The bishops’ pastoral letter on the new Mass translation represents a revolution in their thinking

The bishops of England, Wales and Scotland with Benedict XVI at St Mary's College, Oscott (Matt Cardy/PA Wire)

The pastoral letter which was read out in church on Sunday, the text of which is to be found on the websites of many parish churches throughout the country – have a look at mine (click on news, the letter is under the photos) – was remarkable in many ways, both for what was said and what was left out. The most remarkable thing of all, perhaps, apart from the fact that it was from all the bishops, not just our own diocesan, was that it held the attention from beginning to end. It said something real: there wasn’t a platitude in it. It was short (some pastoral letters do drone on a bit) and it was very important indeed.

It seemed to fit into a pattern of behaviour which the bishops have been exhibiting more and more since the papal visit. There was the way in which the bishops have welcomed the ordinariate, as the Pope asked them to in Birmingham. I had expected obstruction and barely disguised ill will from certain bishops who shall here be nameless (they were the ones who in the early 1990s squashed plans for a similar but less radical scheme); but all of them, even the most vocal opponent of what was, at that time, called by the aspirant Anglicans “The Roman Option”, have done everything in their power to make the new converts feel welcome. The point about the converts, of course, is that they are coming for papal authority from a Church which has no effective authority of any kind, doctrinal or otherwise: opposition to them back in the early 90s was precisely from bishops who were themselves less than wholeheartedly enamoured of the authority of the Holy See. Thus, genuinely welcoming them now could well indicate a change of heart not only about the idea of an Anglican Catholic presence, gathered as such within the Roman Catholic Church, but also about the authority of the Magisterium itself. Maybe I’m being naïf, but that’s my hypothesis and my hope.

Then there was the decision – also connected with the papal visit, explicitly this time – to restore to their proper date two of the Holy Days of Obligation now being transferred to the nearest Sunday. I know the bishops have only announced that they will consider this restoration, but reaction from the pews has been so positive there will be a riot if they don’t actually do it, so surely they will.

Then there was the decision to restore the old practice of Friday abstinence, including abstention from meat, which according to the Daily Mail Archbishop Nichols said “was taken at least partly as a result of the papal visit, which had created ‘a fresh expression of self-confidence and identity amongst Catholics’.”

And now this frank and truthful – if you discount the tactful evasions it contains, which were probably unavoidable – pastoral letter. This too has been linked with the papal visit: “At the end of his visit last year,” the letter says, “Pope Benedict asked us to use this moment for genuine renewal. He said: ‘I encourage you now to seize the opportunity that the new translation offers for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist, and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration’.”

The truthfulness of the letter is most surprising in what it all but admits: the utter gross inadequacy of the old translation, and the destruction by these banal texts of so much of the reverence that they should have preserved (my comments are in square brackets):

The changes in the language now to be introduced … do not represent change for change’s sake, but are being made in order to ensure greater fidelity to the liturgical tradition of the Church [in other words, the texts we have are not faithful, or at least are not faithful enough to the Church’s tradition]. In the earlier translation not all the meaning of the original Latin text was fully expressed and a number of the terms that were used to convey the teachings of the faith were lost [in other words, the translation we now use is theologically inadequate: what the bishops don’t admit, nor, to be fair, can they, is that this inadequacy was the direct result of a calculated theological reductionism, a decision by the translators consistently to downplay certain emphases held to be inimical to “the spirit of Vatican II”]. This was readily acknowledged by the bishops of the Church, even back in the 1970s, and has become an increasing cause of concern since then [you bet].

There is an old adage in Latin which states that the way we pray forms the way we believe. So words and language are important for the teaching and the handing-on of the faith [think what that means: the bishops are saying that the faith has not been adequately handed on. We all know it’s true; but for them to admit it is quite something.]

So what does this new translation offer us? First of all, there is a fuller expression of the content of the original texts. Then, there is a closer connection with the Sacred Scriptures which inspire so much of our liturgy. Also, there is a recovery of a vocabulary that enriches our understanding of the mystery we celebrate. All of this requires a unique style of language and expression, one that takes us out of ourselves and draws us into the sacred, the transcendent and the divine.

Read that last sentence again. The bishops are saying that the “style of language and expression” of the Mass we now have doesn’t itself draw us into the transcendent and divine. That’s not to say that during Mass we aren’t so drawn: but that’s because, for all its failings, the Novus Ordo in English is still a valid Mass; we know that and so can be drawn into its reality, the reality that because of the celebration we are attending we will truly receive Christ’s Body and Precious Blood.

But the language that contains this reality has not been worthy of it. And there has been a very good reason for that: its intention was precisely not to draw us into the transcendent and the divine. Why? Because the underlying intention of the translators was deeply corrupted by the immanentist heresy, the heresy by which the Church in the 20th century has been repeatedly assailed: the philosophy which Pius X saw off for a time in Pascendi, and which has underlain all the various modernisms which have afflicted the Church during the 20th century: the heresy which precisely does not want us to be drawn “into the transcendent and divine” because it is only within mankind itself that salvation is to be found.

The translation we now have was meant to tend strongly towards a merely secular vision of life, and away from a perception of human existence understood sub specie aeternitatis. These texts, as Fr (now Mgr) Bruce Harbert put it, “repeatedly overestimate the value of human effort and undervalue the role of divine grace in human life, that is, they tend towards the Pelagian heresy”.

One notorious sign of the Pelagian tendency in the old translation was in its inclination to remove any sign of humility before God. “Lord”, wherever possible was suppressed, often replaced by “Father”. Any note of supplication tended to be downplayed; all this, Mgr Harbert said – in an article for the Catholic Herald I asked him to write, years before work began on the new translation, as it turned out under his supervision (Deo Gratias!) – would have to be reversed. He gave as an example “the somewhat peremptory words ‘And so, Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your spirit’.’” In the new translation this appears as “Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration”. The old immanentist cockiness has been extirpated; humility before a transcendent God has been restored.

All this, I fancy, is contained within those simple words in the bishops’ pastoral letter about the new translation’s use of “a unique style of language and expression, one that takes us out of ourselves and draws us into the sacred, the transcendent and the divine”.

It represents a whole revolution of thought, one which, if it is sustained and nurtured over the years, could lead to a renewal of the English and Welsh Church. I have not infrequently written disobligingly about our bishops in this space. I have always hated doing it: and it makes a very pleasant change to be able now to give them unreserved thanks and praise.