father.  These officers are akin to a Civil Service.

Their role is purely administrative: they are meant to be advisory, helping to facilitate  the teaching body of the Church, (ie the college of bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome,)

in its capacity to teach and govern the Church world-wide.

As we now know officially, the English-speaking Church will soon be asked to adopt a new translation of the Roman Missal.  My understanding is that the people responsible for authorising any given translation are the bishops in the local churches concerned at the level of Episcopal conference.  This authorised translation is then passed to the Congregation of Divine Worship

and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome whose role it is to give the translation a “recognitio”: in other words, a statement that the translation is free from error.

However, the translation in English of the Roman Missal which is being printed at this very time

has not followed this process – not by any means.  The translation currently being printed

and scheduled for use later this year has in fact never been authorised by the English-speaking Bishops of the world, in accordance with their established responsibilities.  Indeed, the text  agreed by the responsible English-speaking Bishops, as the proper authority, has been altered quite substantially by a committee named “Vox Clara”, This is an entirely advisory body which has no locus whatsoever in terms of the magisterial teaching authority of the Church.

It certainly has no authority to override a text previously agreed by an Episcopal conference

without re-submitting the text to that conference for further approval or rejection.

Any doubts about the truth of this irregularity can we washed away by reference to

“It’s the Eucharist; Thank God” [1] by Bishop Maurice Taylor, widely respected Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Galloway, which includes a full account of this process during his term as chairman of the ICEL Board from 1997-2002.

Since being ordained I have taken very seriously the promise I made to obey my Bishop and,

even though it has not been easy at times, I believe I have remained faithful to my promise.

I find there is a dilemma for me in all this at this stage in my life. This is because I am unsure

  • whether the Scottish Bishops are aware of the authoritative role they have in virtue of their office for introducing a new translation to the people of the country;
  • whether they have compared the currently proposed translation with the ICEL 1998 text.;
  • if they are aware that the text proposed by the reformed ICEL Commission in 2008 has been substantially altered by Vox Clara.


I have taken the opportunity to compare the “banned” ICEL 1998 translation with the 2008 edition as subsequently “improved” and produced by Vox Clara (and presumably approved by the CDW)  which is scheduled for introduction as the official text later this year. I am in no doubt whatsoever that this move constitutes a grave disservice to the people of God in English-speaking countries.

Further, in the first instance, it goes against not only the spirit of the Second Vatican Council;

but indeed it also goes against its very letter and runs counter to the clear teaching of that Council.

This irregular procedure has bypassed the proper magisterial teaching authority of the Church

which is vested in the College of Bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome rather than in any committee, Dicastery or Congregation or indeed the sum total of them.

It is tempting as a priest in a parish to ignore the new translation and carry on with life. Indeed there is talk of priests in Ireland boycotting the new translation.  But it’s not as simple as that.   Let us be clear.  What is at issue here is not just a decision to reject the 1998 ICEL translation of the English edition of the Roman Missal which had been approved by the English Speaking Episcopal Conferences and then produce an alternative translation; there is something far more fundamental at stake.  The very teaching authority of the Church is being undermined.

For me, the “bottom line” question is this:  am I bound by obedience when I am aware that what I am being asked to do goes against what I believe to be the teaching of the Church?

So, what to do?  Well, rather helpfully, if ironically, it is just possible that a solution can be found

in the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger himself.

There is no doubt that the planned imposition of this English translation has brought to the surface strongly-held opposing views about its merit. Such polarisation is nothing new in the Church and is not confined to any one narrow area like theology, language or cultural difference.

Human nature and personality traits also have their part to play.

In an address to around three thousand traditional Catholics in Rome on 24 October 1998 to mark the tenth anniversary of the Motu Proprio “Ecclesia Dei”, Cardinal Ratzinger made a direct reference to the polarisation between the proponents of the Latin Rite and those of the post Vatican II group as well as the conflict which can exist between different personalities:

“…….what is the deeper reason for this distrust  or even for this rejection of a continuation of the ancient liturgical forms? It is without doubt possible that, within this area, there exist reasons which go further back than any theology and which have their origin in the character of individuals or in the conflict between different personalities,                                                                                            or indeed a number of other circumstances which are wholly extrinsic. But it is certain that there are also other deeper reasons which explain these problems.                                                                                                                        The two reasons which are most often heard, are:                                                                                                             lack of obedience to the Council which wanted the liturgical books reformed, and the break in unity which must necessarily follow if different liturgical forms are left in use.                                                                                                                           It is relatively simple to refute these two arguments on the theoretical level.                                                                                                                                                                      The Council did not itself reform the liturgical books, but it ordered their revision,

and to this end, it established certain fundamental rules. Before anything else,

the Council gave a definition of what liturgy is, and this definition gives a valuable yardstick for every liturgical celebration.”

