Criticizing the Missal: another own goal

This gem from Cathnews (not the Australian one, but the New Zealand version), sailed into view (it links to the full story on this page). On first reading it, my eyes reflexively darted to the calendar; but no, it is not 1 April. Then the thought occurred that maybe it was a Kiwi larrikin-priest taking the proverbial”mick”. However, I suspect it is not so.

Keeping charity in mind, still it is hard not to laugh loud and long over this piece written on the (late) arrival of the actual Missals in NZ. This is the amazing part, our priest correspondent’s reactions on first opening the volume:

I unwrapped it and flicked it open enthusiastically, in the presence of some well-educated adults, to the Sunday collect:

“O God, who have commanded us to listen to your beloved Son,…”

“It hasn’t been proof read”, was the immediate response of one person. So I turned over the page to the next collect:

“O God, who have taught us to chasten our bodies…”

“Maybe they are referring to God as Trinity,” said another person. I forget how many degrees he has. We are, of course, not tri-theists.

Since then, I have run this past three senior staff in our English Department who all see this construction as incorrect, an awkward construction. The question was asked, “How do Roman Catholic priests understand this, deal with this?”

Are they, the priest and his friends, serious? I mean, really? Just so that we are all clear, there is of course a basic grammar principle at work. The sentence is in the second person, ie the prayer is talking to God. It is not in the third person, ie talking about God. In the third person the sentence would read, “God, who has commanded (taught)…” But since this is in the second person, the verb has to change: “O God, (you) who have commanded …” The use of “have” does not refer to a plural, but to the grammatical second person. Perhaps they were confused by the use of “who”, because let’s face it, subordinate clauses are dying in the face of text-message English.

Nevertheless, I think our correspondent is being over-generous saying that his companions were “well-educated”. And as to those “three senior staff in our English Department who all see this construction as incorrect”, someone might want to check out those references they supplied when applying for their jobs.

Sorry if this seems cruel, but if someone puts this sort of ignorant criticism of the Missal in print, there is one reaction that is certainly justified…


And for the writer and those three senior members of the English Department, a good gift for them this Easter might be…


Lastly, I am still intrigued as to why the tiny New Zealand Church went it alone on the production of the Missals, and did not join with the Australian Church and save money with economies of scale. At least they might have been spared what must be the worst cover for the New Missal seen so far:


Oh dear…. forgive me.

24 thoughts on “Criticizing the Missal: another own goal

  1. This is not the first time I have heard this sort of criticism – and from so-called English teachers as well as priests (from the pulpit)! The problem is that at least since the 1960s, there has been no formal teaching of English grammar, and a complete ignorance of the vocative case. But the real problem is in their hearts – they do not make the effort to instruct their ignorance even when there are many explanatory resources available. By the way, I just discovered your website today, when trying to answer someone who was criticising the dropping of one of the former Mysteries of Faith. Well done!


    1. Yes, Deirdre, we must BRING BACK GRAMMAR! 🙂 Thanks for the kind remarks, which confirm me in one of my aims: to provide a resource for those trying answer the questions and criticisms so often raised about the Missal. I am not the only one of course, but sometimes a person finds one explanation more useful than another. Hopefully online we have all bases covered! And well done you for going to the trouble of seeking out the answers.



  2. I think the answer as to why the Kiwi’s have produced their own missal is that this is a bi-lingual English/Maori version.

    I note that in the combox your understood second person point has been made and accepted.


    1. Thanks for the clarification on the bilingual Missal the Kiwis opted for. The Kiwi Missal has not been on the radar at all really over here so I had heard nothing. Thanks for telling me about the combox. When I first checked the page there were no comments and the page would not let me add one! I will head back to see if they come up for me now.



      1. The “clarification on the bilingual Missal”, Fr Hugh, has always been on the original post, as well as a critique of the page-turns which result from the decision to put Maori in parallel with the English at every point. It appears that you read the first section but did not bother with the rest. The comments helpfully discuss some of the points – that is the nature of the site – it is a place where dialogue is respected.

