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December 2007 - January 2008
Vol. XIII, No. 9

USCCB November Meeting — Bishops Approve Three Liturgy Items at Busy Baltimore Meeting

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

A heavy schedule confronted the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their semi-annual meeting held in Baltimore, November 12-14.

The bishops elected officers, reviewed the restructuring of the conference committees and USCCB “priorities and plans”, voted on statements on Catholics and voting, approved two documents on catechetics, and three concerning the Liturgy. They heard the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, announce that Pope Benedict XVI will visit the US next April. They spent an afternoon in regional meetings, another in a prayer service, and the third afternoon was devoted to an executive session (bishops only) to discuss Canon 915, which says that Catholics who “obstinately persist in grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” — a topic of particular concern in view of the forthcoming election year in which pro-abortion Catholics may be candidates for state and national offices.

As expected, Chicago Cardinal Francis George was elected as president of the USCCB (the vice-president is customarily elected president). Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas is the new vice-president, Bishop Joseph Kurz of Knoxville was elected Treasurer, and Bishop George Murry, SJ of Youngstown was elected to fill the unexpired term of Bishop Kicanas as Secretary. Eight other officers and the chairmen-elect for two other committees were also selected at this meeting.

The three Liturgy “Action Items” the bishops approved were 1) a set of guidelines on music for worship replacing two outdated statements, 2) a liturgical document providing for weekday “Word-and-Communion” services without a priest in both English and Spanish versions; and 3) a second segment of a re-revised Lectionary for Mass. The latter two items require Vatican approval.

“Sing to the Lord”

“Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship” replaces earlier BCL statements on music, “Music in Catholic Worship” (MCW) and “Liturgical Music Today” (LMT), which provided the rationale for the essentially ungoverned development of liturgical music in the US. It is meant to supplement the “Directory on Music in the Liturgy”, which was approved by the bishops last November and is still awaiting recognitio from the Congregation for Divine Worship.

The BCL’s original intention was to make “Sing to the Lord” particular law for the United States, which would have required the approval of the Holy See. But the committee withdrew this plan before the bishops voted; though it was issued as a formal statement of the USCCB, which required 2/3 majority vote. After a very brief discussion, it was approved by 88% (132). Only 12 bishops voted against it.

The bishops also reviewed the 399 amendments to the document that had been submitted before the meeting by more than a dozen bishops, and a few more received during the meeting. The bishops’ proposals for changes were mostly well-considered, thoughtful suggestions, and many were accepted by the committee. This significantly improved the result. But the bishops did not get to see the altered text before they voted on it.

Despite improvements, however, the guidelines are still inherently contradictory. “Sing to the Lord” includes a good many edifying quotations from documents from the Holy See — Sacramentum Caritatis, Redemptionis Sacramentum, and Musicam Sacram, for example. However, it retains problematic elements from the old documents (such as the “three judgments” — liturgical, pastoral and musical — for selecting music for worship); and it even adds “percussion instruments” to the list of acceptable musical instruments for Mass.

The result of this apparent attempt to cover all bases makes this long document (87 pages) essentially incoherent. Almost anyone one can find something in it, somewhere, to like — or to dislike. The effect is rather like the “curate’s egg” in the old British joke: “parts of it are excellent”, but the parts that are not spoil the whole thing. (The curate was served a rotten egg for breakfast by the vicar’s wife, but he insisted to the vicar that “parts of it are excellent”.) This may be an insurmountable problem with compromise statements.

The process of arriving at “Sing to the Lord” was a close parallel to that of “Built of Living Stones”, the guidelines on church architecture. The architecture document also replaces a Liturgy Committee statement, “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship”, which had functioned for years as the governing principles for all new and remodeled church buildings — and led to what many bishops came to see as methodical de-sacralizing of “sacred space”. After several drafts these architecture guidelines were adopted in November 2000.

One difference in the process was the consultation that admitted a variety of perspectives before the draft was written. A consultation on music for worship sponsored by the BCL was held in Chicago, October 9, 2006. Adoremus was among the groups that participated in this meeting (reported in AB November 2006)

Perhaps the best news about “Sing to the Lord” in its final amended form may actually be that it is merely a guideline of the conference without real authority. Thus the problematic principles carried over from the earlier documents cannot be considered in any way binding. On the other hand, its “excellent parts” have no real authority, either. So, despite all the consultations, careful proposals for amendments by bishops, etc., the new guidelines offer only some helpful suggestions toward a serious look at the heritage of sacred music, while at the same time allowing for the views of established producers and promoters of music for Catholic worship that have prevailed for decades and were responsible for the present state of things.

“Sing to the Lord” is now accessible on the USCCB web site: www.usccb.org/ liturgy/SingToTheLord.pdf.

Weekday Liturgies without a Priest

The bishops overwhelmingly approved a liturgical document outlining daily “Word-and-Communion” services when no priest is available, similar to the “Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest”. As an official liturgical document, “Weekday Celebration — Liturgy of the Word” requires recognitio of the Holy See. Though its title does not refer to Communion, it also includes distribution of Communion by a deacon or lay person (extraordinary minister of Holy Communion).

Bishop Donald Trautman, in introducing the document, said it is intended to be used when there are no nearby parishes that people can attend, such as rural areas, jails, or nursing homes. He pointed out that the document’s structure and rubrics deliberately mark it as distinct from the Mass.

Bishop Donald Kettler of Fairbanks spoke in support of the plan. He said that most parishes in remote areas don’t even have weekly Sunday Masses. “This document, along with ‘Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest’ will enable us to standardize what we do in the diocese”, he said, and will “bring back into daily life of villagers a Liturgy that has disappeared”.

To the concern that people may not recognize the difference between these services and the Mass, Bishop Kettler said, “People say, ‘Bishop we do know the difference’”.

“Weekday Celebration” in both English and Spanish versions was approved by 90% of the bishops voting, and requires recognitio by the Holy See. It includes the stipulation that this official liturgical book may be used only with the permission of the diocesan bishop.

New Segment of Re-Revised Lectionary

The second segment of a revision of the Lectionary in use since 2002 was presented for the bishops’ approval at this meeting. This part contains readings for the Sundays of Lent and the Passion Account.

As with the Advent readings that the bishops approved last November, the justification given for revising the Lectionary now is to provide translations that are “more suitable for proclamation, and more understandable”.

The conference had approved the Lectionary currently in use on condition that it be reviewed after five years. In 1992, a revised Lectionary using base texts from the Revised New American Bible (RNAB) Psalms (1991) and the New Testament (1986), was approved by the US Conference and sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for recognitio. However, before it could be approved by the Holy See, this Lectionary required correction by a panel of US bishops and Vatican experts because of the deficiencies in the base texts — chiefly “inclusive language”. Some bishops complained about “Vatican interference” at the time.

In response to continuing translation problems, in 2001 the Holy See issued Liturgiam authenticam, the fifth post-conciliar Instruction on implementation of the Council’s liturgical reform, providing norms for liturgical translation.

Recently, the Old Testament of the New American Bible has also been revised. And other English-speaking countries are also grappling with the problem of producing an updated Lectionary.

In the new US version, the RNAB base translations have at least on occasion been supplemented by other contemporary English translations. (In at least one instance, a passage was said to have been amended reflecting the wording in the New Revised Standard Version.)

The bishops approved this second segment by 95%. (Sixteen bishops voted against it, and five abstained.)

***

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