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Liturgy debates end in whimper, not bang


Five years of wrenching liturgical debate went out with a whimper rather than a bang, as the U.S. bishops approved without debate, and almost without comment, two controversial texts and a process for reviewing a third. The action came Nov. 12 at the bishops fall meeting.

By overwhelming majorities, the bishops approved a translation of the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” traditionally viewed as the rulebook for celebrating the Latin rite Mass, and of the ordination rite for bishops, priests and deacons. Both texts generated intense emotion in the liturgical world in recent years, with critics charging that both reflect a traditional theological stance inconsistent with the liturgical reforms launched by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The general instruction, for example, has been criticized for reflecting a more clerical, priest-centered vision of the Mass. In one instance, its rules say that laypeople may not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion, although doing so is common practice for lay eucharistic ministers in many American parishes.

The bishops also approved a review process for the lectionary, or collection of Bible readings for use in the Mass. That text sparked such paralyzing debate that a special 11-person working group, composed of U.S. bishops and Vatican officials, had to convene in 1997 to put it in final form.

A key issue with the lectionary was the use of “inclusive language,” meaning non-gender-specific terms. Critics saw this as a feminist manipulation of sacred language, while many liturgists defend it as an adaptation to the sensibilities of modern audiences.

The only glimmer of the old tensions that once rocked meetings of the U.S. bishops came when Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., current chair of the doctrine committee and former chair of the liturgy committee, rose to address the review process for the lectionary. Trautman had been a fierce critic of the way the special working group softened the use of inclusive language in the lectionary.

“The text is flawed and needs to be corrected,” Trautman said. “It is unbalanced, it is not proclaimable, and it needs action,” Trautman said during floor debate.

It was a brief reminder of the fireworks that have surrounded these documents.

A translation of the ordination rite was rejected by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship in 1997, marking the first shot of what became a five-year tug-of-war over liturgical translation in the English-speaking world. In the end, the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, a translation agency created after the council as a joint project of English-speaking bishops’ conferences, was restructured and now reflects an outlook much closer to Rome’s.

The translation of the ordination rite adopted by the U.S. bishops is based on a Vatican revision of the commission’s work, later touched up by the liturgy committee.

Fr. Bruce Harbert, a priest from Birmingham, England, and the commission’s new executive secretary, told NCR Nov. 12 that the translations of both the general instruction and the ordination rite reflect the approach of a May 2001 Vatican instruction on translation called Liturgiam Authenticam.

Harbert emphasized that the commission’s former executive secretary, John Page, largely had overseen work on the general instruction. Despite the fact that Page has been critical of some aspects of Liturgiam Authenticam and the Vatican’s broader liturgical approach, he faithfully implemented it once it became official policy.

“Page is a faithful civil servant, and this work reflects that,” Harbert said.

Capuchin Fr. Edward Foley, a liturgical expert at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, told NCR Nov. 12 that the review process approved by the bishops for the lectionary is “broad-ranging, serious and public.”

“We’ve seen a series of wonderful hearings on sexual abuse policies,” Foley said. “What if we had a series of hearings on the lectionary, on how it’s been received, on how well it is proclaimed?” he asked. “Let’s take our time and do it right.”

Fr. James Moroney, the chief of staff for the bishops’ liturgy committee, told NCR that he expects the assessment process to take one to two years, and said he expects it to be “wide-ranging” including comments from pastors, readers and others involved in using the text.

In a brief comment from the floor, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore suggested that use of a recent New American Bible translation of the Old Testament be considered as part of this evaluation.

Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., told NCR that while the new general instruction will technically take effect as soon as the Vatican gives it formal approval, it will be up to individual bishops to decide when their dioceses have been sufficiently prepared to implement the changes it requires.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002