07Jun Liturgy and Church Reform: Padraig McCarthy

Latest actions show church is unreformable” is the judgment in an article in the Irish Times by Patsy McGarry on 12 May 2011, as I write this article. The article refers to difficulties church authorities are reported to have in co-operating a review of protection practices by the National Board for Safeguarding Children. The review was commissioned by those same church authorities. Chairman of the Board, John Morgan, is quoted as saying, “The whole problem here is clericalism. There has to be a new relationship between the clerical caste and lay people”.

The Irish Conference of Bishops, in a statement of 19 April 2011, said: “The use of a new edition of the Missal is not simply about words or translation. The new Missal will enable us to come to a deeper understanding of the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the life of the Church.” (http://www.catholicbishops.ie/2011/04/19/19-april-2011-bishops-edition-missal/).

This is a worthwhile objective. It could help also towards a renewal in the church in Ireland and worldwide.  Our celebration of the liturgy can be a transforming experience, with the gradual result that those sent out at the end of each Mass will be an embodiment of the Word of Life and will be Bread of Life broken for the life of the world. Since the publication of reports about abuse of children in the church in Ireland, there have been many calls for such reform and renewal.

Yet nothing that I can see so far has commenced to bring about that reform and renewal. It remains to be seen whether the new English translation of the Missal to be introduced later this year will help towards this. I wrote in the March issue of The Furrow of some difficulties in the new translation which seem to present serious difficulties to the realisation of the hopes of the bishops. The die is now cast. Here I will not revisit problems which may be perceived with the new translation; I reflect on the process as I have observed it, so that it may offer some useful material for reflection on some aspects of how we can approach the necessary reform of church life.

As the March Furrow was appearing, a group (of which I was one) from the Association of Catholic Priests met with members of the Worship Commission of the Conference of Bishops as they were beginning their Spring General Meeting in Maynooth on 28 February 2011. We were courteously received, and invited to present our input on difficulties we perceived with the new English translation. Following that, there was a short discussion; the Commission assured us that our input would be presented to the general meeting of the hierarchy, and that we would receive a response.

The response, dated 14 March, came from the Executive Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference. See http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie//2011/03/bishops-letter-to-the-acp/ for the full text. The letter to the Association of Catholic Priests seems significant to me, not for what it said, but for what it did not say. It was offered as a response to the points put to the bishops by the group from the Association. Yet it does not address any of the genuine concerns which were put to them. The letter gives no indication that the Association even pointed out difficulties with the translation. The input from the Association has been effectively passed over.

The statement of the Conference of Bishops on 19 April announced that the new translation would come into use between September and November 2011. It lists resources to help prepare for the new translation. Those I have examined contain good material. They also address particular issues like “and with your spirit”; “consubstantial”; “for many”. They acknowledge, of course, the difficulties associated with changeover – these would exist whatever the quality of the new translation. Both the statement and the resources seem to avoid dealing with more fundamental problems with the translation. I do not know whether the Conference of Bishops has a protocol similar to that of “cabinet confidentiality” in the government, and we have no indication of what discussion took place. I would be surprised if there were total unanimity in the Conference about the overwhelming merits of the new translation.

Instead of avoiding the issues raised by the Association, the response from the Conference could have addressed the difficulties pointed out. It could even have given some insight into the debate in the Conference of Bishops. Would such a response have been damaging to the Church? It seems to me, rather, that it would be a step towards a renewal and reform in the church, and would better promote the growth of communion in the Church.

The Association was not being mischievous in requesting an opportunity to make the points. Canon 212 §3 states it clearly: “(The faithful) have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church”.  “Qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit et potuit” –whoever is silent is seen to consent, where one should and could speak. The Association was very clear that the problems should be named. The silence on the part of the Conference of Bishops seems to convey quite a different message. As Pope Benedict might say, “Keine Antwort ist auch eine Antwort” – (to give) no answer is itself an answer.

