National Catholic Reporter: Gibbet debates
- 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.
³Guillotine¹, electric chair¹ and syringe¹ share the purpose of
patibulum, but not its shape. Gallows¹ 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. Yoke¹ 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 death-machine¹, but this would
be found unacceptable by those many commentators who prefer blandness in
³In choosing gibbet¹ to translate patibulum,² the statement read, ³[ICEL]
has also been aware that the phrase the 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
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
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