Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

War of the Words: ICEL Called to Accountability

by Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky


This article, by Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky, summarizes Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez’s directive and the "long effort by the Holy See to encourage reforms in an organization that is seen to be increasingly resistant to the concerns of bishops and cardinals who take a particular interest in the accuracy of liturgical translations. ICEL's history has been controversial, marked by charges that it has produced inaccurate translations that have been tainted by contemporary ideologies."

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, February 2000

Invoking the authority of the Holy Father and indicating that it is "inconceivable that English-speaking clergy and faithful should have to wait a decade or more" for liturgical translations, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez has directed that the governing statutes of the International Commission on the Liturgy (ICEL) "be revised thoroughly and without delay." Cardinal Medina says that the problems with English-language liturgical translation "assume a particular gravity" because the impact of English-language translations on other language groups is "an observed and unavoidable fact."

ICEL was established by English-speaking episcopal conferences during the Second Vatican Council to provide consistent translations of liturgical texts into English. Its headquarters are in Washington, DC. [A fuller explanation of ICEL's background can be found in the accompanying sidebar.]

Cardinal Medina is the prefect for the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. His directive caps a decade-long effort by many in the Catholic hierarchy to contain the excesses of ICEL in its liturgical translation and revisions. The cardinal's letter, leaked to the National Catholic Reporter, is addressed to ICEL's chairman, Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, on October 26, 1999. It is the culmination of a long effort by the Holy See to encourage reforms in an organization that is seen to be increasingly resistant to the concerns of bishops and cardinals who take a particular interest in the accuracy of liturgical translations. ICEL's history has been controversial, marked by charges that it has produced inaccurate translations that have been tainted by contemporary ideologies.

After observing that "the competence of the Holy See . . . is not always sufficiently reflected in the [ICEL's] Statutes," Cardinal Medina writes that his Congregation is "exercising the mandate assigned to it in the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, article 62"— where, on June 28, 1988, the Holy Father delegated to Cardinal Medina's Congregation "the regulation and the promotion of the Sacred Liturgy."

Specifically, Cardinal Medina directs that ICEL's governing statutes take into account the following:

• ICEL is to translate "Roman liturgical texts and books in their integrity." ICEL is to be excluded from the "adaptation, modification or the composition of original texts."

• The "office of executive secretary is in need of a careful reconfiguration" to encourage "due accountability" with "a clearer demarcation . . . from that of the Bishop Members of [ICEL]." Cardinal Medina suggests that a bishop, not a layman, be elected executive secretary.

• Paid employees "should serve ad tempus" with renewal procedures for periodic employment.

• Members "currently termed the Advisory Committee or the Secretariat, and their respective collaborators, shall require the nihil obstat of this Congregation in order to assume and to maintain their posts...."

• The work of ICEL should be "anonymous and confidential."

• Direct publication of liturgical texts before recognitio of the Holy See permitting their use in the Sacred Liturgy should be prohibited.

• "The redrafting of the Statutes should be undertaken directly by the Bishop members" of ICEL.

• The definitive draft of the new statutes should be submitted to the Vatican "preferably by Easter of 2000."

Opposition Among The Bishops

According to a December 30, 1999 Catholic News Service report, "Representatives of the II bishops' conferences which sponsor ICEL will meet January 21 in London to discuss Cardinal Medina's letter." Cardinal Francis George, the American member of the ICEL board of governors, will represent the American bishops.

The January meeting promises to be dramatic. In June 1998, the National Catholic Reporter leaked the minutes of a March 24 and 25 meeting of the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). The Administrative Committee is the steering committee for the entire conference. Cardinal George had just been appointed as ICEL's American representative. Before his appointment as ICEL's American representative, George was numbered among the bishops who actively sought to correct the ICEL texts.

The Reporter said that Cardinal George argued that there was "significant opposition" within the American hierarchy to the work of ICEL. The newspaper also reported that several other members of the ICEL board immediately disagreed. But in his October 1999 letter. Cardinal Medina himself said:

In their contacts with the Dicastery, not a few Bishops have expressed concerns not only about the quality of the translations produced by the Mixed Commission [ICEL] but also about procedures which they felt limited their own ability to obtain corrections and improvements that they considered necessary for the accuracy of the texts.

