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The recent column by Kathleen MacInnis Kichline, a parish liturgist, on the General Instruction on the Roman Missal and this week’s story on the General Instruction, as voted on by the U.S. bishops earlier this month, reminded me of a session I attended in 1983 just after the revised Code of Canon Law was released.

The story on Page 5 in this issue and the Kichline column (Nov. 15) are about new norms for the celebration of Mass and are a further rollback of reforms that grew out of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The norms represent the latest chapter in a long struggle by some in the church to shove all of those reforms back into the pre-Vatican II tube.

They have succeeded, at least on paper, along the way ambushing good people, demeaning long and distinguished careers and generally telling bishops, scholars and theologians that they and the late Pope Paul VI had it all wrong and didn’t really understand the intent of the council they oversaw, attended and helped to fashion.

It all sounds rather arrogant -- and it is. Last year I had a chat with a young priest who worked in a curial office in Rome. We got talking about liturgy. A few minutes into his speech on the need for the church to be pastorally attentive to all the world, not just the English-speaking part of it, I ventured a question. When, I asked, did the bishops who attended the Second Vatican Council and understood its fulfillment in organizations like the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and with translation processes approved by a previous pope, cease to be our pastors? How can we roll back, as the church is now doing, what they had achieved?

“Good question,” he responded, then explained that what was being done now is not a rollback, because “those bishops did not have the authority to do what they had done.”

More than arrogant, it is sad. But that kind of thinking and ecclesiastical freelancing is in the ascendancy during this papacy.

I said earlier that the revisionists have won, at least on paper. But there is another arena where, I believe, the renewal is out of the tube and it is more difficult to put it back -- in the parish.

I have been to too many places where the prayer books say one thing and the congregation says another. Where the official rubrics say one thing and the congregations and priests do another. Inclusive language flows freely and easily from the lips of the congregants because it makes sense. Prayer books, after all, don’t pray; people do.

I don’t mean to suggest that one should simply dismiss anything that comes from Rome, or that liturgy and the rules governing worship should not come under scrutiny or discussion. But the rules governing whether a priest can bless a child in the Communion line or when and to whom a priest can give a kiss of peace or who can or can’t clean Communion vessels and about kneeling and standing, as if the faith and the life of the community depended upon them, simply seem irrelevant. They can cause enormous upset and even conflict at the local level if you let them.

A suggestion occurs from that 1983 session I attended. It was essentially a panel discussion (a very long one, as I recall), to pick over all the changes in the revised Code of Canon Law. Scholars parsed, sometimes line by line, their sense of whether and what laypeople were gaining, or how religious women were viewed by virtue of how they were portrayed in the code. In tedious detail they tried to determine if the church were becoming a “more equal” society or if clergy still trumped every other category.

At the end of the session a priest who had lived a long time in Rome and who was asked to sum it up, applauded all the experts for their fine presentations, but added that they were missing one element in their interpretation of the new code: the Italian shrug. Law to Italians means something far different, he said, than to those of us raised in the Anglo-American tradition where every punctuation mark, every word, has to mean what it means, where the law is reverenced in its fine details. Italians -- important to understand because the new code had come from that environment -- like to have good laws, but having fashioned the law, they then say, “Now we’ll make an arrangement. We’ll find a way around it.”

So, be more Roman than the Romans. Applaud the blizzard of new rules issuing from the Vatican. And make some arrangements.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002