British Catholic writers call for a better Mass translation

British Catholic writers call for a better Mass translation

AD2000 Report

The Mass is a mess, says a British Catholic writers group. In a move unprecedented in its 70-year history the Catholic Writers' Guild in September published a pamphlet condemning the inaccuracy and theological distortion of the current English Mass translation and called on bishops to ensure that a revised version is once more faithful to the traditions of the universal Church.

This was timely, given the public criticisms of the new ICEL draft translation (see July AD2000) already expressed by some liturgists.

The pamphlet, by Member of Parliament Ann Widdecombe (Master of the Guild) and Martin Kochanski (a senior member of the Guild and the publisher of the spiritual website offers some trenchant criticisms of the presently used translation. It demonstrates with examples that the bishops of 30 years ago approved "a despiritualising agenda that emptied the Mass of its supernatural significance and contributed to the emptying of the churches".


The authors urge the Holy See not to accept the revisionists' standard excuse for the rewriting of the Mass - "you can't say that in English" - and give examples of how the overwhelming force of the original Latin agreed to at the Second Vatican Council can be conveyed in clear, modern, direct English. They also show how the politically-inspired rewriting of the Mass in the 1970s has isolated English-speakers from the rest of the world's Catholics.

The Catholic Writers' Guild of England and Wales, generally known as "The Keys", was founded in the 1930s by a group of journalists and authors headed by G.K. Chesterton and his team at GK's Weekly. It has over 100 members, including novelists, publishers, journalists, and other writers. Former Masters of the Guild include Piers Paul Read and Anthony Tyler CBE. The Guild's Patron is St Francis de Sales and its President is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster.

Ann Widdecombe comments: "In 1993, when I became a Catholic, the question I was asked most often was 'How on earth can you put up with all that ritual?' The image of the Catholic Church to the outside world remains very much one of formality; but for many Catholics the problem now is not formality but banality. The only thing I have ever missed as a former Anglican is Cranmer's English.

"The language of the Mass, the most precious gift the Church offers us, is not merely dumbed down to near destruction but is paraded as a translation into the vernacular from the Latin, when it is too often no such thing. Those of us who appreciate beauty in the use of language wince when magnificent phrases such as 'through a glass darkly' become 'dim reflections in a mirror'. I am always sorely tempted to substitute the original wording whenever confronted with reading those words in church."

She adds: "Having tortured the faithful for decades with some dire mistranslation, the Church has at last woken up and is moving to put matters right. That is very welcome to the authors and we hope our own small contribution may assist the Bishops."

According to Martin Kochanski: "The experts of the 1960s took the Paschal Sacrifice that had been given into their care and turned it into a simple friendly meal with a bit of uplift in it; then they watched in puzzlement as people decided that if you wanted a simple friendly meal then the pub next door would do just as well. Like the proverbial gym manager who made all the weights lighter to make things easier for his clients, the clergy have watched their congregations fade away without quite knowing why.

"A generation has passed and the guilty men are no longer with us. Today's bishops know there's something wrong and they are moving to put it right. We applaud them for this."

The Catholic Writers' Guild is well placed to contribute to the project of repairing the English Mass. As writers, they know how the English language works; as Catholics, they understand their own faith. Better than anyone, they can counter those forces within the Church who use "you can't say that in English" to justify any theological distortions they may choose to impose.

Some early reactions to a leaked draft translation, according to the authors, have shown how thoroughly some people misunderstand the aim of "faithfulness to the Latin".

Flawed translations

The authors identify numerous cases of flawed translation in their booklet.

For example, regarding "And also with you" for "Et cum spiritu tuo", they describe "the removal of the spirit from the very first line of the liturgy" as "shocking" and the present "We believe" for "Credo" as a nonsense: "How can I say 'we' when I have no way at all of knowing what my neighbour does or doesn't believe?

"The French say 'I believe'. The Germans say 'I believe'. The Poles say 'I believe'. Only English-speakers are not allowed to have beliefs of their own."

They describe the present translation of "Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea" as "pathetic" for removing "all analogy with the incident in the gospels on which this response is based".

These and other criticisms of the current translation are set out in 'The Mass is a Mess', which is available for £3.50, including postage, from the Guild's publications department: The Catholic Writers' Guild, PO Box 23700, London SW5 OWN, England. (Email: for Martin Kochanski).

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