Following publication of the third Latin edition of the Roman Missal in March 2002 as the official standard for the liturgy, the next step was to make vernacular language editions available - including English.
To this end, on 20 April, Pope John Paul II announced the setting up of a new body representative of the world's English-speaking bishops' conferences - called the Vox Clara Committee. Its role, he said, was "to assist and advise the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in fulfilling its responsibilities with regard to the English translations of liturgical texts."
The Committee, consisting of 12 bishops from such nations as the US, Canada, England, Ireland, Ghana, India, the Philippines and Australia, elected as its chairman Archbishop George Pell of Sydney.
John Paul II further directed that this Committee ensure "the texts of the Roman Rite are accurately translated in accordance with the norms of the Instruction Liturgiam Authenticam" and the process of completing an English translation of the new Roman Missal is completed "as soon as possible."
The Holy Father's concerns derive from the problems that have dogged the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the body set up to produce uniform English translations of liturgical texts under the supervision of representatives of the world's English-speaking bishops' conferences.
In practice, over the years since Vatican II, ICEL had taken on a life of its own, at times by-passing both the bishops' conferences and Rome in producing and publishing its sometimes free-wheeling, ideologically-driven translations.
Vatican dissatisfaction with ICEL came to a head in the form of a strongly-worded letter dated 26 October 1999 from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, to the Chairman of the Episcopal Board which oversees ICEL, Scotland's Bishop Maurice Taylor.
Cardinal Estévez wrote: "In its present form [ICEL] is not in a position to render to the bishops, to the Holy See and to the English-speaking faithful an adequate level of service." He pointed out that "ICEL texts often did not follow the original Latin closely enough; the process for developing, copyrighting and approving translations did not give bishops enough room for making changes and suggestions; and ICEL was writing its own material, not just translating Vatican-approved Latin texts."
Cardinal Estévez directed that ICEL's governing statutes "be revised thoroughly and without delay," adding that his Vatican office had communicated "for a number of years now ... concerns regarding an undue autonomy that has been observed in the translations prepared by ICEL."
Now, with the setting up of the Vox Clara Committee, Rome clearly wants to strengthen its supervision of ICEL's work while allowing for a more direct role for the world's English-speaking bishops' conferences.
Earlier, Australia's National Liturgical Commission had announced on 4 April 2002 that ICEL was expected to be forwarding a draft translation to Rome for approval before the end of the year. But any such text would need to embody the principles for translation set out in Liturgiam Authenticam.
In this regard, the Vox Clara Committee should be in a position to minimise any gaps in thinking between ICEL, the world's English-speaking bishops' conferences and the Holy See, thus eliminating needless delays in finalising the official translations - as has occurred in the past.
Close alignment to Liturgiam Authenticam by all concerned should ensure a common approach prevails, as this Vatican document, issued with the endorsement of John Paul II on 25 April 2001, leaves little margin for error: "The greatest prudence and attention are required in the preparation of liturgical books marked by sound doctrine, which are exact in wording [and] free from all ideological influence ...".
The document calls for a more literal approach to translation than has been ICEL's previous practice and stresses the importance of using a specifically sacral vocabulary: "While the translation must transmit the perennial treasury of orations by means of language understandable in the cultural context for which it is intended, it should also be guided by the conviction that liturgical prayer not only is formed by the genius of a culture, but itself contributes to the development of that culture. Consequently it should cause no surprise that such language differs somewhat from ordinary speech. Liturgical translation ... will facilitate the development of a sacral vernacular, characterised by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship...".
It cited a number of examples of what it wanted in a revised English translation, e.g., "I believe" instead of "We believe" in the Creed.
In a statement dated 24 April, the Vox Clara Committee outlined its role: to serve "as an instrument of consultation to assist the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in its work for English-language translations of liturgical texts and to enhance and strengthen effective cooperation with the Conferences of Bishops." Archbishop Pell emphasised "the absolute need for translations of the Roman editiones typicae" to be "precise, theologically faithful and effectively proclaimable".
The Committee statement concluded that ICEL now faces a major challenge to renew its Statutes and structures in the light of the Instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, and to send "an unmistakable signal that the goal of achieving good liturgical translations is in sight".