At the upcoming meeting of the ICEL Episcopal representatives, there can be no disagreement as to the gravity of Cardinal Medina's directives.

Historical Background

The decade of the 1990s saw ICEL in a flurry of translation and revision. The most significant ICEL project was the revised ICEL Sacramentary. This is ICEL's first major revision of the translation of the Latin Roman Missal since 1973. The Sacramentary is the book of prayers used by the priest to celebrate Mass. ICEL expected its Sacramentary to be routinely confirmed by the Vatican in 1994 after an anticipated quick approval by the American (and other English-speaking) bishops.

But at their November 1993 plenary meeting, the American bishops delayed the approval process up to three years when they rejected the first segment of the new ICEL Sacramentary. That action set back the work of ICEL for several years. A year later, during the November 1994 meeting of American bishops, Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie— then the chairman of the bishops' Committee on Liturgy—admitted that instead of producing a revised Sacramentary in 1994 as originally planned, ICEL now envisioned a 1998 release as more likely. Even that estimate proved optimistic.

The texts for the revised Sacramentary —eventually released in eight segments, along with certain ancillary texts—were finally approved by the American bishops in 1997, after an exhausting and confusing review process. The Vatican received the texts in 1998. It remains uncertain if and when these texts will be confirmed. The National Catholic Reporter is probably correct in reporting (in a December 24, 1999 article) that, "most observers doubt [the ICEL Sacramentary] will be approved without significant revision."

Revisions by the Vatican—significant or not—were certainly expected by some of the bishops. At the November 1994 plenary meeting of bishops, Bishop Anthony G. Bosco of Greensburg, tried to allay any fears among his brother bishops by suggesting that questions of orthodoxy in the translated texts would be ultimately resolved by the Holy See. He predicted that the Holy See would review the texts with a "fine sieve." He suggested, therefore, that the bishops not continue the "debate on taste" with respect to the translations.

In a September 20, 1997 letter to Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, who was then the president of the NCCB, the then-Archbishop Medina indicated that ICEL's revised Rites of Ordination "cannot be approved or confirmed by the Holy See for liturgical use." Archbishop Medina wrote that the texts of the Rites of Ordination would not be confirmed "not only by reason of its failure to adhere faithfully" to the Latin original "and to convey accurately in English its contents, but also because the translation is not without doctrinal problems." Archbishop Medina observed that because "the shortcomings are so diffused . . . minor isolated corrections will not suffice."

The ICEL translation of the Rites of Ordination is a translation project separate and distinct from the ICEL Sacramentary. For reasons that have never been revealed, the former translation was never approved by the body of the American bishops. Had it been confirmed by the Vatican without that approval from the US bishops' conference, a precedent would have been set that would obviously have influenced the confirmation process for the revised ICEL Sacramentary.

Revisions As Well As Translations

Cardinal Medina accentuated the uncertainty over the ultimate approval of the ICEL Sacramentary in his October 1999 letter. Even though he referred to his 1997 letter, where he corrected in detail ICEL's translation of the Rites of Ordination, Cardinal Medina said the required corrections carry "implications extend [ing] far beyond this single text." He added: "Increasingly, the Mixed Commission's [ICEL's] texts paraphrase or redraft" the original Latin "while revising the rubrics so extensively as to impede effective recourse to the Latin text for the sake of clarification."

(It is interesting to note that Cardinal Medina is suggesting that priests should continue to have "effective recourse to the Latin text for the sake of clarification." This comment is welcome news to many who are concerned that diocesan liturgists sometimes exceed their authority, with questionable explanations that contradict the norms of the Roman Missal. Diocesan directives to include women during the washing of feet on Holy Thursday—in violation of the Roman Missal—is a well-known example.)

