A response to Father Michael Ryan; by Peter M.J. Stravinskas
In his essay “Why Don’t We Say, ‘Wait?’” (Dec. 14), Father Michael Ryan describes his involvement in the liturgical renewal following the Second Vatican Council. Let me begin my response to his article by doing the same.
I was a freshman in high school when the “vernacularization” of the liturgy began and a junior in college seminary when the process reached its climax. Having majored in classical languages, I naturally was quite interested in the process and flattered when I was invited by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) to participate in the translation effort. Frankly, I was also surprised that someone of my thin experience had been asked to take part in a project that would influence the spiritual lives of millions of Catholics for decades to come.
When I first reviewed the translation guidelines sent by ICEL, I was disappointed. Ideology, it seemed, had taken precedence over accuracy. Anima was not to be rendered as “soul,” I was informed, because doing so would set up an unnecessary dichotomy between body and soul. No feminine pronouns were to be used for the church, and common words were favored over precise theological or liturgical vocabulary. The goal was to capture the general meaning of the text, rather than a faithful rendering of a rich and historically layered Latin prose. I tried to work within these parameters, but I found it difficult to do and still remain true to the original text. My translations were evidently unsatisfactory because, upon submitting them, I was politely but firmly uninvited from serving on the commission.
When the English Missale Romanum appeared in 1970, it was clear we had been handed a paraphrase instead of a translation. As a young priest required to use these texts, I quickly determined that something needed to be done to return to the people of God what Father Ryan dubs “their baptismal birthright”—that is, an English liturgy that seeks to convey all the depth, truth and beauty of the original Latin. By 1992, I had assembled a team of scholars who produced an alternative translation of the Ordinary of the Mass and presented that effort to the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in Washington, D.C., and the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome. Hostility was the response from Washington—copies of our draft were gathered and destroyed at the bishops’ meeting—while Rome expressed a guarded interest in our project.
Ultimately, the Holy See came to the realization that many of the vernacular translations of the liturgy were problematic. (English was not the only example, just one of the more egregious.) In 2001 the Congregation for Divine Worship promulgated Liturgiam Authenticam setting forth a coherent philosophy of translation. The document called for revised translations in keeping with these norms and the establishment of an oversight committee, Vox Clara, to ensure the fidelity of future translations.
A new, reconstituted ICEL set to work immediately on a new English missal. The level of input was such that many complained that the project would never be completed because of the painstakingly sensitive consultative process. Yet with guidance from Vox Clara and experts in Rome, the new text was completed and was approved by the U.S. bishops in 2009.
Reclaiming the Council’s Vision
In his essay, Father Ryan argues that not enough consultation has taken place, and that “we should just say, “Wait’” before implementing the new translations. I disagree. As a Web site set up to defend the new translation proclaims, “We've waited long enough!”
Ryan argues that the Roman Curia and other parties are involved in a “systematic dismantling of the great vision of the Council’s decree” and that the Congregation for Divine Worship is raising “rubricism to an art form,” with liturgy being used “as a weapon—to advance specific agendas.” In my view, present efforts are precisely seeking to reclaim “the great vision of the council’s” constitution. Over the years my various apostolates have provided me with a vantage point from which to consider liturgical life in this country and abroad. So much of what I have witnessed or had described to me by eyewitnesses has been nothing shy of a betrayal of the council’s great vision and, in my judgment, largely responsible for the rapid emptying of the pews.
What curial officials and the pope are arguing for, with the enthusiastic support of junior clergy, is not a moribund “rubricism” but a genuine ars celebrandi that makes the sacred mysteries palpable. Not a few observers have noted that much of the liturgical change that occurred after the council—both officially sanctioned as well as in explicit violation of church law—would have been unthinkable to the council fathers. What is required now is a careful re-building process. Is this “turning back the clock”? In some sense, it is. Permit me a mundane example. If a man is told by his physician that he must lose 50 pounds or face serious problems, he must “turn back the clock” to the time when he was lighter in order to save his life. Mutatis mutandis—that is what the church at the highest levels is calling us to do.
Father Ryan writes that “before long the priests of this country will be told to take the new translations to their people by means of a carefully orchestrated education program…” The author makes such efforts sound almost sinister, but in my book he is simply describing the process of catechesis. I hope that this process will be better handled than the “carefully orchestrated education program” that followed the postconciliar liturgical changes. In 1977 priests throughout the country were required to preach for three consecutive weekends, not simply on the issue of Communion-in-the-hand, but on why it should be done. Many priests who balked at the historically inaccurate catechetical materials were harassed by liturgical directors and even threatened by bishops with suspension. It seems that many of those who pushed for the reforms are waking up to find their program repudiated and have now become conservatives, opposed to change.
