Dom Guéranger on Translating the Missal

Dom Prosper Guéranger, founder and abbot of Solesmes Abbey

As a follow-up to our post about Pope Alexander VII’s brief Ad aures nostras condemning de Voisin’s translation of the missal for use by the laity, and Lebrun’s defence of such translations, we herewith post a translation of Dom Prosper Guéranger’s reflexions on the matter in volume 2 of his Institutions liturgiques.

Guéranger has been called the “father of the Liturgical Movement”: although the movement proper actually began in the 20th century through the efforts of Dom Lambert Beauduin, Guéranger did pioneer the rediscovery of liturgical piety and worked tirelessly to restore the liturgy to the centre of Christian life, through works like the Institutions liturgiques, written for use by seminarians and clergymen, and L’année liturgique, aimed at the general public. As one sees in the latter work, however, Guéranger refused to print a literal translation of the Roman Canon. He interpreted Ad aures nostras not as addressing particular problems of the 17th century French church, but as a general prohibition on full literal translations of the missal.

Guéranger was keenly aware of the importance of veiling in the liturgy, through which it expresses mystery and revelation (cf. Martin Mosebach, “Revelation Through Veiling in the Old Roman Catholic Liturgy” in The Heresy of Formlessness), and the use of Latin (and the silent Canon) is one of the foremost of these “veils”.

In the excerpt reproduced below, Guéranger warns against allowing the uneducated to have full access to the literal words of the holiest of the Church’s prayers, for it would constitute a rupture of this veil. He alludes to the disastrous consequences that easy access to literal translations of Holy Scripture had during and after the Protestant Revolt, and concludes with poses the rhetorical question: if it is so important that the laity be able to follow what the priest says during Mass word by word, why not just have Mass in the vernacular?

Any Catholic can doubtlessly see, given the gravity of the Roman Pontiff’s language, that [the translation of the Missal] was a grave matter, but more than one of our readers will perhaps be shocked, after what we have just reported, at the indifference wherewith an abuse which so aroused the zeal of Alexander VII is treated to-day. In our times, all the faithful in France, as long as they can read, can scrutinize the most mysterious parts of the Canon of the Mass thanks to the innumerable and ubiquitous translations thereof; and the Bible, in the vulgar tongue, is everywhere placed at their disposal. What are we to think about this state of affairs?

There is no need to bother Rome with the question: many a time, after Alexander VII, she has expressed herself so clearly as to leave no room for doubt. Yet let us keep in mind that the councils of the last three centuries have declared that the use of translations of Holy Scripture—as long as they are not accompanied by a gloss or notes drawn from the Church Fathers and the teachings of tradition—is illicit, and, on the authority of the Holy See and the clergy of France, we aver that any translation of the Canon of the Mass not accompanied by a commentary addressing any difficulties is akin to those prohibited translation of Scripture.


[On the argument that vernacular translations were necessary to facilitate the conversion of Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.]

Could there really have been no alternative but an outright translation of the Canon of the Mass? Was it necessary to ignore the prescriptions of the Holy See and the Council of Trent, when it is so easy to attach to the text a commentary putting an end to all objections, a gloss that prevents the eye of a profane and illiterate reader to pierce the shadows that protect the mysteries against his curiosity, as is done everywhere except France?

From the moment the people can read in their own tongue, word by word, what the priest recites at the altar, why should the latter use a foreign language which at that point no longer hides anything? Why should he recite in a low voice what the lowliest charwoman or the coarsest drudge can follow and know as well as he? Those audacious proponents of the anti-liturgical heresy did not neglect to take advantage of these two terrible consequences, as we shall see in the rest of this story.

Tout catholique verra, sans doute, à la gravité du langage du Pontife romain, qu’il s’agissait dans cette occasion d’une affaire majeure ; mais plus d’un de nos lecteurs s’étonnera, peut-être, après ce que nous venons de rapporter, de l’insensibilité avec laquelle on considère aujourd’hui un abus qui excitait à un si haut degré le zèle d’Alexandre VII. Aujourd’hui, tous les fidèles de France, pour peu qu’ils sachent lire, sont à même de scruter ce qu’il y a de plus mystérieux dans le canon de la messe, grâce aux innombrables traductions qui en sont répandues en tous lieux ; la Bible, en langue vulgaire est, de toutes parts, mise à leur disposition : que doit-on penser de cet état de choses ? Certes, ce n’est pas à Rome que nous le demanderons : bien des fois, depuis Alexandre VII, elle s’est exprimée de manière à ne nous laisser aucun doute; mais nous dirons avec tous les conciles des trois derniers siècles, que l’usage des traductions de l’Écriture sainte, tant qu’elles ne sont pas accompagnées d’une glose ou de notes tirées des saints Pères et des enseignements de la tradition, sont illicites, et, avec l’autorité du Saint-Siège et du clergé de France, nous assimilerons aux versions de l’Écriture prohibées, toute traduction du canon de la messe qui serait pas accompagnée d’un commentaire qui prévienne les difficultés. 

