CV NEWS FEED // A false belief persists that for hundreds of years, English-speaking Catholics did not have access to the Bible in their native tongue, or any other language besides Church Latin.
In addition, popular history books assume that the Church barred Catholics from reading Holy Scripture in the vernacular until after the Protestant “Reformation” or even up until Vatican II in 1962. It is also commonly held that until very recently, Bible fluency was a characteristic of Protestants, but certainly not Catholics.
Nico Fassino, author and operator of the independent Church history website “Hand Missal History Project,” recently debunked these myths.
On Monday, Fassino posted a Twitter thread introducing and sharing excerpts from a research project of his that documents pre-Vatican II English Bible readings at Mass – dating all the way back to the year 971. Fassino describes his project as “exploring Catholic history through the untold and forgotten experiences of the laity across the centuries.”
Here are a few examples of how Catholics have encountered the Bible in English for thousands of years!
Fassino shows that Catholic clergy incorporated English into the Liturgy of the Word as soon as it first evolved as a distinct language. To quote the prominent Church historian Father John Lingard, “for the instruction of the people, the epistle and gospel were read, and the sermon was delivered in their native tongue” in medieval England,” similar to what happens today during a Mass in the Extraordinary Form.
While the majority of the liturgy was conducted in Latin, the readings and the homily were given in English, for the primary purpose of ensuring that the common people could understand and live the Good News.
To back up his research, Fassino includes multiple images of texts: homilies and gospel readings in Old and Middle English. He states that by the end of the 1300s, “the use of these texts was so widespread and successful that many layfolk (even the poor and uneducated) were able to memorize a significant amount of the scripture cycle in the vernacular.”
With the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, the Gospels and New Testament letters began to be mass-produced in English even prior to the state takeover of the Church.
Many of the early editions are nearly indistinguishable from those found in today’s missal books, with both Sunday and daily Mass readings listed in chronological order. Some also included explanatory footnotes or even full-length homilies underneath the readings to help parishioners more clearly understand them.
Fassino explains that these early “missals,” mass-printed in vernacular languages, were commonplace all across Europe, not just in England. He estimates that by 1500, hundreds of thousands of copies were in circulation. Martin Luther himself, the leading figure of the Protestant Reformation, noted this in one of his writings, dated 1534. Luther wrote that he noticed the Catholic Church “remarkably and effectively preserved … the text of the Gospel, recited from the pulpit and in sermons of the vernacular of any country.”
In 1582, the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB) was published. This particular English translation is still read by many in the Church to this day. The DRB contained a chart that listed readings taken from both the Gospels and epistles to be used at Mass. This table alone serves as substantial evidence that the DRB was “used by priests to recite the scriptures to their flocks in English,” as opposed to solely in Latin, Fassino points out.
Fassino gives several examples of bishops who decreed that Mass readings be given in the common tongue, as opposed to Latin. Catholic bishops issued instructions to that effect in 1791 in Maryland, in 1822 in England, and in 1826 in Ireland.
As a result, more English “epistle and gospel” missals were explicitly labeled “for pulpit use.” Like the Renaissance-era proto-missals, many of these books also included commentaries that could be used to develop homilies. It is clear that preaching in English not only used in Catholic churches in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was also encouraged by the hierarchy.
In the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council, “Epistles and Gospels for Pulpit Use” missals continued to circulate throughout the English-speaking world.
In the 1930s, as the Great Depression raged on, Bishop Edwin O’Hara of the Diocese of Great Falls in Montana led the charge to revise and modernize the DRB. Centuries old, the DRB translation used many outdated words and phrases. The effort by O’Hara and others resulted in the “first official, national, modern Catholic translation of scripture in America,” two-and-a-half decades before Vatican II.
Around the same time, there were significant improvements in audio technology. Microphones and speakers began to see wide use in Catholic parishes. Just as the printing press enabled more Catholics to have access to English translations of scripture, the microphone, as Fassino explains it, allowed “others, even members of the laity, to begin to participate in reciting vernacular scripture.”
This was the beginning of the modern-day lector. In 1958, an order from Pope Pius XII recommended the use of lay lectors in churches.
Click here to read Nico Fassino’s full research paper, “The Epistles and Gospels in English.”