21Oct An Australian pastor reflects on the New Missal

I write essentially as a pastor of forty two years of pastoral experience that includes visiting five hundred households each year, working very closely with key parish leaders, leadership role in “Marriage Encounter” weekends as well as initiating and organising the first “Antioch” weekends, “Evenings for Engaged” programs and “Choice” young adults’ weekend programs in Melbourne.  I’ve also kept up contact with many former parishioners, some of whom are “hanging on to the church by the skin of their teeth”.  For these and many other people, the problems associated with the new translation of the Missal are another constant reminder that their beloved Church’s leaders are increasingly losing the plot.

I have read numerous articles by our episcopal brothers, Peter Elliott, George Pell, Denis Hart and Mark Coleridge as they justify the need for and the quality of the new translation of the Missal.

They are presently trying to convince us that the Mass text that we faithfully used for about forty years was inadequate in so many ways. I credit them with enough intelligence and human wisdom not to take several decades to form their judgements. I credit them with enough sincerity and pastoral concern for their people and the overall welfare of the Church to be motivated to have expressed their convictions and beliefs to the responsible authorities at the Vatican. So please, brothers, share with us at least, your colleagues in the priesthood, the concerns you obviously had thirty and forty years ago so that we can benefit from the continuity and consistency of your principles and beliefs.

Otherwise, does that mean that far from going against the tide and expressing their sincerely held convictions to the Vatican for the good of the universal Church, they followed the principle of going with the prevailing orthodoxy? What if the next Pope is a reformer or even a moderate, will they be caught with their pontifical pants down? It seems that the higher our brothers work their way up the ecclesiastical pole, the more submissive they become and the less they listen to their people.

Over these forty years I can’t recall parishioners ever questioning the quality of the prayers we used for Mass nor can I recall articles by liturgists or theologians pushing for changes to be made. Caring pastors are rightly disappointed that Vox Clara didn’t prepare a draft to test the people’s response. Instead the changes to Mass prayers have been arbitrarily imposed without consultation.

The articles by the above four mentioned Church leaders and even the Pope are tortuous, tedious and technical treatises, trying terribly hard to justify the many changes in the translation of the new Missal.  They perform more contortions, somersaults, triple twists and backflips than a dual Olympian diver/gymnast!  They deserve points for “having a go” at justifying the reactionary changes such as:

  • “And with your Spirit” for “And also with you”
  • “I” rather than “we” believe in God and “consubstantial” in the Profession of Faith
  • “chalice” for “cup”
  • “many” for “all” in the words of consecration
  • “my soul shall be healed” for “I will be healed”

There are also frequent references to having to earn or merit grace and salvation. These are a contradiction in terms.

They give reasons such as being motivated by political correctness, being pressured by the questioning and unstable times, making rough rather than literal translations, bleaching out traditional Catholic teaching on mercy, sin and redemption and translations not sufficiently solemn and sacred in tone.  I read the piece Pope Benedict wrote on the “many” for the “all” in the words of consecration – very erudite and profound, but it failed the common sense test.

As they valiantly attempt to defend the indefensible they sound like politicians who are driven by ideological obsessions to make a disastrous decision (Iraq war) and then they make fools of themselves as they go chasing reasons to justify their warped judgement.  Often their reasons are contradictory, alarmist and superficial, heavily coated with spin, P.R., as they play on people’s fears, anxieties and insecurities. Ideology quickly descends into idiotology.

If the Vatican could be considered as having a collective conscience, how would they be feeling now?  In 1983, the Bishops of the English-speaking countries appointed to the I.C.E.L. committee, a group of eminent and respected professionals, experts in the disciplines of liturgy, linguistics, scripture, theology and music, who spent fifteen years to come up with a new translation of the Missal.  No doubt the Vatican knew about this so one could reasonably presume that the process had their blessing.  Then the fruit of their fifteen year labour of love was approved by a wide margin by every Episcopal conference in English-speaking countries.  You’d think that the Vatican would be delighted and say: “Well done team – you’ve provided a great service for the Church”.  But no! They said: “Thanks, but no thanks”.  They had other plans.  They are ideologues, driven by reactionary pre-occupations.

