No Turning Back

Ed. note: The following letter, by Pray Tell reader Chris McDonnell, was published in The Catholic Herald.

We have now reached the point where, apparently, there is no turning back.

In the coming months we will attempt to come to terms with changes that, for all the arguments regarding adherence to the original Latin, make little sense in the English usage of our time. The process whereby the New Translation of the Roman Missal has been delivered leaves so many questions unanswered and seriously challenges respect for the collegiality of our bishops. We must wait and see how our priests and people respond to what is coming shortly to a church near you.

May I make a plea that in all our discussion and, at times, serious divergence of opinion, we maintain two important threads? First, that the attempt to take the church back to pre-Vatican II days has no part in the Christian experience some forty years later. There should be no talk about the “good guys” winning as William Oddie wrote in his article in the Catholic Herald in mid-February. We are all pilgrims in a pilgrim church and we have to find a way forward that is respectful and not triumphalist.

And secondly, and most importantly, we should recognise that the celebration of the Eucharist is central to our Christian lives.

The great sadness in all of this furor is that the celebration of the Eucharist where we should, in faith, be gathered in a shared belief round the table of the Lord will become a matter of dissension.

All of this could have been avoided if the process of arriving at this translation had shown greater understanding of current English usage rather than sought a literal translation from a dead language into a living one.

W H Auden, in his poem “If I could tell you” , written in October 1940, begins with these three lines.

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
time only knows the price we have to pay;
if I could tell you I would let you know

That, I am afraid, is a neat and poignant summary of our present position.


  1. And anyone who thinks we will know the answer by the first Sunday of Advent is dreaming. Or even by Epiphany 2012. By Advent, 2012, more likely. It’s not just the so-called “people’s parts” after all, but the EPs, prefaces, collects, solemn blessings, and the rest. (The priest’s parts, yes, but no less the people’s parts. So many people now know by heart, or very nearly so, EPs II and III, for example. And indeed their life of Faith is nourished and sustained by these prayers. And for some among them has been for forty years.

    As for Holy Week, time for quiet prayer and lectio divina. (The second readings in the Office of Readings have been masterfully rendered in the ICEL [yes] LH.) So I will try to make time by avoiding the internet sites. And perhaps to bask in “the joy of the resurrection renews the whole world,” I’ll continue this practice through the Great Octave. And why not through the whole of the Fifty Days.

    All blessings and graces of the pascha paschatum, solemnitas solemnitatum.

  2. The failure of anyone official actually to engage with the criticisms (as opposed to just dissing them) is truly scandalous

  3. I can’t help but feel that the history is now being written on the confusion that followed the Second Vatican Council. We all know that after any Council there is a period of sometimes heady confusion. That is no surprise. Time is being called on confusion though. With that comes a certain harking back to previous ways, but we must move forward. As a young person who only knew the lameness, but discovered Tradition later, I am glad things are finally going in the right direction. Let’s be Church and unite around the new, corrected translation of Holy Mass.

    1. The Church is confused today but I do not remember the time after Vatican II as one of confusion. Vatican II was embraced as LUMINOUS by most Catholics, and resisted by some, who saw clearly enough how Vatican II had changed the Church.

    2. Joe, I think you’re being a bit dishonest.
      Pope Paul VI apparently saw the time after Vatican II as confused.

  4. We do not have to choose between going backward, or forwards, or standing still. We can do it all, and be better for it.

    Almost all sociologists of religion agree about the vitality of religion in America and that comes in large part because of religious competition, and the lack of an established or monopoly church.

    The permission for priests to use the EF disestablished the liturgical monopoly by giving another choice. The future should not be lived as a duel between the EF and OF that might feed schism, but rather a larger and more vibrant competition.

    Soon there will be an Anglican Form; hopefully much effort will be made to doing it well. Priests who are not part of the Ordinate should be permitted to use it just like the EF. That would give musicians and publishers a larger potential audience and incentive. I like Anglican chant just as much as Latin and Gregorian chant and would like to see more of all of them in our parishes.

    We should continue to use the current 1973 Missal Form under the same conditions as the EF, namely if priests think persons in their care want it. We have invested a lot of time and money into this. People have music, etc. to which they are attached. Everyone should be able to migrate to the New Missal at their own pace.

    The Bishops responsibility should be to promote and encourage the 2010 Missal Form in a positive fashion without sanctioning other Forms. Bishops should set up a system for collecting feedback in the parishes about all forms of the liturgy that are being used, so everyone will know and profit by the experience of the parishes both positively and negatively. Yes make the results available on the web for everyone to see!

