Jul 15, 1996

ICEL’s Translation of the Roman Canon

Online Edition

Part I — July-August 1996
Vol. II, No. 4
and Part II — September 1996
Vol. II, No. 5

ICEL’s Translation of the Roman Canon

By Susan Benofy

Editor’s Note: It has often been stated that the first English translations of the 1969 Missal were done in such great haste that many errors were made.

This essay gives an account of the first translation to appear in English: the Roman Canon [Eucharistic Prayer I]. Though this was the last part of the Mass to be permitted to be translated into the vernacular, it was the first to be translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the “mixed commission” formed in 1963 to produce texts for English-speaking countries.

The original ICEL translation of the Roman Canon elicited very negative assessments, as this essay (originally published in 1996) describes. ICEL not only ignored the criticism, its leaders claimed widespread approval of its translation. Nevertheless, ICEL’s original English version was rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The revised version of the Canon, now Eucharistic Prayer I, was approved in 1970.

Almost immediately after the Roman Canon was translated, new Eucharistic Prayers were rushed through the process. A look at the history of the early work of ICEL in this essay helps to explain why.

When ICEL produced a revision of the Sacramentary in the 1990s, many of the objections to its work were strikingly similar to those made in 1967.

A third edition of the Missal, orignally issued in 2000. followed a “thoroughgoing restructure” of ICEL (1999-2001), an official Instruction on liturgical translation (Liturgiam authenticam, 2001), a revised “General Instruction” (GIRM – 2002), and Pope John Paul II’s formation of Vox Clara (2002), a committee of English-speaking bishops to assist the Holy See in assuring “that the texts of the Roman Rite are accurately translated in accordance with the norms of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam” and are published “as quickly as possible”.

Resistance to change, however, persists in some quarters. Some bishops and influential liturgists openly resist the Holy See’s actions. And delays have plagued the translation project.

At present, June 2007, the Church is still waiting. The new ICEL translation of the first section, the Order of Mass, was approved by all member conferences of ICEL early this year. But further texts are very slow in appearing. The bishops received the next segments from ICEL only last month.

A review of the original controversy in this essay may help bring insight into the present situation in this second phase of the post-conciliar liturgical reform.

(This essay originally appeared in two parts, in August-September and October 1996 editions of Adoremus Bulletin. Online version published June, 2007)

PART I — ICEL’s First Effort to “Vernacularize” the Mass Stirs Controversy

In the Fall of 1962, with the Second Vatican Council still in session, several English-speaking bishops met in Rome to discuss the production of the vernacular translations that they anticipated would be authorized by the Council.

The bishops envisioned a committee which would produce uniform translations for all the English-speaking countries. Their talks led to the formation of the International Committee (later, Commission) on English in the Liturgy [ICEL]. The first formal meeting of ICEL took place on October 17, 1963, and included representatives of 10 of the English-speaking national conferences of bishops. The panel of scholars and experts  who would develop plans for the vernacular texts, the ICEL Advisory Board, originally consisted of eight members.  During the next few years ICEL’s efforts were primarily devoted to general organization and development of principles.

In 1967, ICEL produced its  first official English translation of a liturgical text, the Roman Canon (known as Eucharistic Prayer I) .  The translation provoked considerable controversy, however; and in view of ICEL’s current revision of the Sacramentary, it is worth considering the 1967 controversy in some detail.


Extensive coverage of the proposed translation was carried in The Tablet , a Catholic periodical published in London.  Some of the authors of these articles were members of the ICEL Advisory Board. One of them, H. P. R. Finberg, a professor of local history at the University of Leicester, had collaborated on the translation of the Mass for The Missal in Latin and English , originally published in England in 1949 and in the US by Sheed and Ward in 1953[1].

Shortly after it was announced that Rome had approved the English-speaking bishops’ request to have the Canon said in the vernacular at Mass, Finberg published a proposed English translation in a Tablet article, “The  Canon of the Mass:  An  Alternate English Version”.[2]  Finberg noted that general agreement existed on certain principles of translation: the text must be understandable when read aloud; the texts should employ “utmost simplicity of vocabulary and sentence construction” and should eliminate the repeated “Per Christum Dominum.” [“Through Christ our Lord”].

