Retiring Erie bishop backs simpler English in Mass

Trautman opposes translations from the Latin backed by Vatican

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When he turned 75 on Friday Catholic Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie submitted his mandatory resignation to Pope Benedict XVI. No one knows how long the pope will wait to accept it from a bishop who has rattled Roman officials with his relentless opposition to impending changes to the English-language Mass.

Bishop Trautman is famous in church circles for opposing new Mass translations that he believes are so literal to the Latin that their English meaning is obscured. Though his quest for greater clarity and flow of language largely failed, he won the respect of his fiercest opponents.

"He's tenaciously loyal to his beliefs. From an outsider's point of view it might not be consistent because he objects to accurate translations of the faith," said Helen Hull Hitchcock, who edits the conservative liturgical journal Adoremus. "But he's been very courageous in his diocese."

Bishop Trautman doesn't regret the effort.

"I'm not a rabble-rouser. I'm not a radical. You talk to my priests and they probably think I'm the most conservative bishop in the country." Indeed he might be most known outside Erie for forbidding public supporters of legal abortion to receive honors from Catholic institutions.

"But I try to stand for certain principles and be sincere and authentic," he said.

He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., sensing from childhood that God had called him to be a priest.

After his first years of seminary he was shocked when his bishop sent word for him to finish his studies in Innsbruck, Austria. He had never heard of the theologians of Innsbruck, including Karl Rahner and Josef Jungmann, who would soon have a leading role in shaping the Second Vatican Council.

Several years later, Father Rahner gave him his final oral exam.

Ordained in 1962, he was soon sent for a doctorate in Old Testament. He studied in Rome during the headiest years of Vatican II.

That council of the world's 2,000 Catholic bishops transformed the church, most conspicuously by changing the Mass from Latin to local languages. He was pressed into service as an aide.

One elderly bishop often fell asleep, then would ask him how to vote and sometimes have him mark the ballot.

"So I voted at Vatican II," Bishop Trautman said.

The council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which decreed that the laity must be able to easily understand the Mass, shaped his ministry. But critics of what has happened since Vatican II, sometimes including Pope Benedict, believe that some reforms went too far. They believe that simplistic translations rendered a sublime Mass mundane.

Bishop Trautman disagrees. He believes that because Latin syntax is so different from that of English, literal translations produce convoluted and awkward language. Further, he believes that the Vatican II documents calling for simple, clear wording have more authority than recent decrees that he says require "slavishly" following the Latin.

"Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised if it takes a long time for the council to be implemented. But we must not betray the 2,000 bishops who came. This was the whole church, and it was a powerful statement that the Holy Spirit was present and breathed into those documents what was needed for the church," Bishop Trautman said.

In 1966 he became a seminary professor in Buffalo, and later diocesan chancellor. In 1985 Pope John Paul II made him an auxiliary bishop, and in 1990 sent him to Erie.

He made few waves in Pennsylvania until 1995, when he told then-Gov. Tom Ridge, a Catholic and an Erie native, that he couldn't allow Gannon University to give him an honorary degree because he supported legal abortion.

Mr. Ridge didn't protest, and proposed a compromise in which he would speak, but not receive a degree. Bishop Trautman agreed, but later extended the ban to speeches. In 2008 he didn't attend a Mercyhurst College graduation, several weeks after Hillary Clinton made a presidential campaign speech there.

"I saw that also as an attack on our value system," he said. "I'm not trying to run a seminary at either college. But I believe that if you give the podium or a degree to someone, that person must reflect the values of the institution."

But Bishop Trautman hasn't joined some other bishops in forbidding priests to give Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

"I don't think we can judge conscience," he said. "The Eucharist is not meant to be a fighting arena."

He has met with such leaders and told them that they shouldn't come forward for Communion when they are publicly at odds with church teaching on human life.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., worked closely with him in the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference for 16 years.

