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Newsletter 101


Two extracts from Newsletter 101, published September 1997

The Question of Liturgical ‘Presidency’ Antiphon [Publication of the Society for Catholic Liturgy] Vol I No 2/3

  • What kind of Missal are we getting?
  • New Blackfriars [The English Dominican Review] Vol 77 No 910

Both these articles are by Fr Bruce Harbert, lecturer in Dogmatic Theology at St Mary’s College, Oscott, and a member of the Council of the Association for Latin Liturgy; they both make important contributions to current debate on the liturgy.

The Question of Liturgical ‘Presidency’
One of the most startling paradoxes of the re-ordering of sanctuaries spawned by the universal promulgation of the idea of the priest’s presidency at Mass (taking the literal meaning of praesideo ‘I sit in front’) has been the control over the execution and tone of the liturgy that it has given to the clergy. This after a Council which sought to reduce clerical domination and to bring the laity into a more complementary and pro-active rĂ´le.

Up to the last two or three years, the assertion that the establishment of priestly presidency was simply a return to the practice of the early church had been unchallenged. Now, however, doubts are creeping in. St Justin (d c165) refers to the priest (or bishop) as the prohestos. This word is generally rendered in English as ‘president’ or ‘presider’. Prohestos is related to the verb histemi to stand, and means to ‘stand in front’ or ‘to stand in a prominent place’, and the Greek Fathers use prohestos to describe the leaders of the Church in a broad sense, not simply a liturgical one. Certainly they do not use it to refer to the priest’s physical position at the liturgy. It is therefore much more likely that St Justin was thinking of the priest’s leadership of the Church in general rather than his posture or position at the Eucharist.

Some of this confusion may have arisen as a result of an error by the Anglican Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix in his influential book The Shape of the Liturgy (1945). He mistakenly quotes Justin as using the word prokathemenos, a word for leader related to the verb ‘to sit’, suggesting to some the idea of the ‘presidential chair’.

The Latin word praesideo is used widely in both classical and Christian Latin, occasionally with the sense of sitting, but often not, as for example when St Ambrose speaks of Christ presiding over the Church.

What is crucial is that nowhere in any Christian writer can anyone point to the word praesidere describing what the priest does at Mass – until 1970, that is. The Latin Missal promulgated then says coetui praesidet ‘he presides at the gathering.’ (Incidentally, the English version has ‘he presides over the assembly’, from which you may draw your own conclusions as to the translator’s view of the priest/ people relationship.)

I have described Fr Harbert’s findings in some detail, because they are so important. I would like to finish by quoting his conclusion. ‘The liturgy itself is greater than any of its earthly participants. In many Christian churches, immediately above the bishop’s cathedra stands a picture of the heavenly throne of Christ. This reminds us of a truth that modern practice too often conceal: it is Christ who presides over the liturgy.’

What kind of Missal are we getting?
The other paper under consideration is concerned with the current revision of the ICEL Missal. The American bishops have been much firmer than their English counterparts in rejecting many of the revised versions in the form first submitted, for dogmatic rather than stylistic reasons, although the two are inevitably interconnected.

We are still living with the effect of Pope Paul’s decision (which an anglophone pope would not have made) that one translation should serve the whole of the English-speaking world. As Fr Harbert remarks, ICEL has assumed, as a result of this monopoly, a tyrannical stance towards bishops and local churches, which is only now beginning to be questioned.

The flatness and lack of rhythm of many ICEL texts is unfortunately very familiar to us, and is symptomatic of a utilitarian approach to the liturgy which was one of the more dreary consequences of sixties reductionism. Fr Harbert compares Cranmer’s ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people’ for Excita quaesumus Domine tuorum fidelium voluntates with ICEL’s ‘Lord, increase our eagerness to do your will’. Note the incorrect translation, as well as the wet flannel style. ICEL’s revised beginning, ‘Stir up the hearts of your faithful people, Lord God,’ though only fairly good, is certainly better than their first attempt, even though they mistranslate voluntates as ‘hearts’. Unfortunately, however, the rest is worse: ‘that they may co-operate more readily in the work of grace, and obtain in ever greater measure the saving power of your goodness.’ The awkwardness of this makes it quite painful to read aloud.

Fr Harbert produces several more examples of this sort, some of them with serious theological implications, from the new ICEL versions. One is made sadly aware that although there is an improvement, it is not nearly as great as we had hoped, and one is left wondering whether the disruption and the huge expense involved when it is eventually introduced, will really be worth it. Fr Harbert rightly suggests that the job might be much better done within this island.