    Finally we should bring the proposed 1998 Missal forward in an experimental way. Make it available through the internet under a creative commons. As a condition of use, users agree to participate in a systematic evaluation and make all their music, etc. available to others through the internet. A pilot for ground up Missal development.

    1. Jack’s final suggestion is a wonderful call for USCCB to demonstrate leadership instead of law enforcement, subsidiarity instead of subordination. It would not be expensive to do this through the Web. All constructive criticism should be recorded. Mere nay-saying should be set aside. More than one text might result because of our differing tendencies toward the wondrous or the communal, once the idea of only one right way to do things was set aside.

      The living tradition of Catholicism was confined as to a hospital bed by the fathers of Trent. That crisis is passed and we are trying to promote a healthy recovery. The church previously included many forms of the Mass, most of which in the West looked to the active developments in Rome for good examples.

      We now need to finish the rehabilitation and get the liturgy back to a normal life in the local churches.

      Rome’s role began as a seat of recourse in disputes rather than as a center of administration, and we need to head back in that direction.

      Let the pope and his staff consult the academics and establish the acceptable original language texts for Scripture and leave the modern translations to the episcopal conferences.

      Let Rome decide what is minimally required for the Mass and let bishops select texts and culturally appropriate rituals.

      If episcopal conferences criticize theologians, let them appeal to Rome for open hearings.

      We need to move the ecclesiological war off the liturgy and clean up that battlefield. No segment of the church has the right to hold the liturgical ground against all comers. It should be a parkland open to all points of view.

    2. This sounds perfectly sensible, and should defuse the situation effectively. It will require a little more thought and creativity in the preparation and selection of the texts, but that is a good thing.

  5. Jack, what you suggest makes great sense to me. It will be interesting to see what arguments against your proposals will be raised by people who want to have the choice between the OF and the EF and, at the same time, will not want a similar choice or parallel choices concerning the 1073 and 1998 translations to be extended to others.

    I have already heard people in Ireland, whom I would describe as salt-of-the-earth, traditional catholics raise questions, in light of the anglican ordinate, about the continuation of obligatory clerical celibacy for diocesan clergy, including priests and bishops.

    Whether those in favour of the anglican ordinate and the new translation recognise it or not, the introduction of both will have consequences for the status quo, which they may not support, but which will be difficult to gainsay.

  6. Jack’s suggestions make way too much sense to be actively considered by our good shepherds. I am certain, however, that many priests will choose to pray the prayers of the church in the most edifying manner possible. I would be surprised if that didn’t include at least some use of prayer texts which while enjoying the approbation of the English speaking bishops might not enjoy the wishes of the CDW. I’m looking forward to a thoroughgoing Eucharistic catechesis occasioned by the introduction of the Revised Roman Missal.

  7. I lived through the period of Vatican II and remember clearly the time before the council, a time I do not want to return to. The years after Vatican II were not “confusing”, but a time of energy and creativity, a time for engaging the world in dialogue and listening. Look at the process of this new translation, from beginning to end: a total coverup. Have we learned anything about coverups? Was there consultation in the process? What is the image of God and church in the new translation? As a priest for 33 years, I cannot embrace this new translation, for somewhere the hands of right-wing ideologues are involved. The test is: Will we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Opening of Vatican II next October 12, 2012? If not, why not?

    1. I think the period after Vatican II was probably different things to different people depending on their background and how they were treated. I can’t say for sure, of course, but that’s the impression I get from reading different accounts and hearing older folk’s experiences.

      Talk to a progressive liturgist and it was a time of renewal, freedom, etc. Talk to a traddie and it was a time of oppression, confusion and the abuse of clerical power.

      Different times are different things to different people. An American white man who grew up in the 1950’s probably has a much more rosy impression of that decade than a black woman might. Neither one is “rewriting history” when recalling the past so much as giving their own side of the story.

    2. well said

      Often hear some cite the post VII bishops’ meeting in which Bugnini and others showcased a suggested reformed liturgy – some cite the various votes as evidence of “confusion” or “going too far”, etc.

      In fact, as opposed to the actions of the past 15 years, what you saw there was the living out of the principles and direction set by over 2,000 bishops in a council (the highest authority of the church). It was an “open” process that allowed for feedback, discussion, etc.

      From that feedback, changes were made and various conferences were then able to form their own vernacular expressions of liturgy.

      Yes, church historians can show that it takes on average 100 years for the work/direction of a council to finally be implemented. Would strongly suggest that the past 15-20 years and attempts to “re-write” history e.g. Bugnini as the enemy will eventually be overcome.

