In Conversation on the Motu Proprio: Bishop Coyne

Bishop Christopher Coyne is the Catholic bishop of Burlington, Vermont. Pray Tell reached out to him for his thoughts on Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio, Magnum Principium, which gives primary responsibility for liturgical translations back to bishops’ conferences.

PTB: What effect do you think the Pope’s motu proprio will have?
CC: At this point, any effect that Magnum Principium will have on the work of the Conference will probably be with those documents that are only in the early stages of translation work, and new texts for saints days and votive Masses.

PTB: What about the Liturgy of the Hours?
CC: The new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours may be too far down the pipeline to start over. This would pretty much follow the decision that was made when Pope Francis first called for a review of the norms of LA [Liturgiam authenticam, the 2001 document which gave Rome centralized authority over translations – ed.] and would affect both the work of English and Spanish translation.

PTB: So, not much change?
CC: Who knows where the new norms will lead us? I currently serve on the Committee for Divine Worship under Archbishop [Wilton] Gregory’s leadership and I know that he is not “agenda driven.” We are just trying to get good liturgical translations completed and approved that are faithful to the editio typica [official Latin edition – ed.] while being pastorally and liturgically useful.

PTB: What about the Missal? There are people who want to see that text improved.
CC: I only speak for myself. While I would be open to a discussion of a possible new translation of the Missal, I’m not sure about the timing. I think we need to live with the text we have for a few more years and evaluate the translation in a way that is thoughtful, honest, and not agenda driven or divisive.

PTB: So it’s not your first priority?
CC: Right now as a Conference we have so many other things of greater import to deal with – a divided and angry nation, immigration reform, the protection of human life, the promotion of marriage and support of families, but most especially the rapidly expanding loss of membership. People are leaving the Catholic Church, especially young people, and they are not coming back. This is a matter of incredible import because it is a matter of salvation. So, yes, I think the translation of liturgical texts is important, but it is not high on my priority list. I am worried about a future in which these texts would be used in empty churches.

PTB: Thank you for the conversation, Bishop Coyne. Blessings on your ministry!


  1. “I am worried about a future in which these texts would be used in empty churches.”

    It’s refreshing to see that this is being called out that empty pews are being called out as the church’s highest priority.

  2. I just noticed that “whom you have imbued with heavenly mysteries” in a recent prayer after communion is a mistranslation of “quem mysteriis caelestibus imbuisti” — it should be “whom you have moistened [in a refreshing sense] by heavenly sacraments”; in any case “imbued with” in English cannot be followed by concrete nouns like “mysteries” but only by more liquid and imbuable nouns such as spirit, doctrine, conviction, qualities etc. He was imbued with the Russian Novel – incorrect; he was imbued with the spirit of the Russian Novel — correct.

  3. I’m not so sure of the import that he gives the translations. While I agree with his assessment that their are many “greater” issues to be embraced, if the text of our prayers do not speak to those issues, or cannot be understood to speak to those issues, than how are we to become a Gospel-centered people? When I hear (and Friday morning it was there) the word “oblation” in a prayer offered from the altar, and know that many in that assembly have no idea what that word means because it is not used anymore in our common language, I wonder how much else is lost? Rather than share the vision of our Faith, the current translation does much to contribute to the division by creating a language that simply cannot be understood or taken to heart.

  4. I wonder if Bishop Coyne has stopped to think about the anger the imposition of the new translation has caused. Please Lord, we can’t live with this translation for years more. That’s just nonsense.

  5. “While I would be open to a discussion of a possible new translation of the Missal, I’m not sure about the timing.”

    I talk like that in my day job, too. The mental gymnastics, at least in my case, go roughly like this: “I can see the appeal of the idea; but there are a number of reasons it’s not going to happen, among which is that my plate is already full without adding this on top of it; but I don’t want to offend the other party by foreclosing the discussion in such a way that I imply that I think it’s a dumb idea, so I’ll be as gracious as is possible. Besides, there is a slim chance my bosses decide it’s worth pursuing, although I have no reason to think so.”

