Vatican control over ICEL tightens

Vatican control over ICEL tightens

Dr William Oddie

Dr William Oddie, formerly an Anglican priest and an author of several books, is the editor of London's 'Catholic Herald.' The following article, which appeared in a recent edition of the 'Herald' is reprinted with Dr Oddie's permission.

Last August, when we reported the replacement of Bishop Maurice Taylor as chairman of the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) by Bishop Arthur Roche (coadjutor bishop of Leeds), and of Dr John Page as its executive secretary by Fr Bruce Harbert of Birmingham, we did so under the simple headline "ICEL signals victory for Vatican policy on liturgy".

To many, this may have seemed, at first, unduly martial in its imagery, implying a surely exaggerated picture of passionate internal conflict.

Now, however, that Bishop Taylor has made his thoughts on the matter clear beyond any doubt, it seems that we erred only in our moderation. In a thinly veiled attack on the Congregation for Divine worship and its Prefect, Cardinal Jorge Medina, Bishop Taylor protested: "The members of ICEL's Episcopal Board have in effect been judged to be irresponsible in the liturgical texts that they have approved over the years ... and the labours of all those faithful and dedicated priests, religious and lay people who over the years devoted many hours of their lives to the work of ICEL have been called into question.

"The impression is given, and indeed is seemingly fostered by some, that ICEL is a recalcitrant group of people, uncooperative, even disobedient".

Bishop Taylor surely protests too much. Adjectives like "recalcitrant" and "uncooperative" characterise only too accurately Bishop Taylor's own attitude to Liturgiam Authenticam - the document which encapsulates Rome's thinking on the future for vernacular translation - which came under instant and immoderate attack from him as soon as it was published last year.

The new document, he said, "betrayed a lack of trust in bishops' conferences around the world"; he added that "there's a feeling among some bishops that they are becoming branch managers carrying out the instructions of head office".

The fact is, however, that - as we commented at the time - "there is a widespread feeling among the laity that the intervention of Rome in the question of how the liturgy should be translated was to be welcomed, and that it would have been an excellent thing if it had come years ago. Their only anxiety is that [Liturgiam Authenticam] will be ignored and that nothing - or at least not enough - will change."

That was one question addressed by Fr Bruce Harbert, writing in The Catholic Herald last May, about the then newly published document: "Will it change your liturgy?" His answer, given before it was clear who would emerge victorious from the struggle between Rome and the ICEL hardliners, was simple: "The answer is that, yes, provided those who are responsible for our liturgy follow these valuable guidelines, there will be changes."

That was why we characterised Fr Harbert's appointment as a victory: for as executive secretary of ICEL the implementation of Liturgiam Authenticam is now in his hands.

At stake

What is at stake here? Firstly and most importantly, we have to say that the ICEL texts are open to criticism on theological grounds. As Fr Harbert put it in the Herald, "Our current English texts, for instance, repeatedly over-estimate the value of human effort and undervalue the role of divine grace in human life, that is, they tend towards the Pelagian heresy. This is widely acknowledged even by ICEL, which produced the texts".

Rome has a particular mission in maintaining the Church's unity in faith: it is the most fundamental reason why Liturgiam Authenticam is right to insist that liturgical translations must be faithful to the normative Latin texts.

For the man and woman in the pew, perhaps, even more eagerly anticipated will surely be liturgical texts less cluttered with clumsy and graceless language, texts which will resonate in the heart and stay in the memory to feed thought and prayer long after the Eucharistic action has been completed and we have been dismissed into the world.

On this point, Fr Harbert's Herald article - written long before any people could in their wildest dreams have hoped for his imaginative appointment - is worth quoting at some length. For, what he wrote then is what has now been laid upon him to achieve. "Liturgical texts revised with the guidance of Liturgiam Authenticam", he wrote, "will sound less like everyday speech than those we are used to. They will contain expressions that require catechesis and repay reflection, leading us into the mysteries of the faith. Their smoother, connected syntax will sound more like carefully considered prose, less like improvised speech. The coherence of the thoughts they express will reflect the coherence of Catholic doctrine. Such a liturgical language will not only be shaped by our everyday speech but will shape it, enriching the English language from the sources of Catholic tradition".

It is a high and noble aspiration; and he will surely have the prayers of millions of faithful Catholics in the English-speaking countries, as he begins his work. He can also expect resistance; already there are mutterings, to the effect that, in the words of one critic, "the new translations will emerge in a Roman, ecclesiastical and hieratic form that sounds foreign, artificial and unwieldy and from which young people and the uneducated especially will feel excluded".

The arrogant élitism of this hardly needs commenting on: as for "unwieldy", that is what many already feel about much in the translations we have. As for the young, they are hardly drawn in by today's liturgical texts as though by a magnet: how can richer and more resonant language "exclude" them more than they have already excluded themselves?

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