Ed. note: Last month, Fr. Mike Fallon sent an open letter to the priests and bishops of Scotland questioning the process and content of the new translation of the Roman Missal, stating that “the teaching authority of the Church is being undermined.” In this second letter, having received no reply from the bishops, he calls again for open debate. In an interview with Brian Morton, printed below, he shares more about his concerns.
A second open letter to the priests and bishops of Scotland
Last month I wrote an open letter to bishops and priests. My purpose was to raise questions about a way forward for those who have conscientious difficulties with the New Translation and with the process by which it has been adopted.
Having managed to ensure that each bishop had the opportunity to look at my letter and consider my concerns, I have been disappointed that there has still been no response from any of them. As a result there has been no way of knowing whether all of the bishops have had the opportunity to compare the new translation with the 1998 ICEL version which was rejected by the Congregation of Divine Worship. I suspect not too many people have had that opportunity since the copyright belongs to ICEL and the present membership apparently do not openly share their work or put it out for consultation and comment. However it is possible to access a copy of the 1998 version, possibly dating back to the consultations undertaken by the previous ICEL Board.
Perhaps some will believe I was wrong to write an open letter and instead should have written to the bishops themselves personally. It could be that this is one of the reasons why none of the bishops have chosen to respond to me. However the reason I wrote an open letter rather than a private one was to generate debate about an issue which is so close to our hearts as ministers of Word and Sacrament and allow freedom of discussion which has not been afforded us throughout the long process of change. It was also my hope that the questions raised in my letter would be addressed.
After thought and prayer I have also decided to share, with those of you who care to read it, a copy of an interview with a journalist which expands on the points made in the letter. I myself would much prefer, however, if it was possible to debate the issues openly within the church.
Aware that it is Holy Week and that we are all busy about many things, I nevertheless decided to send out this letter given that it addresses how we celebrate the events we are calling to mind in a special way this week.
Interview between Brian Morton and Fr Mike Fallon
1. Is your primary objection to the new form of Mass substantive or procedural? You make the point that Pope Benedict’s comments about a fresh opportunity for ‘in depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion to the manner of celebration’ was preceded by very important comments about appropriate review and approval of the new texts. Is it your sense that this aspect has been overlooked in Scotland?
I have concerns both about the substance of the new texts and how they came to be produced. In terms of substance, it is not only the Latin-esque English – which is bad enough in itself – but also the regressive shift in theological emphasis which is of concern to me. The total disregard for half of the human race with a refusal to acknowledge that there is a gender issue is a major deficiency. It is disrespectful.
With regard to the second part of your question: I believe that there has been a failure on the part of all of the English-speaking Conferences of Bishops. I just cannot understand how the Holy Father could come to the conclusion that the Diocesan Bishops of Britain should be thanked “for the contribution you have made, with such painstaking care, to the collegial exercise of reviewing and approving the texts” in his farewell address at Oscott in September 2010.
Rather bizarrely it would appear that, as Pope Benedict, he is unaware of how those texts have been changed and yet, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he seems to have been in the loop with Cardinal Medina during the period of transition in the late 1990s. This is brought out clearly by John Wilkins in an excellent article “Lost in Translation” for Commonweal in 2005. In addition, a credible first hand account surrounding the changes in English Texts is set out by Bishop Taylor in his book, “It’s the Eucharist: Thank God.” It is very clear from reading that book that such was the pressure from Vatican officials that the board members of ICEL were bullied. I believe they also felt blackmailed when Cardinal George threatened that the US Bishops might withdraw their support for ICEL.
2. Could you clarify how you believe the new texts should have been examined and approved?
The process for the approval of liturgical Texts demands that they are approved by the competent authority, i.e. the Bishops of the territory concerned. I set this out in pages 2 and 3 of my letter and Bishop Taylor made a very clear statement about the correct procedures in his book. The point at issue is that this process has not been followed in this instance.
3. Accepting that information from the bishops has not been forthcoming, why do you think this is the case?
This is a very good question and it requires a Rabbinical style response: does the reluctance of Bishops of English speaking Conferences to engage in conversations about the new translation indicate an unease either with the wording of the translation or the process by which it came about? I don’t know the answer. Only the Bishops can answer that. I am not aware of any Bishop who has challenged the accuracy of what I have written. I do know that each Bishop has received a copy of my letter.
I should clarify that my letter was sent electronically to the priests of St Andrews and Edinburgh diocese who have an email address; the Scottish Bishops who have a (publicly known) Email address; and to each Chancery of the other seven Dioceses, asking that it be forwarded to priests. When I discovered that my letter had not been sent on, I sought assistance in trawling the Scottish Catholic Directory and compiling a list of email addresses of priests in Scotland. I then forwarded my letter to them.
4. Is there an assumption that the new texts will be accepted without protest or reservation?
Again I don’t know the answer to that: it is impossible to guess what the Bishops are thinking. Their coy behaviour leads me to believe that they are uncomfortable. I suppose I wonder if their reluctance to comment indicates a realisation of their failure to have been alert to their rights and to have exercised their responsibilities in this matter – and that the consequence has been a loss of moral authority.