  6. This man has postgraduate degrees in liturgy from San Anselmo. And there’s little evidence of any awareness on his part that poor translations have silenced congregations. Or that liturgy is important.

    1. Well, evidence for your second sentence may be thin on the ground where he is and has been in recent years. I can tell you that I’ve yet to see evidence of it 5+ years out, but that like anything is anecdotal rather than true evidence on its own. And I know from my best friend who worked with Bishop Coyne in his pre-episcopate days that liturgy is high on his list of important things. He just might not agree with you about where to triage this issue. It’s not likely to be fruitful to overstate differences of that sort.

      1. His opening sentence implies that his horizons are wider than where he’s been in recent years.

        If you’ve seen no evidence in almost six years you ought to get out a bit more.

      2. I get around a lot. Well before the changes were implemented, I was aware from my own experience as kid in 1970, and remembering how my peers and our parents dealt with those changes at that time, that it would take at least three and very likely five years for congregations to get comfortable with the shift, hence why I specifically referred to now (5+ years out). (One of the largely elided things about the 2011 changes is how many of them were a reversion, with a few tweaks, to the so-called “interim” translation of 1965-70, though of course there are texts that didn’t exist in that missal. And, of course, if we were to reverse course, we’d have a few years of people who for whom a non-2011 text would be utterly new ground….a group that will grow with each passing year) I do get around to very different places. My own parish of choice leans heftily in the progressive direction, but I do regularly visit parishes in my area and also when I am traveling. Again, with the caveat anecdotes =/= evidence. But I am not surprised that Bishop Coyne might not share your experiences, and I don’t think you should be, either.

  7. I’m sorry, friends, but we have parishioners that are being rounded up by ICE. We’re sending parishioners to visit them in federal detention centers. We have children who might get deported, who had plans to go to college.

    I live and breath liturgy… (it’s basically how I spend all of my time…sigh)
    …and bishops should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time…

    …but I’ll forgive any bishop the very day after the Motu Proprio was announced to say they have some other things on their plates, and to give them time to adjust to their new-found responsibilities, just granted them by Pope Francis.

    If I had to choose between a few more years of a bad translation, or deporting children, I’ll accept a bad translation any day of the week.

    1. @12.35
      False premise: there’s no determination whether Rev Coyne shares my experiences or not, so surprise doesn’t enter the equation. The internet makes sharing of vicarious experience not only possible but also likely.
      What I do expect though from a man who is a member of a national conference is that he would look beyond his own personal experience in arriving at informed positions on matters such as those which are the subject of this conversation/interview.

      1. The Internet is hardly a good place to search for evidence of this sort, given how it favors a barbell curve distribution of the loudest voices, rather than a lumpy and not terribly tall bell curve distribution of the mass of folks who are not given to such loudness that’s more plausible in reality.

      2. Given the scale of the internet constituency that conclusion is as true as its diametric opposite is true.

        In any event, the man’s words speak for themselves.

  8. Regarding: “CC: At this point, any effect that Magnum Principium will have on the work of the Conference will probably be with those documents that are only in the early stages of translation work, and new texts for saints days and votive Masses.”
    – Oh good grief!
    – Perhaps Praytell blog will report to the bishop those bits of the English translation of the 3rd typical editon of the latin missal from Rome that at best are heterodox.
    – While the USCCB has a lot on its plate, perhaps some of which is important only to the bishops, the conference would serve the church the best by correcting its mistakes caused by caving to Vox Clara and ‘approving’ the current English missal translation.
    – Indeed, being busy does not excuse the episcopate from the necessary making amends by correcting their own mistake.

    1. What worries me most about that comment is that the RCIA is being held up right now because the bishops wanted to keep certain adaptations, and ICEL went along, but Vox Clara went ballistic and turned them down!

      There’s a text that is in final stages, not beginning stages, and if the anglophone bishops don’t get what they asked for it will be another strong-arm of Rome power play. But it’s through Vox Clara! So what is Vox Clara’s role now?