We’ve ended up with the farcical situation of Vatican officials, whose first language is not English, having the final say on our English translation. There are enough differences between the style of English spoken by British, North American and Australian people.  It’s even more difficult for people to be the final arbiter upon a language which is not their natural tongue.  Surely the previous arrangement of the English speaking Bishops’ Conferences appointing a group of experts, whose first language was English, was much better.

No doubt there were some issues of substance such as inclusive language, but I accept the considered judgment of an experienced Australian liturgist that it was all about a power struggle between the Vatican and Bishops from English-speaking countries.  Tension and conflict developed during the 1990s and the Congregation for Divine Worship published “Liturgiam Authenticam” on        20-3-2001 – this represented the final takeover by the Vatican.  They showed no interest in dialogue, consultation or negotiation; they wanted to demonstrate, once and for all, who was in control rather than being concerned about having the best possible vehicle for all of us to worship, celebrate and praise our God.

How insulting and belittling to those I.C.E.L. members who spent fifteen years of their lives, contributing their time, expertise and faith commitment!

Most of us are familiar with the old Latin saying, “lex orandi, lex credendi” i.e. the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.  Up until now I believed that the Vatican and our Church leaders had a responsibility to avoid division and confusion and to discourage heretical beliefs.  Apparently not!  The second Eucharistic prayer now has us praying for mercy that “we may merit to be co-heirs to eternal life.”  It’s scandalous in the Year of Grace to be told that we have to earn or merit the Lord’s free and unconditional gift of His Love.  The Collect for the feast of “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” prays that “we, who have known His mystery on earth, may merit the grace of His redemption in heaven.”  Surely linking merit – as widely understood in the English language – with the idea of grace as pure gift, – is an inherent contradiction.

Sadly, there are more examples of doctrinally dubious statements in the new translation, not to mention the many poorly expressed prayers that are so difficult to pray and proclaim in an intelligible way.

The criterion seems to be that if you can find a more complicated, a more pious sounding or a more unwieldy word or phrase, they’ll take it anytime over a basic, understandable one.

I have yet to hear a rational explanation as to why there’s such an obsessive insistence on transliterating Latin words into English and translating Latin expressions word for word, and retaining its grammar and syntax, to produce unidiomatic if not unintelligible English.  The Church fathers didn’t do this when they translated the Nicene Creed from Greek into Latin in the fourth century.  They were more enlightened, and attempted to render the meaning in words that people could understand.  I haven’t seen any argument that “consubstantial” achieves this in English.

George Pell, who chaired the VOX CLARA group that gave us the new translation of the Missal, said on “Q. & A.” on ABC T.V. on 19.4.2012 that “God loves everyone except those who turn their back on him through evil acts”.  With respect, this is, at the very least, doctrinally deficient. We learnt in primary school that God’s love for us is absolute and unconditional.  So we should forget about “excepts”, “buts”, “onlys” when referring to God’s love.

Surely God’s love is very much the heart and soul of our faith and the driving principle of Church life.  His love is there for us as a free gift to take in and celebrate.  It’s sad that some of our leaders in the Universal Church don’t feel free to simply accept and embrace the love of God, being driven to restrict, modify or qualify the richness, depth and beauty of the Lord’s free gift of His love.  It’s worth trying it out.  Its blessings can be renewing, transforming and healing.

The Vox Clara group have managed to crack the quadrella jackpot.  On any objective, rational assessment of motive, process, outcome and P.R., you couldn’t give them any more than three out of ten on any of these four criteria.  They’ve put themselves in an impossible situation.  Here’s how I see it:

  • Motive: ideological rather than holistic and integrated – anxious, alarmist judgement driven by reactionary vision.
  • Process: very restricted and elitist, crucial stakeholders of priest celebrants and people worshippers ignored, no sense of working collaboratively.
  • Outcome: check the familiar litany of complaints and criticism.
  • P.R.: no rational attempt to explain the need for change, no sense of pastoral sensitivities, arbitrarily imposed from above.

The malevolent motive, pathetic process, outrageous outcome and poor P.R. add up to huge havoc and sad strategy.

I know it’s a highly competitive field, but apart from the mishandling of the tragic clergy abuse issue, has there been a more ill-judged decision with such widespread and disappointing consequences by the official Church in the past fifty years?

