Fears confirmed: no ESV lectionary

Face to face contact is usually superior to the written variety. This was proved yet again upon reading that from the archbishop’s mouth my worst fears about the proposed new ESV lectionary were confirmed.

It’s off. There will be no ESV lectionary. It is not yet known what there will be in its place.

In the previous post and others earlier, were listed some reasons why the ESV (English Standard Version) was so promising as a translation for the lectionary. So much work had been put into it that introducing the Sundays volume next year had been mooted. On this point I can sympathize with those who were so disappointed by the shelving of the 1998 draft of the new missal – it had been drafted in its entirety after much work. While the 1998 translation was undoubtedly a vast improvement on the previous translation of the missal, it failed to satisfy the reformed priorities for liturgical translation, not least that of replacing the paraphrasing of dynamic equivalence with the more explicitly faithful principle of formal equivalence. For that reason I could see the point of shelving the 1998 text, and could agree with it, disappointing as it must have been for those who had worked on it.

In the case of this proposed lectionary I can discern no similarly compelling principle. The ESV combines formal equivalence with clear English that never sinks to banality. It reflects the best scholarship, and allows a sound ecumenical involvement while avoiding imposing dubious nuances on the text. In fact the only principle I can discern is a retrogressive one. More likely, it is the victim of the incessant power games in curial corridors. Some might accuse me of mere pique at now being on the losing side (though until the last papacy I was always on the losing side), and I cannot rule out an element of that. Yet my main grievance is that this development marks a significant loss for the anglophone Church. Perhaps something better will take its place – let’s pray so.

This development, not surprisingly, makes it more and more unlikely the publication of the other document/s (I am not now certain if one or two documents had been intended), directed at priests, in particular their celebration and concelebration of Mass. The instructions they were intended to contain are much needed. In many places there is a generation (or two) of priests formed to see their celebration of Mass determined by a need to please people rather than to please God. The rigid rubrics of the old Mass had passed; but the new, gentler rubrics of the new Mass suffered the fate of most other teaching, becoming subject to popular approval. In an age of “liberation” from authority in general the new rubrics were quickly discarded except on the occasion when they happened to suit the new mood. The same happened with concelebration, originally conceived of as being an infrequent practice, except maybe in some religious and monastic communities. Now in most communities it has become the norm, and in a minimalist form.

The prospect the new instructions offered was that of ensuring that such deficiencies in formation could be overcome and that all priests would thus have been enabled to sing the from the same missal, as it were. It would probably have contained a restatement of liturgical theology that would have allowed the principles informing the new English missal to be more comprehensible and coherent to those priests formed under a different mindset. So, in the wake of these instructions, we might have been spared the sight of celebrants making a gesture of offering to the people with the host and chalice as they said the words of consecration, as if they were speaking to the people rather than to the Father (admittedly, facing the people has been the biggest cause of this absurdity). Likewise we might have seen the demise of the equally absurd practice of concelebrants speaking the people’s part before the Prayer over the Gifts, “May the Lord accept the Sacrifice at your hands”, which rather negates their own role as concelebrants offering the Sacrifice together with the celebrant (though some would argue that the whole idea of many priests standing in place of the one Christ at any one Mass was equally problematic).

An authoritative document (or documents) which clarified such areas of confusion would have rescued many priests from liturgical absurdity and enabled them to embrace more fruitfully the revised English missal, so the better to lead their congregations to share more effectively and peacefully in the liturgy.

However, the ESV lectionary having now bitten the dust, even after so much work, there is little hope that these liturgical instructions will now emerge. A pity – we all would have been winners.

23 thoughts on “Fears confirmed: no ESV lectionary

  1. So, what happens now?

    We waited 40+ years for the English translation of The Roman Missal…

    For forty years I was wearied of this people, and I said: Their hearts [and translations] are astray…” (Cf. Ps. 94].

    It is incredible that a Mass Lectionary in English translation cannot by now be agreed upon and published


    1. Oh dear. I would love to be able to whip up a cheering answer, brimful of hope and consolation. But as I write, I cannot do so.

      I’ve got nothing.

      So it is back to prayer in faith for us.



      1. Hi Geoffrey. Well I am pretty sure the Archbishop would not be against an ESV-CE, as he was hardly against the ESV lectionary (well, as far as I know – he was the chairman and argued a good case for the ESV). But a standalone bible would be outside his brief. Probably some Catholic scholars/publishers need to approach the ESV copyright holders and see if they would play ball. I suspect if the right people asked them, they would be.

        I have an ESV with Aporcypha, the closest thing to a “Catholic” edition at the moment. Obviously some tweaking would need to be done to make it truly and unadulteratedly(!) Catholic. But certainly, it would be a great gift to the Church.



