Liturgy Inculturated

Book cover
Worshipby By Keith F. Pecklers, S.J.The Liturgical Press. 234p $24.95

In Dynamic Equivalence: The Living Language of Christian Worship, Father Keith Pecklers offers a fascinating narrative of the mid-20th-century Vernacular Society in the United States, interwoven with the larger history of vernacular worship in the church. The whole story is framed by an opening chapter entitled A Brief History of the Vernacular. This takes the reader from early church experience to the 20th century. Subsequent chapters address the beginnings of the Vernacular Society, the mounting call for vernacular worship in the years 1956-62, a brief history of the vernacular in an ecumenical context, and the Second Vatican Council, including its immediate results for the vernacular.

This is a narrative rich in detail and well worth the read. It serves to remind the reader of the many ways in which the vernacular has been part of church discussion for centuries and of our worship, in varying degrees, well before the Second Vatican Council. The story of the Vernacular Society in the United States is rendered in rich detail. Pecklers, a professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University and of liturgical history at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at San Anselmo, both in Rome, renders a picture of the society’s internal evolution and the personalities that shaped it. He places this evolution in the context of the larger developments of the church in the mid-20th century. Chief among these is the liturgical movement as a whole and the Liturgical Conference (United States) in particular, whose leaders and concerns sometimes overlapped with those of the Vernacular Society.


The cast of the story is full. A unique characteristic of the book is its inclusion of many excerpts from letters, talks and articles by those involved in the give-and-take of the movement. The litany of names and contributions to the movement calls to mind the greats of the period, a number of whom served as mentors and friends to many who today carry on the liturgical formation work of the church in this country. This reviewer must honor at least several with whom he was privileged to work: Godfrey Diekmann, O.S.B., Msgr. Frederick McManus, and John R. Page. Keith Pecklers dedicates his book to John Page, who served as associate executive secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) for 22 years.

Pecklers’s story ends with the council and the steps during and immediately after it for the progressive implementation of the vernacular in Catholic worship. This includes the establishment of ICEL for the preparation of the official English texts. This was complemented in short order by the establishment of similar bodies by the hierarchies of the other languages.

The story continues, of course, in the present contentious debates within the church over the official modern vernacular texts of the liturgy. At root, the terms of this debate resemble the terms of the earlier debates about whether to have vernacular worship in the first place. These were well summed up by one of the participants in the 1956 Assisi Congress, as reported by Pecklers. The three major reasons for the resistance of Vatican officials of the day to the vernacular were: (1) scandal’ to those who were unaccustomed to it; (2) fear of nationalistic churches and loss of centralization; and (3) the problem of translating prayers into GOOD’ vernacular while at the same time maintaining the orthodox and doctrinal elements of the prayers themselves.

These concerns now take the form of debate over the principles proper to the translation of liturgical texts. These principles are found along a scholarly spectrum ranging from formal equivalence (which generally means a fairly literal rendering of the original) to dynamic equivalence (generally a more nuanced rendering to capture the meaning of the original in equivalent forms of the receiver language). Under the direction of the universal authority of the church, the first generation of work preparing the church’s official liturgical texts in all of the languages was guided in general by the principle of dynamic equivalence. In the last few years this work has been called into question by that same authority and the principles replaced by a formal equivalence approach. Indeed, ICEL and the other official commissions established by the hierarchies of the different language groups for this work have been recast at the direction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to facilitate this new direction.

The reasons given for this dramatic about-face have to do with the claim that the doctrinal integrity of the original has not been maintained and that secular cultural perspectives have influenced the translations. Thus, the earlier vernacular debate is carried forward in new form. What sort of vernacular is needed for authentic Catholic worship today? Further, what is the role of the universal authority of the church in relation to the authority of the bishops in discerning how their people’s languages and cultures are to be reflected in the texts prayed in the church’s worship?

Stay tuned.

In Worship: A Primer in Christian Ritual, Father Pecklers offers a competent introduction to Christian worship, its historical development, present challenges and issues for its authentic future unfolding. In barely 200 pages, organized into eight highly readable chapters, this primer draws upon some of the best liturgical scholarship of the past several decades to give the reader a broad yet solid view of Christian worship over two millennia and reliable insight into its possibilities in this 21st century of Christian life and mission.

Pecklers begins by pointing out the fundamental contemporary difficulty of arriving at a single definition of Christian worship. This is a result in part of the variety of disciplines that must be drawn upon for an adequate understanding of what is in fact a communal experience, before God. One’s conclusions have everything to do with one’s starting point, whether ritual studies or systematic theology, human sciences or liturgical theology. These differences of starting point for understanding Christian liturgy contribute to the misunderstanding and tension in the church today over the liturgy. The author is firm in his belief that the integration of these various approaches is critical to a healthy and balanced definition of what constitutes worship for Christians and why it is so important for the life of our churches.

This integration of disciplines underlies the seven chapters that follow. Three of these trace the historical record as understood at present: from the Jewish roots of Christian worship through its successive inculturations up to the late medieval period; from the liturgical reforms of the Reformation in the 16th century to the Roman Catholic response at the Council of Trent and following; and, finally, the 20th-century liturgical movement and its fruit in the Second Vatican Council’s inauguration of the major renewal of worship still being experienced by the church. Many old friends feature in the narrative, among them those that proved indispensable to the decades-long preparation for what became the liturgical renewal of Vatican II: the Didache, Pseudo Hippolytus’s Apostolic Tradition, the Didascalia Apostolorum, Justin’s First Apology, and so on.

The second half of Worship: A Primer takes up critical issues for the study, authenticity and vitality of Christian worship that arise from the historical record and present experience. The author elaborates four: (1) the relationship between worship and culture and the manifest need for continuing and authentic inculturation of Christian worship; (2) dramatic developments in the church’s appreciation of the relationship between popular religion and the church’s official liturgy that have occurred in the time since the cautious treatment of this relationship at Vatican Council II; (3) the need to forge lasting links between worship and the mission of Christ’s body as an agent for justice in and transformation of the world; and (4) the future of Christian life and worship in a postmodern environment where change, pessimism and pluralism of all kinds constitute both the reality and the underlying values and assumptions of people’s experience.

Readers who want to go deeper will appreciate the eight-page bibliography at the end of the book. This includes a fair number of non-English sources that are now available in translation. Liturgical Press is to be complimented for the quality of the production. The index is quite serviceable, and this reader found very few typographical errorsan unusual experience in contemporary publishing.

Keith Pecklers is to be congratulated in particular for his resolute focus on the forest, even as he surveys its many trees. His ecumenical perspective and commitment is evident throughoutin the historical section, in the delineation of issues and in the breadth of scholarship on which he draws. Given this commitment, one can only regret the lack of inclusion of some of the agents of post-conciliar ecumenical cooperation (pp. 114-16) beyond North America. In addition to the Consultation on Common Texts, a cooperative association of about 20 churches in North America going back nearly 40 years, readers need to learn of the significant contributions of similar associations of churches in other parts of the world, notably the Joint Liturgical Group of Great Britain. Together, these associations have fostered a liturgical ecumenism that has taken flesh in the common ritual texts and structures that have come into existence in the last few decades.

This is a small omission over against all that this ambitious primer of just over 200 pages so admirably achieves. The four-page conclusion should not be overlooked, in which Keith Pecklers deftly sketches the task for the next generation of critical scholarship and development of the church’s liturgy. Read it all!

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