2016-06-30
"The Lord be with you," intones the priest at Mass. "And also with you," responds the congregation.

Why does this ritual exchange, which should be measured and solemn, sound flat and humdrum instead? The priest might as well be saying:

"Have a nice day."

"You, too."

In Latin, the wording of the response "And also with you" is somewhat different: Et cum spiritu tuo. That, as Catholics who can remember the 1950s know well, translates literally as "And with thy spirit"--more archaic-sounding but also more profound and dignified.

So, what happened to the "spirit" when the Mass went into English after the Second Vatican Council? Who came up with "And also with you"--and a number of other liturgical texts that critics have called banal and graceless?

The answer is: a committee. Shortly after the council decreed in 1963 that the Mass was no longer to be celebrated exclusively in Latin, bishops' conferences in 11 English-speaking countries established the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a Washington, D.C.-based agency headed by scholars and professional liturgists, to prepare translations of the Mass and other Catholic rites.

The ICEL texts, which went into use in 1973, have frequently been criticized for clunky language that takes liberties with the original Latin. Recently, ICEL has produced a new, even more controversial set of liturgical translations that has brought the simmering complaints about its free-form approach to Catholic ritual up to a rolling boil. In 1998, the Vatican rejected the ICEL's "inclusive language" Psalter, or Psalm collection, in which translators had avoided using masculine pronouns for God, and told the commission to make more than 400 changes in its new Mass texts to correct perceived doctrinal irregularities that had crept in.

The Vatican is now contemplating taking direct control over ICEL, with the right to veto its staff-hiring decisions and bar it from publishing anything without Rome's approval--a move that ICEL supporters say would impose a worldwide uniformity on the liturgy that is insensitive to local cultures.

The controversy stems from ICEL's philosophy of "dynamic equivalency," which means that the freelance academics it commissions to produce texts often do not translate them literally but, rather, in a way that they say approximates the original meaning in a contemporary cultural context. Staffers at ICEL say that dynamic equivalency produces versions of the liturgy that are more accessible to ordinary people than word-for-word versions. Critics sniff that dynamic equivalency is just lofty academic jargon for "translations" that often do not even approximate the original.

From its very beginning, ICEL has been associated with progressive, some would say faddish, trends in Catholic liturgy and church design. Benedictine monk Father Godfrey Diekmann is often called "the founder of ICEL." Fr. Diekmann, now 92, was editor of Worship, a with-it liturgical magazine, for more than a quarter of a century. Until recently, he was active on ICEL's advisory board, which selects translators and reviews texts.

Fr. Diekmann, who helped shape the Vatican II statements on liturgical reform, had come under criticism during the 1960s for his contemporary-language Mass translations that were thought to play fast and loose with the Latin. As a young monk, Fr. Diekmann had championed such novelties as electrically flowing water for baptisms. Two of ICEL's editors, Sister Kathleen Hughes, R.S.C.J., who wrote a flattering biography of Diekmann, and Sister Mary Collins, O.S.B., a prominent feminist theologian, sit on the board of the academically fashion-forward Worship. Not surprisingly, then, ICEL has been associated, at least in the eyes of its critics, with excessive enthusiasm for the liturgical and ideological avant-garde.

When the Anglican church faced the similarly daunting task of rendering the ancient Latin liturgy into English during the 16th century, it took a far more traditionalist tack. It turned to King Henry VIII's Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who produced the sonorous Book of Common Prayer, an adaptation of the Catholic liturgy for Anglican worship. Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, still in use in some Anglican churches, features highly dignified language, both stately and intimate, with rhetorical flourishes and thee's and thou's aplenty.

When the Mass itself went into English 400 years later, some Catholics assumed that the translators would likewise aim for the vernacular sublime. They couldn't have been more wrong. Citing Cranmer by name, ICEL rejected what it termed the "hyperbolical tradition" of liturgical English that he had invented. In the official ICEL history, "Shaping English Liturgy" (Pastoral Press, 1990), the agency declared that exalted language for addressing God was the product of a 16th-century education in rhetoric and not appropriate for the modern age. Its 1973 Mass texts, in use today, are devoid of thee's and thou's, and God is rarely "begged" or "implored." The texts also omit some references to the Mass as a sacrifice rather than simply a communal meal--all in the interest of understandability, says ICEL.

