Mass in English Spread Like Wildfire

A look at liturgical changes in the Mass after Vatican II - Part 2


Faith Latin

The first Mass in English in the United States was celebrated on August 24, 1964, by Father Frederick R. McManus in St. Louis. A New York Times article, “Catholics Hear Mass in English Today for First Time in the U.S.” (Aug. 24, 1964), describes the translation as “hurried”; I am perplexed as to why, since the Sunday and Daily Missals, commonly used by the laity in 1964, contained side-by-side English and Latin texts. The canonical process was as follows:

  • the December 4, 1963, promulgation of the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium);
  • the translation of the Mass into English by the American bishops, issued on April 2, 1964;
  • Vatican approval on May 1, 1964; and
  • The English liturgy is approved for use throughout the United States beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 1964.

There were several anomalies regarding the August 24 celebration. It was three months before the scheduled date. It was celebrated in a large public auditorium (Kiel Auditorium, with a capacity of 9,300), not a church. And it was celebrated by a priest from outside the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Presumably Father McManus would have received the faculty to celebrate this Mass, in this language and in this place, by the local Ordinary, then Cardinal Ritter. Father McManus (1923-2005) had helped draft the Constitution on the Liturgy and, in 1967, he would become Dean of CUA’s School of Canon Law. He served in several other capacities at the Catholic University of America, including as professor and Academic Vice President.

On April 2, 1969, five years after the first Mass was celebrated in English in the United States, Pope St. Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution entitled “Promulgation of the Missale Romanum [Roman Missal] Renewed by Decree of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican.” The full text of this document is included in the “Third Typical Edition” of the Roman Missal (2011 ed.). This book, commonly known as “the Sacramentary,” is the book on the altar from which a priest celebrating Mass reads the prayers of the Mass. (The full text of the amended 2008 edition is available online, with the Apostolic Constitution found on pp. 13-15: ). In this Apostolic Constitution, Paul VI stated that Pius V, at the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), was constrained in introducing the vernacular to the Mass:

In truly difficult times, when the Catholic faith in the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the ministerial priesthood, and the real and perpetual presence of Christ under the Eucharistic species were called into question, St. Pius V was first of all concerned with preserving the more recent tradition, then unjustly assailed… (Para. 7)

[M]any at that time requested that permission be given to use the vernacular…[T]he Council [deferred] by reason of the circumstances of that age. . .The Council…stated in these firm and likewise measured words: “Although the Mass contains much instruction for the faithful people, it did not seem to the Fathers expedient, however, that it be celebrated indiscriminately in the vernacular.” [quoting the Council of Trent] …[A]t the same time as it prohibited the use of the vernacular in the Mass, it ordered, on the other hand, pastors of souls to put appropriate catechesis in its place: “Lest Christ’s flock go hungry . . . the Holy Synod commands pastors and each and all of those others having the care of souls that frequently during the celebration of Mass, either personally or through others, they should explain what is read at Mass; and expound, among other things, something of the mystery of this most holy Sacrifice, especially on Sundays and feast days.” [quoting the Council of Trent] (Para. 11)

What had changed after 400 years? Why did the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI approve the vernacular? As noted above, the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy had been promulgated in December 1963. In his Apostolic Constitution of 1969, Paul VI recognized the wildfire that had spread throughout the Church in the ensuing five years’ time, and, in full accord with the norms laid out by the Council, had made this decision:

[S]ince no Catholic would now deny a sacred rite celebrated in Latin to be legitimate and efficacious [as the Protestants had maintained in the time of the Council of Trent], the [Vatican] Council was also able to concede that “not rarely adopting the vernacular language may be of great usefulness for the people” and gave permission for it to be used. The eagerness with which this measure was everywhere received has certainly been so great that it has led, under the guidance of the Bishops and the Apostolic See itself, to permission for all liturgical celebrations in which the people participate to be in the vernacular, so that the people may more fully understand the mystery which is celebrated. (Para. 12; boldface added)

So the permission to use the vernacular had gone from the Council’s “not rarely” to “all liturgical celebrations.”

In the pages of print situated after the Apostolic Constitution in the Third Typical Edition are 50 pages of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (known as “GIRM”) in small print. The GIRM tempered the use of the vernacular by recommending two things: continued use of Gregorian Chant, and use of Latin for particular parts of the Mass because of the frequency of Masses attended by people of various linguistic groups (Para. 41).

In Part 3, I’ll describe a couple of events in the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II.


***For Part 1 in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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