The Cardinal went on,

“It is good to recall here what Cardinal Newman observed, that the Church, throughout her history, has never abolished nor forbidden orthodox liturgical forms, which would be quite alien to the Spirit of the Church. An orthodox liturgy, that is to say, one which express the true faith,

is never a compilation made according to the pragmatic criteria of different ceremonies, handled in a positivist and arbitrary way, one way today and another way tomorrow. The orthodox forms of a rite are living realities, born out of the dialogue of love between the Church and her Lord.

They are expressions of the life of the Church, in which are distilled the faith, the prayer and the very life of whole generations, and which make incarnate in specific forms both the action of God and the response of man. Such rites can die, if those who have used them in a particular era should disappear, or if the life-situation of those same people should change.

The authority of the Church has the power to define and limit the use of such rites in different historical situations, but she never just purely and simply forbids them!

Thus the Council ordered a reform of the liturgical books, but it did not prohibit the former books.”

Cardinal Ratzinger went on to make clear that several forms of the Latin Rite always co-existed.  He said

“We must now examine the other argument, which claims that the existence of the two rites can damage unity. Here a distinction must be made between the theological aspect and the practical aspect of the question.  As regards what is theoretical and basic, it must be stated that several forms of the Latin rite have always existed,  and were only slowly withdrawn, as a result of the coming together of the different parts of Europe. Before the Council there existed side by side with the Roman rite, the Ambrosian rite, the Mozarabic rite of Toledo, the rite of Braga, the Carthusian rite, the Carmelite rite, and best known of all, the Dominican rite, and perhaps still other rites of which I am not aware.  No one was ever scandalized that the Dominicans, often present in our parishes, did not celebrate like diocesan priests but had their own rite.                                                                       We did not have any doubt that their rite was as Catholic as the Roman rite, and we were proud of the richness inherent in these various traditions.”

Well now – is it unreasonable to hope that those of us who wish to wait until a more fitting successor to the 1973 English Roman Missal is produced –  and properly processed for authorisation  by the English-speaking Bishops  – could echo Cardinal Ratzinger’s concluding words all those years ago:

“If the unity of faith and the oneness of the mystery appear clearly within the two forms of celebration, that can only be a reason for everybody to rejoice and to thank the good Lord.                                                                                                                                                                         In as much as we all believe, live and act with these intentions, we shall also be able to persuade the Bishops that the presence of the old liturgy does not disturb or break the unity of their diocese, but is rather a gift destined to build-up the Body of Christ, of which we are all the servants.”

Perhaps I am a lone voice, just unable to come to terms with what I experience as disturbing circumstances ?  However I doubt it because this issue strikes at the very root of the teaching authority of the Church.

So I wonder if any of this resonates with you?

Is it reasonable to ask that, following the reasoning of Cardinal Ratzinger,  three different Rites be allowed to co-exist rather than two?

Mike Fallon                                                                                                                                                      St Catherine’s                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          2 Captain’s Row                                                                                                                                                 Edinburgh  EH16 6QP


[1] It’s the Eucharist: Thank God by Maurice Taylor  published by Decani Books 2009

3 Responses

  1. Dairne McHenry

    Thank you, Mike, for your Open Letter. It continues to keep alive this crucial topic, which as you say raises issues far deeper than a simple change of liturgical text. I will now be praying that not only the Bishops in Ireland but also those in Scotland, will take up their responsibility to listen to the different voices and find space in our Church celebrations for the diversity of opinions among us all. God has created so much diversity in our world – can our official leaders not find ways to respect a diversity of rites and translations of celebration?

  2. Jimbo

    Ah…ideology alert. Your diversity is showing, Dairne.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    “What reason can there be for this apparent hesitation or reluctance of the Scottish Bishops to inform their priests of the forthcoming changes? Can it possibly be that they are concerned that the New English translation might not be well received? Or could it be that they are uncomfortable about the process which has brought this translation to fruition ?”

    Well spotted. All over the world bishops are behaving in an extraordinarily shifty way about these new translations. I think they know that they have failed in their duty. Their actions and silences betoken embarrassment and shame.

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