Father Ryan shares the concern of Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., the former chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, who has complained that the U.S.C.C.B. did not have a direct hand in the antiphons of the Missale Romanum. In a speech to the bishops conference in November, Bishop Trautman cited paragraph 36 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which he argued gave the episcopal conferences the authority to produce and approve liturgical translations. Yet the paragraph in question in no way calls for what Bishop Trautman demands: it stipulates that episcopal conferences are to approve translations (not produce them), with subsequent approval by the Holy See.
Ironically, the very same paragraph of the conciliar constitution also states that, “The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites....Care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” In other words, if paragraph 36 had been followed in regard to the primacy of Latin, the Ordinary of the Mass would not have been translated into the vernacular in the first place!
Examining the Translation
Finally, Father Ryan highlights as examples of a liturgical agenda “at best trivial and at worst hopelessly out-of-touch” several new texts that are products of “flawed principles of translation.” I am delighted with the examples he proffers because each is, in fact, an exemplar of what is so important about the new translation project.
And with your spirit. The earliest translation of the Mass from 1965 actually used this wording. St. John Chrysostom explains that when the people respond in this way they are affirming the ontological change that has taken place in the priest by virtue of the Sacrament of Order, thus enabling him to call down the Spirit upon the elements of bread and wine, transforming them into the body and blood of Christ.
Consubstantial. There is nothing inherently wrong with the present “one in being” in the Nicene Creed; it is not unfaithful to the meaning of either homoousios or consubstantialis. However, one of the underlying principles of the new translation was to use explicitly sacral and theological vocabulary whenever possible. Does the average Catholic know what “consubstantial” means? Probably not. But that same Catholic probably does not know what “one in being” means, either. However, because the latter phrase contains three very common English words, that person in the pew thinks he knows its meaning and thus passes over it without a thought. Coming upon “consubstantial,” that same person will be forced to pause over the significance of the term; it will give the priest the opportunity to preach about its profound meaning.
Incarnate. The present version is plainly inaccurate (“He was born of the Virgin Mary”). The Latin reads: Et incarnatus est...ex Maria Virgine; the moment of the Incarnation was not when He was born (liturgically celebrated on December 25), but when He was conceived (March 25). The translators could have given us “He was made flesh,” but, again, seeking to use more precise language, they gave us “incarnate,” thus giving the clergy yet another “preachable” moment. Several years ago Archbishop Rembert Weakland boasted that the church in the United States was home to the most intelligent and theologically astute Catholics in the history of the church. Surely, then, our congregations should be able to comprehend words like “consubstantial” and “incarnate.”
Joseph, spouse of the same Virgin. This line comes from the Roman Canon. The Latin speaks of Joseph as eiusdem Virginis sponsi, which is exactly “spouse of the same Virgin.” One reason the church was reluctant to highlight St. Joseph until relatively recent centuries was the fear that his relationship to Mary would or could be misunderstood. And so when Pope John XXIII added Joseph’s name to the Canon, it was determined that no one should be led into error or confusion, thus giving us “of the same Virgin.” Which is to say, that while Joseph and Mary were indeed husband and wife, Mary remained a virgin—a critical theological point.
We are warned by Father Ryan to expect “discredit to the church” and “disillusionment to the people” if the new translation sees the light of day. He tells us of the “chilling reception” it has received in South Africa, in spite of a “careful program of catechesis in the parishes.” I beg to differ. There was no “program of catechesis” to speak of in South Africa and, in fact, some liturgical observers even argue that the translation was thrust onto the faithful precisely to cause a negative reaction. Having conducted several workshops on the new texts over the past year, I can only attest to very positive reactions, from clergy and laity alike.
How did the final texts receive such overwhelming support from the American bishops, if they are so bad? Father Ryan contends that the bishops were just “worn down” by the Holy See and so caved in. I disagree. The majority of the bishops saw the merit of the work and were tired of the delaying tactics of a vocal if tiny minority of opponents. Is this translation perfect? Of course not. No translation is, but we ought never make the best the enemy of the good. It is a vast improvement over the uninspiring, banal and all-too-often theologically problematic texts we have been using for nearly 40 years. The New Testament speaks of chairos, an especially fortuitous moment. We are approaching a liturgical chairos for English-speaking Catholics, which we should embrace with gusto.
In addition to Father Ryan’s article and the Web site he set up to summon support for further delays, he has also written to the rectors of all the cathedrals in the country seeking to rally them to his cause. His campaign has provoked a counterreaction among younger clergy and seminarians who have helped to set up the site “We’ve waited long enough.” The site has already garnered thousand of signatures and should give pause to Ryan and his supporters. It is these young priests, after all, who will be using these texts when our generation (God willing) will be participating in the Liturgy of Heaven, where language will not be an issue.
Rev. Peter Stravinskas is the editor of The Catholic Response, publisher of Newman House Press and executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation. America Magazine, the Jesuit Weekly