[Ed. note: this letter, written three years ago, will still be of interest to many.]
Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome
The Vatican 00120, Italy
Dear brother in Christ,
I have not seen a definitive document and am told there is no such thing yet available, but I assume the reports are true that you plan unilaterally to re-work the common English translations of the Ordinary of the Mass. May I express my pain? I was encouraged to publish an open letter and am willing to have a public debate if you would like, but I would prefer to address you directly.
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, among Protestants who had almost no associations with Catholics, though I lived right next to many of them. Not until I moved away to college, seminary, and other graduate study did I come to see how tragic that division was. I now count Catholics among some of my most valued colleagues and am immensely grateful for the strides we have made together in many ways, not the least of which are the common translations of the texts we share.
Protestants are notorious for their sectarian tendencies. These tendencies point to a misunderstanding of the church catholic and the sixteenth century Reformation, but that has not restrained ruptures which are often little more than attacks on the common life of the baptized people of God. I have always assumed that bishops who stand in the line of Gregory the Great and his pastoral concerns are wiser.
Changing the texts of the Ordinary of the Mass seems to me like a sectarian Protestant assault on your own people. Both faithful and marginal Catholics know these common English texts from memory. They will now have to learn new ones, no small matter when it involves re-wording what is already known. All the musical settings will have to be re-done. That’s a large compositional matter, but it’s also a didactic and pastoral dilemma which appears to deny your own ecclesiological presuppositions – for example, that the church as sacramental organism does not proceed by radical rupture.
Not only are Catholics involved. So are other Christians. The common texts we have struggled so hard to figure out together are used by families who each week attend services in two heritages, one Roman Catholic and one perhaps Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, or Episcopal. Some families don’t attend services in both traditions, but they hear the same lectionary and confess the same Creed in separate services. These families will now be divided by different details of wording for the Ordinary, so that they will have difficulty speaking or singing common texts together any more.
Maybe there are good reasons for new translations, though I fail to see what they are. If changes are to be made, however, it seems wise for all of us to agree on the most minimal and judicious ones. Otherwise, not only do divisive problems appear, but Protestant prejudice against you is re-instated and unleashed. With one stroke forty years of ecumenical good will are jeopardized, and it becomes more difficult than ever for those of us who are committed to support you and work with you.
With deepest sadness,
Professor of Church Music and Cantor, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN
Director of the MSM, with St. Olaf College
9 October 2006