[…] Mais n’y avait-il pas d’autre mesure qu’une traduction pure et simple du canon de la messe ? fallait-il compter pour rien les prescriptions du Saint-Siège, du concile de Trente, lorsqu’on avait le moyen si facile et mis en usage en tous lieux, excepté en France, de joindre au texte un commentaire qui arrête les objections, une glose qui ne permet pas que l’œil du lecteur profane et illettré perce des ombres qui garantissent les mystères contre sa curiosité. Du moment que le peuple peut lire en sa langue, mot pour mot, ce que le prêtre récite à l’autel, pourquoi ce dernier use-t-il d’une langue étrangère qui dès lors ne cache plus rien ? pourquoi récite-t-il à voix basse ce que la dernière servante, le plus grossier manœuvre suivent de l’œil et peuvent connaître aussi bien que lui ? Deux conséquences terribles que nos docteurs antiliturgistes ne manqueront pas de tirer avec toute leur audace, ainsi qu’on le verra dans la suite de ce récit.

Gemma Animae (25): On the Sermon

Ch. 25

On the Sermon

Then the bishop delivers a sermon to the people, for after Christ made himself known to the people by the apostles, he himself began to preach to all. The bishop instructs the people on penance, faith, and confession, for Christ taught penance, faith in God, and the remission of sins by confession and baptism.

After this the people sing Kyrie eleison and the clergy sing Credo in unum Deum [1]; for they affirm that they believe what the deacon read and what the bishop preached. Thus, after Christ and the apostles taught the people, they sounded praises to God on account of the faith received.

Meanwhile, the Gospel-book is carried through the choir with incense, and extended for each one to kiss, for the apostles carried Christ, the odour of life, through the world, and proffered eternal peace to all peoples through his word [2].

[1] Cf. Jungmann (vol. 1, pg. 472). It seems Honorius may be referring to the genre of “Credo-songs” sung by the people in lieu of the Credo itself, and using the refrain Kyrie eleison. Since it was often too much to expect the people to chant the whole text of the Creed in Latin, various substitutes were contrived, to be sung while the clergy sang the Credo. Sometimes these songs were even in the vernacular:

“For Germany Berthold of Regensburg (d. 1272) mentions with praise the practice he found in several places where the people joined the “Credo” by singing a German song which he cites as follows: Ich gloube an den Vater, ich gloube an den Sun miner frouwen sant Marien, und an den Heiligen Geist. Kyrieleys.”

[2] Jungmann explains the origin of this practice in the ancient papal stational liturgy:

“When the Gospel ended it was customary in the Roman stational services for a subdeacon to take the book (not with bare hands, however, but holding it super planetam), and to bring it around to the attending clergy to be kissed before it was returned again to its casket, sealed and brought back to its place of safekeeping.

In countries of the North, the people were, for a time, permitted to share in this veneration of the Gospel book” (Missarum Sollemnia, vol. 1, 449).

In a footnote, he continues: “According to WIlliam of Hirsau […] the priest at a private Mass kissed the book after the reading, then handed it to the Mass-server et aliis communicare volentibus to be kissed.”



De sermone.   

Deinde episcopus sermonem ad populum facit, quia postquam Christus populo per apostolos innotuit, ipse omnibus praedicare coepit. Episcopus populum de poenitentia, et fide, et confessione instruit, quia Christus poenitentiam, et fidem in Deum et remissionem peccatorum per confessionem et baptisma docuit. Post haec populus Kyrie eleyson, et clerus Credo in unum Deum, cantant; quia quod diaconus legit, et quod episcopus praedicavit se credere affirmant. Ita postquam Christus et apostoli populum docuerunt, fide recepta, laudes Deo personuerunt. Interim Evangelium cum incenso per chorum defertur, et singulis ad osculandum porrigitur; quia apostoli Christum (odorem vitae) per mundum portaverunt, et cunctis gentibus per verbum eius pacem aeternam praebuerunt.

Lay Hand-Missals: “Damnata, reprobata et interdicta”

Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz

In 1660, Joseph de Voisin, a priest and doctor in Theology of the Sorbonne, published the first missal destined for use by the laity with a full translation of the Mass into the vernacular. The five-volume work had the approbation of Cardinal de Retz, archbishop of Paris, and his vicars general, but its appearance met with immediate controversy. The Faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne disavowed the work, noting that they had already refused to countenance a French translation of the Roman Breviary in 1655 and a translation of the New Testament in 1649, and recalling their 1527 censure of a series of propositions of Erasmus, amongst which was a call for vernacular versions of the Scriptures.