      1. On what do you base the claim that an ecumenical council is “the highest authority of the Church”?

    3. “Will we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Opening of Vatican II next October 12, 2012? If not, why not?”

      Why should we? Did people celebrate the 50th anniversary of Trent, or Vatican I, or any other ecumenical council? I don’t see anyone celebrating the 700th anniversary of the fifteenth ecumenical council (Vienne) this year.

      Perhaps the real question is, Father, why is such a celebration of Vatican II seemingly so important to you?

      1. The strident tone of your reply to Father Robert’s posting, adds nothing to the conversation and serves rather only to alienate your readers and not to persuade them.

        An obvious answer to your own question, assuming that it was not a rhetorical one, is that Vatican II is the most recent council in church history, the nearest council in time to the contemporary world, and, therefore, the council whose continued reception needs the most energy.

        Father Robert is as much entitled to opt for the unique importance of the Second Vatican Council, as you are entitled to deny that, without having his motives questioned.

      2. Strident? Not at all; I’m not sure how written text can be loud, shrill or raucous. Questioning his motives? No, I’m merely asking a question, to which I would genuinely like to know Father’s answer.

        As far as your answer goes, I think you risk falling into the error of progressivism: i.e. newer is better/more worthy of attention. Yes, Vatican II is the most recent council. Why does that automatically mean that its “continued reception needs the most energy”? We’ve had lots of energy expended on its reception, and the more cynical among us will point out that it doesn’t seem to have resulted in anything like a “new springtime”. Rather the opposite, in fact.

        Given the current state of Catholic belief and catechesis, I would argue that it is councils like Trent, Nicea I and Chalcedon I that need a renewed energy in their reception. Vatican II only means anything in light of the rest of the Church’s teaching and tradition. SC 14-20 can’t be carried out without, e.g., understanding and believing Trent’s dogmatic declarations about the Mass.

        And what is this “unique importance” you speak of? Why does Vatican II have a unique importance, and not (e.g.) Trent?

      3. It is a commonplace to recognise that a text has mood and tone. A modicum of familiarity with literary criticism bears that out.

        If yours is the real question, you are implying that the questions Father Robert asks are not real. It’s curious that you suggest that it is the question which you ask which is the real question, while you dismiss Father Robert’s questions as unreal, or less than real. This is a subjective and self-serving analysis.

        “As far as your answer goes, I think you risk falling into the error of progressivism: i.e. newer is better/more worthy of attention.”

        This is a logical fallacy. Vatican II may be more worthy of attention. This is not an assertion that it is better. You are putting words into my mouth. You are building a man of straw, only to knock him down.

        “Yes, Vatican II is the most recent council. Why does that automatically mean that its “continued reception needs the most energy?”

        Because by virtue of that fact, it has had the least amount of time for reception of all the general councils. Judging by the length of time that has elapsed between the last three councils, fifty years is a relatively short period of reception.

        “We’ve had lots of energy expended on its reception, and the more cynical among us will point out that it doesn’t seem to have resulted in anything like a “new springtime”. Rather the opposite, in fact.

        I presume you are self identifying with this group.

        “Given the current state of Catholic belief and catechesis, I would argue that it is councils like Trent, Nicea I and Chalcedon I that need a renewed energy in their reception.”

        That may be so. It doesn’t mean that the reception of Vatican II does not require new energy. They are not mutually exclusive statements.

        Pointing the finger at other people by dismissing their questions and by accusing them of falling into error, while at the same time, elevating your own question to the status of ‘the real question’ convinces no one of the reasonableness of your argument and at the same time raises questions about your impartiality and objective judgement.

      1. My pastor and his assistants have said they have no intention of using the Roman missal (3rd edition). They’re going to continue to use the 1973 version.
        I’ve been told the bishop (who shall be nameless) supports this decision.

        I’m curious, if this bishop is moving out of Rome’s
        orbit on the missal issue, is he moving away on other
        issues as well. Is he alone in doing so?

