By Joseph Shaw (Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales)
The Bishops of England and Wales recently had a meeting, and among their decisions was one concerning a prayer of the liturgy which they decided they didn’t like in its current form. This prayer is used once a year, in about six churches in England and Wales, and never in English: it is always said in Latin, because it belongs to the Vetus Ordo (Traditional Mass) service for Good Friday.
A remarkable attention to detail, perhaps. But the bishops’ objection to the prayer wasn’t to do with it being difficult to understand (it doesn’t use the word ‘ineffable’, the word which so annoys objectors to the new translation of the English Mass.) The retired Archbishop Kevin McDonald explained it this way: it is ‘a prayer for the conversion of Jews to Christianity’.
This is true – more or less. The prayer runs like this:
‘Let us also pray for the Jews: that our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all men.’
The prayer is based on St Paul (eg 2 Cor 4:3-6), who looked forward to Jewish people, as a body, coming to the Faith in the final phase of history . The Fathers of the Church saw the ‘conversion of the Jews’ as one of the prologues to the Second Coming (Romans 11:25-26). While individual Jews become Christians along the way, the acceptance of Christ by ‘the Jewish people’ is not about a targeted programme of proselytism, such as Evangelical Christians sometimes promote. Whether aggressively conducted or not, Jewish sensitivities to this kind of thing are easy to understand in the context of their history.
It was in light of these sensitivities that Pope Benedict re-wrote the Prayer for the Jews to be used in the Traditional Mass, after he lifted restrictions on the celebration of it in 2007. It is his, 2008 version, that we are talking about, not the one this one replaced. He removed some of the rather dramatic language used by St Paul (eg 2 Cor 3:14) – about how God would one lay lift the ‘veil’ from the Jews’ hearts – but he left in the hope that they would accept Christ one day.
What is it about asking God to give Jews the grace of conversion that Archbishop McDonald and the English Bishops don’t like? They prefer the equivalent prayer used at Good Friday in the Novus Ordo, the liturgy reformed after Vatican II. He told us:
‘The 1970 prayer which is now used throughout the Church is basically a prayer that the Jewish people would continue to grow in the love of God’s name and in faithfulness of his Covenant, a Covenant which – as St John Paul II made clear in 1980 – has not been revoked.’
Exactly what St John Paul II meant by that phrase has been long disputed. It is in another reference to St Paul, who said the Jews are loved by God because, despite the coming of Christ, God does not revoke his promises (Romans 11:29). Could it mean that Jews are saved by something other than the Cross of Christ? It can’t possibly mean that: even people outside the Church are saved, if they are saved, by the merits of Christ, as the Catechism makes clear:
848 ‘Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.’
Denying that Christ died to save all mankind puts us into very dodgy ground. The universal nature of Christ’s saving act is a fundamental teaching of Christianity. It is offered universally; it is accepted, Christ tells us, by ‘few’. But every sin ever committed is infinitely counterbalanced by the Christ’s self-sacrificial love, his death on the Cross, and it is this, and this alone, which has opened heaven to us all.
We might be wondering, at this point, whether the reformed liturgy most Catholics go to, actually expresses this fundamental doctrine. Not only does it, but it contains explicit prayers for the conversion of the Jews.
Here’s one: ‘Let Israel recognize in you the Messiah it has longed for’
Here’s another: ‘Christ, Son of David, fulfilment of the prophecies, may the Jewish people accept you as their awaited Deliverer [Latin: Messiah].’
These are from the Liturgy of the Hours, not Mass, but they are part of the Church’s public prayer, and should be said by all priests. And bishops, of course. (They come up in Morning Office of 31st December, and Vespers of Easter Sunday.)
Have the Bishops of England and Wales not noticed that the 1970 liturgy does exactly what they object to about the Vetus Ordo liturgy? Should someone tell them?
More on the issue can be read here.