Mass in the balance: An interview with Bishop Trautman

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Article Prayer and Sacraments Scripture and Theology
Bishop Donald Trautman explains in this 2005 interview some of the changes in the liturgy that we're seeing now, along with the reasons behind them.

As a young priest, Bishop Donald Trautman attended the second Vatican Council from beginning to end, passing out ballots and seeing to the needs of a group of bishops during all four sessions.

"I sat in the front row of St. Peter's and heard every Latin speech. I even voted," he jokes, referring to a retired Italian bishop who fell asleep during speeches and asked Trautman how he should vote.

Being at the council gave Trautman great confidence in its reforms. "Look at the vote on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. All the world's bishops voted in favor, with only four voting against. Is that not the will of the Holy Spirit?" Bishop Trautman has spent much of his career promoting that reform, as the chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, a post he held in the 1990s and in 2005, when this interview was conducted.

Donald Trautman was ordained a priest in 1962 and earned a doctorate in m sacred theology in 1966. He has served as a scripture professor, diocesan official, and pastor, and has led the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania since 1990.

It seems like there's a lot of controversy around the liturgy these days. Why do you think liturgical issues elicit such strong feelings among Catholics?

I think we all become very passionate when we celebrate the Eucharist. That's where we show our identity as Catholics, when we come together around the Lord's table to be formed and transformed. We all have a very important stake because we all offer the Eucharist to the Father.

The people who are fighting to go back to Latin, for example, had a wonderful experience when Mass was in that language. They're saying they met the Lord that way, and they're trying to keep that form, not understanding that the form and language of the liturgy is never an absolute. Only God is absolute, and there are different ways we express our love and our prayer.

Many arguments over the liturgy are about rules-who does what and how-but is there a deeper issue?

In Roman Catholic liturgy, we have rubrics-the liturgical laws that define how a priest is to celebrate Eucharist, how a congregation is to respond. But do we want to be rubricists, legalists? No, it's the spirit of the law that we want to live.

For example, many communities hold hands across the aisles at the time of the Our Father. Do we want to be rubricists and say that's not in the rule book, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal? If you have a worshiping community for whom holding hands is part of their culture, common sense would tell me not to touch it.

You want to have balance, and here we get into a deeper issue. There is transcendence and there is immanence. Transcendence means understanding God as almighty or understanding Jesus as a miracle worker. But there is also immanence: Jesus washing the disciples' feet, Jesus having dinner with tax collectors.

Both qualities are in scripture, applied to Jesus and to the Father and to the Spirit as well. We can't separate them. We need both.

Where is this balance for you?

Rules are important because we've all encountered examples of the Eucharist not being celebrated properly. We want to correct that, but again, with balance. You want to preserve the traditions of people.

I believe that in the United States we have a very healthy understanding of liturgy. When you look at the church universal, which countries have the most worshipers at Sunday Mass? Poland, Malta, the Philippines, and the United States. We know something about liturgy, and I think we're doing it rather well.

Is it hard to advocate for balance when it seems that those on the extremes are getting more attention?

It's difficult to be in the middle. To be in the mainstream today can be lonely. But I think that's where the gospel calls us to be, and we pay the price for that. But we have to be people of balance and prudence. Often that is interpreted as not following the Holy Father. That's not true. The best form of loyalty is to be candid, to be obedient at all times. Let me give you an example.

When I was studying scripture in Rome many years ago, one of my professors, Father Stanislaus Lyonnet, a famous Pauline scholar, was forbidden by what is now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to teach biblical interpretation; he could only teach biblical languages.

I was in the classroom the day the prohibition was lifted. In Europe students knock on their desks when we in the U.S. would applaud; we knocked for five or six minutes.

I expected him to say something about the prohibition, but he didn't; he just began to teach St. Paul. It was a moving experience. Here was a man who had been hurt by the church-it seems we always hurt our best and brightest-but he did not retaliate. He just began, humbly, to teach.

I've always remembered that lesson. He was in the middle, and he paid the price. I think that's where grace is, and that's where the Lord wants us to be, too. I apply that lesson to liturgy and to the struggle to be in the mainstream.

