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Liturgist says ecumenical dialogue is ‘dead’


A leading Presbyterian liturgist believes that in the wake of Liturgiam Authenticam, a controversial Vatican document on translation of texts for prayer and worship, “the entire ecumenical liturgical conversation and dialogue is over -- finished, dead, done.”

Several Catholic participants in the dialogue, however, dispute the claim.

The Rev. Horace Allen, a veteran of 30-plus years of ecumenical work on liturgy, spoke at Rome’s Centro Pro Unione, a center of ecumenical study sponsored by the Graymoor Friars, May 9.

Allen pointed to a late April meeting in New York of the Consultation for Common Texts, the chief forum for ecumenical cooperation on liturgical translation in North America. The three Catholic partners, Allen reported, were noticeably absent.

The Consultation for Common Texts is made up of 21 Christian bodies, including three Catholic groups: the U.S. bishops’ conference, the Canadian bishops’ conference, and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (known by its acronym ICEL, a translation agency sponsored by 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences).

At the New York session, Allen said, ICEL and the Canadian bishops’ conference delegate were missing, while a representative of the U.S. bishops showed up but abstained from votes.

The pullback, Allen suggested, is the result of the May 2001 document of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Liturgiam Authenticam, which called for a more traditional approach to translation. It expressed reservations about wording that could be confused with that of other Christian groups, while other recent Vatican rulings have asserted that ICEL should not be involved in ecumenical partnerships.

Sources confirmed for NCR that the absence of ICEL was indeed linked to the fallout from Liturgiam Authenticam.

Yet Sr. Donna Kelly, the delegate from the Canadian bishops’ conference, denied that her absence was motivated by a shift on ecumenical collaboration. She told NCR that her schedule would have required her to fly to New York on a Sunday, an expense she could not justify.

Officials of the U.S. bishops’ conference told NCR they sent two delegates, Msgr. Anthony Sherman, associate director of the Secretariat for Liturgy, and Sr. Doris Turek, who works on multicultural issues, and that they abstained from only one vote.

It was to approve the minutes from the previous meeting, in which a letter had been drafted expressing regret over the absence of ICEL. Turek told NCR that since Liturgiam Authenticam says that bishops’ conferences rather than commissions such as ICEL should represent the Catholic church at ecumenical meetings, she asked that the U.S. vote be changed to “abstain.” Other than that, Sherman and Turek said, they participated in all votes.

Msgr. James Moroney, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Liturgy, told NCR that it is “unequivocally not true” that the U.S. conference is pulling back from ecumenical cooperation.

“Liturgiam Authenticam said that liturgy is such an important issue that bishops’ conferences themselves should be the agents of any ecumenical collaboration,” Moroney said.

“It would be easier if we just called a commission and said, ‘Represent us,’ ” Moroney said. “But we put our most important staff people on a train to be there.”

Allen said, however, that Liturgiam Authenticam’s skepticism about ecumenical translation projects is clear.

“I thought that 450 years after the Protestant Reformation, we had a partnership again,” Allen said. “Apparently I was wrong.”

Ironically, Allen said, the ecumenical texts under Vatican suspicion actually represent a high-water mark of Catholic influence on Protestant worship.

He pointed to the Revised Common Lectionary, a collection of scripture readings for Sunday worship, published by the Consultation on Common Texts in 1992. Based on the 1969 Roman Lectionary, it differs from the currently approved Catholic text only on readings from the Old Testament in the period after Pentecost.

According to Allen, some 70 percent of Protestant churches in the English-speaking world use this common lectionary. It marks the first time since the Reformation that Catholics and Protestants find themselves reading the scriptures together Sunday by Sunday.

“I can’t imagine a more important ecumenical conversation than the liturgy,” Allen said. “Who would have thought that 450 years after the Reformation, Catholics would be teaching Protestants how to read scripture in worship?”

In his interview with NCR, Moroney agreed.

“I think the Revised Common Lectionary is the clearest example of the kind of wonderful things we can continue to do ecumenically in the liturgical venue,” he said.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, a Jesuit professor at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute who is considered among the world’s leading specialists in Eastern liturgies, responded to Allen’s address with a more optimistic tone.

“It’s true that the Catholic church is going through a bad patch right now,” Taft said at the Centro gathering. “This too will pass.”

Saying he rejected the “utter slander to which ICEL has been subjected,” Taft insisted, “This is definitely not the end.”

Sources told NCR that the decline in ecumenical cooperation in liturgy is not complete. In England, for example, Fr. Kevin McGinnell, a Roman Catholic, is chair of both the international English Language Liturgical Consultation and the national Joint Liturgical Group of Great Britain.

Allen said he drew hope from Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican office for ecumenical relations, who gave a recent address at Harvard University. Allen said he asked Kasper about Liturgiam Authenticam.

“Don’t lose heart,” Allen quoted Kasper as saying. “This conversation began under John XXIII and Paul VI, and it will continue. Things don’t stop that fast.”

Allen closed his talk, however, on a downbeat.

He said he had visited the new display for John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica the day before, created last year when the corpse of the pope who called Vatican II was removed from its belowground crypt and put on display at a side altar.

“His body is on display, and his council is in ruins,” Allen said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002