  2. Of course, we could just go back to the ‘old’ Latin Mass (with translation on opposite page) – after all it ‘did’ for us since the Reformation when the Sarum Rite was ‘banished’!
    I suppose that would upset the liberals, and of course, we can’t do that – can we?


    1. If we did so, in a stroke time and money would be saved, the quality & unity of our worship would be better and more consistent throughout the universal Church, and priests could cease to be stars of the show.

      Nah, that would never sell!



      1. > time and money would be saved

        …apart from the cost of printing all new Mass material, not mention reeducating a Catholic world in which knowledge of Latin is practically non-existent.

        > unity of our worship would be better and more consistent

        …but only if the priests “read the black and do the red”…and they don’t have to revert to the Latin Mass if they want to start doing that.


      2. Oh come on David, my lad. If we got the new lectionary, there would be all the new material to be printed also. In fact, with the old Mass there would be far less needing to be printed, since there would be a drastically reduced range of options (which are the bane of ritual), and the music would be universally standardized except for local hymnody (in those places that used hymns at the old Mass).

        Bi-lingual Missals would fill the need for any Latin lessons, and they were a marvelous innovation in the early 20th century from the Liturgical Movement. Since it is not a huge vocabulary used in the liturgy, attentive people and kids especially would pick much of it as they went, as they in fact did.

        And I quite agree that if priests would all say the black and do the red, we would eliminate most (but not all) liturgical abuse in a stroke. But the difference I was trying to highlight was that in the new Missal the rubrics can be read (unjustifiably but still…) as guidelines; the old rubrics were quite clear that to depart from them would be sinful, and sometimes gravely so. To put it crudely, in the new Mass the Church seems to say in its rubrics “This is what we would like you to do, please”, whereas in the old Mass the Church was saying “This is what you must do and if you don’t your sorry ass will answer to God for it”. There is a huge qualitative difference.


  3. This is very discouraging. Catholics are still leaving in droves, churches all across the western world are emptying out, and Rome slumbers on. Some of the masses are beyond banal, they’re absolutely horrible, so much so that my wife and I, while traveling, seek out only Latin Masses. Otherwise we could be subjected to silliness and worse.


    1. You’ve highlighted a cardinal virtue of the old Mass: it is the same the world over, free from priestly innovations and interference in general. It may not always have been well celebrated, but it was probably never banal.

      No one in power seems willing to make the obvious connection between the sweeping post-conciliar changes to church and liturgy (many of them not to be found in the council’s documents themselves) and the precipitous decline in practice and vocations among Catholics. I guess it is a pretty shattering connection to make!



      1. What about the other things which happened in the wake of the Council? In particular, what about catechesis?

        I received better catechesis than most and I would still say it left an awful lot to be desired. Well formed Catholics are much more likely to remain faithful. Someone who recognizes the Eucharist for what/Who it is will more easily deal with terrible music, banality and boring preaching.


      2. Well indeed, what about catechesis! There was not much worthy of the name done in the 20 to 30 years after the Council, and in many places there still remains a catechesis which teaches a secularized, rationalized and undogmatic religion that is misleadingly labelled Catholicism.

        The scary thing is that, given Catholics before the Council were in many measures much better catechized, they were still oblivious to the import of so many of the unauthorized changes foisted upon them, and so acquiesced in them to thei own detriment.

        “(T)errible music, banality and boring preaching” are only the symptoms of much deeper problems with the liturgy and with catechesis, problems sometimes centred on outright error and thinly-veiled heresy.

        A prime example is at World Youth Day in Rio, where at the main Mass Holy Communion was distributed from plastic cups to scrums of people, as though the Hosts were corn chips. Appalling, disgraceful, sacrilegious – and all those fervent little Catholics seemed just to accept it as normal.


    1. Nothing I can disagree with in that, at all. Especially the clincher point – who is there to teach the young faith in its integrity? Two generations at least were so malformed that they need re-catechizing themselves!



  4. I am feeling depressed today. A faithful Catholic couple, of a family based in this parish since the irish Famine, had nine children. They brought them up in the faith, sending them to their local Parish school.
    I played the organ for the funeral of one of the last of the nine this morning. Neither the two surviving siblings nor any of their children
    received Holy Communion. Age range I estimate 48+ to late seventies.
    All the grandchildren also attended the local Parish school indeed I
    taught most of them there. Some of them went for a blessing but I was the first person in the congregation to receive Holy Communion.
    When the froth of WYD has subsided this is the tragic reality facing
    the Church in this country. I may add that my own family situation mirrors this.
    Another depressing factor was that none of the hymns is one that .would have been sung in a Catholic Church even forty years ago.


