In July Fr. William Rowe, 73, pastor of the St. Mary Parish in southeast Illinois received an email from his bishop, Edward Braxton, telling him he had been removed as pastor and taking away his faculties to say Mass and offer the sacraments. Most likely Rowe had seen it coming. Braxton had complained for years that he didn’t like Rowe changing some of the prayers in the new liturgy, adapting them so they would correspond to themes in the gospel readings, homily or songs, and adding explanations. Apparently, Rowe, who has been doing this for 20 years along with other priests he knows, felt he should give priority to the quality of communication between priest and people and he was confident that these modest changes were within his rights. Following a canon lawyer’s advice he appealed to Rome.
He did not say this, but from my army experience, I suspect that Rowe picked up this practice while serving as a chaplain with the armed forces. A good chaplain looks out upon his men and loves them — Jesus loved the young rich man who decided against following him — and is determined to use every means available to make God’s word penetrate and console these young men and women facing death at any moment. Judging from the letters in the St, Louis Post Dispatch, the parishioners knew Rowe loved him.
Meanwhile a collection of literature has grown up around this issue— not necessarily responding to the Rowe case, but rather to public opinion in the church. Both priests and people who love the church but find their devotion stifled by the new texts have spoken. They deserve a hearing. First is an article in Worship (January 2012), Jan R. Larson’s “A Case for Changing Liturgical Words.” Worship is not a left-wing rag, but is published by the monks of Saint’s John's Abbey at Collegeville Minnesota, the most respected liturgical review in America.
On the same level is scripture scholar John R. Donohue, S.J.’s “Cup or Chalice” in Commonweal (May 21, 2012) in which he demonstrates conclusively that at the Last Supper, the word for the vessel from which Jesus drank is “cup.” To make the priest say “chalice” rather than “cup” at Mass, he says, evokes an image that distances Jesus from the disciples and from us today. Jesus was a Jewish laymen who used a cup to demonstrate what he was saying. A “chalice” today is often a gold plated vessel encrusted with jewels. That’s not Jesus.
Next is the special report in U. S. Catholic (December 2012) in which thousands of priests and laypersons responded to their survey on acceptance of the new Mass translation introduced a year ago. Seventy six percent of 1,200 priests polled prefer the old translations; 66 percent of laypersons agree. Seventeen percent like the new one as much as or more than the old; 25 percent know people who have left to worship in other churches. Three quarters of the priests say it interferes with their prayers, and 84 percent find themselves slipping into the old vocabulary as they celebrate. (The article runs over 20 pages of statistics and commentary).
The editors follow up with a canon law analysis “Language Barrier, by Fr. David M. Knight, Memphis Diocese, and author of best selling books on spirituality. Appropriately he opens with the same theme that inspired Father Larson’s Worship essay: church laws are not to be taken literally, but must be interpreted. They are not to be taken only at face value, and so are not necessarily absolute (Worship, p. 61). First consideration goes to the purpose of liturgical reform: “especially the goal of full, conscious and active participation by all the faithful.” To exemplify the effects of a too strict acceptance of church law, Fr. Knight recalls his philosophy studies in 1952 when the order arrived from Rome to teach the courses in Latin. Although neither priests nor students knew Latin they broke their backs to obey. At the Spokane campus, after six weeks struggling with Latin the logic professor had a nervous breakdown. The school went back to English and only three of the 65 seminarians left. In Mobile, they enforced the rule as they understood it; and a third of the class left. Studying theology in France, Knight was helped by a 1934 canon law textbook by Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, a conservative, who later became secretary of state, who cautioned that “some laws can lead to injustices that defeat the intention of the law itself.” In that case the law should be set aside to achieve justice and the common good. He concludes after 50 years as a priest and teaching in three languages, including time in Africa, and written 30 books, that to not devote every talent to achieve what the Constitution on the Liturgy calls “the wish of the church,” that the faithful take “full, conscious, and active part in liturgical celebrations,” would be a sin.
Knight lists some of his liberties, which he takes — changes that I suspect most or many priests make in their hearts even when they go along with the changes out of obedience. He says “cup” not chalice; Christ’s blood ”poured out for “all” rather than “many”; “offering” for “oblation” and several more. We put a presider rather than a robot behind the altar, he says, to allow for human judgments and adaptations.
As far as I know, neither Fr. Larson nor Father Knight has been silenced by authorities, who probably realize they are good and learned men making rational arguments, who love the church and might be right. Meanwhile, Rome has backed Father Rowe on one point, reversing his suspension, but it has supported the bishop’s right to remove him and withdraw his faculties (permission to say Mass). The Southern Illinois Association of Priests, in a statement signed by 16 priests, calls his punishment “irrationally disproportionate to the supposed crime.”