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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 3: May 2002

Pope John Paul II:

Expedite English Missal Translation

Vox Clara committee to assure fidelity, accuracy

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

How long before we have an English translation of the new Roman Missal? A new committee established by the Holy See to assure fidelity in translations and to expedite the process is welcome news.

Convened in Rome April 22-24, Vox Clara [Clear Voice] was created "to assist and advise the Congregation [for Divine Worship] in fulfilling its responsibilities with regard to the English translations of liturgical texts", Pope John Paul II said in a message to Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez , prefect of the CDW. "Representing the different continents as it does, the committee reflects the international character of the English language", the Holy Father said. The message was given to Vox Clara members at their April 23 session in Rome.

Sydney archbishop to head Vox Clara

Archbishop George Pell, of Sydney, Australia, was appointed chairman of the Vox Clara committee by the CDW, and Mobile Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb , as vice-chairman. Archbishop Lipscomb is current chairman of the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy [BCL] and chairman of "Common Ground Initiative".

The committee, which consists of twelve members, including four Americans, elected other officers; secretary, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor , Archbishop of Westminster [England], treasurer, St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali ; and second vice-chairman, Archbishop Oswald Gracias of Agra [India].

Other members are Chicago Cardinal Francis George , chairman-elect of the BCL and US representative to ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy); New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes ; Archbishop Kelvin Felix , Castries [Santa Lucia]; Bishop Colin Campbell , Antigonish [Canada], Archbishop Peter Kwasi Sarpong , Kumasi [Ghana], Bishop Rolando Tirona , OCD , Malolos [Philip-pines]; and Bishop Philip Boyce, OCD , Raphoe [Ireland].

In his message to Vox Clara , the Holy Father noted that "the ' lex orandi ' [the law of prayer] conforms to the ' lex credendi ' [the law of belief]", and stressed that "fidelity to the rites and texts of the Liturgy is of paramount importance for the Church and Christian life". He referred to his 1988 Letter, Vicesimus Quintos Annos , that urged review of translations and other liturgical reforms since the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Father charged Vox Clara with the task of assuring "that the texts of the Roman Rite are accurately translated in accordance with the norms of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam ".

The Pope asked bishops "to make available to the faithful ... the vernacular translations of the editio tertia [third edition] of the Missale Romanum ", and said he is "pleased to learn that members of the Vox Clara committee have generously pledged to assist the Holy See in expediting the revision and recognitio of these translations by the Congregation".

Precise, faithful, proclaimable

The Vox Clara committee unanimously affirmed "the absolute need for translations of the Roman editiones typicæ [typical editions]which are precise, theologically faithful and effectively proclaimable".

The committee acknowledged the contribution of ICEL, the "mixed commission" that has translated English texts until now. ICEL now faces a major challenge to renew its statutes and structures in the light of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam , to send "an unmistakable signal that the goal of achieving good liturgical translations is in sight", Vox Clara said.

The committee discussed brief presentations from members, and began to review English-language translations of some parts of the Ordo Missæ [Order of Mass], and to prepare a draft ratio translationalis , detailed principles of translation for the English texts, following Liturgiam authenticam §9.

No timetable was given for the translation of the Latin text of the new Missal. Catholics remember that it was fully two years before an acceptable English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published. It is well known that translation of texts used for Catholic worship has been a major concern -- and source of controversy -- for more than decade. So the Vox Clara's work to expedite these translations is welcome news to many Catholics.

The first item from the new Roman Missal to be translated will likely be the rules for celebration of Mass, the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani [IGMR]. A provisional translation of the new rules by the US Committee on the Liturgy appeared in July 2000, along with the official Latin version. This "study translation" was based on the ICEL version of the "General Instruction of the Roman Missal" (GIRM). Last November, ICEL's proposed translation of the new IGMR was returned by the US bishops for revision according to Liturgiam authenticam.

It is not yet clear what effect Vox Clara will have on the role of ICEL, the group that has produced most English-language liturgical texts in the years following the Second Vatican Council's authorization of vernacular languages for Catholic worship. ICEL was ordered to "restructure" in 1999, an effort still in progress. The resignation of ICEL's longtime secretary, John Page , is to be effective August 15. A meeting of ICEL this spring may further clarify its standing and its relationship with the Vox Clara committee.

Translation matters

Liturgiam authenticam (Authentic liturgy), issued May 7, 2001, provides detailed principles for translating texts that reflect the Church's experience of three decades of worship in the vernacular. It entirely supplants an earlier set of translation guidelines, Comme le prévoit ("As foreseen"), devised by the Concilium committee in 1969. It also revokes a document approved by the US bishops in 1990, Criteria for the evaluation of inclusive language translations of scriptural texts proposed for liturgical use .

These Criteria presupposed the translation principles of Comme le prévoit , and responded to feminist demands for so-called "inclusive language" that crested in the 1980s.

ICEL translators have been committed to employing "inclusive language" since the mid-1970s - soon after the initial translation of the Missal was completed in 1973. This was noted in ICEL's own rationale for undertaking its massive revision of the Missal [or Sacramentary] that occupied English-speaking bishops' conferences through much of the 1990s.

In 1993, ICEL produced an "Interim Report" advocating ad lib inclusivizing of Mass texts even before the revision of the Sacramentary appeared. This plan was rejected by the bishops. The ICEL Sacramentary revision, finally completed and sent to Rome for recognitio in 1998, was made moot by the publication of the new Missale Romanum officially promulgated in 2000, and released in March 2002.

The revision of the English translation of the Lectionary for Mass for the United States was a parallel though distinct process. It involved only the US bishops and the translators of the Revised New American Bible [RNAB], a version that belongs to the US bishops' conference. The 1990 Criteria appeared just before a new Lectionary was introduced to the bishops, which they approved in 1992. But the revised Lectionary required amendment because of excessive use of "inclusive language". The needed changes were accomplished by a joint committee of American bishops and experts from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before it could be approved by the Holy See - a process which took several years. Volume I of the amended Lectionary, in use since November 1998, was approved by the US bishops in June 1997 - on condition that it be reviewed in five years. They approved the revised Volume II a year later, and it has been in use since February 2002.

Liturgiam authenticam , the Fifth Instruction on the correct implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium (Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy) also replaces the interim translation norms that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith provided for amending the Lectionary for Mass (Scripture readings). (The CDF oversees Scripture texts, while the liturgical texts are the responsibility of the Congregation for Divine Worship.)

English translations are especially critical for two reasons. First, because English is the principal language of eleven countries and a significant secondary language in fifteen others (all have been members of ICEL); second, because many other languages translate liturgical texts from the English version rather than directly from the Latin.

It is crucial to get the English right. The Vox Clara committee is quite evidently committed to assuring that the voice of the Church is clearly heard.


See related story, US Scholars Resuscitate Rejected Psalms.

NOTE : Pope John Paul II's Vicesimus Quintos Annos , on the 25th anniversary of the Constitution on the Liturgy, and Liturgiam authenticam can be found in the Documents section .


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