ICEL not only attempted extensively to revise the rubrics of the Rites of Ordination, but suggested extensive revisions to the ICEL Sacramentary as well. During the June 1995 meeting of the American bishops the ICEL "variations" to the Roman Missal were considered. For example, the Opening Rites would be called "Entrance Rites," with a variety of new options. Depending upon the option selected, the Gloria could be licitly eliminated. To avoid the use of "He became Man" in the Nicene Creed (Homo factus est), priests would be permitted to substitute the Apostles' Creed at any Mass, not only at Masses for Children. After the Consecration, the translation of the phrase Mysterium fidei (presently translated as "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith"), would be expanded to include several options, such as "Great is the mystery of faith."

Archbishop William J. Levada [then] of Portland observed that, "these changes amount . . . to a massive revision of the basic ritual of the Church's Roman Rite." He added:

The Roman rite has its own intrinsic structure and liturgical forms enshrined in a centuries-old tradition, which has spread thanks to remarkable missionary effort throughout the world. This structure would be rendered practically unidentifiable through the adoption of the variations and changes proposed by ICEL.

When the votes were tallied, the variations were approved by the US bishops, but with only a 3-vote margin of victory.

Observers noted in 1997 that all of the problems identified in Archbishop Medina's letter regarding the Rites of Ordination could apply to the new translation of the ICEL Sacramentary as well. Archbishop Medina wrote that ICEL's composition of new texts for the Rites of Ordination were "in disharmony with the conventions of the Roman Liturgy, confused, largely unsuited to the circumstances in which they would be used, and at best theologically impoverished." He also wrote "the texts that form part of the Eucharistic Prayer" were "[p]articularly problematic." The ICEL Sacramentary, of course, commits the same mistakes. The complaint that ICEL failed "to transmit faithfully important doctrinal aspects of the Latin original" of the Rites of Ordination was echoed by many bishops during the debates on the ICEL Sacramentary.

Any conjecture that Archbishop Medina had acted without the favor of the Holy Father when he criticized ICEL in that 1997 letter was soon to be dispelled. Less than six months after Archbishop Medina released the letter to the NCCB, Pope John Paul II consecrated him as a cardinal, in a consistory held on February 21, 1998.

In his latest, October 1999 letter, Cardinal Medina reiterates his Congregation's "misgivings about the use of [ICEL's] resources for activities not concerned with translation, including the composition of original texts, which in fact are not the province of" ICEL.

ICEL's Principles Of Translation

Since its first English-language texts appeared in the early 1970s, ICEL's translation methods have been controversial. At the November 1994 meeting of the American bishops, several bishops argued that ICEL's principles of translation were based on a flawed and outdated 1969 document, entitled Comme le prevoit, that was included among a flurry of directives that attempted to implement the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. With the passage of time, existing principles of translation embodied in this post-conciliar document were widely seen as deficient. ICEL's use of contemporary language can be traced to this document.

Comme le prevoit also set the groundwork for theories of language and translation principles (such as "dynamic equivalence") that ICEL employs. Proponents of "dynamic equivalence" methods of translation insist such methods are necessary to ensure that liturgical texts can be easily proclaimed in the receptor language. Presumably this is the reason why words like "saint," "merit," "blessed," and "soul," are frequently dropped from the texts,

During the NCCB floor debates, attention was deflected from the substantive issues behind ICEL's proposed revisions by way of reference to the authority of Comme le prevoit. Substantive concerns over the texts of Segment Four (November 1994), for example, were dismissed as merely being "stylistic in nature" or contrary to the "principles prescribed by the Apostolic See in Comme le prevoit." In defending the ICEL texts, the liturgy committee would invoke precedents buried in texts previously approved by the bishops. For example, in explaining why "only Son" was an acceptable translation for the word unigenitus in the preface for the feast of Christ the King, the liturgy committee argued that the "previous segments have established [that] 'Unigenitus' does not always have to be translated as 'only-begotten."'

The "dynamic equivalence" method of translation was also invoked to accommodate a wide application of so-called "inclusive language." Sentences needed to be recast to avoid the generic use of "man" or male pronouns. The pervasive and frequently intrusive alterations were by design, clearly accommodating a contemporary feminist ideology.