How do you take that sense of balance to your work as chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy?

First let me tell you about the committee. I think it's perhaps the most important committee in the bishops' conference because liturgy touches everyone.

Eighty-five percent of the Catholic English-speaking world is in the U.S. Because of our numbers and our wealth, the translations we do also affect poorer English-speaking countries that don't have the staff, the research scholars, or the dollars to publish their own liturgical books. So I really feel an obligation to do our work well.

What are you working on now?

We are revising the lectionary we use on Sundays. Let me provide a little history.

About 10 years ago the U.S. bishops presented a lectionary to Rome for approval, which was rejected because it used inclusive language. The Vatican then called to Rome three archbishops and one translator for whom English was not a first language; they modified the original to produce what we are now using. I feel very bad about that because what we had sent over was produced by good scholars and it was an excellent translation. But it was rejected and we accept that.

When the bishops were finally presented with the modified document, we approved it because we had to do something, but we said that after five years there must be an effort to revise it. The five years are up, so the Committee on the Liturgy sent out a questionnaire that requested feedback from all of the American bishops, encouraging them to consult with their liturgy offices and pastors.

How did they respond?

The responses were overwhelmingly negative, not to my surprise; many noted grammatical problems and the use of archaic words. So our committee began a process to revise what we have within the parameters ofLiturgiam Authenticam, the 2001 instruction from the Vatican that sets down the rules for translations. It favors a more or less literal translation of the Latin.

Can you give us an example of some of the problems?

One example comes right to my mind: when we talk about a yoke. "Take my burden upon you, for my yoke is easy," as Jesus says. Most people, especially teenagers, do not know what a yoke is. They think "yoke" refers to an egg yolk.

Another example is the use of words that have no meaning in English. One passage from Luke talks about "kors" of wheat; the original version used "measures," which makes more sense.

I myself have gone through all the readings for the Sundays and weekdays of Lent and all of the Passion accounts. There are places in St. Paul where the present lectionary goes nine lines before you come to a period. The poor lector is out of breath by the third line, and if you're in the pew, you can't possibly comprehend what the text says. The old 1970s lectionary would probably have used three or four sentences, and my principle is, if it's not broken, don't fix it.

As a person who has taught scripture and dedicated my life to the Bible, I feel very bad that we have given our people a text unworthy of the inspired Word, and we need to correct it as soon as possible.

Do you think the work you do will be approved by Rome?

We're doing our very best, but we know we face a challenge in that liturgical renewal is ongoing. There will never be a perfect liturgical rite or a perfect translation. Rites and translations are conditioned by culture, pastoral experience, theological insights, and ecclesiastical realities. By ecclesiastical realities, I mean the people in the Holy see perhaps don't fully understand American culture or our particular theological point of view.

Translations can never be absolutely right; only the inspired text of the Bible is absolute. But we will always have culture, pastoral experience, theological insights, and ecclesiastical reality forming what we do.

You said the original translation was rejected because it used inclusive language. Why was that?

First, what I mean by inclusive language is taking words in English that refer exclusively to males and broadening them where the text is indeed meant to be broadened. The classical example would be, "When you bring your gift to the altar and you find something against your brother, leave your gift and go and make peace with your brother." Was the Lord talking only about brothers? Obviously it means brothers and sisters.

Why was inclusive language rejected? At the time there was much debate going on about women's ordination, and in my opinion a small but significant group of people felt inclusive language would lead to women's ordination. That argument prevailed in Rome.

What other projects are you working on?

We are also translating the sacramentary, the prayers for Mass, which is composed in Rome and then sent to the world's bishops to be translated from Latin into the vernacular languages. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, gives each bishops' conference the right to do that work.

The language ofthat document is very important for us to keep in mind. For example, paragraph 37 says: "Even in the liturgy the church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not involve the faith." This is one of the most revolutionary articles.

We have to keep in mind the spirit of Vatican II and try to apply it in this new millennium to the text that we're using.

What are the issues with the sacramentary?

