New English Missal: Vatican sets guidelines for ICEL

New English Missal: Vatican sets guidelines for ICEL

Michael Gilchrist

Pope John Paul II is determined to have "as soon as possible" a satisfactory English translation of the new Roman Missal (Third Edition), the Latin text of which was presented to him on 18 March 2002. To this end, the Vatican has been pushing the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) to produce a translation that is both accurate and sacred in style.

The ICEL board, composed of delegates from its 11 member English-speaking bishops' conferences, was to meet in late July to choose a successor to Executive Secretary John Page, who had led its staff since 1980 and whose resignation becomes effective on 15 August. Page has continued to defend the "dynamic equivalence" translation philosophy followed by ICEL, despite its outright rejection by the Vatican as conducive to doctrinal defects. The choice of Page's successor will be a clear indication of where ICEL is headed - or even if it has any future at all.

In October 1999, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship ordered ICEL to redraft its statutes, giving the Vatican more direct control. But the ICEL governing board has so far adopted Medina's requests only in part and Rome is fast running out of patience, given the urgency of finalising the new Missal's English translation according to the guidelines set out in Liturgiam Authenticam last year.

The problems the Holy See has to contend with were highlighted during the first-of-its-kind Jesuit conference on liturgy, held in Rome between 17 and 22 June 2002. With a few exceptions, most speakers were critical of recent Vatican policies as "centralist" and insufficiently respectful of cultural pluralism.

However, the setting up of the Vox Clara Committee (chaired by Archbishop George Pell of Sydney) earlier this year to provide advice on translation issues was evidence Rome is determined to see that ICEL's efforts match the requirements of Liturgiam Authenticam. Vox Clara is also seeking a successor to ICEL's retiring Executive Secretary.

To make very clear what it did not want in the new Missal's translation, the Congregation for Divine Worship on 16 March sent its "Observations" on the most recent ICEL attempt at a revised translation of the 1975 Roman Missal to all English-speaking bishops' conferences. The full text of these Observations has only recently become available.

The following are some examples from the many critical comments made on ICEL's work by the Congregation - and its reason for refusing a recognitio.

The expression "Sacramentary" instead of "The Roman Missal" was rejected for furthering "a mistaken conception of this 'Sacramentary' as a new and somewhat autonomous liturgical book for the English-speaking world."

It found ICEL's approach wanting in the area of prayers of petition, which it said was "adversely affected" when "many of the texts now appear to say to God rather abruptly: 'You did a; now do b'." It also singled out "the unfortunately monotonous effect of placing the vocative 'Lord' always at the beginning of the prayers."

It rejected ICEL's use of "inclusive language", describing such expressions as "humankind" as "faddish" and "ill-adapted to the liturgical context." Omission of the term "men" in the Nicene Creed, it said, had "effects that are theologically grave." Use of the words "for us and for our salvation" no longer "clearly refers to the salvation of all, but apparently only that of those who are present. The 'us' thereby becomes potentially exclusive rather than inclusive."

ICEL's invariable use of the neuter pronoun "it" instead of "she" when referring to the Church was also criticised. "So designated, the Church can appear to be a mere social aggregate, deprived of much of the mystery that has been emphasised especially in relatively recent teaching by the Magisterium. The pronoun 'it' does not seem to refer properly to the reality of the Church, portrayed by Divine Revelation as our Mother and Christ's Bride."

It noted that "for patena, calix, etc, the translators avoid the use of specifically sacral terminology, and use words commonly employed in the vernacular for kitchenware. In an already secularised culture, it is difficult to see what legitimate purpose could be served by a deliberate desacralisation of religious terminology. There do exist in English words for these items having sacral connotations, such as 'paten' and 'chalice', but these are assiduously avoided in the translation."

Role of priest

Elsewhere, especially in the Eucharistic Prayers, the Congregation for Divine Worship found the separate roles of priest and worshippers were obscured in the ICEL translation: "In the vast majority of the cases in which the priest prays in the third person for the people (and again, the Eucharistic Prayers are notable in this regard) the translators have opted instead for the first person plural. Such a choice obscures the distinction of roles that is evident in the Latin text, and in particular the priest's role as intercessor and mediator vis-à-vis the people for whom he prays in an unselfish manner. The priest is thus submerged within an amorphous congregation that prays for itself."

The defective translation in the Eucharistic Prayer, commencing "Pray, brethren, ..." of "meum ac vestrum sacrificium" as "our sacrifice" instead of "my sacrifice and yours" was also seen as "to the detriment of the distinction of roles between priest and people ... as if the congregation and priest both offered the sacrifice in an indistinct manner."

Rome, therefore, has clearly mapped out the path the new English translation of the Missal must take if it is to be approved. The time for debate is over. If ICEL wishes to remain much longer in existence, it will have to co-operate fully with Rome.

Much work remains to be done and time is short.

The full text of the Vatican Observations can be found on the Adoremus website: (

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