Although Finberg himself was a strong advocate of retaining “Thee” for addressing God, his version uses “You,” he says, to satisfy the preference of the American hierarchy who originally requested the translation.

While Finberg subscribed to the principle of simplicity of vocabulary, his version contained such traditional phrases as “we make our humble petition”; “Mary, the glorious ever-Virgin Mother of God”;”these gifts, this entire sacrificial offering”; “He … took bread into his holy and worshipful hands.”  Finberg says he has offered this translation to his colleagues on the board “as an alternative to the American draft they already have before them.”

In November 1967, another article by Finberg, The Canon in English,[3] considers the English version which ICEL had just published.  He said: “After two false starts, the Advisory Committee delegated to three of its members the task of producing a translation…” The three are not named.  However, the fact that Finberg referred in his previous article to “the American draft” and that there were three Americans on the board suggests that they were responsible for the translation.  The three Americans were Fr. (now Msgr.) Frederick McManus, Rev. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB and Professor G. B. Harrison.

Translation Without Mutilation

Finberg disapproved of many aspects of ICEL’s offering.  He summarized a letter of Cardinal Lercaro, President of the Consilium[4] insisting that the translation must be complete and even literal, taking the Canon “without mutilation or simplification of any kind.”  Finberg  says this “presumably means that, if the liturgy uses expressions that run or seem to run counter to the spirit of the age, we should let it teach us to modify our sometimes callow notions, rather than remodel it, under pretext of translation, to suit the fashion of the day.”  He cited explanations in ICEL’s notes accompanying the translation which he thinks give inadequate justification for various omissions.

For example, ICEL’s version of the Canon of the Mass begins, “We come to you Father …” Finberg quoted ICEL’s explanation: come  “is here intended to embrace the sense of suppliance.”  and asked:  “But does it?  This is surely more than most people will read into a not very pregnant word.”

He also objects that expressions which convey the concept of a hierarchical universe “are either softened or excised.”  Among the expressions so dealt with he lists: domine; servitutis nostrae; Supplices te rogamus; in conspectu divinae majestatis tuae.   He comments: “the reason alleged for these omissions is that in the original they are mere rhetoric.”  But, Finberg objects,  “The truth is that, consciously or unconsciously, the translators have bowed to the influence of critics who find much of the Roman Canon repugnant to the contemporary mind.”  He mentions also the removal of Mary’s title Mother of God (Dei genetrix) and the expression sanctum, sacrificium, immaculatum hostiam, among others.

Those familiar with the controversy surrounding the revisions of the Roman Missal currently proposed by ICEL will observe that Professor Finberg’s comments are not unlike those objections of American bishops made in their proposed amendments.  In many cases the  bishops’ objections relate to omission of the very same words that Finberg targeted.

Finberg points out, finally, that the Consilium had not actually approved the new text, but only authorized it for temporary experimental use.  He notes that the Irish bishops have decided not to use it.

The Tablet Accuses ICEL of “Desacralizaion”

Two weeks later The Tablet  featured on its front page an unsigned editorial entitled Lingua Deserta [5].  It begins by stating a view that the vernacular liturgy “serves an invaluable pastoral purpose today” and that there should be no real conflict between those who support Latin and those who support the vernacular.  However, it is the author’s belief that both sides have been “betrayed” by the ICEL Canon.  He supports Finberg’s criticism, which he calls “measured and moderate” but also “devastating” in its effect.  The editorial quotes part of ICEL’s own statement, taking issue with its assertion that the translation of the Canon “has already achieved a considerable measure of success” (apparently by being accepted by most English-speaking conferences), and says it is “highly debatable” whether the assertions that the ICEL translation “accurately conveys the sense of the original and combines dignity with simplicity of language”  The editorial goes on:

Nobody who studies it line by line with the original can fail to notice that it is a prime example of that “desacralization” against which the Pope has warned the Church.

The ancient and venerable text of the Roman Canon has been mutilated beyond recognition.

The editorial ends with a plea to the bishops to reconsider, since the Consilium has not yet given final approval to the ICEL text.  He asks that the bishops insist the defective ICEL text be withdrawn and replaced with “one in far closer conformity to the spirit and letter of the Roman Canon.”