We are given reminders by the week that it’s not only in Denmark that “something is rotten” (apologies to Shakespeare),  e.g. the late and beloved Cardinal Martini’s damning church critique from the grave and former Sydney priest Mr. Chris Geraghty’s book “Dancing with the Devil”.

I realize that we pastors are trapped in an impossible situation, trying to balance our desire to follow the official Church’s directives with responding to the pastoral gifts and needs of our people.  With many years of priestly service and Church life, we are often torn between two seemingly opposing forces.


  • We are faithful servants of the Church in the sense of listening to and cooperating with directives from our leaders – this is what some of our leaders have in mind when they use the term “Universal Church” as if it’s only or virtually just the Vatican and perhaps the hierarchy.
  • We are faithful servants of the Church in the sense of listening to and ministering to and with our people, the faithful, the 99% of the People of God.

I recognize that many dedicated pastors cope by putting their heads down and working quietly in their parishes or ministries with varying degrees of acceptance of the party line.  My reading on the atmospherics of Church life for the past decade or two is that the Vatican is very successful at bluffing and bulldozing bishops to follow the party line without questioning; then most of the bishops follow their example and do their darndest to bluff and bully we priests into falling into line.  Apparently the hierarchy expect us to employ similar strategies to convince our people.

How much longer are we going to endure this intolerable situation?  Last year a bishop reminded me that our ordination promise was to “obey and respect” the bishop.  There are some limits to our promise of obedience and to the legitimate power of bishops and I suggest that the “respect” aspect is a two way process.  I seem to recall that one of the meanings of the Latin word “obedire” is to listen. The principle of being a listening Church seems to have disappeared from the vision of Vatican authorities and many bishops. Surely no-one would dare to suggest that with all the politicking, the lack of genuine consultation, ideologically driven motivation and the heavy-handed imposition, this whole business of the new translation was a good example of the listening Church in action or an exercise that respected the rights, gifts and needs of the faithful and priest presiders. As Church people, we are called to make good use of our God-given gift to listen.  Church leaders have an even greater responsibility to become good listeners.  We listen to the voice of God whether as an earthquake, a firestorm or a whisper.  We listen to His life-giving spirit.  We listen to the mind and heart of our people. We listen to the world with its joys and pain and pleas.

Unlike the confused concept of “earning grace” in the new translation, we do have to work for and earn the respect of our people; I humbly suggest that bishops have to work for and earn the respect of their priests, who are their co-workers and front-line men.

Instead of passively submitting to the hierarchy, I urge you, my brothers to take heart from our colleagues in Austria, Germany and Ireland and to take up ecclesial arms and communicate in any way that we can to our episcopal and Vatican comrades that they don’t own the show and that we, on behalf of ourselves and our people, are no longer prepared to continue to look away and ignore their ideologically driven, authoritarian strategies.  It may be some time before the Universal Church comes up with a better translation of the Missal, but surely we can’t stand by and say and do nothing while they go about imposing a similar process on the Lectionary. The Word of God deserves better than that.

We may have lost round one brothers.  I call upon all priests, who are faithful to the best traditions of our beloved Church and for whom “sensus fidelium” is a lived reality, to speak out and take action so that the sacred and nourishing Word is presented to our people in its most inviting way.

The issue of how the Christian community prays, celebrates and worships is very much at the heart and soul of our priestly ministry.  The saddest aspect of this sorry saga is that we are stuck with a translation of such a poor standard that is frustrating and irritating many priest presiders and worshippers.

The response of so many people is interesting, ranging from indifference to confusion to disgust. People are puzzled and frustrated at seeing so many minor, seemingly technical changes such as from “in the same way” to “in a similar way” at the consecration passage as they ask “why did they bother to make these changes?”

Following the “lex orandi lex credendi” principle, this inferior vehicle for community worship isn’t contributing as effectively as it should to a strengthening and a confirming of our communal faith.  We care about our Church, our people deeply and profoundly.  Many of us are aching on our own behalf and on behalf of our people.  This adds to the depth and intensity of our frustration and disappointment and reinforces the increasingly widespread attitude of many faithful Catholics that the official Church is confused, misguided and out of touch, not only with the world at large (as accurately portrayed by Cardinal Martini), but especially with our worshipping community.

