Pope Paul VI, the new Roman Missal, and the ineffable Fr. Richard McBrien

Now that the much-anticipated new English translation of the Roman Missal has finally been promulgated and is being learned by priests and faithful alike, certain Catholics continue to disparage it, some through mockery. A fatuous example of this recently appeared on the website of Commonweal Magazine.

What’s interesting is that some who denigrate the new translation, such as the ineffable Fr. Richard McBrien, make the similarly fatuous claim that it was rammed through by “traditionalists in the hierarchy and a minority of ultra-conservatives within the Catholic church (sic).” Father McBrien’s recent commentary on the new translation revolves around the notion that there is a war being waged for “control” of the Mass between so-called “right-wing” Catholics and those “for whom Pope John XXIII is a hero and Vatican II was a great event.”

Seeking no doubt to console panicky progressives who are outraged (outraged!) that the pope and the bishops would have the temerity to impose liturgical changes, Father M encourages his fellow travelers to keep a stiff upper lip, secure in the reassurance that . . .

To be sure, the advocates of the “reform of the reform” have won only a partial victory with this new translation (for example, “I believe …” rather than the more communal “We believe …” in the Credo). But the Mass is still in the vernacular; the altar is still turned around; the great majority of people receive Communion in the hand; and there are more likely to be altar girls in the sanctuary than boys.

Notice the irony here. He is thoroughly gung-ho for reform, as long as it’s his kind of reform. You know, the kind that involves jettisoning as much of the Catholic Church’s rich, 2000-year-old liturgical patrimony as possible and replacing it with altar girls and such. How ironic, then, that his heart bleeds for

“those priests who have been reciting these prayers for many years [who] will inevitably stumble over the new wording, and those priests whose eyesight has failed them and who have memorized unchangeable parts of the Mass will continue to recite the words with which they have been long familiar. At least, that is what I would advise them if they were silly enough to ask.”

And yet, in his books and newspaper column, Father McBrien routinely engages in casuistry by scorning those Catholics who’ve had difficulties with or who for whatever reason resisted the far more sweeping and significant changes to the Mass that were enacted by Vatican II.

Happily, Pope Paul VI, the pontiff who presided over Vatican II, offered some prescient advice to those who, like Father McBrien, have difficulty understanding (or accepting) Pope Benedict XVI’s reasons for implementing the new translation of the Roman Missal.

I doubt that Father M has ever even heard of my lowly blog, much less reads it, but if in God’s providence he should happen to do so, I hope he will ponder the following section of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei, given in September, 1965, shortly before the conclusion of Vatican II:

It is only logical, then, for us to follow the magisterium of the Church as a guiding star in carrying on our investigations into this mystery, for the Divine Redeemer has entrusted the safeguarding and the explanation of the written or transmitted word of God to her. And we are convinced that “whatever has been preached and believed throughout the whole Church with true Catholic faith since the days of antiquity is true, even if it not be subject to rational investigation, and even if it not be explained in words.”

Proper Wording of Great Importance

23. But this is not enough. Once the integrity of the faith has been safeguarded, then it is time to guard the proper way of expressing it, lest our careless use of words give rise, God forbid, to false opinions regarding faith in the most sublime things. St. Augustine gives a stern warning about this when he takes up the matter of the different ways of speaking that are employed by the philosophers on the one hand and that ought to be used by Christians on the other. “The philosophers,” he says, “use words freely, and they have no fear of offending religious listeners in dealing with subjects that are difficult to understand. But we have to speak in accordance with a fixed rule, so that a lack of restraint in speech on our part may not give rise to some irreverent opinion about the things represented by the words.”

24. And so the rule of language which the Church has established through the long labor of centuries, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and which she has confirmed with the authority of the Councils, and which has more than once been the watchword and banner of orthodox faith, is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge.

Who would ever tolerate that the dogmatic formulas used by the ecumenical councils for the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation be judged as no longer appropriate for men of our times, and let others be rashly substituted for them? In the same way, it cannot be tolerated that any individual should on his own authority take something away from the formulas which were used by the Council of Trent to propose the Eucharistic Mystery for our belief. These formulas—like the others that the Church used to propose the dogmas of faith—express concepts that are not tied to a certain specific form of human culture, or to a certain level of scientific progress, or to one or another theological school.

Instead they set forth what the human mind grasps of reality through necessary and universal experience and what it expresses in apt and exact words, whether it be in ordinary or more refined language. For this reason, these formulas are adapted to all men of all times and all places.

Greater Clarity of Expression Always Possible

25. They can, it is true, be made clearer and more obvious; and doing this is of great benefit. But it must always be done in such a way that they retain the meaning in which they have been used, so that with the advance of an understanding of the faith, the truth of faith will remain unchanged. For it is the teaching of the First Vatican Council that “the meaning that Holy Mother the Church has once declared, is to be retained forever, and no pretext of deeper understanding ever justifies any deviation from that meaning.”



  1. Capt. Jeff

    So, you HAD to ruin my New Year’s Eve by mentioning the “ineffable” Fr. Richard McBrien, huh? Thanks, Patrick.

    As always, love your posts. And, I pray that Fr. McBrien does read this… although I doubt it’ll make any difference.

    Wishes for a very happy and blessed new year,

  2. Pam

    Who is this Fr. McBrien and why doesn’t his bishop do something? I was living in blissful ignorance until reading this post.

  3. QuoTSCumquae

    There are no doubt a number of adjectives to describe that character, but it seems to me you have misspelled effable. I’ll come up with examples in a few minutes …

    Let’s see, Mysterium fidei rings a bell — isn’t that the phrase they ripped out of the heart of the consecration like Aztec surgical priests wielding obsidian knives? But I digress.

    “…[T]he rule of language which the Church has established through the long labor of centuries … is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge.” And so what did he do? He presumed to change it at his own pleasure, AND under the pretext of new knowledge, together with the dedicated corroboration of one Freemason and six Protestant ministers. So there! So much for integrity. Not only did he slice and dice the “unchangeable Canon” of the Mass, he entirely disregarded “the rule of language” inasmuch as Latin was set aside wholesale, and the vernacular tongues imposed in its place.

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the difference between A and B. While the ostensible agenda was making “these formulas … clearer and more obvious,” it soon became evident that throwing the baby out with the bath water was no longer beyond the pale of possibilities.

    I pray that some day God’s grace will illuminate the hearts of those who can really make a difference, and we can at last return to some semblance of sanity, after recognizing the treasure that was wholesale set aside like a stack of yesterday’s newspapers. In the meantime, adjectives: truculent, mawkish, pusillanimous, liberal, contentious, meddling.. Modernist — yeah, that one alone pretty much covers the gamut, if you can recall Pope Saint Pius X’s definition, “the synthesis of all heresies.”

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