  8. Well put Fr Robert.
    I too remember the energy and excitement at that time. The imagined holy comfort zone that some hark back to pre-Vatican II offers little for this generation. Time is a one way passage and we have a work to do that is for now and future generations. That is why the Auden quote is so pertinent “Time will say nothing but I told you so”
    Chris McDonnell UK

    1. I don’t hark back to pre-Vatican II days. I want only to be faithful to the 2000 year Tradition of the Church. Vatican II was not intended to ‘liberalise’ the Church – a quick read of Blessed John XXIII’s opening address will put that myth to rest. It was not a break with the past. It is about renewal and reform in accordance with Tradition – not against it. Benedict addressed this in his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. The heady confusion was a result of the spirit of the age – free love and cheap wacky backy, which devastated the Catholic liturgy and caused so much dissent and confusion on (usually sexual) moral teaching. So many Catholics have been deprived an authentic experience of the Catholic faith. The collapse of catechesis is another issue, one that affected me personally.

      1. Alison’s comments can be read in different ways depending on how one sees Catholic tradition.

        At the time, I understood pope John and V2 as seeking to recover the variety of traditions which existed in Catholicism for 15 centuries prior to Trent and move out of the locked in place, fortress mentality of the Counter-Reformation to engage with the modern world.

        Today, I hear people who think tradition means to show continuity with the frozen positions of Trent instead of engaging present cultures and present scholarship in ecclesiastic and secular subjects as the Church had traditionally done before that.

        Historic awareness needs to include more than where the RCC was in 1959.

      2. The liturgical movement began many years before Vatican II, with people such as Lambert Beauduin, Ada Bethune, Godfrey Diekmann, and Virgil Michel. The subsequent liturgical reform and renewal occurred because hundreds of bishops discerned the work of the Holy Spirit in the thinking and writings of those visionaries.
        If this led to confusion in some quarters, that should not be attributed to a false direction, but rather to the inevitable challenge of adapting to change. We can look to many other times of renewal in the Church’s history and see similar responses to prophetic calls for renewal.
        In implementing this renewal of the sacred liturgy, the bishops’ conferences and others in the Church were certainly not guided by what Katie refers to as the “spirit of the age” (though that may have led to some excesses and missteps in some quarters), any more than authentic conservatives, both then and now, are motivated by some “spirit of a former age.”

  9. The process whereby the New Translation of the Roman Missal has been delivered leaves so many questions unanswered and seriously challenges respect for the collegiality of our bishops. We must wait and see how our priests and people respond. . . .
    The great sadness in all of this furor is that the celebration of the Eucharist . . . will become a matter of dissension.

    Let us agree that the process can be flawed yet the result–the missal itself–acceptable or better. What, then, will have been achieved by waiting to see how people react to the new translation? Along with acceptance of the result, you are likely to see acceptance of the process, if only by default, i.e., no complaints about how it was produced or by whom. But what if people criticize the new translation, grumble and complain about it as some have done elsewhere already? What will you have achieved by waiting to see? People will have questions; the issue will be murky. Will you then explain that the translation is the flawed product of an irregular process?

    Paul writes in Galatians 2:11: “And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Paul doesn’t mention who won the argument that day; he focuses on his own responsibility for clarifying the issue. As a layperson who has never taken a vow of obedience, I can still recognize obedience to the will of a superior as a virtue–except when the superior is clearly wrong. Then candor becomes a virtue and “waiting to see” clearly wrong. If I recall, there was some “dissension” at the first Eucharist, when Christ spoke candidly about a matter that none of His apostles wanted to hear. Some confusion followed when His prediction proved true (didn’t someone almost lose an ear?), but confusion would have triumphed if He had not prepared the 11 for the action of the one.

  10. First, that the attempt to take the church back to pre-Vatican II days has no part in the Christian experience some forty years later. … We are all pilgrims in a pilgrim church and we have to find a way forward that is respectful and not triumphalist.

    One of these things is not like the other.

    If you think that conservatives’ program amounts to “attempt[ing] to take the church back to pre-Vatican II days” and that this “has no part in the Christian experience some forty years later”, you’re already being disrespectful (by distorting their views) and being triumphalist by shouting that your side has won.

    1. That’s not how I hear it. There isn’t any whiff of “our side won” in Chris’s letter. Being a pilgrim is not about winning. The nature of being a pilgrim is that you are humbly on the way. He’s not shouting.

  11. Being a pilgrim is not about winning. The nature of being a pilgrim is that you are humbly on the way.

    That’s exactly my point.

    But one side of conversation is being caricatured as an attempt to turn back the clock and then dismissed because, as everyone knows, you can’t turn back the clock. That’s a kind of triumphalism too. And it clashes with the idea of being a humble pilgrim. (The shouting is metaphorical in this case.)

    1. Turning back the clock is metaphorical language par excellence.
      So, in fact, yes, the clock can be turned back, metaphorically.

