Reforming the Reform

U.S. BISHOPS & THE NEW LITURGICAL TEXTS

 

Catholic bishops are usually loath to acknowledge dissent within their ranks. So it was surprising when the U.S. bishops publicly released the results of an internal poll that showed them almost evenly split on new English translations for the Mass. The divisions among the bishops revealed that perhaps they do not walk in lockstep as much as conventional wisdom holds. Some disagreement is to be expected, of course. But what was surprising about the bishops’ comments on the proposed translations was their intensity and passion. Liturgy is “where the rubber really hits the road, as far as church is concerned,” said Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “So [bishops] are very honest in what they have to say.” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, vice president of the USCCB and U.S. representative to the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), agreed. “It’s the most important thing we do, to worship God,” he said. “We’re all pastors here.” Over the summer, the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy polled bishops on proposed revisions to the Mass. The translations, submitted by ICEL, are intended to bring the post-Vatican II Mass-celebrated in U.S. churches since 1970-in line with new Vatican directives that require greater adherence to the original Latin. [Editor’s Note: For more on the background to the debate over ICEL and how disputes over liturgical language often go to the heart of the practice of collegiality and the implementation of Vatican II, see “Lost in Translation,” by John Wilkins, p. 12.] Overall, the new translations would change twelve of the nineteen responses recited at Mass by the full congregation. Many of the changes are minor, but significant nonetheless. The familiar exchange between priest and congregation, “Peace be with you / And also with you,” would be replaced by “Peace be with you / And also with your spirit.” The ICEL proposal would return the “mea culpa” (“through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”) to the Confiteor. Perhaps most jarring, the phrase “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” would become, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, who heads the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, said the summer survey found that 52 percent of bishops favored the changes, while 47 percent judged them “fair or poor.” The new translations need a two-thirds vote to pass. In thirty pages of written comments released by Trautman’s committee, there are harsh responses from several bishops. Trautman said the divisions among the bishops fell along traditional “liberal/conservative” lines, but declined to elaborate. Some bishops complained that the language seemed “too British.” Others called the new translations clumsy, awkward, archaic, wordy, or stilted. “Painful to the ear,” one bishop noted. “During the years I was teaching Latin,” another bishop observed, “had a student submitted comparable translations for classical Latin texts, I would have given him a low grade.” Not all bishops were critical. Some praised the new translations as more dignified and elegant, with “an air of solemnity and formality that is sometimes missing from current translations,” which were completed under great time pressure in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. The most frequent commendation of the new translations concerned the text’s “fidelity” or “faithfulness” to the original Latin (two terms, frequently used by those of a conservative bent within the conference, which echo Benedict XVI’s view that a “reform of the reform” is needed). On the whole, the bishops found more things to dislike than to praise. “The new ICEL translation is like doing drastic major surgery on a patient in need of a few cosmetic procedures,” one bishop said. One archbishop seemed positively frightened by what might happen when trying to introduce the new translations to the laity: “Some usually quite civil people turned ugly about more changes,” he said. Taking stock of the bishops’ objections, the Committee on Liturgy recommended that thirty-one of the fifty-two changes be restored to the 1970 version, including the Confiteor. A poll conducted during the week of the November bishops’ meeting, for example, found that 55 percent of bishops reject the “under my roof” revision in the new translation. Beyond all the sparring over grammar and sentence structure, the bishops demonstrated a deep pastoral concern for their flocks, a concern that is not always evident in the operation of the church’s administrative bureaucracies. Time and again, bishops said their people would not understand-and probably not accept-changes to the prayers they had come to embrace over the thirty-five years since the council’s liturgical reforms were implemented. “What ought to be a source of stability-the liturgy-will become a source of uneasiness and frustration for the good people who continue to come to the Eucharist,” one bishop remarked. Four years of scandals have given Catholics ample reason to distrust their leaders. The bishops, knowing all too well that the laity’s reservoir of good will has nearly run dry, now seem skittish about giving Catholics something else to be angry over. “I feel we have put our people through a great deal these past few years. They have handled the abuse crisis very well,” one bishop said. “I don’t think they will handle ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof’ very well at all.” ———————————————- Welcome, Whispers in the Loggia readers. Be sure to check out our new blog, dotCommonweal, where you can discuss the article.

Published in the 2005-12-02 issue: 

Kevin Eckstrom covers Catholicism for Religion News Service in Washington.

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