5. Is there, on the contrary, concern that they will be resisted, in which case the bishops are avoiding confrontation or debate? Is it possible that this is simply a lapse or oversight?
It is extremely difficult to know what the Bishops are hoping to achieve because although this matter has been dragging on for many years they have not to my knowledge made any significant statement until the undated letter from Bishop Toal arrived with priests on 12 March. Since then Bishop Toal has issued a letter to all priests in Scotland as the President of the Liturgical Commission which I am happy to address at a later stage. Not all of the current Scottish Bishops were in post during the critical stages of this process – that is, during the late 1990’s when the ICEL text was rejected and their board in practice dismissed; and when Liturgiam Authenticam unilaterally changed the ‘rules’ of translation. Those who were in post then should know the history: I would hope that those who have joined the Conference more recently have read Bishop Taylor’s account of proceedings to understand exactly what happened and when.
6. I wonder if you could attempt to separate two possible problems: that Scottish Catholics are disturbed and dissatisfied by the new texts and/or that they are disturbed by the manner of their implementation. Is the problem primarily doctrinal or political?
Yes. There are two distinct issues: the content and the process. I believe, and a scan through the web will confirm that I am by no means a lone voice, that both the content and the process are seriously flawed. The content is flawed both theologically and linguistically and it has resulted from a flawed process. So yes: there are two issues: doctrinal / theological and political / juridical. It could be argued that both emanate from the same source: an imperial / Roman mindset in the Curia which the Second Vatican Council sought to challenge and change.
7. Is there a risk that individual priests will defy the bishops and boycott the new form? Is such a thing desirable, in your view?
There is certainly talk of this in other countries. I don’t know if that will happen or what will happen in Scotland. But personally, I don’t think a boycott is the answer because we are talking about something that is much bigger than a mere change in language translation. We are talking about the core issue of the Church’s well established teaching authority. It has been hijacked from the Local Bishops by Vatican officials who simply do not have the right to determine how a Bishop discharges his Pastoral role in his diocese.
8. What are your own practical instincts at this point?
I have a concern about the way Rome has re-stressed faithfulness to the Latin language not least because of what one might call the theological mindset behind that language. I’m certainly not comfortable that the vehicle seems to have become more important than the driver and the passengers: that the container is considered more essential than the contents.
The Liturgy is, by definition, the work of the people. I wonder who are the people in Scotland who have been consulted in this process? I’ve never heard of anyone being asked. It all seems to have happened in a very clandestine manner. Under the previous ICEL Commission, there was a culture of openness: texts were released for trial and assessment amongst a wide range of priests. The current board seem to have been much more secretive.
I’m aware that your questions have been asking how priests will respond and react to the changes. Priests are only the leading coordinators of faith communities. It seems to me that the changes specifically required of the priest in the new translation are much less radical and demanding than those asked of the laity. Perhaps the introduction of the new Translation is a real opportunity for the laity to find their voice – by accepting or rejecting the translation being offered.
I should make clear that it is not my contention that the Scottish Bishops have been any more remiss than any of the other English-speaking Conferences. On the other hand I strongly believe that it is regrettable that they were not more supportive of one of their number who was Chairman of the ICEL board at the time. My purpose in writing the letter was to raise the issue of what would appear to be a substantial change of direction and policy in the way the Church governs and teaches. On one level, my attempt to highlight the very questionable way in which the new translation has been arrived at is a compelling invitation to examine deeper issues about how the Church should teach and govern, and how it is actually doing so.
9. What response has there been to your letter?
There has been a considerable response to my letter. Priests from several countries have been in touch with me and for the most part the responses have been positive and encouraging. There have been only four negative responses. I have been surprised, pleasantly, by the number of lay people who have written and telephoned me after seeing it on the Tablet website. Again, with just a single exception, they have all been positive and encouraging and grateful that the matter is being aired. It strikes me that at the end of the day it may well be lay people who decide how well the new translation will be implemented.
Perhaps we are in danger of misjudging the impact the change will have on ordinary parishioners. The first Document of the Second Vatican Council to be promulgated was Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Council Fathers believed that it was important to address first of all the Liturgical life of the Church since this is the principal touching point of our faith for all members of the church. Sunday Eucharist is as they described, “…. the summit towards which the activity of the church is directed; at the same time it is the fountain from which all her power flows.” Simply put, Sunday Eucharist is both the source and the summit of our faith. Our Sunday gatherings at Eucharist are where the faith of ordinary church members is primarily expressed and becomes real. It is here that the faith community is initially formed, new members initiated and then sustained in the community’s worship. It is at the Liturgical Assembly that the sacramental life of the church unfolds and is celebrated. The liturgy is the catalyst of our faith.
Against this background, I am beginning to wonder if some people are coming to resent the fact that Bishops have been so busy dealing with many other things, albeit in other legitimate areas of life – local, national and international – that they have neglected to ensure that their rights as teacher and Vicar of Christ in their Diocese have been respected and honoured by Curial Officials who are supposed to be their assistants.