    1. Hi Mary. I can understand your being dispirited. You see firsthand the stark evidence of the undeniable collapse in Catholicism. Not a collapse in numbers, for even with many Catholics practising contraception, there are enough in the world still having children. Rather the collapse is in practice, in vocations, in worship, in ethos, in culture.

      It is not conducive to career enhancement to say so, but since the Pope is dead against any hint of careerism I can make it a virtue. Those who have pinned the colours to the Council (by which they mostly mean to the reforms in the wake of the Council) would wince at such a description, and put down decline to other things, eg decline in vocations being due to the enhanced role of the laity or the celibacy rule or some such bosh. Celibacy per se has not suddenly become tougher. So another explanation must be found. Society has changed of course, from tolerating permissiveness and promiscuity to positively extolling it in trashy dramas and sitcoms. Sexual laxity is the new norm. The weird thing is that so much of the Church fell into line with this mindset. So celibacy became a bizarre option, in fact one that made those defensive about their new-found sexual liberty feel judged. Their consciences trying to get through to them, but that is another story…

      The sight of Holy Communion being distributed like gift tokens from plastic cups at WYD in Rio shocked me to my core. What real belief in the Real Presence can this manifest? It became a case of “everyone must get some”, much the same argument about allowing non-Catholics to receive Communion. As soon as I saw the photos I saw confirmed what my heart secretly dreaded: that WYD is a hindrance not a help. Catholic faith is not about an infrequent series of hyped-up “events”; it is a daily slog of faith, hope and charity while shouldering the Cross, nourished along the way by the Lord himself. WYD seemed to be more of a party and very much content-light. The daily reality is far less exciting and a lot more difficult, and if the young are not taught that they will of course find ordinary Catholicism unattractive. Pope Benedict tried to fill WYD with teaching, and it seemed such a different affair to Rio, more substantial though still with its inherent flaws.

      But do take heart. This is when faith really matters. Find yourself a church where the liturgy is reverent and the Faith is taught, and take shelter there. Practise charity unceasingly, and pray likewise. Offer up your sufferings in reparation for your sins and those of your brethren. The Church has been through crises of faith and practice before, and founded on the Rock it will endure. If we shelter within her then we too can endure. It’s worth it!



  5. Father, thanks for your honest and sincere comments, it is nice to read a priest say it without sugar coating. There seems to be much caution to even discuss Pope Francis’ attitude towards many things that puzzle those attached to tradition (I mean orthodoxy).
    In response to Mary, if you are getting depressed at witnessing the decay of the faith, please seek out a traditional mass parish or chapel. I have been attending one since 1989 (when I returned to the faith as a teenager) and have found a thriving, lively and inspiriting atmosphere. Our families have many many children, ordaining priests every year, parish girls entering the convent etc etc. Of course it is SSPX so that may be an issue for you, but frankly the blindness of the Vatican to where the Spirit is leading the Church (which is back to tradition) is astounding. I hope that the SSPX will be formally recognized by the Church ASAP.


    1. Hi Rod.

      While I can well understand why a goodly number of people have decamped to SSPX chapels, I have my doubts about this as anything more than a short-term expedient. Cut off from Rome so comprehensively, and cut from communion with Peter, there can be no lasting health in the SSPX. Regrettably, under this pope there is unlikely to be reconciliation. I would recommend FSSP churches where one can find the old rites as well as full communion. It’s better in the long run.

      To balance this, despite the maverick radicals who make alarmingly unhelpful comments about the holocaust here and there, I am yet to meet an SSPXer who was not polite and respectful. This is very much to their credit and is part of the reason I will never dismiss them and their cause out of hand.



  6. Talking to some people I know it is not the mass that bores them rather it is the homilies .Its sad but true that some priest tend to like the sound of their own voice rather than thinking of the content.


  7. I’m sorry to hear that the proposed Catholic ESV Lectionary now appears to have been shelved. As I conservative Anglican Priest, I introduced it into my Parish via a Lutheran version of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) which uses the ESV and the clarity and compatibility was almost tangible. It worked very well alongside both traditional and modern language Anglican liturgies and was a splendid fit Book of Common Prayer Evensong. My personal opinion was that it would have been an excellent choice to accompany the new Missal. Crossway (US) and Collins (UK) have produced a variety of interesting and well-made versions of the ESV. An official Catholic version would have been a welcome addition.


    1. The loss of the ESV is a great sadness to me too, for so many reasons.

      But maybe there is a surprise in store, and an equally worthy translation is in the offing for the Lectionary.

      Where there’s life there’s hope!



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