As quoted in a January 1997 issue of the New Zealand Catholic, Dr. Ken Larsen, an ex-priest from Auckland, New Zealand, and one of the two principal translators of the revised ICEL Sacramentary, said, "We seldom refer to God as Him or Father, and in general we avoid personal pronouns." According to the New Zealand Catholic Larsen and an American Jesuit, Father James Devereaux, spent more than ten years working on the ICEL Sacramentary. Larsen added: "There are odd occasions where the word Pater occurs in Latin and sometimes you can't get around using the word Father. But in general we have been very meticulous in keeping to the principle of inclusive language."

On June 20, 1996 Archbishop Geraldo Majella Agnelo, then the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, said the Vatican was aware of the pointed debate over liturgical translations, but said the Holy See "pays more attention to the results that are ultimately approved by the bishops' conferences." He did hint the bishops themselves might take a more active role in ensuring the accuracy of translations, saying that perhaps "there is a need to make further clarifications to the bishops' conferences, in order to increase their involvement and their influence in something that is their right and duty: translating liturgical books and texts."

Archbishop Agnelo also gently signaled that ICEL's principles of translation were outdated. He said that while Comme le prevoit contains "valuable principles," it must be recognized "as a text dated 1969, from the first period of liturgical reform." He said that its current value "is therefore conditioned by the experience of the last 27 years, along with the fact that there exist new canon law norms regarding the approval of such translations." Archbishop Agnelo also observed that when the Vatican issued an instruction on inculturation and the Roman liturgy in 1994, no reference was made to Comme le prevoit. Instead, he said, it cited the Pope's 1988 apostolic letter on the liturgy, which called for a reflection throughout the universal Church on how liturgical translations have been accomplished and on the specific role of bishops' conferences in the process.

Despite such admonitions by the Vatican on the now-questionable value of Comme le prevoit, the trajectory of ICEL's translations remained the same. In subsequent meetings of the NCCB, Comme le prevoit was invoked to dismiss substantive written amendments to the liturgical texts. For example, during the November 1996 meeting of US bishops, when Bishop James Sullivan of Fargo recommended that ICEL translate Omnipotens et misericors Deus "consistently and accurately," the liturgy committee responded with a citation from Comme le prevoit: "a word-for-word equivalency is too mechanistic and does not exploit the properties of the receiver language." Interventions made by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and others were also rejected by reference to the norms of Comme le prevoit.

ICEL Tactics

ICEL also has a history of attempting to circumvent the authority of the Catholic bishops and Vatican dicasteries. In a preliminary step in revising the Divine Office, ICEL published a new "inclusive language" translation of the Psalter in April 1995. Although it was said to be published for study and comment—and not for liturgical use—the intensive promotion of the ICEL Psalter provided wide access to texts that have not been approved for liturgical use by the NCCB nor by the Vatican. Publication of the ICEL Canticles followed. Both were published by Liturgical Training Publications (a press which belongs to the Archdiocese of Chicago), and are being promoted for liturgical use.

In his October 1999 letter. Cardinal Medina objects to this tactic: "A further concern is the fact that the Mixed Commission's authorization for the use of its texts, such as the so-called ICEL Psalter, appears to have resulted in their being employed in ways which directly contravene liturgical law."

Such attempts to contravene liturgical law have frustrated many of the bishops and other observers who have followed ICEL's activity over the years. Cardinal Medina clearly addressed the problem observing that, "texts and the rubrics have sometimes been altered in substance without prior authorization from the Holy See, and indeed without even a request for such authorization."

Referring to reports that ICEL plans to publish the recently revised ICEL Sacramentary for use by non-Catholics before Vatican confirmation. Cardinal Medina writes, "This very fact has then been presented to the Congregation by some quarters as an argument that the recognitio should be granted so as not to impede an ecumenical initiative." Cardinal Medina insists, on the contrary: "The freedom of the Holy See to act in matters pertaining to its competence cannot be encumbered in such a way."

