Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Vatican II - a Work in Progress

For many Catholics the Second Vatican Council is ancient history. 

They may acknowledge that it was important, momentous, decisive.  And even if they were not alive when the Council  met (1962-65) and did not personally experience the changes and challenges it brought about, they can agree that it was a critical moment in the life of the Church. But it happened a long time ago, and it may appear to them to be dated and irrelevant for the Church of today.

The truth is: though it ended in 1965, the work of the Council is still underway. Vatican II is not over; in many ways it has just begun.

Vatican II set the direction for the Church as she ended the 20th and entered the 21st century. The 16 documents developed by the bishops and approved by the pope provide goals and strategies for implementation. 

More than 50 years later Pope Francis urges the people of God to follow that direction.

Dozens of subsequent documents, such as instructions on proper implementation, have been issued by the pope and Vatican offices over the years to insure correct understanding of the Council’s pronouncements and to encourage their appropriate application to a variety of pastoral situations and circumstances not necessarily addressed by the Council documents themselves.

The Church can be compared to an ocean liner; it cannot change course on a dime. It takes time, and returning it to its proper course and destination is still underway.

One example of the changes to be implemented is respect for “competent territorial ecclesiastical authority.” Among the decisions articulated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium, approved on December 4, 1963) is recognition that regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs to various kinds of bishops’ conferences, legitimately established, with competence in given territories (22.2).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, therefore, has a right to regulate, with approval of the Apostolic See (the pope), certain aspects of the celebration of the sacraments. Translation from Latin for use in the liturgy is one of those aspects which must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority (36.4).

The recognition of this local input flows from the Council’s acknowledgement that the Church does not want to impose rigid uniformity, but rather respects and fosters the qualities and talents of various races and nations (37).

With this in mind the Council agreed that competent territorial ecclesiastical authorities may specify adaptations for administering the sacraments, for processions, liturgical language, sacred music and the arts (39).

In 2001, Liturgiam authenticam, a directive from a Vatican office, insisted that translations from the Latin  “in so far as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet."

In effect the translation now used for the prayers at Mass so follows the word order and structure of the Latin phrasing that the English version is often awkward and sometimes a challenge to understand.

The “poster-child” of such challenging prayers is the collect for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: “Almighty ever-living God, whom, taught by the Holy Spirit, we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection within our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters that we may merit to enter into the inheritance which you have promised. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

In pre-Vatican II days priests often before Mass translated the Latin into English so they could understand what they were saying. Today many priests before Mass translate the “English” into English.

In September, 2017, a directive from Vatican II-minded Pope Francis affirmed for bishops conferences that it is their responsibility faithfully to prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

It remains to be seen whether the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and other English-speaking Episcopal conferences will re-visit the translation of the Roman Missal we are currently using. Such a re-assessment and the development of a truly vernacular translation would be an example of the spirit and letter of Vatican II  —a worthy project for 2018 (as the current copies of the Roman missal are showing wear and need repair).

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