BOOKS AND ARTS
30 September 2010, Review by John wilkins
Rite that has been wronged
It’s the Eucharist, Thank GodMaurice Taylor
Decani Books, £9.75
Tablet bookshop price £8.55 Tel 01420 592974
Bishop Maurice Taylor is not a dab hand with titles, as his previous work, which he called On Being a Bishop in Scotland, shows. But do not be deterred. Just as that slim volume contained gripping accounts of his experiences in Central America, so this one presents the authoritative inside story of how officials in the Roman Curia usurped the right of the bishops’ conferences to oversee the translations of the missal into English, and destroyed the bishops’ translation agency in the form they had given it.
This exposé comes in the middle of the little book, where he also includes a thoughtful and critical section on the “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite, like the meat in a sandwich. The bishop’s modest, restrained and sober style, and the devotional and pastoral reflections that make up the outsides of the sandwich, cannot hide the pain and sadness he still feels. His story is thrown into relief by the approach of yet another translation of the Mass into English which is anticipated with considerable apprehension.
Bishop Taylor took over the presidency of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Icel), in 1997. Set up in 1963, it served 11 bishops’ conferences, including that of the United States, with another 15 associated with it. As he recalls, the Second Vatican Council had opened the path to translations of the liturgy into vernacular languages, without specifying how far this should extend. In 1967, Pope Paul VI gave permission for the bishops to go the whole way.
The English translation of the missal, approved by the bishops’ conferences and confirmed by Rome, was complete in 1972 and published in England and Wales in 1974. All of the conferences had wanted vernacular versions yesterday, and Icel had had to rush. They knew they would have to revise, and they set about it as soon as they could, in 1982. By 1998, the new translation had been approved by all the
Bishop Taylor supplies some comparisons between the revision and its predecessor which speak for themselves. The paraphrases, simplifications and occasional Pelagian tone that marred the original version were corrected, and a more elevated style adopted. The Collects (Opening Prayers), previously the most criticised feature of the 1972 texts, were completely redone. This revised translation flows. It is good. But it was never to see the light of day. It sits, the fruit of some 16 years’ work, gathering dust somewhere on a shelf in the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship.
Bishop Taylor charts the downward slope. In 1996 a new prefect, Cardinal Medina Estévez, from Chile, had been appointed to head the congregation. He did not speak English. Nor did his deputy. They made it clear to Bishop Taylor that Icel no longer had Rome’s favour.
There had been storms before, but these had passed. In 1997, however, came serious trouble over the interim translation of the Psalter, which had used a moderate degree of inclusive language. By order of Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, the imprimatur given to the provisional text was withdrawn. In the same year, Icel’s translation of the ordination rite was returned by the congregation with a list of many more than 100 criticisms – and these were not exhaustive, Icel was aggressively informed. Bishop Taylor found himself, in his own words, holding a “poisoned chalice”.
Things got steadily and rapidly worse. The representative of the American bishops on the Icel episcopal board was now Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago. At the first meeting of the board he attended, in 1998, he told them that he was bringing a message from Rome. Unless Icel changed radically, it was finished.
Cardinal Medina, the bishop writes, showed his hand in a “peremptory and draconian” letter in 1999. The bishop had asked the congregation for a meeting so that he could seek clarification. He would always be most welcome to pay a visit if he found himself in Rome, replied the cardinal icily. But in the meantime he must undertake a wholesale clearing out of Icel staff and translators, and sever all ecumenical contacts – built up over nearly 40 years.
Further frequent communications from the congregation in this vein became, Bishop Taylor says, “extreme and astonishing”. In 2001, he sent what he calls “a cry for help” to the bishops’ conference presidents. They responded but they got nowhere.
It was they, however, who had been entrusted by Vatican II with control over the translation. Bishop Taylor clearly feels they should have supported him more stoutly, and that they should never have acquiesced in Rome’s takeover bid. They should have complained, he writes, “that their legitimate authority had been infringed by the congregation’s behaviour”. If they had pressed their case, “is it too fanciful to dream”, he wonders, “that it might have led to a thorough examination of the role and activities of the Roman Curia?”
He draws attention to the non-accountability of the Vatican congregation, in contrast to the wide consultation and open flow of information that had always characterised Icel. Referring to the continual refusal by the congregation to give its recognitio – a term intended by Vatican II to mean “confirmation”, but widened by the congregation to imply the necessity of its approval – the bishop asks: “Who exactly made that decision? A native English-speaker employed at the congregation? Whom did he consult? We are not told.”
Meanwhile, the Vatican congregation was secretly preparing its knockout blow. In 2001 it published what Bishop Taylor calls “a disciplinary Exocet missile” – its instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, calling for an extreme literalism in translation. Instead of the “dynamic equivalence” of meaning which Rome had enjoined on Icel in 1969 as its watchword, the congregation was now demanding equivalence of individual words and phrases and syntax. Liturgiam Authenticam applied equally to other major language groups, but Bishop Taylor thinks it could almost have been composed “with Icel in mind”. The English end result, produced by an Icel recast according to the congregation’s dictate and overseen by a Vatican-appointed Vox Clara commission that even at the last moment has been applying many further changes, is now coming down the tracks towards the congregations.
Whatever one’s personal opinion about the principles of successful translation, no one can approve of the treatment that Bishop Taylor chronicles. The only possible alleviation would be if the new texts were clearly superior.
Judgement on that can only come from the whole Church. It is a safe bet that when the Pope visited the Scottish bishops, they didn’t mention Bishop Taylor’s book.
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