Cardinal Medina's letter also revealed a little-known example of ICEL's propensity to avoid hierarchical guidance and supervision—a boldness that surprised even those who closely monitor ICEL's work. Normally, liturgical texts translated by ICEL are approved by English-speaking bishops and submitted to the Vatican for confirmation before publication for liturgical use. Cardinal Medina's letter indicates that he is "obliged to note" that a translation of the Ceremonial of Bishops (the book of prayers used by bishops during the celebration of major celebrations) "was published by [ICEL] without the necessary Episcopal approbation and without the recognitio of this Congregation."

Cardinal Medina identifies "certain liberties" taken by the executive secretary as a matter of "particular concern, observing: "All of these factors appear to converge towards the conclusion that [ICEL] in its present form 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, nor to produce with appropriate promptness the texts that will be needed in the foreseeable future…" Hence he directs that "the office of executive secretary" in particular be carefully reconfigured "so as to increase in a notable way the due accountability of such a figure and to ensure a clearer demarcation of his role from that of the Bishop Members of the Commission."

ICEL And The American Bishops

The ICEL tactics identified by Cardinal Medina are consistent with ICEL's history of its dealings with the American bishops. In 1994, ICEL officials received a promise of funding by the American bishops—funding that was desperately needed because income from the royalties on the sale of liturgical books was insufficient to pay for ICEL's expenses. Now on the bishops' financial life support, ICEL was able to chart a strategy of limited response as it endured a prolonged Episcopal review.

ICEL's lack of response during the bishops' review of the ICEL Sacramentary was exceptionally effective in muting Episcopal efforts to change the ICEL texts in detail. When the American bishops at long last approved the final segments of the ICEL Sacramentary in November 1996, Episcopal impatience and confusion was clearly evident.

During the floor debate, for example, Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis reiterated his written intervention in regard to the word "presbyter." He wrote "here and wherever it appears, [the word 'presbyter' should] be changed to 'priest'…" He added that, "it would be useful to be consistent and to follow the normal way the vast majority of people speak. " Yet Archbishop Rigali's motion was voted down in a voice vote after Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, then the president of the ICEL Episcopal board, suggested that such a motion would cause all of the previously approved texts to be sent back to ICEL for revision and undo everything already voted on by the bishops. (One observer from the press muttered that most computers have a "word search" capability that would easily remedy the problem.)

Moreover, nearly a year later in September 1997, Archbishop Medina expressed the same concern in his critique of the translation of the Rites of Ordination: "Prominent among the problems is the decision of the translators to break with common Catholic usage and translate the Latin 'presbyteri' into English not with 'priests' but with 'presbyters.'"

Within the NCCB, the bishops were forced to choose between the details of the translations and ICEL's arcane bureaucratic procedures of review and approval. The prospect of repeating a grueling three-year process was enough to silence the bishops who had taken an active interest in an accurate and beautiful translation of the liturgical texts. As one bishop said privately after the November 1996 meeting, to continue to make interventions on the floor of the Conference would have been counterproductive; it would have only irritated an exhausted body of bishops.

With the threat of lengthy delays in the conference, it is likely that many bishops decided to avoid further debate in the hope that the Vatican would ultimately correct the texts. As the review process continued over the years, many bishops did not even bother to vote; their abstentions produced further bureaucratic delays, as in some cases the bishops had to be polled by mail in order to ascertain whether a measure had received the votes necessary for approval. In an EWTN television interview during the November 1996 meeting of the NCCB, Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss of Omaha lamented ICEL's lack of response:

I think for the most part the debate [over the ICEL Sacramentary} is over. We have been fighting about this for several years and arguing and discussing it. We made our interventions and we tried to get a response. The body of bishops generally wants to finish it and get on with it. So I think that is the reason there has been so little debate at this point. After that vote, one bishop privately asked, "Do you know what we voted on? I don't." He was not the only member of the Episcopal conference who was confused. At the same meeting, Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond made a remarkable admission. He expressed confusion over the availability of a new Eucharistic prayer, "Eucharistic Prayer for Masses for Various Needs and Occasions," stating " … it was only recently that I was in a religious goods store and I saw this beautiful booklet on Eucharistic prayers for [various needs and occasions] and I thought, 'Where did this come from?"' It was only two years earlier, at the November 1994 plenary meeting, that the American bishops had approved this translation. By May 1995, the Holy See had confirmed the translation and by early 1996, the prayer was published by the liturgy committee and made available to priests—and bishops—for the celebration of the Mass.

