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Leader of liturgical commission resigns


With the resignation of its longtime executive secretary, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the embattled group charged with translating texts for Catholic worship into English, appears to face a still more uncertain future.

The resignation of John Page, who has led the commission’s staff since 1980, was announced Feb. 22 and becomes effective August 15.

The commission was established by English-speaking episcopal conferences during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The bishops’ conferences of 11 member countries, including the United States, are represented on the governing board.

The commission has in recent years become a political football, as critics charge it with an excessively liberal approach to the Latin originals of prayers for the Mass and other sacraments. Those critics, including some in the Vatican, prefer a literal translation, arguing it is the best guarantee of liturgical unity and doctrinal fidelity.

Defenders of the commission, on the other hand, say liturgical texts must meet the sensitivities of modern English speakers, such as use of so-called “inclusive language” that avoids gender-specific terminology. In that sense, they argue, the commission embodies Vatican II’s vision of an “inculturated” liturgy.

In October 1999, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship ordered the commission to redraft its statutes, giving the Vatican more direct control. The governing board adopted Medina’s requests only in part.

Since that time, the commission’s future has been unclear. Some believe the critics want to preserve the commission but reorient it by bringing in personnel who share their views. Others believe the long-term goal is to replace the commission with another body or process.

Page, 61, a mild-mannered historian and expert on the late English Cardinal John Henry Newman, became an unwitting symbol of these battles.

Page’s departure had been expected, as restructuring requested by the Vatican envisioned a fixed term for the executive secretary. Though Page declined to be interviewed, sources told NCR that he was also increasingly weary of the political debate surrounding the commission.

“Never has someone devoted so many years of work to the promotion of the liturgy and received so little thanks,” said Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, a professor at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. “John has taught me what it means to love the church and faithfully serve its worship, and I am in his debt.”

Prelates who worked with Page also praised him.

“This news will sadden all who know Page and recognize his great gifts of integrity, dedication and courtesy,” said Bishop Maurice Taylor of Scotland, chair of the board. “Page’s wisdom and skill in liturgical and linguistic matters and his gentle leadership … are evident and will be sorely missed.”

Sources told NCR that for the time being, no further shakeup of commission staff is imminent. While there has been discussion about moving the offices out of the United States, that possibility too appears to be on hold.

A May 2001 Vatican document on liturgical translation, Liturgiam Authenticam, gives the Congregation for Divine Worship the authority to set up other translation bodies or to initiate translations itself, an option seen as more likely to be invoked if the Vatican is dissatisfied with changes inside the commission. What impact Page’s resignation may have is unclear.

“We don’t know yet what is going to happen,” one Vatican source said.

Speculation about a successor to Page initially pointed to Fr. James Moroney, current chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ committee on the liturgy and a figure seen as sympathetic to some criticisms of the commission. Sources tell NCR, however, that Moroney’s appointment is unlikely.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002