        If you had trouble placing a comment, please try again – servers here, you will be aware, are precarious with the ongoing quakes which have destroyed our city.

        I have four times tried to place a comment on your thread, both logged in and logged out of WordPress – but it has not passed your moderation. Is there a reason you can provide for this?


        Fr Bosco


  3. The real grammatical action in Latin is not to be found in the vocative. It is simply an attention grabbing device for the insecure. Do we really believe that shouting will somehow summon God out of divine indifference or distraction.
    If Latin to English translators really want to explore the locus of grammatical power in Latin, they should look to the ablative absolute and, in some cases, the dative case.


    1. Hi Clara.

      Perhaps several points are being addressed here. But regarding the issue at hand, the vocative case employing the second person, is unavoidable in addressing God! I do not consider its use equivalent in any way to shouting, and have never before heard that interpretation at all.

      I am not sure what point you are trying to make regarding “grammatical action” and “grammatical power”. My only desire is for a faithful translation in good, fairly formal, English, as befits liturgical worship (as opposed to private prayer, in which an informal register is quite appropriate). In this Missal we finally get it.



  4. This is my sixth attempt at getting a comment through to your moderation:

    I am delighted, Fr Hugh, to find you quoting a small part of this thread from my site “Liturgy”. I would be even more delighted if you were to place a link to Liturgy on your Sites/blogroll. The site is one of the most-visited on matters liturgical in the English-speaking world (about a visitor every 15-20 seconds – search for “liturgy” and you will see why).

    I would be helped (as would my colleagues who hold Masters degrees etc. in English from Cambridge, Capetown, Canterbury, etc.) if you could give some contemporary examples (not originating in the Vatican) of relative clauses using the construction that you are lauding: Vocative single + “who have…” (without the “you” that you think your readers need, because their appreciation of English is also lacking) and also the page number of English Grammar for Dummies where such examples are given.

    You see, as I explain on my site, English grammar is descriptive – not prescriptive (like Vatican liturgical English!)

    The English-speaking bishops of the world wanted

    “O God, who commanded us to listen to your beloved Son…”

    But apparently the Vatican knows better how to translate into English that no one actually uses (unless you can come up with those examples I am asking you for…)

    Even the ever-conservative Fr John Zuhlsdorf (as I mention on my thread) translates this collect as:

    “O God, who commanded us to listen to Your beloved Son,…”

    As to why NZ didn’t join with Australia (or England for that matter – why wasn’t your suggestion that all English-speaking missals be printed in mother England? And why not in the Vatican itself?) it seems you did not continue reading the rest of the article – in which that is discussed.



    1. Dear Fr Bosco,


      Only 2 of your 6 attempts made it to my queue, and I only approved them now as I have only just seen them. All new posters automatically require moderation. You were not personally targeted for exclusion. A busy day preparing for tomorrow’s sung Masses (music, homily), the monastic round, tending the sheep and such like kept me from being online for quite a while.

      As it is it is now after midnight and I have just lost a complete answer I typed here due to computer gremlins. So now I am more tired and this will not improve. But you deserve an answer.

      I regret not having read further into the article. Doing so would not have changed my comments about the grammar; it would have clarified the matter of the bilingual NZ missal, which I now fully appreciate.

      You assert that grammar is descriptive not prescriptive. Well, it is partly descriptive. But it is most certainly prescriptive as well. “I is coming” cannot be correct. Grammar prescribes “am” for “is” here. So I do not accept your explanation.

      At this late hour I will not be searching out examples as you require. That said, the Douai Office we use here, composed in the early 1990s, has a number of collects following the “O God, who have…” model. But this is not the point. The language of the liturgy must needs be formal, not colloquial. It is a formal act of the Church, a corporate public act that requires a different register of language to a sewing circle. The translation you complain of may be formal, perhaps even tending to archaic, but it is still 100% correct English, even if not heard in supermarkets or seen in newspapers today.

      I included the helpful “who” because I do not assume that every reader of mine has the same level of education or understanding (and indeed so many people have not been taught grammar I feel justified in this refusal to assume); and rather than leave scope for continued doubt, I sought to make my point abundantly clear. That is normally considered a good pedagogical method.