The November 1996 plenary meeting of the NCCB saw the bishops’ review and quickly approved the final major sections of the ICEL Sacramentary. This Communion antiphon was among the many translations approved: "Seeing the brothers Simon and Andrew beside the Lake of Galilee, the Lord called out to them: Follow me, and fish for people."

ICEL's Tactics With The Vatican

The National Catholic Reporter, in its June 18, 1998 issue, revealed the urgency of ICEL's concern over the prospect of an unraveling ICEL Sacramentary in Rome —the consequence of the Vatican's rejection of the ICEL translation of the Rites of Ordination. According to the Reporter, No formal decisions were made at the ICEL board meeting as to how to respond to Rome's most recent actions, though sources said the bishops hoped for a dialogue with Rome —a dialogue that would observe ICEL's established processes, rather than Rome issuing mandates. By 1999, Cardinal Medina apparently recognized that the call for "dialogue" and other bureaucratic maneuvers by ICEL were actually tactics of delay. After Archbishop Medina's 1997 directive to correct translation errors in the Rites of Ordination, ICEL prepared draft responses that were multiple and confusing. ICEL's new drafts of the Rites of Ordination were in disarray, causing consternation at the Vatican. In his October 1999 letter. Cardinal Medina reveals: "…one draft translation was substituted at short notice by another, and that after the second had been approved by the Bishops of the Commission, that text was then set aside by [Bishop Maurice Taylor] in favor of a third text."

Cardinal Medina reminds the ICEL chairman that the Vatican's criticism of the ICEL translation of the Rites of Ordination, detailed in a September 1997 letter, was not "exhaustive" but "was merely illustrative" and "not intended to be subject to discussion or refutation by translation personnel of [ICEL]." It was the final call to accountability. While Cardinal Medina indicates that the bishops were "always most welcome" to visit with his Congregation, he adds that, "the feasibility of more ample contacts between the Congregation and the employees or collaborators of the Commission is doubtful."

Another ICEL tactic is to deflect attention from the revised texts by drawing a caricature of its critics. In a June 1994 interview in the US Catholic, ICEL staffer James Schellman insisted that the new revisions of the ICEL Sacramentary were "not at all" drastic, saying that the critics of ICEL's work were "not conservative" but indeed "arch-conservative." He explained: "Fundamentally that criticism seems to mean that, in the archconservatives' minds, the priest and no one else is representing Christ in the assembly."

Apparently ICEL also impugned the motives of Cardinal Medina and his staff, moving him to insist that his "observations have often been countered with unfounded charges of personal grudges and hostility to the Commission." The cardinal was quick to link ICEL's ad hominem tactics to a larger strategy of non-cooperation, concluding:

In reality, the lack of response to the Holy See's stated concerns on the part of those who have effectively had in hand the work of the Commission has often hampered and delayed the Congregation's work to a notable degree, also occasioning a disproportionate commitment of its resources.

Power Grab Or Legitimate Authority?

In a December 24, 1999 editorial, the National Catholic Reporter described Cardinal Medina's letter as a "bare-knuckles power grab" and encouraged the Vatican to "take the time for real debate on translation." This ignores the fact that ICEL was given considerable time and opportunity to reform itself. In December 1988, six months after granting the Congregation for Divine Worship authority to regulate matters of liturgy in the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, the Holy Father issued an apostolic letter on the liturgy, calling for a Church-wide reflection on how liturgical translations have been accomplished and on the specific role of bishops' conferences in the process. He wrote:

For the work of translation, as well as for the wider implications of liturgical renewal for whole countries, each Episcopal conference was required to establish a national commission and ensure the collaboration of experts in the various sectors of liturgical science and pastoral practice. The time has come to evaluate this commission [i.e., ICEL], its past activity, both the positive and negative aspects, and the guidelines and the help which it has received from the Episcopal conference regarding its composition and activity. (20)

