Motu proprio “Magnum Principium”—a translation

Herewith my hasty and rough translation of the pope’s new motu proprio, Magnum Principium. Comments to follow in due course.


The great principle, confirmed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer, as adapted to their comprehension, should be understood by the people, required the grave duty be entrusted to the Bishops for introducing the vernacular into the liturgy, and to prepare and approve the [vernacular] versions of liturgical books. Continue reading “Motu proprio “Magnum Principium”—a translation”

Straining at gnats: on liturgy and language

A recent post here on the Missal, focusing on another clerical blogger using a forum with apparent ecclesiastical status, criticised in it the translation, by way of example, of the collect for the second Sunday of Lent, which begins “O God, who have commanded us…”. He and his language-savvy friends were aghast, with one exclaiming that the text had not been proof-read, and that this was a grammatical error. The blogger took me to task in the comments box for opposing him, as he is free to do, but never really dealt with my issue: that the grammar in the Missal is actually correct. Indeed, in the last of his many comments he persists in claiming that the faithful will continue to labour under “the (mis) understanding that we pray to God in the plural.”

The identity of the blogger is not important, but some issues arising from his posts do deserve attention early on lest they develop a life of their own.

First, the collect itself. The prayer is addressing God, talking to God as “you” – this is the vocative case, usually signified in English by use of “O”, thus “O God”; and employing the second person form of the verb. The prayer then goes on to remind God what he has done – “you have”, as it were. So the verb must agree with “God”. And it does – “O God, who have…”. Let’s be clear about this. The verb to have, in the present tense, has only two variants – “have” and “has”. “Has” is used only for the third person in the singular, “she has” for instance. In all 5 other possibilities it uses “have” – “I have”, “you (singular) have”, “we have”, “you (plural) have”, “they have”.

So when you see “have” there could be several possibilities. We can determine which is the correct one by looking, in this case, just before it, “O God, who have commanded…”. The “who” doing the commanding is God, to whom we are talking, so the second person must be used, and in both singular and plural this would be “have”. Now my interlocutor seems to think that most will opt for the plural understanding, even though we are clearly saying “O God”, not “O Gods”. The meaning is quite clear if we will but look.

Now if, as my interlocutor claims, most people do in fact read this as a plural (and I doubt it, but let’s run with it) then we have two remedies possible. Either we dumb down our language to suit the lowest common denominator among our audience vis a vis their level of grammatical knowledge, or we can teach them the grammar involved.

One could argue that another construction could have been used in this translation, and indeed there are several ways of translating the original Latin into English. However, we would then be into the realm of taste and personal preference. As to grammatical correctness, the construction employed by the Missal is correct. End of story. It is the option that has been chosen, and so it is the one we must explain to any who do not understand it. Some priests seem to prefer consoling the people who do not understand by saying that it is poor English, archaic, inelegant, too formal and the like. This seems a betrayal of their duty to serve the Church and not themselves. There is a time and place for cleric’s personal opinions, but not usually in forums carrying the approbation (real or implied) of the Church. There, the servants of the Church should explain the Church’s teachings or decisions and so promote the understanding and peace of mind of the faithful.

Of course, sometimes it is easier to be the rebel, appoint oneself a prophet and claim to know better than the Church. Certain people will love it, as it suits their temper or prejudice. But an opportunity for real growth in the Church will have been lost. Moreover, if the many experts and bishops involved in the process of translation have chosen this construction, quite frankly, who am I to gainsay their decision? They made a choice for a register of language that suited the formal nature of the Church’s liturgy. The mania in many places for cosy, home-made, smorgasbord liturgies is modern and has no warrant in either the history or the rubrics of the liturgy. The liturgy is not ours to change as we will; it is the Church’s liturgy which we enact in our local communities for our own benefit as well as that of all the Church.

My interlocutor dared me to find a similar construction outside the realm of liturgy. In doing so he missed the real point. This choice is precisely for the liturgy, so a non-liturgical or secular example is irrelevant. Again, it is a matter of taste not of grammar. The bishops have opted for a grammatical register that reinforces the formality of the liturgy, an elevated tone used to address the Most High God in formal worship. We can address God in cosier terms in our private prayer, wherein it would be quite fitting at times to adopt a more familiar tone with Him. Liturgy and private or personal prayer are not the same thing. Occasionally they can meet: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name… (which looks suspiciously like the construction complained of in the new Missal!)

ImageAnother issue which emerges here into the light, and which extends beyond the relatively narrow confines of the liturgy, is the state of the English language in general. Our language has been dumbed down. Mobile phone text-speak, media-mutilations of words to suit advertising campaigns and the like, the television 10-second soundbite, and other forces, have stripped away the depth and complexity of our language. The English of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Hopkins, Newman, Monsignor Knox, Chesterton and the many other great writers has been all too often reduced to a series of simple, one-clause sentences. The demands of political correctness have forced on us the absurdity of such horrors as “if a person would like a copy, they should come to the office”, a grammatical atrocity.