      Vox Clara is made up of bishops, but they answer to Rome, not to the conferences. Are they MORE powerful than the rest of the bishops? Are they in charge? This has to be addressed.

  9. Might be good to remember that the average man in the pew couldn’t tell you on the church steps right after Mass what the day’s Gospel was, regardless of whether he heard it in his native language, in Latin, or in any tongue whatsoever. Forget the first reading, the epistle, or the text of the orations.

    I don’t imagine for a moment that the average Catholic in the US really cares much about whether we’re using a 1974 translation or a 2011 translation.

    The bishop is correct: there are certainly more pressing issues out there than liturgy.

    We’ve been assured that the dramatic drop in church attendance in the years after the new liturgy commenced had nothing to do with the new liturgy. If that’s true, then any present or future drop will have nothing to do with the translation of said liturgy. If liturgy wasn’t to blame in 1970, it certainly isn’t to blame in 2017.

  10. “…we have so many other things of greater import to deal with – –”
    Why does this have to be an “either/or” affair; why not “both/and”?

    1. Exactly, it seems as though the bishop and others may simply be looking for any excuse to do nothing.

      “Cost” will be another excuse that will surface.

  11. A brilliant friend who is a member of a religious community once requested funds to procure copies of the Liturgy Of The Hours for each member. His request was denied by the superior because the COST was too excessive.

    Not to be outdone my friend threw in front of the astonished superior the total figure for beer purchased every year by him for the bibulous members of the community.

    Case closed. Each member soon had a beautiful set of new breviaries.

    Mutatis mutandis! If you think about it Cranmer managed to issue an entirely different BCP in the space of three years or so. Why not a new missal?

    1. Because Cranmer was one man with one boss (at a time, at least ) in a country that was much smaller than the current English-speaking world and where the religious landscape had already been relatively leveled through a few cyclones of change.

      One of things about group governance is that it is inefficient. That’s not always bad. Efficiency is not always good.

      One problem with group governance in the OHR&AC(TM)* is that, certain religious orders and small cell-type communities of longstanding aside, Catholics are largely not well cultivated to it. We’re using to having a single all-powerful man (at various levels of jurisdiction) to complain to and about. When given the opportunity for community governance, we may want the gratification to cherry pick our favored hobbyhorses, and leave the rest to others.

      When we consider fundamental reforms of governance culture in the Church, the whole issue of Catholics cultivating ourselves for what’s involved is largely overlooked. Especially the most frustrating and inefficient bits. But that revolution is the necessary one for other reforms to have lasting roots. (And it won’t guarantee progressive results – it will very likely frustrate both progressives and traditionalists alike.)

      Imagine if qualified people took it upon themselves to do consultation of the deep and broad kind (down past diocesan and parochial committees and councils – one must strain mightily against cherry-picking preferred audiences through all manner of rationalized cognitive biases) and present multiple finished examples, with complete transparency on translation and consultation methodology and choices, on a Creative Commons Copyright basis to the bishops’ conferences (not to do it to keep it within a closed copyright system; one of the nice things about the ECUSA is that the BCP is more or less in the public domain – in service to the faithful rather than the creator class). This does require an immense level of detachment – firstly, in terms of results (if the results are something that align nearly perfectly with your personal desiderata, then something probably went wrong in the consultation phase), and, secondly, from the gratification of having the fruits of one’s labors approved and embraced – there are zero guarantees in this. One has to believe the doing itself is worth it, and trust and hope in God regarding ultimate results. That’s *hard*. But I think it can be good discipleship.

      If this sounds like far too tall an order…why would we then expect *bishops* to be able to accomplish it? (Because implicit magical thinking about Orders, that’s likely why.)

      It’s certainly easier to complain about bishops. We Catholics are great at that!

      * That’s One Holy Roman and Apostolic Church … soy Católico, apostólico y romano!

      1. Liam, you forgot the one mark of the Church that is not always present, but usually is: funny. That accounts for a lot of what She does.

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