Doing Shakespeare proud


Good news about good English: Catholics at Mass last Sunday heard new prayers, a fresh English translation of the Latin texts.

After 40 years of making do with rather workaday English, originally intended only as a temporary stopgap measure, Sunday marked the debut of a more elegant version, an elevated, sacral language properly suited to divine worship. The comma is back, bringing with it multiple adjectives and the subordinate clause. Theological matters aside, the return of proper English to the Catholic Mass ought to be welcomed by all who cherish the beauty of the English language.

As with all matters liturgical, there have been a few critics, some of whom have complained about the longer sentences, which now render in English the more elaborate style of the Latin. English usage can be admirably direct, employing short sentences and simple words to powerful effect. It can also be ornate and complex, with a richness of vocabulary and construction that delight the ear, illumine the mind and move the heart.

The return of the comma is especially welcome. It signals that the tongue may have to be a touch more nimble, and the intellect a touch more attentive, for the language is beginning to stretch its wings. The comma signals a desire for the mellifluous, not the merely mediocre.

For example, at Mass today we have this properly translated prayer: Stir up your power, O Lord, and come to our help with mighty strength, that what our sins impede the grace of your mercy may hasten. Compare that to the previous version: Father, we need your help. Free us from sin and bring us to life. Support us by your power.

Post readers will appreciate the improvement. Our paper liberally uses a full complement of commas, semi-colons, dashs and parentheses to craft sentences worthy of a literate readership. We come by it honestly. Our founder, Conrad Black, specializes in the four comma, two semi-colon sentence, one of which he unfurled recently in his defence of the Canadian beaver.

Shortly before Conrad Black entered the people's hospitality a few years back, we were conversing about literature and considered candidates for the English language's master prose stylist, conceding to Shakespeare the title of the language's greatest poet. We both opted for 19th-century figures. I proposed Cardinal Newman; Lord Black suggested Abraham Lincoln as his equal. Both ennobled the language. Consider Lincoln's most masterful speech, the second inaugural:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

That magnificence would be lost if chopped up into little segments. Or consider John Henry Newman, explaining his life's work upon being made a cardinal in 1879:

Liturgical language does not make an argument as much as it proposes a truth, and truth is always served by authentic beauty.

"I may claim all through what I have written, is this – an honest intention, an absence of private ends, a temper of obedience, a willingness to be corrected, a dread of error, a desire to serve Holy Church, and, through Divine mercy, a fair measure of success. And, I rejoice to say, to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole Earth; and on this great occasion, when it is natural for one who is in my place to look out upon the world, and upon Holy Church as in it, and upon her future, it will not, I hope, be considered out of place, if I renew the protest against it which I have made so often."

That splendid paragraph, even if one should array oneself against its argument, is a delight on aesthetic grounds alone. Liturgical language does not make an argument as much as it proposes a truth, and truth is always served by authentic beauty.

Public language – that of the liturgy and of the public square – is never mere decoration; rather it shapes and refines our common life. The Catholic liturgy in English makes its own contribution to that common language and common life. What it has previously impoverished, it will now enrich.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Doing Shakespeare proud." National Post, (Canada) December 1, 2011.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 National Post

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.