Holy See rejects the latest ICEL submission

Holy See rejects the latest ICEL submission

The deep dissatisfaction which many Catholics have felt about the inferior quality and inaccuracy of English translations of Mass prayers and readings used in the reformed liturgy since Vatican II has come to a head in the Holy See’s rejection of the latest production from ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy).


The detailed criticisms of ICEL’s proposed revision of the ritual used for the ordination of bishops, priests and deacons was revealed in a letter dated 20 September 1997 - only made public via the Internet earlier this year. This letter was from Archbishop (now Cardinal) Jorge Medina Estevez, Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland and was accompanied by a 114-paragraph Observations setting out the Holy See’s concerns in some detail.

Archbishop Estevez’s letter stated that the ICEL ordination ritual revision, titled Rites of Ordination of Bishops, Presbyters and Deacons, "cannot be approved or confirmed by the Holy See for liturgical use." This revision had been approved by the Administrative Committee of the US Bishops’ Conference in March 1996 (but not by the whole Conference) and submitted to the Holy See for approval as required for all revised liturgical texts.

The new text could not be confirmed for liturgical use, "Not only by reason of its failure to adhere faithfully to the Latin editio typica altera and to convey accurately in English its contents, but also because its translation is not without doctrinal problems." (The editio typica is the authorised Latin text which provides the basis for any vernacular translation).

Because "the shortcomings are so diffused," the Vatican letter added, "minor isolated corrections will not suffice." It further advised that "it may be helpful to recommend that there be a complete change of translators on this project and that a new, independent and definitive English version be made afresh from the Latin texts." [Our emphasis].

The ICEL proposal’s "shortcomings" included the following:

  • "... the translation is seriously deficient. Particularly problematic are the texts that form part of the Eucharistic Prayer ...".
  • "[The translation] fails to transmit faithfully important doctrinal aspects of the Latin original. It appears, indeed, consciously or unconsciously to promote a view of sacramental and ecclesiological theology that contrasts with the intentions of the Holy See."
  • "It is also a cause for concern that the translators have felt free to introduce changes at will, to ‘improve’ the order of the text, the rubrics, and the numbering ... these things cannot be subject to arbitrary change by translators."
  • "To the above-mentioned translation have been added new compositions. These have been found to be 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."
  • A proposed translation of the Second Eucharistic Prayer including the words "together with N. our Pope, N. our bishop, and all the ministers of your Gospel" (the words in bold type being supposed to translate "universo clero") had been rejected by the Holy See and the US Bishops’ Conference back in 1983. Now ICEL rendered this even less accurately as "all who are called to your service."

Further criticisms

The Vatican letter remarked pointedly: "It could reasonably have been expected that the translators would thereafter take note that translations of that kind were not acceptable. This did not in fact happen."

The accompanying Observations included further criticisms:

  • "The documents published by the Holy See must be translated as such ... In particular, care must be taken to convey a sense of respect for terms such as the names of the Sacraments ... The whole of the translation of each document should be without changes, without any additions or omissions, even in the footnotes ...".
  • "A large number of adjectives present in the Latin have been omitted in English translation. When the Latin speaks of the "Holy Spirit" rather than the "Spirit," "Saint Peter" or "Blessed Peter" rather than "Peter" ... and so on, these expressions should be translated exactly into English ... The effect of such omissions is a secularisation of the tone of the liturgical book and it constitutes a departure from tradition."
  • "A particularly serious case is the omission of terms of imploration or beseeching, such as ‘suppliciter’ and ‘quaesemus,’ or of concession, granting, such as the parts of ‘dignor.’ This alters the expression given in the liturgical texts of the relative positions of God and his people ..."
  • "It is not clear what translation of Scripture is being used ... The thematic indications must reflect the exact Scripture translation used in the actual readings themselves."

This rejection of the new ordination ritual may affect the Holy See’s decision concerning the proposed ICEL revision of the Sacramentary, the portion of the Roman Missal consisting of the prayers for Mass. The final segments of the proposed texts had been approved last year by the US bishops and other English-speaking bishops’ conferences. The revised Sacramentary now requires approval by the Holy See before any changes may take effect and is currently undergoing study by the Vatican Congregations on doctrine and liturgy.

The Vatican had also rejected for liturgical use two revised Bible translations, the New Revised Standard Version and the Psalms of the Revised New American Bible. However, the first volume of the revised Lectionary based on the New American Bible has been approved after substantial "revisions" to the originally proposed text were made by a panel of US bishops. The US bishops plan to go ahead with publication of the portion of the Lectionary (Volume 1) which has received Vatican approval.

Further details on these developments can be found in the 'Adoremus Bulletin' (published by Ignatius Press).