      As it is, to be honest, I would have preferred the “O God, who commanded…” structure myself. But that is not what we got. My duty as a priest is to explain to people what we do have, not what I would have preferred. Who cares what my personal opinion is? Priests are not called to be prophets (and so many in the last few decades have been self-appointed to that role), but we are called to serve the Church universal, as well as the local Christians in our sphere of activity. We are not called to pander to lobby groups. Certainly it is not appropriate for priests or bodies claiming official status or using the Church’s name to offer wanton, opinionated (and too often erroneous) critiques that only spread dissension and confusion. This is the activity of a shepherd, but rather one who effectively scatters the flock. I am passionate about this; the clericalism of the modern priest who feels free to criticise in public the teachings and liturgy of the Church, using his ecclesial title, is as bad as the old sort that apparently was so prevalent. So I shall continue to explain, and nurture people’s understanding of, the faith, the liturgy and the whole of the Christian message, as taught by the Church, as best I can.

      Lastly, having read further your article, I see further criticism of the posture of priests and people at the Eucharistic Prayer. Tomorrow at our High Mass, both people and non-ordained/non-concelebrating monks, will kneel for the Eucharistic Prayer, and the deacon too, for the consecration. It is not clericalism to differentiate roles within the liturgy. Indeed the Council was quite explicit that the liturgy is a work of the Church hierarchically arrayed. Hierarchy is, of course, a dirty word now. But in this context it simply means that each does as he or she is called to do. The priests act in persona Christi; the people do not. It is not rocket science. And to construe this (mischievously, if not in intent then in practice) as clericalism is a gross slur on the Church and its liturgy. Again, rather than adopt the modern paradigm of equality equalling absolute identity and lack of differentiation, perhaps you would bear more fruit if you explained to people why it is that different people have different postures at the liturgy, according to their role.

      It is 12.30am and I must be up in a little over 5 hours to be cantor at Matins and Lauds, and then prepare for the Masses, so shall sign off here.



      1. Dear Fr Hugh

        Let’s make it easy for you: we will be happy with a single, contemporary example of a non-liturgical Vocative single + “who have” without a “you” that you contend is de rigour for formal language. The current year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee should provide you with a surfeit of examples! No one is asking you to limit your examples to “newspapers or supermarkets”.

        I thank you for your candidness about your preference. I wonder if in admitting that your preference is the same as mine and that of the bishops in 1998 you have done little different to my article that critiques the new translation in the light of comments by those who hold graduate degrees in English. Like you, I thought the Missal translation correct (as you would have noticed had you actually read the whole thread).

        “Priests”, you say, “are not called to be prophets”. Monks, I posit, are. Does this mean you do not think monks should or can be priests?

        I do not accept your tirade that holds that we cannot critique the quality of a translation. Those who are so enamoured by this translation have long been critical of the previous one.

        Furthermore, your own harsh mocking of the church’s choice of the missal’s cover art appears to conflict with the passion you have against priests offering “wanton, opinionated (and too often erroneous) critiques that only spread dissension and confusion” etc.


        Fr Bosco


  5. Dear Fr Bosco,

    A self-appointed prophet speaks his own opinion alone. When I speak in public, or write, my opinion and my teaching is nothing other than that of the Church. So your snide remark that I am appointing myself a prophet is a little off the mark, and you have totally missed my point.

    And my candidness was quite different to yours. I was replying to your comment, and not addressing the faithful directly, though obviously they can “overhear” this conversation. Never have I been against the clergy expressing their opinions in private, and never will be.

    Perhaps you need to make your opinion clearer when you write. By quoting your friends, of whom you made much of their education in English, as saying the translation was incorrect without any real comment on their judgement, you seemed to condone it, at least implicitly.