It would be interesting to see a study on the correlation between the level of a person’s language skills and his (or her) powers of reasoning, thought and comprehension. It would be no surprise if we were to find that with less ability both to use and to understand complex language, there is a corresponding lack of ability to comprehend complex ideas or arguments. As our language dumbs down, perhaps also our thinking dumbs down. This might explain why so many people get their information from quick-fire sources such as tabloids and internet news sites. They have little attention span for more, and their brains have become used to a diet of easily digestible and insubstantial crumbs of information and argument.

There is no need for our liturgy to reflect this decay in the English language. Indeed it should sit somewhat above the fads, fashions and decayings of the vernacular as far as possible, lest it become their victim. Our worship should be a constant, a rock of security in the midst of a too-quickly (and often too-fruitlessly) changing world.

Whether it suits our taste or not, the bishops have made their choice in the language of the new Missal. We can either get on with drinking deeply from its riches, and helping others to do so, even if this means a grammar lesson or two; or we can white-ant the Church’s enterprise, putting our preferences first. In the latter case we might find ourselves on the wrong side of our Lord’s judgement, “whoever is not for me, is against me” (Luke 11:23).

What (and who) is Douai Abbey?

Douai Abbey is a monastery of monks belonging to the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC), which is the oldest congregation in the confederation of the Benedictine order, being established initially in 1216. The monastery itself, dedicated to St Edmund, King and Martyr (feast day 20 November), was founded in 1615 in Paris by exiled English monks scattered abroad in the wake of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries in England. One of the founding monks was St Alban Roe ( feast day 31 January). Another founding monk was Gabriel Gifford, who later was elevated to be Archbishop of Rheims, the primatial see of France.

In Paris the monastery, the buildings of which still stand on the rue St Jacques, was a home for those English monks studying at the Sorbonne. It was also a centre for other English exiles, especially, after the (in-)Glorious Revolution of 1688, for the Stuart royal family. The exiled King James II, after his death in 1701, was buried in the monastery church, though his remains were desecrated and scattered during the French Revolution. The monastery has always a maintained a strong Jacobite tradition.

As for the French Church in general, the French revolution brought hard times on the monastery and the monks had to leave their home in Paris. Reduced to a mere handful, in 1823 they finally resettled north-west of Paris, in Douai. There they occupied the buildings vacated by the monks of St Gregory’s, now at Downside. The monastery is still known by the name of this town, which had long been a centre for exiled English Catholics. In Douai the monks ran a boys school, mainly for English Catholics and many of whom became either monks or priests. This work was combined with the traditional EBC work after the Reformation, that of sending monks as missioners to England to keep the Faith alive.  In the 1840s, a chapel was built designed by A W Pugin. Happily, in 2005, the monastery returned to its home at the invitation of the local parish, and currently one of our monks lives in the Maison St Benoît in the centre of the town of Douai.

I say returned, because more turmoil came upon the monastery at the end of the 19th century, as it did upon all the religious orders in France. The enacting in 1901 of the Law of Associations by the French government, which was aimed at reducing the independence and influence of religious orders, forced the community yet again to leave its home, and reluctantly it returned to England in 1903, settling at Woolhampton in the diocese of Portsmouth, whose bishop made over the small college of St Mary to the community. Here the community settled and has remained. The community reached its zenith in the 1940s and 1950s, numbering close to 100 monks and caring for 30-odd parishes, as well as running its small public school. Economic imperatives forced the closure of the school in 1999, but some monks still serve  in parishes in the dioceses of Portsmouth, Clifton, Birmingham and Liverpool.

Having used the parish church as an abbey church, the community decided by the 1920s that a purpose-built abbey church was needed. Construction was halted in the early 1930s due to lack of funds. The abbey church was only completed in 1993, and is a mixture of old and new. The interior is full of light, and austere in decoration, almost Cistercian. The acoustic is superb and the church hosts concerts from time to time. It is well used each day for worship. Mass and all the offices are sung, with Vespers being from the old pre-conciliar books, sung in Latin plainchant.

The community has regained a stronger sense of its monastic identity since the closure of the school. It receives many guests, and holds retreats and hosts courses and seminars for outside groups. In the first decade of this century a programme of building was undertaken after our school was sold off. The community built new refectories and guest rooms, and just two weeks ago a new library building was opened. Its construction completes a fully enclosed cloister. Some of the monks spend time maintaining the gardens and vegetable plots. We also keep a small flock of sheep. Study has remained a part of the life of many monks, as is appropriate for Benedictines, and some also teach in seminaries.

At present the community numbers 28 monks, including two juniors and one novice. Not all the monks are resident, as we serve 7 parishes, and the sprawling parish centred on the monastery. One monk lives in Douai, France, while another monk is acting as administrator at Quarr Abbey. We are also represented in Rome, where our Fr Edmund is abbot of the monastery of the Basilica of St Paul’s-outside-the-Walls in Rome, and Fr Paul teaches liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute based at Collegio Sant’Anselmo.

This potted history is adequate only to giving you a mere feel for the community. There is nothing like visiting us to get a better sense of the monastery. If you want to read more on the history of the community you can read the online version of the history compiled for our centenary back in England in 2003 here.