Now we have an improved new Mass translation, can we apply the same rigour to our hymn books?

A choir singing during Mass in New York (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

I was distracted during Mass the other day by one of those linguistic irritations of modern interference in old hymns. The hymn in question was “I’ll sing a hymn to Mary”; consider my annoyance when we got to the refrain which, as everyone knows, should be, “When wicked men blaspheme thee/I’ll love and bless thy name”, to find that it had been changed to the insipid and anaemic, “When wicked ones blaspheme thee…’ I know this change isn’t recent, but since the translation of the liturgy itself is now more precise, could we not begin to exercise some rigour over this kind of absurdity in hymns?

We all know that men are more wicked than women, despite Kipling’s famous line, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male”, but that isn’t the point. The older version meant “mankind” and no one objected until a rigid feminism took hold of the hymn books. Incidentally, this new version comes from Liturgical Hymns Old and New published by Kevin Mayhew. I checked the Catholic Hymn Book, compiled by the London Oratory and published by Gracewing, and note that they have kept to the original wording.

In a parish not a million miles from me there is low-level skirmishing going on at present between the parish priest, who favours Kevin Mayhew’s hymns, and parishioners of a more traditional hue, who favour Gracewing. Checking another old hymn from my childhood, “To Jesus’ heart all burning/with fervent love for men”, I see that both hymnals keep to the original. I suppose Mayhew could hardly have changed the word “men” here to “people” as it wouldn’t have scanned; thank goodness “all” wasn’t substituted instead.

I have just opened the Mayhew hymn book at random, to find number 780 trilling: “Don’t build your house on the sandy land/ don’t build it too near the shore/ Well, it might look kind of nice/but you’ll have to build it twice/ oh, you’ll have to build your house once more…” How can this possibly be called a hymn? It’s simply a jingle.

For the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we sang that marvellous hymn, packed with Christian theology, “When I survey the wondrous Cross…” It’s in the Oratory hymn book but I can’t see it anywhere among the Ws in the Mayhew book’s index, even though they have included another jingle with the opening line, “Who put the colours in the rainbow?” Are these happy-clappy ditties composed for the sake of children? How patronising; when I was a child we used well-worn copies of The Westminster Hymnal in dark red cloth; they were full of the poetry of Fathers Caswall and Faber, and singing lines like “O Bread of Heaven beneath this veil” was how we learned our Catholic faith.

To raise another (related) question: in the Gloria of the new English translation “hominibus” is rendered as “people” [of good will]. Why not “men”? Especially as in the Creed “homines” is rendered “for us men” [and for our salvation]. This is inconsistent; I don’t understand the logic of it. For the sake of nostalgia I took down my old Roman Missal, published by Burnes, Oates and Washbourne in 1957, to look at the English translation of the Latin Low Mass. Here was another mystery: “Et cum spiritu tuo” was translated in all places as “And with you”. “Bonae voluntatis” in the Gloria was translated as “[men] who are God’s friends.” I had never noticed this before because we always responded in Latin. How could such inexact translations have occurred so long before the Novus Ordo was introduced? Someone enlighten me, please.