The second Vatican Council closed 50 years ago this year, having begun in October 1962. One of the major changes it ushered in was the saying of the Mass in vernacular languages.
The first vernacular Masses were read in Irish Catholic churches on March 7th, 1965, bringing to an end the widespread tradition of the Latin Tridentine Mass, which had lasted since 1570 and which was the most widely celebrated Mass liturgy in the world.
In some parts of the country, the Mass was said in Irish. During a debate in Seanad Éireann, in November 1965, on a White Paper on the revival of Irish, Senator Tomás Ó Maoláin described the introduction of the vernacular Mass as “a great step forward in aid of the Irish language”.
Looking back from the vantage point of 50 years, it would probably be true to say that most people welcomed the change and felt more involved in the celebration of the Mass. The change was also part of the wider cultural transformation that was sweeping the world at that time.
The Association of Catholic Priests recently described the vernacular Mass as becoming “part of the weather of our lives” because it was “simple, clear and easy to read” and the association further maintained that after half a century of use, it was much loved by many people.
The Irish hierarchy issued the following statement, on November 8th, 1964, on the introduction of the vernacular in the liturgy: “The bishops are introducing these changes in the conviction that they will help to strengthen and deepen the great traditional devotion of the Irish people to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and they are confident that all, priests and people, will do their utmost to ensure that they achieve this purpose.”
The bishops’ statement quoted part of the Vatican Council’s own rationale for the change: “The church earnestly desires that the faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators but should, through a proper understanding of the ceremonies and prayers, take part in the sacred actions, conscious of what they are doing, with their devotion and collaboration.”
Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, the leading Irish churchman of the time, loved the Latin language and culture and was not enthusiastic about the idea of an all-vernacular liturgy.
The American Redemptorist professor and well-known commentator on Vatican II, Xavier Rynne, described McQuaid as opposing any thought of change a number of times at the council.
McQuaid had been Archbishop of Dublin since 1940 and found it very difficult to adapt to the rapidly changing Catholic Church of the 1960s.
At the end of the council, he issued the following reassurance to the Irish faithful: “You may, in the last four years, have been disturbed by reports about the council . . . You may have been worried by talk of changes to come. Allow me to reassure you: no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives.”
The Columban missionary Fr Seán Coyle has remarked about the Irish Catholic hierarchy and Vatican II: “The Irish bishops seemed to convey a sense of obedience: ‘This is what we’ve been asked to do and we’ll do it.’ As I recall, they didn’t keep the people particularly well informed about the council. Those who did were journalists.”
The French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre emerged as an opponent of Vatican II changes and as a champion of the Tridentine Mass. In the 1970s, what is broadly known as the Traditionalist Catholic movement arose around the world, preferring the old rite.
A member of the Latin Mass Society of Ireland has described the old rite as "the Mass which, in its essentials, inspired the saints of the western church for well-nigh 1,500 years, from Pope Gregory the Great up to and including Thérèse of Lisieux and Padre Pio.
“The Mass beloved of Austrian aristocrats, French bourgeoisie – and of course Irish peasants who risked liberty, life and limb to assemble at the Mass rocks”.
In fact, neither Vatican II nor the subsequent revised Roman missal abolished Latin as the liturgical language of the Mass; Latin continues to be the official text of the Roman missal, on which translations into vernacular languages are to be based, and the Latin Mass can still be celebrated.
In some places, indeed, it is part of the normal Sunday schedule.
Brian Maye is a journalist and historian