    As to the cover art, again you miss the point entirely. Cover art is not a choice of the Church, but of the publisher in consultation, I presume, with the person responsible on behalf of the local bishops. Obviously, anyone can have opinions about art; in this case it is not a critique of the Church. Can you not see the difference? Do not equate the prayers of the Church with a local choice for a book’s cover art; it is a false equation, and underhanded argumentation (if intentional).

    It should be of interest to us all, that the Church flourishes afresh in those places where the clergy are faithful to the teaching of the Church and do not white-ant it in public and where the liturgy is celebrated according to the clear wishes of the Church. In these places vocations are on the rise, Mass attendance is climbing and we find Catholics bold enough to speak up for the Church’s moral teaching in the face of the often howling press. A lesson to us all, and perhaps New Zealand too.



  6. Dear Fr Hugh

    When you have come up with that single, contemporary example of a non-liturgical Vocative single + “who have” (without a “you”) that you contend is de rigour for formal language, we will have something specific to discuss with those whose opinions on English grammar and expression I trust and value.

    As to whose remarks are snide or missing the point, I leave to the faithful overhearing this private conversation – conscious, of course, that intentional eavesdropping is a sin, as might be the systematic presentation of a private conversation in such a way that the faithful cannot but overhear it.



    1. Please do not put words in my mouth. When did I say it was de rigeur? All I said was that it was correct for formal English, not that it was essential to formal English.

      I shall not be searching for a specific example as I see no need. There is nothing I wish to discuss further on this, certainly not on my blog. And I will certainly not be goaded into playing a game of “dare”. All you need to discuss with your friends, whose opinions you trust and value (unlike mine obviously), is to ask if they still think it is incorrect English, no matter what they think about its style etc. If they persist in saying it is incorrect then I suggest you should not be so trusting of their opinions, on English at least.

      As you suggest that I am indulging in a private conversation that the faithful cannot but overhear, I am happy to end it now.



  7. “not matter what they think about its style etc.”

    If my colleagues persist in saying this is incorrect should I also not be so trusting of their opinions, on English at least, but trust and value yours instead?



    1. Thanks for pointing out my typo, which reminds me that typing replies to comments at midnight after a busy day is not a good idea.

      As to your question, which I take to be facetious, I will give a serious answer. When I speak the teaching of the Church or verifiable fact, you can trust me, because ultimately I am only speaking with my voice a truth not from me. When I give something that is clearly an opinion (and I shall endeavour to make crystal clear when I am giving a mere opinion) then take it as you like. It is of no concern to me.



  8. Liturgy’s comment seems to be asking for an impossible grammatical scenario.
    A non liturgical vocative singular + “who (without a “you) !!?

    A senior officer speaking to a junior officer on the eve of battle,, could say, You who have led men into battle before will know what to expect” There is nothing archaic about that. You have the correct use of the vocative singular. But I’m blowed if I can see how you can have a relative pronoun introducing a subordinate clause which is unrelated to a noun or pronoun which is subject of the main clause. It makes no difference whether it is first, second or third person, singular or plural ( I who.. You [sing.] who.. We who.. You [pl.].. They who .. Neither does gender make any difference : He who.. She who.. That which..

    Am I missing something here ?

    Oh well, thinking about this has at least given me more mental exercise than doing the crossword in this morning’s paper.

    With apologies to Fr. Hugh if “this conversation is now closed”, but I just wanted to add my meanderings.

    Pax et bonum



    1. Salve Petrus.

      Actually I am pleased that the relatively complex syntax of the new Missal has caused us to take a longer and more searching look at our language, and how much we know about it and how well we use it to its fullest capacity. In our world of text-speak and monosyllables we are too quickly losing the facility for anything more than a simple sentence.

      Let’s look at the example you gave. If we supply some missing punctuation, we see a similar structure to the Missal straight away: You, who have led men into battle before, will know what to expect. The subordinate clause appears to be acting adjectivally, in that it is describing the subject of the verb (but the object of the speech), ie “you”.

      Replace “you” with the name of the one being addressed; “John” say. This is where things sound more unfamiliar to our ears. We itching to supply the “you” somewhere. Understandable, since we do not speak so formally to our equals or even our subordinates.