The Holy Father's concern for accurate and beautiful liturgical translations was reiterated in December 1993, shortly after the American bishops stunned ICEL by delaying the approval of its first segment of the Sacramentary. In an address to the bishops of California, Nevada, and Hawaii, during their ad Limina visit to Rome, the Pontiff affirmed the responsibility of the bishops to insist upon an accurate translation of the Roman Missal. He advised the bishops to "guard the full doctrinal integrity and beauty of the original [liturgical] texts." Translations, insisted the Pope, are to be "free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence." Finally, he said liturgical translations were to reflect a "language of praise and worship which fosters respect and gratitude for God's greatness, compassion and power."

Beyond these public directives and expressions of concern by the Pope, Cardinal Medina insisted that his Vatican office has communicated "for a number of years now … concerns regarding an undue autonomy that has been observed in the translations prepared by" ICEL. The Holy Father's comments make it clear that Cardinal Medina's exercise of authority is not capricious, nor is he acting alone; nor is he bound by ICEL procedures. Cardinal Medina declares—with clear papal authority—that his office is defined by a mandate "ensuring that translations accurately and fully convey the content of the original texts."

The Future Of ICEL

Is ICEL as an organization essential to that mandate? In September 1999, the NCCB published the English translations of a small supplemental volume of Mass prayers and prefaces to be used during the "Great Jubilee Year 2000." The texts—in Latin, English and Spanish—were approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship. A close observer described the translation as an "excellent rendering of the Latin" and hoped that it is "a sign of things to come."

Apparently, ICEL was not involved in that process. Nowhere does ICEL receive credit for the translation. The introductory letter by Roger Cardinal Etchegaray also offered a provocative detail. He indicated that if any "bishop would like to prepare a different translation to the one approved, he should submit the translation to the Congregation for Divine Worship for the required approval." ICEL's monopoly on the translation of the Mass into English may already be broken.

It may be tempting for some supporters of ICEL to downplay the authority and burden of responsibility that belongs to Cardinal Medina and the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship. But in view of the cardinal's October letter directing the reorganization of ICEL, it would be a mistake to underestimate his determination.

What Is ICEL?

ICEL was established on October 17, 1963 as an unincorporated association of bishops. In 1967, ICEL was incorporated in Canada. The founding bishops represented the following conferences: Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa, and the United States. An eleventh "member" conference, the Philippines, joined ICEL in 1967. Each member conference appoints a bishop representative to the Episcopal Board of ICEL.

In subsequent years, fifteen other conferences were added as "associate members." They include: the Antilles, Bangladesh, CEPAC (Figi Islands, Raratonga, Samoa and Tokelau, Tonga), Gamba-Liberia-Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia-Singapore, Malawi, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, Sri Lanks, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In 1995, ICEL revenues were $767,976 most of which came from royalty revenue of $601,477 and Conference of Bishops assessments of $155,427.

An Outline of ICEL History

ICEL’s Progress Reports

In 1992, ICEL releases the Third Progress Report on the Revision of the Roman Missal, which deals principally with the revised translation of texts of the Order of Mass. Among other changes for "inclusive language" purposes, ICEL proposes that the translation of Homo factus EST in the Nicene Creed be changed. Translated literally in 1973, as Jesus "became man," ICEL proposes that the translation be that Jesus "became truly human." Proposed changes also include a contemporary translation of the Our Father.

November 15-18, 1993: Washington, DC

ICEL Segment One and the Grail Psalter

The American bishops stun ICEL and the liturgy committee by delaying the approval process. The texts, eventually released in eight segments along with certain ancillary texts, would finally be received by the Vatican in 1998, delayed by four years. (The bishops also reject the "inclusive language" Grail Psalter.)

In December 1993, Pope John Paul II advises American bishops to "guard the full doctrinal integrity and beauty" of liturgical texts. Translations, insist the Pope, are be "free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence."

