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Defending liturgical renewal

NCR Staff

If American Catholicism is beset by “liturgy wars,” it’s in part because activist groups such as Adoremus and Credo have denounced the liturgical establishment in the United States for what they see as debased art, architecture and ritual in the years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

On May 1, the establishment returned fire.

On that date, the latest issue of the bulletin of We Believe, an association of American liturgists, scholars and their supporters, began making its way to every member of the U.S. bishops’ conference as well as more than 9,000 people who signed a 1994 statement sponsored by the group in support of the liturgical renewal launched by Vatican II.

New efforts to establish a Web presence for We Believe and to produce its bulletin in electronic form mark a return from a recent hiatus for the group.

Its May 1 issue discusses the controversy over the Psalter produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, echoed the recommendation for a bishops’ pastoral letter on liturgy made by church design expert Fr. Richard Vosko (NCR, April 14), and offered an analysis of attempts to render liturgical terms into American Sign Language -- an instance where the word-for-word approach to translation now demanded by the Vatican is literally impossible.

We Believe was launched in 1994 because “we felt the continuing voice of the reform was not being heard,” said Capuchin Fr. Ed Foley, president of the group’s board and a professor of liturgy and music at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “The people who are the scholars, who are doing the work in liturgy were being attacked. Our fidelity was being questioned.”

Originally centered in Chicago, where We Believe was encouraged by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s signature on its founding statement, the group today has offices in St. Paul, Minn. Its eight-member board includes one bishop, Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., current head of the bishops’ doctrine committee and former head of the liturgy committee.

Foley said the perception among liturgists in the mid-1990s was that Adoremus, whose publication is edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock, and Credo, an association of priests critical of post-Vatican II liturgical reform headed by Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky, were dominating the debate.

Adoremus has blamed liturgical changes since the council for “falling Mass attendance, declining priestly and religious vocations, a decrease in belief in the Real Presence, the weakening of doctrinal content and a loss of the sense of the sacred.”

Hitchcock told NCR that to date she does not see “any particular impact” resulting from We Believe’s 1994 statement or subsequent efforts. “Some might even wonder what the point of having a separate organization is, since the point of view it expresses is already the one held by most diocesan liturgical commissions and so on,” she said.

Foley said the goal of We Believe was not to establish a left-wing mirror image of conservative activist groups, but to give voice to liturgical professionals.

“The centrist voice, the Catholic voice in the richest sense of the word, was not being heard,” he said. “We’re the ones citing Trent, we’re the ones citing the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Our conscious concern is to support the people doing the work in parishes and dioceses.”

The name We Believe was chosen as a counterpoint to Credo, Foley said, which literally means I believe.

“The Mass of Paul VI has such a different ecclesiological vision,” Foley said. “The entire eucharistic prayer is about we believe, not I. It’s about the community, not the isolated individual. We wanted to defend the ecclesiology of Vatican II, especially as it’s presented in Gaudium et Spes.”

Foley said that while We Believe is supportive of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, its support is not uncritical. For example, he said that the commission made a tactical error in treating inclusivity primarily as an issue of gender in the debate over inclusive language.

“Inclusivity is not about gender, it’s about being Catholic,” Foley said. “If you’ve ever sat in middle of an African-American community and sung texts about being ‘black as death,’ or sat with a deaf congregation and sung about being ‘deaf to God’s call,’ you’d know how exclusionary language can be.”

The group also acknowledges that sometimes liturgists have been their own worst enemies. “The idea of liturgist as terrorist is not just a joke,” Foley said. “Instead of beating you over the head with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, they beat you with the RCIA,” he said, referring to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the widely used process for bringing new members into the church.

“In the 1970s, we were not doing liturgical reform as pastoral care. A new pastor would come in and decide to take out the Communion rails, move the altar, dump the statues. Even though the purported image was the people of God, nobody asked them -- it was an assertion of the divine right of kings.”

Beneath such miscues, however, Foley said that Vatican II put forth a liturgical vision worth defending. “The idea that everybody belongs, everybody is called to holiness, listening to the voices of linguistic and cultural diversity. We cannot turn the clock back on that.”

Foley said the next project for the group is the establishment of a Web site to offer news and documentation on liturgical issues. Readers interested in obtaining a copy of the May 1 bulletin may contact We Believe at Webelieve@uswest.net

The 1994 We Believe statement may be found at http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000