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Sacramentary may be casualty of liturgical wars


The other shoe that English-speaking liturgical experts have long been dreading seems to have dropped.

A U.S. bishops’ conference official confirmed Nov. 21 that despite 11 years of work, and five years of exhaustive debates among the U.S. bishops that led to approval by two-thirds votes, the new English Sacramentary, the book of prayers for Mass, will never be published.

Critics have long complained that the proposed Sacramentary takes too many liberties with the Latin originals of prayers, and allows changes that would injure the unity of the Roman rite, the traditional form of the Mass in the Western church.

Experts who helped produce the Sacramentary greeted news of its demise as “disappointing” and “outrageous.”

Though there has been no formal statement either from Rome or the U.S. bishops, confirmation that the Sacramentary is a dead letter came in a Nov. 21 Catholic News Service interview with Fr. James Moroney, chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ liturgy committee.

The imminent issuance of a new Latin edition of the prayers for the Mass, Moroney said, along with a new set of rules for translation called Liturgiam Authenticam, mean that the English text submitted for Vatican approval in 1998 has been superceded.

It “would be a waste of printers’ ink,” Moroney said, to put out the Sacramentary under such circumstances.

Sources in Rome backed up Moroney’s claim. Changes needed to bring the text into conformity with Vatican norms, those sources said, will be “significant” and “consistent throughout.”

The draft Sacramentary was produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, often known as ICEL, an international body sponsored by 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences. All told, the new Sacramentary involved revision of some 2,000 Latin texts as well as the composition of approximately 300 new prayers in English.

The commission began work in 1982, and after extensive consultation, provisional texts were submitted to English-speaking bishops’ conferences for approval in eight segments in the early 1990s. In one form or another, the U.S. bishops debated and voted on aspects of the Sacramentary at every summer and fall meeting from November 1992 to June 1997.

As this process unfolded, the international commission became controversial. Critics object to its philosophy of “dynamic equivalence,” which permits non-literal translations in order to respect the idioms and structure of the target language.

Among other consequences, this principle justifies “inclusive language,” or the use of terms that are not gender-specific. The Nicene Creed in the new Sacramentary, for example, reads “for us and our salvation” rather than “for us men and our salvation.”

Other noticeable changes include a new set of opening prayers that pick up on scriptural images from that day’s readings, and simplified introductory rites.

In many cases, the Vatican believes these changes could compromise the “sacred speech” of the Mass.

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, who teaches at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, told NCR the Sacramentary’s demise is “disappointing.”

“To say it is unsound is to suggest that the best liturgical scholars are unaware of the doctrine of the church, and also that the bishops in all these conferences, who approved their work, don’t understand the doctrine. It’s an incredible indictment if true,” he said.

Viatorian Fr. Mark Francis, who worked on the Sacramentary project, called the news “outrageous” and predicted that forcing a more traditional vocabulary on the church will be counterproductive.

“On a local level, pastors will depart from the book,” Francis said. “Especially texts that use sexist, exclusive language will be rejected off-hand by many presiders.”

Pecklers and Francis are in the odd position of being co-editors of a commentary on the Sacramentary, called Liturgy for the New Millennium (Liturgical Press, 2000), even though the document at the base of their commentary now seems destined never to appear.

Despite the defeat for the international commission, Vatican officials told NCR that it still has a role to play.

“We can say that the experience of the last 10 years in the English world was not always happy, in the sense that perhaps more liberty was taken than had been allowed,” Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino said in a mid-November interview.

Yet Tamburrino, the Vatican’s No. 2 liturgy official, said it is not Rome’s goal to destroy the international commission.

“Not only may ICEL continue its work, it is necessary,” he said. “But it must be renovated by a double fidelity, to the liturgical text and to the individual genius of the target language.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001