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Issue Date:  June 30, 2006

Securing the peace as liturgy wars fade


The mid-June vote of the U.S. bishops in favor of a new translation of the Order of Mass may one day be remembered, to borrow a phrase from George Bush, as the “end of major combat operations” in the liturgy wars that have rocked English-speaking Catholicism since the mid-1990s.

In the wake of the vote at the bishops’ June 15-17 meeting in Los Angeles, attention now turns to securing the peace.

Regardless of where experts stood on the wisdom of the translation, generally seen as more “Roman” in both style and substance than the existing texts, most seem to agree on three points regarding the “full court press,” as one put it, of catechesis and formation needed to prepare Catholics to embrace a new liturgical language:

  • The process should not be rushed, and should involve a coordinated national effort;
  • Formation should begin with priests, deacons and lay pastoral ministers, and then move on to ordinary lay Catholics;
  • The mainstream liturgical community in the United States should be at the heart of the effort. Among other things, this implies that some who opposed the translations will now face the task of “selling” them.

“We will best serve this time in our history … by accepting the translations, even if we have some reservations about how they might have been done differently,” said Dominican Sr. Lois Paha, a longtime veteran of liturgical work in the Tucson, Ariz., diocese.

Bishop Donald Trautman, head of the U.S. bishops’ liturgy committee, criticized aspects of the translation prior to the June 15 vote but eventually supported it. He summed up the consensus.

“For the good of our people, we have to make this work,” Trautman told NCR.

The 173 to 29 vote in favor of a sweeping new translation of the Order of Mass capped a decade of conflict over how the liturgy should be rendered into English.

In 2001, the Vatican promulgated a document called Liturgiam Authenticam, which insisted upon doctrinal fidelity and closeness to Latin in liturgical translation. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a translation agency sponsored by 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences, was overhauled to bring in personnel sympathetic to this approach. The new Order of Mass was crafted by this reformed ICEL, and so far has been adopted by Australia and England as well as the United States.

There are a number of instances, however, in which the American bishops amended the ICEL text. For example, ICEL changed “one in being” in the creed to “consubstantial,” bringing it closer to the technical Latin term, but the U.S. bishops voted to stick with the old language.

The Vatican could reject such American amendments. That prospect may be enhanced by the fact that two of the American bishops who supported “consubstantial” in Los Angeles, Archbishops Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., and Alfred Hughes of New Orleans, sit on the Vox Clara Commission, an advisory body to the Vatican, which is expected to discuss the American text during its July 17-20 meeting in Rome.

Even if the text is approved exactly as it stands, it’s not clear when it might be rolled out for Sunday Mass.

Some American bishops are pushing for implementation right away, as early as Advent of this year. Others insist upon waiting until the remaining elements of the Roman Missal, the complete set of prayers for Mass, are ready, such as the prefaces, the eucharistic prayers for children, for reconciliation, and for various occasions.

Trautman prefers the go-slow approach.

“We don’t want to make the mistake that happened after Vatican II, when texts came out in segments without an overall vision,” Trautman said.

Fr. Bruce Harbert, ICEL executive secretary, told NCR his dream is that the first use of the new English translation would be by Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to Sydney, Australia, for World Youth Day in 2008.

Whenever the text is ready, experts across a range of liturgical perspectives who spoke to NCR in early June seemed unanimous that the American church needs a thoughtful, comprehensive program of preparation.

“Otherwise, I can just see the chaos on a Sunday morning. … We’ll find ourselves in a situation where 30 percent of the congregation will respond, ‘And with your spirit,’ while the rest will continue responding, ‘And also with you,’ ” Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, a liturgist who teaches at the Gregorian University, said.

“That will hardly be a step forward in post-Vatican II liturgical renewal,” he said.

All agreed that the first wave of formation should be directed at priests and lay pastoral ministers. Harbert said the key is to emphasize the liturgical and theological depth of the new text.

“You have to approach this with the missal in one hand and a Bible in the other,” he said, stressing “the link between liturgy and scripture.”

For example, Harbert said, in preparing people to say, “And with your spirit” instead of “And also with you,” it is important to read the letters of St. Paul, who often greets people in just that fashion.

Most agreed that the bishops’ conference should prepare educational materials rather than leaving that task to dioceses and parishes.

Msgr. James Moroney, executive secretary of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Liturgy, said that creative use of the media, such as Web resources and DVDs, will be part of that effort.

To date, Moroney said, a section on the bishops’ conference Web site devoted to the Roman Missal has received close to 150,000 hits.

Finally, both friends and foes alike of the new translation believe it’s important to involve the mainstream liturgical professionals in the United States in implementation efforts, such as the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, the Catholic Academy of Liturgy, and the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

Msgr. John Burton, chair of the board of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, said liturgists are ready to do their part, even those who don’t like aspects of the new texts.

“These are devoted people who see the grass-roots perspective, but they also see the need to be faithful once a decision is made,” Burton told NCR.

“We need to get to work on a process that will draw everyone onto the same page,” Burton said, who added that the federation board would speak with Moroney in a conference call this week.

“The church is polarized right now, so it may be like herding cats at first, but we have to engage the clergy, liturgical ministers and the whole assembly in a way that will lead them to embrace this,” Burton said.

Trautman warned, however, that accomplishing this will depend upon what he called the translation’s “credibility,” which he believes could be undermined if the Vatican rejects the American amendments.

“We will not convince people that consubstantial is better than one in being, which they’ve used for 35 years,” he said. “Priests are stretched too thin already.”

John L. Allen Jr. is senior correspondent for NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006

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