The recently published (on the web) “Open Letter to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on the Forthcoming Missal,” by Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB, on the America Magazine website, has and will likely continue to engender some debate and discussion. I think it’s important to note and I feel compelled to make a few comments given the significance of this public statement.
Ruff is a very well-respected and competent liturgical scholar, whose views should not be taken lightly (as some comments on the America website suggest they have been). Unlike those who, for some reason unknown to me, have attempted to psychoanalyze the monk and scholar — perhaps in an effort to disarm his honest and direct critique — I would suggest taking a step back, not shoot from the hip and listen to what he has said.
The letter strikes me as both a sign of protest, legitimately raised in light of a rather unclear (if not indeed secret) process, as well as his public expression — humbling in its presentation — of a difficult decision that he had to make with regard to several speaking engagements and workshops from which Ruff has withdrawn. Ruff says right at the beginning:
With a heavy heart, I have recently made a difficult decision concerning the new English missal. I have decided to withdraw from all my upcoming speaking engagements on the Roman Missal in dioceses across the United States. After talking with my confessor and much prayer, I have concluded that I cannot promote the new missal translation with integrity.
Seeing that the liturgy, both is praxiological and scholarly engagement, has been Ruff’s main ministry for much of his religious life, his admittance of the difficulty in making such a serious decision should remain front and center in the way people read his comments. Like Fr. Ruff, like so many others, I too have my reservations about several of the decisions made in the new translation, at least from those collects and other prayers I’ve examined so far.
Many of these texts are awkward, clunky and incomprehensible. As anyone who speaks more than one language knows firsthand, rarely are you able to translate something word-for-word and have it make sense or bear the necessary meaning in its new articulation.
Rigidity in this regard looses not only the artful flow that ritual and communal worship should bear, but it also distorts the authentic meaning of the original Latin text — a disservice to the text itself (the intentio textus ipsius), as well as both the authorial intent (the intentio auctoris) and the reception and interpretation of the faithful (the intentio legentis). Translation into the vernacular has much more meaning than simply denoting which “language” (english, spanish, italian) is used, but also the style and accessibility of the text itself.
It seems to me that the seemingly tangential remarks Ruff makes about the Church’s leadership and the autocratic dissemination of the new text is understandably connected to the monk’s wider experience of the liturgy as the community’s universal expression of the sacred mysteries and prayer. These sorts of decisions should not be the right of an oligarchical and limited body, but should come — at least in some way — from the whole Body of Christ.
All this said, I am also a realist. Like several who have commented on Ruff’s decision and letter, I too appreciate that this has become a nonnegotiable mandate. This upcoming Advent will witness the implementation of the new text, as imperfect as it may be. I think that this is the most critical time for liturgical catechesis the Church has seen since the 1960s. While Ruff is correct in his concern about whether he could instruct others in the new translation without offering legitimate critique, we also cannot let the very real disappointment and frustration overshadow the very desperate need the Body of Christ, which is the Church, has for education and explanation.
While I don’t have the answer, I respect and stand in solidarity with Fr. Ruff, yet cannot emphasize enough my conviction that we must nevertheless press onward and do our best, work our hardest and pray ever-more-fervently in our implementation of this new missal.
When Rome gives you lemons…