On 14th November, 1962, 2162 Vatican ll fathers voted in favour of the schema for the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”, with only 46 negative votes.  The final text was passed overwhelmingly about a year later – 2,147 Bishops voted in favour while four voted against it, i.e. less than 1/5th of 1%.

It’s extraordinary to observe that the type of people representing that very small minority have infiltrated and manoeuvred their way into the highest offices at the Vatican with the result that their reactionary vision and ideological preoccupations have led to our present situation with such a disappointing and poor quality Missal.  I’m empowered by the insight of            Gamaliel (Acts 5/30) who discouraged organised action against the followers of Jesus, saying “If this movement of theirs is of human origin it will break up of its own accord but if it does in fact come from God, you will not only be unable to destroy them, but you might find yourselves fighting against God”.

It seems that Pope John XXlll referred to people with this mentality in his opening speech to the Council in October 1962: He regrets the fact that he hears people who “see nothing but a decline of truth and the ruin of the Church in these modern times.  They say that our era, in comparison with past ones, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history which is nonetheless, the teacher of life….I feel I must disagree with these prophets of doom.”  He presents a very different vision to that of “those prophets of doom”, saying that “Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations” and that “The Church is now in your hands.”

Some of our ideologically driven leaders are no doubt celebrating their apparent, short-term success.  Fortunately, they can’t control the workings of the dynamic and life-giving Spirit.  Like the biblical principle of Wisdom, she is elusive and beyond manipulation. None of us, whatever our title, status or power, whether we’re control freaks, bullies or manipulators, can direct the flow of the Spirit that blows where it will. The appropriate response to the Spirit is to submit and surrender, not the instinctive Vatican response of the Roman Empire’s practice of “command and control.”

The reality that is the Spirit and the Resurrection are our guarantees that the spirit of love expressed through goodness, truth and justice will prevail over the forces of darkness represented by ideology, ambition and extremism.

I can think of no better note to end with than to allow ourselves the privilege and the challenge of being inspired by the call to pastoral renewal by the prophetic John XXlll:  “We are not here on earth as caretakers of a museum but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare for a glorious future.”


Fr Kevin F. Burke

10 Responses

  1. Brendan

    Excellent article but will it be heeded by anyone who actually needs to hear what it has to say?

  2. Joe O'Leary

    George Pell is probably Francis’s closest adviser on the new translation… The celebration of ICEL’s 25th anniversary is a sinister farce — these are body-snatchers who replaced the legitimate ICEL some time ago: http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2010/06/11/a-cold-wind-from-rome-by-bishop-taylor/

  3. DOM

    “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open,all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy Name—“.
    So began a Mass in London some days ago and reported in the Catholic Herald paper. This Mass format has the approval of the Vatican for use in certain circumstances.
    If the Church is not Christ centered it is nothing. The hope is that Pope Francis will take on the important problems in the Church. But it is unrealistic to expect that he can deal with all the problems in a short period of time. His work may need to be continued into the future by those who follow him as Bishop of Rome. It is only too obvious that prayer is needed and that the Holy Spirit must be listened to with respect.

  4. mjt

    How did it go with the attempt by the Vatican to impose it on the German bishops?
    Anyway, I am waiting some Sunday to be taken by the elbow and asked to leave the church, to be escorted out into the exterior darkness, but until then I`m continuing to say, though more quietly than I used to, “And also with you”, “We believe..” and “Lord I am not worthy to receive you..” and some day I hope to hear everyone around me say the same things.

  5. roy donovan

    The new missal is another example that it is not the people who have left the Church; it is the Church who has left the people. I will not continue to hurt my mind with the new missal or allow myself to become de-sensitised/ dehumanised. I have mostly abandoned the new missal and continually use the prayers of the Vatican 2 missal. I dont use ‘The Lord be with you’ or ‘Peace be with you’ anymore. I instinctively feel the these new responses are anti-the Incarnation/ anti-human and anti-Christmas! Unfortunately in not using them, it lessens direct engagement with people; sometimes I will say in their place – ‘The Lord is here among us’ and ‘let us offer one another the Peace of the Lord’.