In a different field, what has happened bears a similarity to what happened when cases of abuse of children were reported. There is the appearance of responding, but without in fact dealing with the issue. Whatever the merits or problems in the new translation, the way the new translation is being introduced may be experienced as an abuse of power by the church. Others may argue that the bishops are fully within their rights in acting in this way. Yet it is a fact that a significant number of people experience it as an abuse. We need to ask why. Last February the Conference of Bishops approved the document From Crisis to Hope from the Council for Justice and Peace, addressing “the current economic, social and political crisis on the island of Ireland”. On page 12 we read: “we are acutely aware that the Catholic Church is one of those core institutions in which there has been a breakdown of trust in Ireland in recent years. As we present this statement calling for the development of a culture of hope towards a more equitable society, we do so conscious of the need for the Church to take account of its own failings and to put into practice the principles of social justice that we teach. We commit ourselves to addressing the wrongs of the past and ensuring that they will not be repeated.” Breakdown in trust can poison relationships. The way the new English translation has been processed over many years does not help build trust. Nor does the failure to respond to what the Association of Catholic Priests put to the hierarchy.

If there is substance to the difficulties pointed out in the new translation, the failure to acknowledge them will not help the celebration of the Liturgy. Catechesis is always welcome, to deepen our full conscious and active participation in the Liturgy. Catechesis, however, is directed at the participants, and does not deal with problems in the text itself.

I recognise that the Irish bishops may not have had an easy decision in the matter of the new translation of the Missal. But was it necessary for the bishops to close ranks here for the good of the church? Is the failure by political leaders and bank directors to acknowledge problems to be emulated? Is communion within the church really so weak that the question of difficulties with a translation of the Missal cannot be discussed openly between bishops and people? The early church as presented in New Testament openly portrays differences among Christians, including leaders. The Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in Ireland have their synods and assemblies where such matters can be discussed candidly. Is that a source of damage or of strength for them? Would Catholics in Ireland have their faith weakened if they discovered that the hierarchy is not actually a monolith, and that they are willing to respond to genuine concerns raised by the people? Is there a sign of the times to be discerned here? This something which can point to an area of renewal for the church? A more open and participative exercise of authority would help bring about the renewal of the church and promote communion.

Looking beyond Ireland, to Rome, we need to identify factors which will lead to renewal there also. What is the source of the deep mistrust in the Congregation for Divine Worship of the decisions of the bishops of the English-speaking world, which led to the rejection of considerable work from 1982 to 1998 to produce a new translation of the Roman Missal? Bishop Maurice Taylor, Bishop of Galloway in Scotland, president of ICEL from 1997 to 2002, remarkably gives an account of this in his 1999 book, It’s the Eucharist, Thank God. In the 19 April statement from the Irish bishops, there is a section on “Background”. This only takes up the story from 2000, as if the vast work on a new translation from 1982 to 1998, accepted by Conferences of bishops but rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship, never happened.

What motivated the use the Latin language as an instrument of control in the production of Liturgiam Authenticam in 2001? What kind of insecurity led to the rejection of previous cooperation with other Christian churches in the work of translation? It is a strange understanding of what “catholic” means. The process we have seen does not seem a good basis on which to develop trust and true communion in Jesus Christ. Jesus showed extraordinary trust in his disciples when he entrusted the mission to them, knowing that they would have a lot to learn.

However we deal now with the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal, reflection on the process of its introduction must be instructive in underlining areas where reform is urgent. Deeper understanding of the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of the life of the Church, has implications for all, including those who serve in positions of authority. I do not agree with the judgment of Patsy McGarry quoted above that the church is irreformable, but it is certainly a challenge. The challenge was also expressed by John Morgan: “The whole problem here is clericalism. There has to be a new relationship between the clerical caste and lay people”. This problem has been named frequently, but I see no signs yet that the lesson has been learned. The question mark in the title of this article is intentional.

When we find ourselves in a locked room, we need to recognise the living presence of Jesus there, and know that he breathes the Spirit on all his people as he sends us forth in mission, just as his Father sent him, so that all his people may have life and have it to the full.


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