      Whatever dismissal is taking place on this thread, it is not because the clock can’t be turned back metaphorically, that it is happening. Rather it is because to seek to repudiate the Second Vatican Council and to reinstate the liturgical practices that obtained prior to the Council, such as the rehabilitation of Septuagesima, is wrong. It is against the magisterium of the church, if nothing else.

      1. Non-dogmatic decisions of ecumenical councils can be changed without implying a repudiation of the council as a whole. The fact that there are MANY religious orders founded after Lateran IV forbade new orders shows that a decision of an ecumenical council can be changed without the reversal of the decision by a subsequent ecumenical council. Yet this is still not a repudiation of Lateran IV.

      2. The only one who can reinstate Septuagesima is the pope. If he were to do so I don’t see how you could claim that this is going against the Magisterium.

  12. One act which might very well reconcile the warring liturgical factions having arisen since the end of Vatican II might be the publication of yet another motu proprio by Pope Benedict XVI clearly preserving and encouraging the use of the Latin treasury of music, but encouraging and giving patronage to liturgies in the vernacular.

    The motu proprio would present a flexible universal liturgical schema or skeleton for the western church. The 1962 and 1970 missals would be abolished, to be replaced with a “Benedictine” Liturgical Framework. Some elements of both missals and all western and eastern liturgical uses and rites would be preserved as perhaps local or national options, other rites could become standard common elements, with the bishop ordinary functioning as arbiter of local usea. He becomea a point of origin for liturgical usage in his diocese, for reforming texts and rites as part of the process of fleshing out the Benedictine skeleton presented to him and all bishops. Final approval for local usages coming from the USCCB.

    Controversies arising in which texts may contain confusing language suggesting Catholic orthodoxy has been compromised, repudiated, or is less clearly defended in the prayers of the liturgy would always be referred to the CDW for adjudication.
    I think this process of future reform preserves a certain balance between all major liturgical decision-making bases in the Church. While putting the weight of liturgical reform on local and national bodies of bishops who are closer to the culture and ethos Vatican II believed had to be absorbed into the prayer life of the Church. Rome would be exercising the function of universal oversight and acting as referee.

    Trent’s imposition of a uniform missal made sense in the 16th century as a bulwark against the reformers. Today, local variations within a uniform plan may better meet the needs of all expressed in Vatican II, with tradition and innovation given equal standing.

  13. “First, that the attempt to take the church back to pre-Vatican II days has no part in the Christian experience some forty years later.

    Where’s the press release that made Chris the arbiter of all proper Christian experiences? Somehow I missed it…
    If I knew of his credentials, I would so much more open to his respectful tone. Maybe I could dialogue better with him then…

  14. In some important ways both the Reformation and the Council of Trent were the result of the invention of the printing press. The printing press took a long time to be ‘digested’ by the Church (cf. the Index of Forbidden Books). The same sort of process both made Vatican II possible and all the post-Vatican II ‘reactions’ (consider electric lighting, the microphone, telephone, telegraph, television, all the modern versions of communications and their secular influences) which society — and the Church — are in the process of learning to live with. Any liturgical development which refuses to take this situation into account is truly “retro” and is an ultimately useless exercise trying to ‘restuff Pandora’s box’

  15. It seems to me that the core message of the Gospel — Jesus’ teaching and mission — is moved off center stage in this thread. The modern world has and is changing. Is the liberating message of the gospel relevant in the world? Is it communicated in a way that invites dialogue and all sides learn from each other? Another way to say it, Is the Spirit moving about in the world, in secular society? I believe this is what Vatican II was all about: a global convocation of the leadership to discern xthe state of things in the world with the light of the gospel. John XXIII wanted to connect with this world with the gospel because the world was about to blow itself apart. Is it possible that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the back drop for the writing of “Gaudium et spes”? It’s probable. The vision of the Council was, and still is, a vision of a spirituality of communion. This is why I believe we ought to celebrate the anniversary of the opening of the council. And the drafting of the Constitution on the Liturgy had 2300 votes in favor and 4 against (if I remember correctly). Was the Spirit present in that deliberation? I think e ach person has to enter her or his heart to to discern that answer.

  16. Vatican II was not “infallible;” only God is infallible. Vatican II — the conference of bishops — with the Pope — is the highest authority in the Church, according to Canon Law. The decrees of the Council are considered orthodoxy.

    1. Are you suggesting if only God is infallible that the doctrine of Papal infalliblity defined by the First Vatican Council does not apply? Would you say that the two pronouncements proclaimed Ex Cathedra, Immaculate Conception and Assumption ,are not infallible?

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