At the end of December 1967, another critique of the ICEL Canon was published.[6]  Here the author, Duncan Cloud, concentrated on the omission from the Canon not only of words but of ideas:

It is not the function of a translator to remove what he dislikes or to add what he thinks is missing in the original. …  In fact, once you start ejecting from the Roman Canon elements which are alien to our cultural and social milieu, you will soon be left with nothing at all …

My own feeling is that ICEL were virtually bound to distort the Canon, once they had decided to compose their version in the dignified equivalent of strip-cartoon-caption prose.

The ICEL Canon was also debated vigorously in the Letters to the Editor of The Tablet. and a note from the editor on December 16th, responding to some charges of unfairness and intemperance, restated The Tablet’s  opposition: “We are fully committed in deploring what seems to us a disastrous mistake.  Not to have said so at once would have been taken as acquiescence, and anything less than vehemence in expression might have been conveniently overlooked.”

ICEL Dismisses Critics; Claims Strong Support

How did ICEL react to this criticism? Consider some excerpts from their official report to the English-speaking Episcopal conferences reported in a news release issued by the Press Department, US. Catholic Conference on February 12, 1968. (The report itself is dated December, 1967.)

In general, in those countries which have already put the text into use, the translation has received overwhelming approval from lay and cleric, peritus, and man in the street.   ..

Certain objections to the translation are more frequently heard, though in fact they are small.  In general the notes cover these objections and it is important to refer to them. …

However, without overlooking the various objections and suggestions from every area of concern (since these will be seriously considered in any future revision of the text), it is quite proper to quote from two sources as representative of the overwhelming favorable opinion toward the translation.

“It was a very professional project, featuring the collaboration as consultants of a hundred or more experts in liturgy, Scripture, Christian Latin, English style, speech, and related fields.  Perhaps only those with some personal experience of the problems involved in translating the Roman Canon can fully appreciate the achievement.  As we noted in the last issue, we think this text compares very favorably not only with all existing English translations of the Canon but also with current translations into other modern European languages.  We are fortunate to have it.” (Chronicle, Worship, November, 1967)

“The question is precisely how one is to remain faithful to a text that will be read aloud in a language possessing different structural and rhetorical principles from Latin.  The ICEL translators have offered an answer that deserves serious attention if not downright admiration.” (“The Canon in English,” The Tablet, December 2, 1967)[7]

The above quotation from The Tablet in ICEL’s report is not strictly false, but it seems deliberately misleading. It gives the impression that The Tablet supported the ICEL Canon, which it most emphatically did not. The quoted passage did, in fact, appear in The Tablet, but in a letter taking its title from Professor Finberg’s article (“The Canon in English”) with which it, in fact, takes issue.  This letter was published in the same issue of The Tablet  in which the front page editorial against the ICEL Canon appeared.  It seems unlikely that those who selected this quote to include in ICEL’s report were unaware of this, or of Professor Finberg’s critical article.

One member of the ICEL Advisory Board who was certainly  aware of the real position of The Tablet. was Professor G. B. Harrison.  In his memoirs Professor  Harrison, says that when ICEL’s translation of the Canon was released :  “It was greeted with startled screams by the conservatives.  Long before it was ever heard in use , the London Tablet  damned it in a harsh review and a harsher editorial.”[8]

Why was it necessary to search the pages of a publication which had been sharply critical of the ICEL Canon translation to find a favorable quote?  If enthusiasm was as great as the report claimed, why was no major editorial or article from a publication other than Worship cited as evidence?  It seems likely that opinions of the ICEL translation were not so “overwhelmingly favorable” as ICEL claimed.

In fact, by the time ICEL’s official report appeared in print, it had already been announced that the ICEL Canon would not be approved in its original form and would have to be revised.  This announcement appeared, for example, in The Tablet [9] on January 6, 1968.  Opinion  in Rome of ICEL’s premier work, apparently, had been no more favorable than in London.

This controversy illustrates ICEL’s proclivity for virtually ignoring criticism. ICEL’s report indicates that “the various objections” would be “seriously considered in any future of the revision”; but even though the Canon was revised almost immediately the revision of the revision did not incorporate the criticisms of Professor Finberg, for example. Critical comments about ICEL’s translations were apparently all dismissed as “startled screams of conservatives”.

