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National Catholic Reporter: Gibbet debates

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  • Douglas Cowling
    USCCB: End may be in sight for great gibbet debate Nov 11, 2008 08:18am CST. By JOHN L. ALLEN JR. Baltimore Although public attention during the fall meeting
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 8, 2008
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      USCCB: End may be in sight for great gibbet debate
      Nov 11, 2008 08:18am CST.

      By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

      Although public attention during the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops this
      week is largely focused on what the bishops have to say about abortion and
      the incoming Obama administration, the assembly may also be remembered as
      the climax of a long-simmering debate over liturgy ­ one which, improbably,
      has come to be symbolized by the fairly obscure term ³gibbet.²

      In recent decades, the Catholic church both in the United States and around
      the world has seen major debates over liturgy, especially the vexed question
      of liturgical translation. In broad strokes, the Vatican has insisted on an
      approach which is closer to the Latin originals and more ³Roman² in both
      syntax and vocabulary, a thrust which has been resisted by some bishops and
      liturgists who argue for a style that¹s more contemporary and closer to the
      idiom of the local culture.

      That debate erupted anew last June when the U.S. bishops met in Orlando to
      consider a draft of the ³Proper of Seasons,² part of a new translation of
      prayers and other texts for the Mass. Several bishops argued that the new
      text is too unclear and awkward to be effectively proclaimed in American

      Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, for example, said last June,
      ³If I have trouble understanding the text when I read it, I wonder how it¹s
      going to be possible to pray with it in the context of worship.²

      In terms of concrete examples of that broad indictment, bishops pointed to
      several alleged oddities in the new text, but the most popular case in point
      was its use of the word ³gibbet² to render the Latin term patibulum.

      Bishop Victor Galeone of Saint Augustine, Florida, mockingly said, ³The last
      time I heard that word was back in 1949, during Stations of the Cross in
      Lent.² Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, a longtime critic of
      the new translations, said the draft Proper of Seasons contained a number of
      ³archaic and obscure² terms, chief among them ³gibbet.²

      The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the translation body
      responsible for the Proper of Seasons, took the assault on ³gibbet²
      seriously enough that it issued a statement in its defense after the Orlando

      ³None of the critics of this word seems able to produce a workable
      alternative,² that statement read.

      ³ŒGuillotine¹, Œelectric chair¹ and Œsyringe¹ share the purpose of
      patibulum, but not its shape. ŒGallows¹ denotes a device similar in shape
      and purpose to a patibulum, but in modern speech seems only be used for
      structures designed for hanging by a rope. ŒYoke¹ is a possible translation,
      but it has the weakness that it denotes the shape of the device but not its
      purpose, whereas the pati- element in patibulum draws attention to its
      purpose. A vivid modern translation might be Œdeath-machine¹, but this would
      be found unacceptable by those many commentators who prefer blandness in
      liturgical language.²

      ³In choosing Œgibbet¹ to translate patibulum,² the statement read, ³[ICEL]
      has also been aware that the phrase Œthe gibbet of the Cross¹ was used by
      Saint John Fisher.²

      In the end, the bishops failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed to
      approve the Proper of Seasons in Orlando, so it went back for additional
      tweaking. The text before them this week is the result of that revision ­
      and although the new draft may not satisfy its most severe critics, the
      symbolically laden word ³gibbet² is conspicuously absent.

      On the Wednesday of Holy Week, for example, the Orlando version read: ³Oh
      God, who for our sake willed that your Son should suffer on the gibbet of
      the Cross.² That has been retouched to: ³Oh God, for our sake you willed
      that your Son should suffer the ignominy of the Cross.² A similar phrase is
      used in place of ³gibbet² on Good Friday. Elsewhere, ³gibbet² is simply
      replaced with ³cross.²

      Yesterday, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, chair of the
      bishops¹ committee on liturgy, presented the new draft to the conference.
      During a press briefing later in the day, Serratelli was asked if deletion
      of the term ³gibbet² ought to be read as a choice in favor of a text that¹s
      more understandable.

      ³We want to make it accessible, as well as to draw upon the rich diversity
      of our Biblical and theological language,² Serratelli said.

      ³I wouldn¹t want to see any of us put on the gibbet of vocabulary,²
      Serratelli laughed.

      In fact, regardless of what the bishops decide to do today, they may not
      have seen the last of "gibbet." The text will have to go to Rome for
      approval, which means it's possible that "gibbet," as well as other revised
      points of word choice and sentence structure, could still stage a comeback.

      The Proper of Seasons is one part of the much-anticipated new translation of
      the Roman Missal, the comprehensive collection of prayers and other texts
      for the Mass. During brief floor discussion yesterday, Serratelli was asked
      when he expected the project to finally reach completion. The liturgy
      committee¹s hope, he said, is that the U.S. bishops will finish their review
      of all the translations by November 2010, sending them off to Rome in hopes
      of speedy approval. That would give publishers a year to crank out new
      English editions of the Roman Missal, he said, with the roll-out date in
      parishes thus tentatively set for Advent of 2012.

      Knowing the long and bumpy history of translation debates, however,
      Serratelli quickly added: ³All this is subject to change.²
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