Critics say that the ICEL's proposed new texts are worse, not better, than the current ones--which is why Rome has stepped in. For example, in a new ICEL translation of one of the consecration rites, the Latin phrase universo clero, meaning "all the clergy," becomes "all who are called to your service"--suggesting a deliberate effort to blur the line between ordained ministers and lay people.

"Aside from the theological inaccuracy, the expression unhappily echoes the rhetoric of [proponents of women's ordination] who 'feel called' to the canonical clerical state but find themselves forbidden by an 'unjust' church," says Father Jerry Pokorsky of Washington, Va., a board member of Adoremus, a conservative liturgical society that has been one of ICEL's most vociferous critics.

Perhaps the most obvious bone of contention is ICEL's use of gender-neutral language, which many critics say vacillates between the silly and the schismatic. For example, ICEL has proposed turning Christ's "I will make you fishers of men" into "I will make you to fish for people." To avoid offending feminists, "mankind" has become "humankind" in all ICEL texts. References to God the Father are avoided wherever possible. ICEL suggests using the Apostles' Creed at Mass instead of the currently used Nicene Creed in order to avoid the statement that Christ "became man" (homo factus est).

Other parts of the new ICEL Mass texts repeatedly refer to the Eucharist as the "consecrated bread and wine," which can subliminally undermine the Catholic belief in the Real Presence. Words such as "saint," "merit," "blessed," and "soul" in the original Latin have been omitted from the new ICEL text. In a proposed ordination rite rejected by the Vatican, ICEL translated the Latin plural presbyteri not as "priests" as one might expect (the singular presbyterus is the root-word for the English "priest") but as "presbyters," a term that some Protestants use for their church elders.

An all-out battle between Rome and ICEL seems inevitable. Last October, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect for the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, demanded a "thoroughgoing reform" of ICEL in a letter to ICEL chairman Maurice Taylor, bishop of Galloway, Scotland, and leaked to the National Catholic Reporter. The Vatican is demanding closer supervision of ICEL, requiring that the agency rewrite its governing statutes to incorporate its directives, and that Rome certify, via a stamp of approval called a nihil obstat, that every individual ICEL staff member is free of doctrinal error. (The nihil obstat usually applies to written texts, but it can also be used to certify people as non-heretics.)

"One reads Estévez's letter and thinks immediately of the way World War II movies portray the Gestapo," Father Peter Scagnelli of Providence, R.I., a composer of Mass prayers for ICEL, complained in a letter to the National Catholic Reporter. "Would Rome really know people or would it just be judging resumes?" asks ICEL's executive secretary John L. Page, a 28-year veteran of the organization.

The U.S. bishops, who initially gave their imprimatur to the ICEL Psalter that Rome later vetoed, are now in an uncomfortable position, caught between the translation agency and Rome. In June, the U.S. bishops tried to effect a compromise by approving a proposed new set of governing statutes that ICEL has drafted in response to Estévez's letter. The draft statutes pointedly do not include the nihil obstat for staff members that the Vatican has demanded. The bishops did not take a hard line on that issue and instead diplomatically directed ICEL to continue rewriting its statutes "in consultation" with the Vatican.

"I think we feel optimism that the Bishops Conference of the U.S., the largest one in ICEL, is happy with the draft of the statutes, and we can go forward and put it in a final form," says Page, who believes that the bishops will shield his agency and its translation projects from the inevitable Vatican crackdown.

But ICEL's critics are also feeling optimistic--that the Vatican will instead force the composition of more literal and thus more theologically faithful English texts for the Mass. Says Adoremus board member Helen Hull Hitchcock: "The ICEL staff is a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, and now Rome is acting to change that."

Since ICEL has survived for more than three decades while popes and bishops have come and gone, however, Mass-goers will probably be saying, "And also with you"--and feeling a little silly about it--for some time to come.

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