10. Have any Bishops responded?
No they haven’t. When I had not received a response from any of the Bishops to my emailed letter, I sent a hard copy to the General Secretary of the Conference and enclosed copies for each of the Bishops lest they had not had sight of it and asked for it to be tabled at the Conference meeting on 11 -13 April. I asked that the Bishops’ attention be drawn to the questions in my letter and in particular to the question at the end about different Rites being allowed to co-exist. I received a reply from Monsignor Conroy, the General Secretary, telling me that he ‘gave copies of the letter to the Bishops, some of whom were already aware of it.’ There has still been no acknowledgement or response to me from any of the Bishops.
You will be aware that the Scottish Bishops have issued a statement from their Episcopal Conference meeting in Edinburgh through Bishop Toal as the President of the Liturgical Commission. It is in the form of a letter to priests. The statement did not address any of the questions raised in my letter. The underlying and un-stated sentiment seems to be that Rome has decided — so we all fall in to line. No explanation about why or how we have reached this stage. It’s perhaps unfortunate that it is Bishop Toal who is their spokesman because he was not a member of the Conference when the failures in governance occurred and the pass was sold.
A number of issues he touches on in his letter don’t sit comfortably with me, not least the explanation given for responses being changed so that they are more faithful to the Latin. What is it about Latin? Was similar trouble taken to ensure that the Latin was faithful to the original Greek? In particular I have difficulty with the restoration of “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” as being more true to the Latin. That may be so but it is also a shift theologically. It changes the focus from salvation and redemption to sin. It makes Good Friday the key moment rather than Easter resurrection. As one young Mum said on seeing the new Confiteor, “There’s no way I’m asking my children to say that.”
Another example of a worryingly regressive shift to a pre Vatican 2 ecclesiology is the removal of the option to say “Pray brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable………” and being required to say “Pray brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable…………” The Second Vatican Council did all it could to demythologise the priesthood caste and described the Church as being made up of clergy and laity who are equal in God’s sight, their difference being one of function. In this change of wording a distinction is made between priest and lay people which is divisive and unwarranted. As I understand it, the Council sought to foster the view of the priest being a part of the people of God rather apart from the people of God
In regard to the reference to the Liturgy needing a strong sense of the sacred in everything surrounding it and “the necessary human stance of humility and unworthiness before our gracious God:” Did the Incarnation not conjoin the sacred and the secular and the secular with the sacred? I think in writing as he does Bishop Toal nails the Scottish Bishops’ colours to the mast of regression to an unhealthy culture for the Church. It seems to me to be indicating a return to an overstressing of personal sinfulness which in the history of the Church is often associated with ecclesiastical / clerical control and power. We all know to our great cost and shame where that sadly took us in terms of its abuse.
However, perhaps the most important feature of Bishop Toal’s letter is something which is not commented on specifically and is arguably the most important change in wording: that Christ died for many rather than for all. Highly credible scripture scholars seem to be in agreement that the meaning of the original wording — which they translate as for the multitude – is nearer to ‘all’ than it is to ‘many’. To claim that Jesus shed his blood for many is to imply that there are some people for whom he did not shed his blood. Where is evidence for this judgement sourced from I wonder? There is certainly no annotation in the New Translation of the Rite of Mass. Is such a stance not in danger of limiting God?
The ideal would have been to hear the Bishops making a statement recognizing that there has been a lapse in proper governance and indicating a wish to have a moratorium in order to consult and take stock; and to give an assurance that the matter will now be addressed in a consultative manner. But that is not to be. Clearly the Bishops are not for budging. I can only imagine either that they don’t actually see – or that they aren’t able to accept – that they might well have been wrong not to act throughout the long process; nor to give sufficient support to Bishop Taylor when he was the Chair of ICEL and the whole debacle was unravelling. In failing to act they allowed their authority to be undermined by ecclesiastical civil servants.
I keep coming back to the bottom line question in my letter: is it not possible for different rites to be allowed in celebrating the thanks we all need to give to the Father in Eucharist?
Surely it would be rather surprising — and inconsistent — if while the incoming Anglicans are being accommodated with their own version of Liturgical celebration, and the Traditionalists are being given increasing permission to celebrate in their particular way, those Catholics who have conscientious difficulties with the New Translation were not afforded similar latitude?
I suppose it is too outrageous to wonder whether the smooth introduction of the new translation might even have been part of an agreement made in securing Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain last September! I don’t know. None of us have any way of knowing because it’s impossible to debate or dialogue when there is a wall of silence and no Bishop seems able or is willing to comment on the matter or answer the questions raised.
It is worrying that there seems to be an increasing culture of secrecy both at the ICEL level and with our Bishops. I even heard of one of our Bishops who was making a pastoral visit to a parish and was asked a question concerning the introduction of the New Translation by a parishioner. He replied by saying that he was a bit deaf. When the question was repeated in a louder voice, the Bishop turned to someone else and started a new conversation. The longer the silence lasts, the more will questions be asked about whether something is being hidden and, if so, why?