The Traditional Mass in Hieratic Liturgical English

It is certainly true that before the 1960s, the American laity would have universally heard the Mass in Latin. But they would also have read Mass in the vernacular. Perhaps we have not adequately appreciated that fact. We actually have a longstanding tradition of liturgical English in America, and it was printed right on the pages of every Latin-English Missal right up until the mid-1960s.


Bishop John England first published his landmark Missal in 1822. The bishops of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore—the same authority that gave us the Baltimore Catechism—likewise provided the laity with translated Mass texts in their Manual of Prayers for the Catholic Laity (1888). And the early 20th century saw a veritable explosion of bilingual Missals from various publishers—including a towering example authored by the prolific Cincinnati priest Francis X. Lasance and first published in 1937.

But for a long time we had an English Mass, a product of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), that paid no homage to these venerable texts.  This is not surprising, as ICEL is an international body with members from not only Canada, England, and Australia but also India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. So even had it been more traditionally-minded in 1970, such a body could hardly have been expected to show any deference to one member's native patrimony. And when ICEL's most glaring faults were corrected by the Vox Clara commission in 2011, the latter was, yet again, a centralized international commission that had to play to a wider audience than just the United States.

As a result of all this forced internationalism and liturgy by committee, all that now remains of our traditional English-language patrimony can be found in common prayers like the Our Father and Hail Mary, and a body of non-liturgical hymns and Christmas carols.

In an era where much ink is spilled about the importance of cultivating local liturgical tradition, this tendency to centralize and globalize the vernacular seems completely incongruous. (For decades we have been told that Americans need a national Mass that reflects our sensibilities—but when the time came to actually create one, we got an international one that completely ignored all the indigenous models that preceded it.)

Is it any wonder that many cradle Catholics are now attracted to churches of the Ordinariate? In these churches the Mass is generally in English, but it is traditional English, drawing from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer but in very much the same style as the Catholic Missals mentioned earlier.

The Ordinariate's appeal to modern Catholics is not because the latter have been captivated by the Prayer of Humble Access or the Collect for Purity, but because they intuitively recognize and resonate with its Anglophone traditionalism. They are attracted not so much by the Anglo-Catholic distinctives, but the Anglo-Catholic retention of what used to be a common heritage of liturgical English. And, of course, a once-common liturgical ethic as well.

So it is very meet and right that English speakers look to the Ordinariate as a model for how an English liturgy should look and sound.


I am led to an inexorable conclusion that, despite the difficulties and the objections which are sure to accompany the following proposal, a gaping liturgical niche needs to be filled as quickly as possible: We need the option for the traditional Mass in traditional English. We don't have to dedicate massive amounts of manpower to this task. We don't need to start from scratch. All we need to do is to adopt a respected and existing Missal translation from a first-rate Catholic author and scholar. That, rather than any freshly composed, committee-authored creation, has the best chance of long-term success, having already been tested and proved by tradition and having  already been accepted by lay Catholics.

Personally, I think Fr. Lasance's New Roman Missal (1945 edition) best fits the task, as it seems to have the fullest set of translated Propers and also is one of the most highly respected of the genre. Not only is this Missal still being sold for current use, but its text has also served as the foundation for high-quality new publications such as the Campion Missal. Liturgically, Lasance's Missal also occupies a mid-century sweet spot, late enough to include feasts like the North American Martyrs (canonized 1930) but early enough to avoid the changes of 1955 and later.

It is true that this proposal would be adding yet another option to what are probably too many options to begin with. But in the long run I expect this addition will simplify, not complicate, the liturgical situation in the English speaking world. We should be aiming for a situation where the layman shows up to Mass with a single bilingual Missal, and they can count on the priest saying Mass either from the Latin side, from the English side or both. The ritual, in either case, remains exactly the same.

I especially look forward to a time when the "Latin Mass" and the "English Mass" are recognized not as two completely opposite liturgical poles but as two complementary aspects of the same patrimony, only differentiated by language, and nothing else. The exact same way it was laid out in all those old Missals from decades ago.
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