The new translation of the Latin is very rigid, very British; the head of the body charged with actually translating the sacramentary, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, is a British priest. Some phrases would not resonate with Americans, for example, "Look upon these gifts with a serene and kindly gaze," as proposed for Eucharistie Prayer I.

This is critical because we're not going to get a new sacramentary in our lifetime. This is going to be it for the next 100 years, so we want to try to do it as best as we can.

Would a regular Massgoer recognize the difference?

Right now we start Mass with, "The Lord be with you," and respond, "And also with you." In the new translation the people respond, "And with your spirit." Now this is a flash point. The theology behind it is that those who are ordained have the Spirit in a special way. If a layperson is leading the prayer, the translation keeps the old response. That's going to be a problem once we try to explain the theology involved.

Can we in any way change that? I don't think so. I've looked at other languages-German, French, Spanish-and they all say "spirit." I don't think I'm going to win on that one.

Another example is in the Creed. We presently say "one in being with the Father," and people understand it. Some want us to use the phrase "consubstantial with the Father." Consubstantial is a $64,000 word that no one in the congregation understands or uses.

It seems that you're describing a clash between different values.

That's what we have to bring together. We have purists who will argue for a literal translation, that we have to come as close as possible to preserving those exact words. I would come back and say that if the words are not meaningful, it's not prayer. So I'm trying to bring in a pastoral dimension as well.

What do you think average Catholics are looking for when they come to Mass on Sunday?

I think they're looking for a chance to bond with the Lord, to be strengthened for the next foray out into the world.

Families are in trouble today, and I say when families are in trouble, the church is in trouble. We need to strengthen our families, our identity. We can't make it alone in the world; we can't make it to heaven alone. We need strength and we find that strength in the bread come down from heaven. We need to be nourished by the scriptures and by the Eucharist.

That's why the first Christians gathered: They couldn't make it on their own. We need one another, and we need the Lord. We also need to be with people who share our values to support us, so when we come to Mass on Sunday, we're coming together maybe as the first Christians did, to be with others who share our view of God and our value system.

Do you have advice for laypeople on how best to participate at Sunday Mass?

We can't expect a liturgical high on the weekend unless we are connected with the Lord during the week. That means some kind of a prayer life. Sometimes liturgists put all of the emphasis on "full, conscious, and active participation," but that can't happen unless you prepare during the week.

Are there particular practices you encourage?

Reading the scriptures, morning and evening prayer, prayer before and after meals, works of charity. We all have roles; just fulfilling those vocations during the week is a start. A lot of wonderful Catholic practices reinforce who we are, so when we come to the Eucharist, we're strengthened and fortified.

For me, the greatest words of the liturgy are at the end of the Mass: "The Mass is ended; go in peace." Go now through those doors out into the world and live the faith. That's the sending forth, the commissioning of God's people. For me that's the highlight of the liturgy. We've been informed and transformed at the table of the Lord; we've been strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ. Now we are sent out with Christ to be a leaven in the world.

Current controversies aside, how do you judge the liturgical renewal since Vatican II?

There are four key words that every Catholic knows, especially priests and pastoral leaders: "full, conscious, active participation." I think by and large we have done that. We didn't have full, conscious, and active participation prior to Vatican II. We were pretty much a silent congregation.

I think there have been some steps backward, of course, but we have to be optimistic and hope-filled people. Hope is not putting on rose-colored glasses. It is the courage to be in the circumstances where you find yourself. Hope is trusting the Holy Spirit to guide the church.

Tensions are good for the church. We all would like to have a life without them, but tensions create activity and new thinking and dialogue, and that can be good. It's hard to go through, but tension is healthy for all of us; it brings out the best.

I think we have to say from our faith point of view that the Lord is present in those advocating transcendence as well as in those advocating immanence. Sometimes we emphasize one more than the other, and the Spirit always tries to bring us back, to keep us in balance.

There is an old Latin expression: In media stat virtus; in the middle stands virtue. That's hard to live, but that's the truth, that's where the virtue is.

This article appeared in the October 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 70, No. 10, pages 34-38).