June 23, 1994: San Diego

NCCB "Study Day" on Liturgical Translations

The bishops approve a "Forum on the Vernacular" to discuss principles of liturgical translation. The Forum is scheduled to take place in June 1997 in Kansas City. But the Forum is later modified and rescheduled for November 1998 in Washington, DC

November 13-16, 1994: Washington, DC

ICEL Segments One and Two; "Swiss Synod" Eucharistic Prayer

These texts are approved by the NCCB. Cardinal William Keeler says that while the Forum on the Vernacular and the review of ICEL texts were on "separate tracks" future translation offerings might be evaluated against the findings of the Forum. Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, then the president of ICEL Episcopal board, is among the six bishops named to the doctrine committee. The doctrine committee is charged with the responsibility for reviewing all liturgical revisions for sound doctrine.

June 15-17, 1995: Chicago

ICEL’s Segment Three and the American Adaptations

These texts include the main parts of the Mass. Despite the efforts of Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C., and other bishops, to obtain a more accurate translation of the Roman Canon, the bishops fail to correct most of the translation mistakes made by ICEL in the 1973 Sacramentary. But Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s amendment to allow standing during the Eucharistic Prayer as an option is withdrawn to avoid the risk of rejection. The ICEL "variations" to the Roman Missal cause Archbishop William J. Levada of Portland to observe that, "these changes amount…to a massive revision of the basic ritual of the Church’s Roman Rite."

November 13-16, 1995: Washington, D.C.

ICEL’s Segment IV; Pastoral Introduction

These texts are approved by the NCCB despite detailed interventions by several bishops.

June 20-22, 1996: Portland

ICEL Segments Five and Six

These texts are approved by the NCCB. The pattern of translation and revision had been firmly established according to the 1969 Vatican guidelines, Comme le prevoit. But in Rome, Archbishop Geraldo Majella Agnelo, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, suggests that Comme le prevoit is outdated.

Also, Chilean Archbishop Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez is named by Pope John Paul II as pro-prefect for the same congregation. Archbishop Medina says in an interview, "There is no reason to lament the fact that some translations are not faithful but quite fanciful [fantasiosi]…"

November 13-16, 1996: Washington, D.C.

ICEL Segments VII and VIII

The bishops continue to approve the final segments of the ICEL Sacramentary. Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss, of Omaha, describes the mood of the bishops:"…the mood of the body is to accept the work of the committee. All of the arguments have been made—pro and con—on translations. So the matter now is pretty much over."

June 20-22, 1997: Kansas City

ICEL’s Final Text of the Sacramentary

The bishops approve almost all of ICEL’s revisions to the ICEL Sacramentary and begin to prepare the text for submission to the Vatican.

November 10-13, 1997: Washington, D.C.

Vatican Rejection of ICEL’s Rites of Ordination

In a September 20, 1997 letter to the President of the American bishops, the Vatican indicates that ICEL’s revised Rites of Ordination—which is separate and distinct from the ICEL’s Sacramentary—" cannot be approved or confirmed by the Holy See for liturgical use." Observers note that all of the problems identified in Archbishop Medina’s letter could also apply to the new translation of the ICEL Sacramentary.

June 18-20, 1998: Pittsburgh

Hints that changes may be required of ICEL

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, according to the National Catholic Reporter, tells the ICEL Episcopal board that there was "significant opposition" within the American hierarchy to its work. Meanwhile, other ICEL projects come under Vatican scrutiny. The Vatican makes 400 changes to the ICEL introduction to the proposed new Lectionary, and asks that the imprimatur be lifted from ICEL’s 1995 translation of the psalter.

September 1999

New translation without ICEL

With little notice, the NCCB publishes a small supplement of Mass texts for the Jubilee year 2000. ICEL is not credited with the translation and individual bishops are invited to submit their own translations if they choose to do so.

October 1999

Cardinal Medina’s Letter

In a letter leaked late in December 1999, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez—writing in an unusually candid language—directs that ICEL’s statutes be revised.

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is the rector of St. Peter's Church in Washington, Virginia, co-founder of Credo, and a member of the executive committee of Adoremus.

© The Catholic World Report, P.O. Box 591300, San Francisco, CA 94159-1300, 800-651-1531.

This item 2855 digitally provided courtesy of