      Yet when we address those who are loftier than us, especially by title, it is a little easier on the ear. So, “Your Majesty, who have valued so highly this ceremony in your long reign, will understand the esteem in which your people hold it also.” Obviously this would be in the context of a formal event, such as a state banquet say, with someone addressing the Queen on behalf of the nation, or some other group. The register of the language seems formal, yes, but not inappropriate in such a situation. Indeed I would argue, it seems entirely appropriate.

      Replace the Queen with God, and we have the same appropriateness. The priest is addressing God in the collect, on behalf of both the congregation gathered with him, and on behalf of all the Church. He is formally addressing God (because liturgy, as ritual, is formal, ie it follows a ‘form’), making a request of him for all the Church, and on her behalf.

      Perhaps the new Missal can help to counteract the growing sterilization of our language, so that we can distinguish varying occasions with a register of language appropriate. Can you imagine last year’s royal wedding conducted in the language of the previous Missal?! What a flop it would have been.

      Thanks for your meanderings, Petrus. They prompted me to meander too!



    2. Thanks, Petrus, for your reflection. Your sentence “You who have led men into battle before will know what to expect” of course does not fit with the requirement – it includes “you”.

      Fr Hugh’s reply to you indicates exactly where I suggested a search for such an example might be found. If this construction is good formal English (as is being contended) the current year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee should provide one with a surfeit of examples (as I suggested in my comment of 18 March). I am only asking for one single actual example – not made up ones. The suggestion that this might be a struggle because we do not speak so formally to our equals or even our subordinates is insufficient – there must be at least one example of an educated person speaking so formally to the Queen.



      1. Dear Fr Bosco,

        Since my original point has been established to my satisfaction, that there was no grammatical error in the collect as printed, the only remaining issues are ones of taste and personal preference.

        So your continued obsession with this minor, and subjective, point is generating little light, and more recently sarcasm; and I have better things to occupy my time, as I would have thought you would too. I have already told you I will not be goaded into a game of dare. If you expect an example to be found in texts for the Jubilee year, then you can find them yourself. It is of no interest to me. If you feel so insecure on this point that you need to pursue it beyond reasonable lengths, then you may as well go back to your friends who no doubt will re-buttress your self-confidence.

        My focus had been the matter of grammatical correctness. This has been dealt with. This blog is not a forum for extended arguments about personal preference. You can do that on your blog.

        So I am moving on; comments for this post are closed. It has become boring.



  9. Dear Fr Hugh

    The sarcasm is not a recent development on this thread – it was there from your initial posting in which you recommended we read English Grammar for Dummies (which appears not to deal with this construction), and that the church has poor taste in art.

    You finally acknowledged that you did not read the actual original thread which is clear that this is an “incorrect, awkward construction” (you even quote that initial point here). Arguing that it is, nonetheless, “*grammatically* correct” according to some sort of idealised prescriptive text-book, does not alter how it will be heard/prayed by the faithful who are being formed by this in the (mis)understanding that we pray to God in the plural.

    John Cassian has helpful teaching on how to deal with boredom – for monastics and by extension for all, especially in Lent.



    1. My only boredom is with the endless series of twistings of my words and the argument to suit your defence strategy, for which I do not need John Cassian to find a solution. Ending it is the obvious answer.

      Before I cease, and from now on no more comments will be approved, I will admit I was sarcastic, but then what else does loudly-trumpeted error deserve except perhaps more forceful opposition.

      And AGAIN you ascribe to the Church the choice of cover art for your NZ Missal. How many times do I have to say it is no choice of the Church at all but of the publishers and the NZ Bishops’ designated director of its production. (Goodness, was it you by any chance?) As such it is open to criticism on grounds of taste. And I am not going to repeat all that you have chosen to ignore on that subject. This is the reason I am bored with your comments, or better, wearied by them. Like most liberals, you never argue on level ground but change the terrain to suit your purpose.

      I wish you well in your ministry. I pray that you will lead people into the heart of the Church and its truth, especially in its worship, and serve it first.

      Over and OUT.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.