On Sunday, I understood for the first time one contributory factor (not the most important, but significant) to my growing preference on Sunday morning for the early celebration of Mass at the Oxford Oratory, which follows the Usus Antiquior — a preference even over the splendours of the Latin High Mass at 11am. It is that in the early mass the bible readings are read in Latin, then repeated in the acceptable translation to be found in the 1962 Missal; whereas at the High Mass, we follow perforce the new Novus Ordo missal, which though it now has a hugely improved English translation of the common of the Mass, also embodies our bishops’ depressing decision to stick with the Jerusalem Bible for the readings (in America I understand, the Bible translation used is the greatly more acceptable RSV).
So most of the text to be found in the new Missal is simply illiterate and banal if you are lucky, and from time to time offensive to the point of apoplexy (well, mine anyway). My unfortunate wife has to sit next to a husband gently spluttering away — and occasionally quietly exploding (she says it’s not so quiet, and would I kindly contain myself) — during the readings. This Sunday, I fear, my explosion was not properly contained: you will remember that this week we observed the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, and the gospel reading was Matthew’s account of our Lord’s asking John to baptise him. John demurs, and says that it is he who ought to be baptised by the Lord, not the other way round. Then, this is what we heard (I could scarcely believe my ears, but there it undeniably was, in print): “But Jesus replied, ‘Leave it like this for the time being…’” The King James Bible translates this verse as follows: “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.”
“Leave it like this for the time being”: is it believable that the ecclesiastical bureaucrats who engineered the “Spirit of Vatican II” actually conceived an image of Our Lord which was in their own image to THAT extent? That they were SUCH utter philistines that they could have portrayed him as uttering anything so utterly trite and commonplace, as though he were taking part in some administrative committee meeting? Well, so, I fear it is: yes, it IS believable.
This isn’t, to be fair, just a matter of the undeniable spiritual reductionism of “The Spirit of Vatican II”. The philistinism of many English bishops and their creatures is, at least since the re-establishment of the hierarchy, no new phenomenon. In his Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh quotes Mgr Knox writing to one English Bishop about his own revision of many of the prayers in the Manual of Prayers once to be found in every Presbytery, that “the prayers used by the Church of England are, by general admission, models of dignity and faultless prose rhythm. No convert, I think, has ever failed to experience a sense of loss over this difference”.
“The convert” Monsignor Knox continues, “may reasonably be expected to put up with such a minor deprivation, in return for all the treasures of grace which God’s mercy has opened to him”. Nevertheless, he says, it is a pity that many potential converts “go away with a sense that our prayer-idiom is something much inferior to their own, and that our priests rattle off the service as if conscious that it had no beauty of language of recommend it” (Does that sound familiar to anyone?). He recalled Catholics who had listened on the radio to the coronation of George VI, and who had asked him, “Why can’t we have prayers like that?”
Cardinal Hinsley had accordingly asked Mgr Knox to revise many of the prayers, and with immense labour he had done so, only to run into the opposition to all change from many bishops. Cardinal Hinsley was delighted with the results of his labours; but several bishops refused to allow the use of the new book in their dioceses. Evelyn Waugh comments that Mgr Knox “realised that familiarity and pious use had dulled many ears to the clumsiness of the earlier version(s) [of the prayers he had retranslated]; it was inconceivable to him that any could positively prefer it”. Resisting suggestions from the Bishop of Hexham (mostly for a return to the earlier translations) he barely concealed his understandable irritation: “I know your Lordship will excuse this contumacy on my part; if you have spent your whole life trying to translate Latin and trying to write good English, it is not easy to go to school again”.
So, the philistinism of the English bishops is by no means a new phenomenon. It is, however, and we need clearly to understand this, still a real cultural problem for the English Church: it is one which, I venture to suggest, was well understood by Benedict XVI, and it was this realisation which was undoubtedly one factor in his decision to promulgate and then to implement Anglicanorum coetibus.
It is, unfortunately, too late for the New Missal; it will be many years before we can think of replacing it with a new version using an acceptable Biblical translation. But there is one thing that could be done immediately. The Bishops could authorise the use at Mass of other recognised translations designed for Catholics. It would mean tacitly admitting their own mistake in opting for the Jerusalem Bible again, so they won’t do it. But one day, there will be new bishops; maybe then? Who knows?…