"He's deeply, deeply grounded in the church's prayer, the liturgy. When you see him celebrate Mass, it is obvious that it's a moment of intense spiritual encounter," said Pittsburgh's former bishop. "That may also explain the intensity of his convictions surrounding the liturgy."

For more than 15 years he waged an open battle against powerful Vatican officials who sought to translate the Mass nearly word-for-word from the Latin, rather than use more familiar words and phrasing. Two decades ago he helped lead a call by the bishops' to render "man" or "brothers" in gender inclusive language when the passage addressed men and women. But bishops and Vatican offices were bombarded with letters calling these proposed translations a heretical, feminist plot.

In 1994, his first year as chairman of the Committee on Liturgy, he told the bishops that a yearlong study by their doctrine committee had found no heresy, and that the translations were superior to the current ones.

"Our theology tells us that at Baptism we are all made equal," he said. "Our prayers must reflect that. To exclude women in prayer is a disservice to the church, to the body of Christ."

Rome never approved the gender-inclusive translations. By 1998 Bishop Trautman was publicly criticizing editorial revisions by Vatican bureaucrats, who he believed had usurped the bishops' right to decide how best to communicate the faith in their own language and culture.

"It is not an appropriate view of collegiality to have a copy-editing role for Rome on matters that are not doctrinal," he told his fellow bishops in 1998. "Do people absent from our shores understand the language better than we do?"

Over the years he skewered many translations. He objected to calling the lecturn an ambo. He resisted changing the creed's "of one being with the Father" to "consubstantial with the Father."

In 2001, Pope John Paul II signed a decree saying that the key criterion for translation was fealty to the Latin. It discouraged gender-inclusive language, and said that archaic words helped to make the liturgy special. It gave Rome, not the bishops of a nation, final say on translations. Still Bishop Trautman fought on for eight more years.

His fellow bishops repeatedly elected him to lead the fight.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit scholar who studies the hierarchy, said his fellow bishops elected him to lead the charge on liturgy "because he was smart, hardworking and focused on what was best for the church, not just what was best for his career or what powerful prelates wanted."

Bishop Trautman has ensured that the bishops fully grappled with changes to the liturgy, said Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska, a Pittsburgh native.

"He raises questions with a great deal of passion and zeal. Those are the same traits that you found in the early apostles."

But nearly all changes he backed were rejected by Rome.

The words of the Mass are crucial because, from the foundation of the church, they have summarized and taught the Christian faith, Bishop Trautman said.

"That is what we have to continue to do today. So it is important that we speak to contemporary people in their idiom and in their language," he said.

"When Jesus talked to the people he talked to them in ways that they could understand. Look at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus wasn't above the people. He talked to the average person. Once the church fails to do that, we are losing our Christian heritage."

The new missal, he said, "will be a pastoral disaster because it will not relate to many people."

Ms. Hitchcock believes that Bishop Trautman hasn't kept up with church teaching.

"I think he's wedded to a perspective that was dominant among biblical scholars in the years following Vatican II. But that's been re-evaluated," she said.

"Bishop Trautman often talks of communicating to Joe and Mary Catholic. But the approach to translation today values accuracy in translation more than appealing to contemporary people wherever they happen to be."

The new translations that he resisted so vigorously will be introduced this fall.

"I will follow the directives. But I will also say, 'I told you so.' I think that in years to come there will be adjustments," he said.

He knows that some bishops believe he might have won more battles if he had waged them behind closed doors. "I believe in diplomacy. I love the church and have given my whole life to the church. Why would I ever want to hurt the church or any hierarch?" he said. "But I think we need to stand up and be counted for the sake of the people when it comes to important issues. I believe we need to serve the people. However I can do that, I will."

Correction/Clarification: (Published June 28, 2011) Bishop Donald Trautman of the Catholic Diocese of Erie didn't attend the Mercyhurst College graduation in 2008, several weeks after Hillary Clinton made a presidential campaign speech at the Catholic school. An incorrect year and circumstance was given in a June 26 story about Bishop Trautman.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416.


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