  6. Joe O'Leary

    DOM, this is a well-known Anglican prayer — are we at last learning humility and drawing on the experience of those who have so masterfully used English in worship for five centuries?

  7. Pádraig McCarthy

    Tom O’Loughlin has a very useful article in New Blackfriars 2013:
    Is Every Translation a Vernacular Translation?
    It is available on http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nbfr.12025/pdf.
    He writes of many different modes and purposes of translation. He concludes:

    “… we need poets who can help us find language that can capture our imaginations. Each and every language is, moreover, a unique insight into the human condition and the history of its speakers. And this is never more true than in liturgy where we seek to use language at the very end of its capabilities in addressing the divine – it is then not helped if a motivating concern is not to be genuinely expressive but to show that our words are faithful to another language in translation.”
    David Frost (no, not that David Frost – he died in August), head of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, emeritus professor of English at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a former Fellow in English at St John’s College, Cambridge, spoke in 2012 about the Influence of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer on the Orthodox (http://www.iocs.cam.ac.uk/resources/texts/The_Influence_of_the_1662_Book_of_Common_Prayer_on_the_Orthodox.pdf):

    “Despite being a lover of Renaissance literature, I have argued throughout my working-life that to create a special language for religion akin to ancient Hebrew or Sanskrit is the characteristic of cults — and the Christian faith should not be turned into a cult. It is contrary to the practice of the Apostles, for the gospel was communicated in the Greek koine, an international trading language whose counterpart today might be internet computer English … To have a substantially different language for worship would seem to contradict the basic message of divine incarnation. When at Christ’s crucifixion the veil of the Temple was rent in two, the barrier between sacred and profane was shattered. It is all too easy to erect that barrier once again, and the barrier goes up imperceptibly as language grows old-fashioned and unfamiliar. What’s more, in English the archaic Cranmerian language, still current and native in Shakespeare’s day, tends now to isolates the faith in a pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment ghetto: putting it crudely, I don’t want to have always to put on my doublet and hose before I join in public prayer.”
    This last comment does remind me that I put on my toga when I go to preside at our liturgy!

  8. Peter Clifton

    DOM (#3) and Joe (#6). The prayer comes at the beginning of the recently approved text of the Mass for the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. This text draws heavily on the Anglican patrimony of the Ordinariate, as does their office book which was published last year. The prayer quoted comes unaltered from the1662 Book of Common Prayer.

    My impression is that the new missal has been received more positively in England & Wales than in Ireland.
    If this is so, is it a reflection of differences in general and/or religious culture? Is there a case for different translations for different Anglophone countries? What, I wonder, has been the Scottish reaction to the next texts?

    Padraig (#7). Many thanks for the reference to the article in New Blackfriars – a tremendously clear exposition of the author’s views. I do not think, however, that one is likely in the next 50 years to get anything like near-unanimity on what is an acceptable ttranslation. When living in the north of England, I used to attend a Mass which was said/sung in Latin, apart from the readings and the bidding prayers which were in English, and I am beginning to wonder whether this may be the best way forward in at least some parishes.

  9. John

    Perhaps many people, like myself, never regarded Benedict as a spiritual leader of our time. He is an expert in theology, sure, but there is something narrow about him, a kind of theological nerd. Even when he set out to address Muslim leaders, perhaps with good intentions, he was unable to avoid causing offence. In his career he should have stayed in the background perhaps, simply as an expert, a university professor. John Paul as a bishop bravely confronted Communism in Poland. Like many leaders of freedom struggles he became something else when he came to power, appointing nonentities as bishops and then lecturing them for their lack of zeal. Perhaps he had to have pygmies below him so that he could appear all the greater. The cult of power coming from the top is a big problem. The new missal was an excuse to exercise power.

  10. Con Devree

    John (9) how much of Benedict’s writings have you read, or how much of his homilies and audiences have you listened to? If one sets aside Pope Francis’s less accurate sound bites, everything else he has said has been said or written by Benedict. Drawing comparisons between popes is not very fruitful. All draw from the same bible, tradition and lives of the saints. Francis would reprimand you for the labelling you have used.

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