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In struggle over language and liturgy, the world church dawns

By Mark R. Francis, Keith F. Pecklers, Editors
The Liturgical Press, 169 pages, $19.95


If there is a keynote in this remarkable little volume of essays on the Revised Sacramentary, perhaps it is the 1979 statement by Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner that the shift to the vernacular languages in the liturgy was the unmistakable signal of the “coming to be of the world church.”

Always prescient, Rahner knew translation would open the door to inculturation, and inculturation to globalization, and that this was the deep renewal set in motion by Vatican II. It began with language but would eventually impact the theology, canon law and ecclesiastical structures of the church in the modern world.

For those who might regard the current stand-off between Rome’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy as only about language, Liturgy for the New Millennium both informs and alerts us to what is at stake in the work of the commission – and what now appears to be a high-level effort to slow or impede its 35-year-long mission to give the church’s prayer a living voice.

This book is styled as a set of essays about the new Revised Sacramentary, or collection of prayers for the Mass, produced by the commission and currently awaiting judgment in Rome. In 12 precisely interwoven chapters, the book serves two purposes. First, the nonspecialist reader gets a thorough description of the commission’s process, including translation norms, the changing needs and demographics of worshiping assemblies, and the decision to compose new prayers while preserving the core elements of the Roman Rite. It also includes a detailed explanation of some of the specific rites that have benefited from careful research during the 17-year labor to revise the sacramentary.

Second, readers are introduced to a remarkable scholar whose expertise in liturgical inculturation has placed him in a critical staging area for the world church Rahner envisioned. Benedictine Fr. Anscar Chupungco, in whose honor these essays were written by his former students at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, has focused his career toward developing the insight that translation “opens wide the door to inculturation,” with broad implications for the future of the global church.

Chupungco was appointed in 1973 as the first Filipino on the pontifical institute’s faculty by Rembert Weakland, who was then abbot primate of the Benedictine order. Chupungco served as the institute’s president for 12 of his 23 years in Rome. In that time, he came to be regarded as a living link between Europe’s liturgical pioneers and more recent developments in Asia. In 1993, Chupungco became the founding director of the Paul VI Liturgical Institute in the Philippines, a center for forming liturgists to serve throughout Asia. He is thus positioned uniquely between East and West and between Northern and Southern Hemispheres at a time when the church’s 1 billion membership is shifting dramatically from a First to a Third World majority.

Chupungco has also served as consultor to both the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and the Congregation for Divine Worship. He is highly respected for his balanced approach to all the issues that are converging and, to some extent, hanging on the outcome of the tension between Rome and the commission.

Rome’s decision in 1997 to reject the commission’s translation of the new ordination rite marked the beginning of a new phase, in which the Vatican began to assert a degree of authority over translation that stood in contrast with the council’s vision of a collegial undertaking governed by the bishops’ conferences. Combined with repeated Vatican warnings about the dangers of inclusive language, this new phase has cast a long shadow over the entire liturgical field and especially over the fate of the

American sacramentary.

In an October 1999 letter to Scottish Bishop Maurice Taylor, head of the commission’s episcopal board, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, called for a total reorganization, insisted on Roman approval of any scholar engaged in the process and hinted again that new translation norms would be used to evaluate the commission’s already completed work. Medina’s demands would effectively give him full and final control of the process.

This improbable outcome parallels stories circulating in Rome that, for example, the sacramentary submitted by the Japanese bishops got its final scrutiny by a few Japanese seminarians drafted from one of the international colleges in Rome.

The commission’s process is explained in detail by current executive secretary John Page in the opening chapter of Liturgy for the New Millennium. The first postconciliar English sacramentary, published in 1973, contained prayers transliterated from the Latin, often taken from popular bilingual missals used by preconciliar Catholics to follow the Mass. The commission was authorized by its bishops to produce new translations and to compose new alternative prayers that would give living voice to the church’s prayer.

In close collaboration with the bishops’ conferences, the commission submitted for approval in stages revisions of 2,000 Latin texts and 300 newly composed prayers, a revised translation of the General Instruction, or introduction, to the sacramentary, and a new supplemental Pastoral Introduction, which took seven years and 15 drafts to complete. The work was approved by the bishops and sent to Rome in 1998 in hopes that it could be published during this Jubilee year.

Page, with respect to Rome’s suggestion that the commission’s executive structure has somehow become a rogue operation, says little except to lament that after quietly working for a decade, the commission found itself the target of a well-orchestrated polemic originating with traditionalists in the United States. Rome’s deference to these fringe groups against the commission and its sponsoring episcopal conferences remains one of the most troubling aspects of the present situation.

Gilbert Ostdiek offers the reader a fascinating inside look at the complex translation process, whose goal is not just fidelity to the original text but equal fidelity to the needs of the here-and-now assemblies that must gain access to the mysteries the prayers proclaim. Ostdiek’s review of the principles that have guided the commission is a spirited defense of the 1969 Vatican document Comme le prévoit, favored by Pope Paul VI but now seemingly destined for suppression by Medina.

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers discusses the changing role of the liturgical assembly as the most visible manifestation of a dramatic shift in ecclesiology after Vatican II. An active assembly has replaced the passive audience, and this has accelerated the need for liturgical language and ritual to connect with and unify those who assemble. Pecklers documents the changing face of the church: “At the beginning of the 20th century, 80 percent of all Christians were whites living in the Northern Hemisphere; by the year 2020, however, 80 percent of all Christians will be ‘people of color’ living in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., Chupungco’s first doctoral student, remembers his teacher’s frequent invitation to view the world upside down by reminding them that the liturgical seasons favored Christians living in the Northern Hemisphere, where Christmas comes in winter, not summer, and Easter coincides with spring, not autumn. The image captures the challenge we in the North and West will face as the majority church locates to the East and South.

Margaret Mary Kelleher discusses the decision to compose new prayers for the sacramentary. As the church learns to pray in the vernacular, she writes, it is engaged in this self-realization as world church. This is therefore a process never complete, requiring a willingness to move constantly from past to future, to negotiate from one ecclesial reality to the next.

If history teaches anything, it is that an attempt to freeze-frame tradition can only endanger a dynamic process. If this were not so, the church would still be a Jewish sect using one of several Aramaic dialects as the only reliable link to its founder. It is evident from the New Testament that the primitive church accepted translation into the dominant Mediterranean languages and culture as necessary to the missionary mandate from Jesus himself. The genesis of the church was not a single event but an ongoing birth, whose ultimate extension is envisioned in the Pentecost account in Acts – people of every culture hearing the gospel proclaimed in their own language.

Kelleher’s analysis addresses not only the process of ongoing ethnic inculturation, but might apply as well to the deepest and most difficult inculturation of all, from one institutional generation and culture to the next, which requires acceptance of change as the essence of any living tradition – the word itself meaning to hand on, not to hold on. If the International Commission on English in the Liturgy is being brought to heel to halt this deeper agenda, it may well prove to be one of the most audacious attempts at cultural rollback in history. Self-actualization, invoked by an ecumenical council, is a door once opened that is not easily closed again.

The oft-invoked presence and counsel of Anscar Chupungco throughout the book serves to tie these and other helpful essays together thematically. He is also looked to as an exemplar of the kind of careful scholarship, fidelity to primary liturgical sources and generous openness to reciprocity that will be needed to resolve the current standoff over the Revised Sacramentary. Much is at stake for both the church and the modern world.

Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR’s sister publication on liturgy.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000