Perhaps it’s only fitting that a meeting held in Florida, the state that made the hanging chad famous, should feature a bitterly contested cliffhanger vote, which, as election day ended, remained inconclusive.
Heading into the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in Orlando, it didn’t seem likely that a proposed new translation of the Proper of Seasons, part of the prayers and other texts for the Catholic Mass, would stir up much dust. Following a decade and a half of impassioned argument over such texts known colloquially as the “liturgy wars,” many bishops privately expressed fatigue and a desire to move on – suggesting to most observers that approval of this text ought to be more or less a given.
In one sign of that mood, only seven bishops out of 250 Latin Rite prelates in the United States even bothered to propose amendments to the text, a clear sign that most felt the handwriting was on the wall. Like it or not, many concluded, Rome has made clear that the new translations must be closer to the Latin, both in structure and word choice, thus producing a more “sacral” language sometimes remote from ordinary English usage.
All that changed this morning, however, when Bishop Victor Galeone of Saint Augustine, Florida, rose to oppose the proposed text -- despite, he said, fear that doing so may be "in vain." A former Latin teacher who still reads Thomas Aquinas in the original language, Galeone made a forceful argument that the new translation is simply too unclear and awkward to be effectively used in American parishes.
Among other things, Galeone cited the text’s use of the phrase “the gibbet of the Cross.”
“The last time I heard that word was back in 1949, during Stations of the Cross in Lent,” Galeone said.
“I challenge anyone to proclaim what’s given here at Mass,” he said. “It’s very difficult.”
“A good translator has to understand not just the original language, but also one’s own into which these texts are being put,” Galeone said. Despite assurances to the contrary, he said, the new texts are “slavish” with respect to the Latin originals.
“I’m an obedient son of the church, and if these texts are passed as they stand, I will pray with them,” Galeone said. “But I feel that the vernacular has been a blessing to our people.” Galeone added that with “all due respect” to the recent ruling from Pope Benedict XVI authorizing wider celebration of the old Latin Mass, he hasn’t celebrated the old rite since 1970. If he were asked to do so today, he said, he would instead celebrate the new rite of the Mass in Latin.
Galeone’s speech seemed to open the floodgates, as other bishops rose to voice reservations about the new translations.
Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, for example, said, “If I have trouble understanding the text when I read it, I wonder how it’s going to be possible to pray with it in the context of worship.”
Sklba warned that if the proposed text were adopted, “our priests and our people” will press the bishops to come back to it “again and again” to remedy perceived defects. “This is not yet mature,” he said.
Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, a longtime critic of the new translations, said the texts contain a number of “archaic and obscure” terms, pointing to words such as “wrought,” “ineffable,” and “gibbet.” He also said that the text’s preference for mimicking the sentence structure of Latin, featuring long sentences with a large number of dependent clauses, impedes understanding in English. Trautman cited one prayer in the new Proper of Seasons presented as a single 12-line sentence with three separate clauses.
“John and Mary Catholic have a right to have prayer texts that are clear and understandable,” Trautman said. “The document before us needs further work.”
Bishop Robert Lynch of Saint Petersburg, Florida, thanked Galeone for giving him the “courage for this moment.” Lynch then told the bishops that he had recently taken the new Mass texts back to his presbyteral council, composed of 26 priests. Two were in favor of the translation, he said, and 24 were opposed.
He reported their reaction as, “Bishop, do whatever you can, because we can’t pray these texts.”
“It’s a good thing that we’re supposed to pause before the orations,” Lynch joked, “because we’ll have to gather enough breath to pray the prayers.”
Other bishops, however, argued that aditted imperfections in the text don’t justify further delays in the process.
“It’s an imperfect sacramentary for an imperfect people, to be prayed by a celebrant who is also imperfect,” said Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco. “I respect those who say let’s move forward and get a new sacramentary, before they all fall apart in the sacristy.”
Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, the retired archbishop of Mobile who sits on the Vox Clara Commission that advises the Vatican on liturgical translation, said that he doesn’t find the new texts “unacceptable or unproclaimable.”
“Our genius in celebrating,” he said, will make up for any deficiencies. Further, he said, the average Catholic will receive the new texts “with the eyes of faith,” rather than focusing on its problems “like an English teacher or a Latin teacher.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said that “with all its difficulties, the translation should go forward,” adding that he believes the new Mass texts “become stronger after Advent, into Lent and Easter.”
Responding to the “let’s move on” argument, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati warned that it “depends on what you’re moving forward to,” arguing that the new texts would be “a linguistic swamp.”
Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland made another argument in favor of the text, noting that four other English-speaking bishops’ conferences have already approved it. If the Americans reject it, he said, it could jeopardize the goal of a common text.
“Admittedly, we’re the big ones, but that doesn’t allow us a terribly privileged position,” Vlazny said. “We need a measure of humility in this.”
Echoing a point made by others, Vlazny also argued that today’s texts may seem more “proclaimable” simply because they’re familiar. With time, he said, the new texts will also become familiar, and the issues of syntax and word choice cited by critics “will be a non-problem.”
Bishop Arthur Seratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Divine Worship, defended the texts.
“On whole, the translation is a marked improvement,” Seratelli said. “As we use it, as we ourselves and our priests become more familiar with the new language of the liturgy, it will not pose as great a problem as we fear.”
After all that the bishops were unable to reach a decision, largely because of the electoral math.
The rules of the conference require that the text be approved by two-thirds of its members, not just those physically present. Since there are 250 Latin Rite bishops in the United States, 166 “yes” votes are required to approve it, while 83 “no” votes are necessary to reject it.
As it turns out, the Orlando meeting was sparsely attended – one headcount yesterday found just 178 voting members. As a result, this morning’s ballot failed to get enough “yes” votes to approve the text, or enough “no” votes to block it.
As a result, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the conference, announced that bishops who were not present will receive ballots in the mail in order to settle things one way or the other.
The bishops did reach a decision on a couple of other points.
If the text is rejected, they decided, all members of the conference will have the opportunity to submit observations and proposals, not just those who have already expressed concerns.
Further, if the text does have to go back to the drawing board, the bishops decided not to send it to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a translation agency which is a joint project of 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences, for comment. Since ICEL was restructured under Vatican pressure several years ago, some bishops feel the agency has not been receptive to proposed changes to its texts. In a voice vote, the bishops opted this morning to bypass any reaction from ICEL and simply bring a new version of the Proper for Seasons back to the U.S. conference.
That, however, assumes that the text does not pass once all the mail-in ballots are counted. Some veteran conference observers believe that once all the votes are in, the new text stands a good chance of being approved – noting that a number of likely “yes” votes, such as Cardinals Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Edward Egan of New York, were among those absent in Orlando.