Pope Alexander VII

When the Assembly of the Clergy of the Kingdom of France met on 7 December 1660, they too condemned this bilingual Missal, and Pope Alexander VII ratified their sentence on 12 January 1661, in the bull below. The bull was, however, widely ignored, and the Council of State eventually appealed to the king to search for and destroy all remaining copies of the book. Yet Cardinal de Retz continued to defend it, even after both the Assembly of the Clergy and the Holy See renewed their condemnations. But these were quickly forgotten, for after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, many converts from Protestantism were deliberately given translations of the missal by the authorities, “for their instruction,” as Bishop Bossuet noted in a letter.

Pope Alexander VII
for future memory

To our immense sorrow it has come to our ears that in the Kingdom of France certain sons of perdition, eager for novelties unto the ruin of souls and despising ecclesiastical sanctions and practice, have recently come upon this madness: they dared to translate the Roman Missal, written in the Latin language by long and approved use for so many centuries, into the vulgar French tongue, and thus rendered to divulge it by publishing it through the press, and to impart it to persons of any station or sex whatsoever, and thus overthrow and crush the majesty of the most holy rite contained in the Latin tongue. And by this temerarious enterprise they have tried to expose the dignity of the holy mysteries to the vulgar.

§1. To us, however unworthy, was entrusted the care of the vine of the Lord of Hosts planted by Christ our Saviour, and watered by his precious blood, in order that we might counter the growth of thorns of this sort, which might bury the vine, and cut them down to their roots, as much as we are able by God’s help, insofar as we abhor and detest this novelty, which mars the perpetual beauty of the Church, and easily produces disobedience, temerity, effrontery, sedition, schism, and many other evils.

§2. Therefore, of our own accord, and with certain knowledge and our mature deliberation, we perpetually condemn, reject, and prohibit the aforesaid Missal from being published by anyone, or at some future time from bring published and distributed in any way, and we wish to hold it as condemned, rejected, and prohibited, and we perpetually forbid its printing, reading, and possession by each and every Christian faithful of either sex, of whatever position, state, condition, dignity, honour, or preëminence, notwithstanding any special or individual pleading that shall be made in their favour, under the pain of excommunication latae sententiae to be incurred by vigour of the law itself.

§3. We order that whosoever has a copy thereof, or whensoever in the future they might have one, should forthwith truly and with effect present it and bring it to the Ordinaries of places or to the inquisitors, who, broaching no delay, should burn those exemplars with fire and make them be burnt. Valid, notwithstanding anything thereunto contrary.

Given at Rome, at St Mary Major, under the ring of the Fisherman, 12 January 1661, the sixth year of our pontificate.

Alexander Papa VII,
ad futuram rei memoriam.

Ad aures nostras ingenti cum animi moerore pervenit, quod in Regno Galliae quidam perditionis filii in perniciem animarum novitatibus studentes, et ecclesiasticas sanctiones ac praxim contemnentes, ad eam nuper vesaniam pervenerint, ut missale romanum, latino idiomate longo tot saeculorum usu in Ecclesia probato conscriptum, ad gallicam vulgarem linguam convertere, sicque conversum typis evulgare, et ad cujusvis ordinis et sexus personas transmittere ausi fuerint, et ita sacrosancti ritus majestatem latinis vocibus comprehensam dejicere et proterere, ac sacrorum mysteriorum dignitatem vulgo exponere, temerario conatu tentaverint.

§1. Nos, quibus, licet immeritis, vineae Domini Sabaoth a Christo Salvatore nostro plantatae , ejusque pretioso sanguine irrigatae, cura demandata est, ut spinarum hujusmodi, quibus illa obrueretur, obviemus incremento, earumque quantum in Deo possumus, radices succidamus, quemadmodum novitatem istam perpetui Ecclesiae decoris deformatricem, inobedientiae, temeritatis, audaciae, seditionis, schismatis aliorumque plurium malorum facile productricem abhorremus et detestamur,

§2. ita missale praedictum gallico idiomate a quocumque conscriptum, vel in posterum alias quomodolibet conscribendum et evulgandum, motu proprio, et ex certa scientia ac matura deliberatione nostris, perpetuo damnamus, reprobamus, et interdicimus, ac pro damnato, reprobato et interdicto haberi volumus, ejusque impressionem, lectionem et retentionem universis et singulis utriusque sexus christifidelibus cujuscumque gradus, ordinis, conditionis, dignitatis, honoris et praemminentiae, licet de illis specialis et individua mentio habenda foret, existant, sub poena excommunicationis latae sententiae ipso jure incurrendae, perpetuo prohibemus,

§3. mandantes quod statim quicumque illud habuerint, vel in futurum quomodocumque habebunt, realiter et cum effectu exhibeant, et tradant locorum Ordinariis vel inquisitoribus, qui, nulla interposita mora, exemplaria igne comburant, et comburi faciant, in contrarium facientibus non obstantibus quibuscumque.

Datum Romae, apud S. Mariam Majorem, sub annulo Piscatoris, die XII januarii MDCLXI, pontificatus nostri anno VI.