Anthony Ruff on the English Translation of the New Roman Missal

October 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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Last week, fifty or sixty other folks and I turned out to hear Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine monk and liturgist at St. John’s School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, speak on the English translation of the new Roman Missal. US Catholics will begin to use this translation in worship on the first Sunday of Advent. Ruff’s talk was sponsored by the new New York chapter of Call to Action, a national Catholic reform organization.

Father Ruff attracted national attention last February when he wrote a letter to the US bishops withdrawing from a speaking tour to introduce the translation across the country, and the letter was published in America, the Jesuit weekly magazine. Ruff had served as chairman of the music committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the group at the center of the English translation process until the Vatican rejected its work and imposed its own version. In that letter Ruff wrote:

“The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process—and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity…I weep.”

This was also the gist of Ruff’s talk in Manhattan last week, but in much more detail. That Ruff is a professor was evident: he distributed a three-page handout detailing the process in which the Vatican undercut years of work and multiple revisions by the English-speaking bishops, their liturgy committees, and ICEL. The handout also included comparisons of the old and new translations, with the wordiness, clumsiness, and outright errors of the new version highlighted. Throughout Father Ruff stressed the problem of the top-down authority structure of the Catholic Church, which makes possible such harmful, stupid and erroneous actions. At one point he stated with what seemed to me to be some amazement that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy.

I found two things about Ruff’s presentation striking. The first is what a balanced, even sweet man he is. With him, there was none of the rage that is sometimes expressed at Catholic reform gatherings.  In point of fact, he admitted that his is a fairly conservative approach to the liturgy, which led him to become an expert in Gregorian chant. Indeed, he opened by saying that the last time he was in New York, he had stayed with the editor of the conservative Catholic journal, First Things. But of course, this makes his public opposition to the new translation all the more damning. Even sweet, Gregorian-chant-singing monks know top-down violations of human dignity when they see them. When such a person tells us not to be taken in by the lies that are being circulated about the excellence of the English translation, we know we can believe him.

My other reaction runs in the opposite direction. Father Ruff is clearly a faithful, devout, and honest man. But it was not until he himself had his work and expertise dismissed that it came to him that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy, “with those at each level unaccountable to those below them.” (When the Vatican imposed its own translation, Father Ruff had to completely rewrite the musical settings he had developed for the previous ICEL translation.) But the people who had their work on the birth control commission trashed by Pope Paul VI back in 1968 already knew this, as did advocates of women’s ordination when, twenty-five years later, Pope John Paul II claimed that the prohibition of women’s ordination is infallible teaching. Is it really necessary to wait until the work which we and our Catholic co-workers have personally accomplished gets trashed by the Vatican (and often the hierarchy as well) to realize that the governance structure of the Catholic Church is incompatible with the Gospel?

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