Peter Popham: For a religion with global claims, words are power

Saturday 26 November 2011 01:00 GMT

Anyone who tinkers with liturgy is asking for trouble.

In several of the great religions it is, simply, unthinkable. But the interplay of Aramaic, Greek and Latin in the genesis of Christianity meant that linguistic diversity was a fact of life in the new religion. Once Latin had established its dominion, however, the Catholic Church used it to cement its authority: John Wycliffe's unauthorised translation of the Bible into English resulted, according to his enemies, in "the jewel of the clergy [becoming] the toy of the laity," and he was hounded for his pains. In the interests of Catholicism remaining "a universal church", Latin was unchallenged as the language of the liturgy for centuries.

During the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church threw open its doors to the modern world and admitted the possibility of change. The Mass with which English-speaking Catholics under 50 are familiar was a product of that great reforming spasm, published in 1973.

All Catholics agree that it was a a rush job, and in places sacrificed faithfulness to the Latin original to ease of comprehension and vernacular smoothness. It was likewise agreed that a new version was needed – but that was as far as the agreement went. During the long and contentious process of translation, any hope of reaching a consensus was lost. Instead the liberal, reform-minded Catholics who are such a prominent tribe in the Anglophone church are cursing yet another "imperialistic" imposition of Curia-approved orthodoxy by Rome. Pope Benedict knows he cannot force his global flock to go back to celebrating Mass in Latin. But an ornate, highly Latinate version of English is for him the next best thing.

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