PART II — ICEL’s Original Version Rejected — Criticism Suppressed

In ICEL’s own histories of the English translation of the Roman Canon, the rejection by the Holy See of the first vernacular version is glossed over, if not actually ignored.

No allusion is made to the criticism of ICEL’s translation, although Professor G.B. Harrison, an ICEL advisory Board member, had noted in his memoirs that the first ICEL version of the Canon had been “greeted with startled screams”.

An account of the history of ICEL by its current executive secretary, John Page[10], mentions that the provisional ICEL Canon issued in 1967 was “generally applauded” though he acknowledges there were some critics.  The only indication of the rejection by Rome of ICEL’s original version is a bland statement that in 1968 “a slightly revised form of Eucharistic Prayer I was sent to the conferences of bishops.”[11]

Censoring the controversy

The striking example of censorship of the controversysurrounding the original translation of the Roman Canon is the following statement from a 1995 article, “Texts and Translations: The ICEL Story”, by founding member of ICEL, Msgr. Frederick R. McManus [12] :

ICEL’s first major translation was the Roman Canon, now called Eucharistic Prayer I.  The text was accompanied by full notes explaining the reasons for what had been done, and it received formal approbation by the conferences of bishops and confirmation by the Apostolic See.[13]

The suppression of all reference to official disapproval of past ICEL texts is especially significant in McManus’ article, which reviews ICEL’s history in the context of a defense against the criticism of its current revision of the Sacramentary. Of this criticism , McManus says:

The outcry was that of a minority.  Generally these seemed to be good people but people who were really and radically dissatisfied with the Second Vatican Council more than with liturgical texts. …The complaints were usually poorly informed, often overwrought in their generalized criticisms and their goals:  first, word-for-word, mechanistic translations and, second, exclusive rather than inclusive language.[14]

He adds:   “..ICEL has adequately responded to even the most ill-founded complaints…” [15]

This claim to have answered critics is always conspicuously lacking any summary of the arguments offered,  and without specific reference to published accounts of any such answers.  What is probably meant is the suggestion, as in the 1968 report, that the objections have already been dealt with in the notes.  However, we have seen that even experts such as Professor Finberg, a member of ICEL’s Advisory Board, found the explanations in the notes inadequate.

ICEL’s critics charged with “rejecting the Council”

Also characteristic, and equally lacking documentation, is the charge that critics of ICEL generally reject the Council.  A similar charge was made as early as 1967 (in the midst of a controversy on the ICEL canon text) by Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta, one of the founding bishops of ICEL and then chairman of the American bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.  According to his biographer, he said that one of the cardinals opposing his proposal “had simply repealed in his mind the documents of Vatican II …”[16]

Since ICEL has regularly questioned the motives and the mindset of its critics, it is interesting to note who supported ICEL’s Canon translation, and what views of the Second Vatican Council and the reform of the liturgy they held.  The sources quoted in ICEL’s own report (see Part I) are revealing.

It was a very professional project, featuring the collaboration as consultants of a hundred or more experts in liturgy. Scripture, Christian Latin, English style, speech, and related fields. Perhaps only those with some personal experience of the problems involved in translating the Roman Canon can fully appreciate the achievement. As we noted in the last issue, we think this text compares very favorably not only with all existing English translations of the Canon but also with current translations into other modern European languages. We are fortunate to have it.” (Chronicle, Worship, November 1967)

Worship is a liturgy journal published by the Benedictine monks at St. John’s, Collegeville. This influential journal, which had long advocated use of the vernacular in the liturgy, had changed its name from Orate Fratres in 1951 because it was thought inappropriate for a journal promoting the vernacular to have a Latin title.[17]  Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, was the editor of the journal at the time of this title change.

In 1967 the editor-in-chief of Worship was still Godfrey Diekmann, OSB,[18] now also a member of the ICEL advisory board responsible for the new Canon text.  Frederick McManus was among it associate editors.

The article quoted above was written by Worship editor, Aelred Tegels, OSB, whose “Chronicle” column described developments in the liturgy as the Council was implemented.

In this article Father Tegels charges that the “most violent” critics of the ICEL text are a small minority “fundamentally opposed to any English Canon.” [19]  He does acknowledge the existence of another group of critics, who object that ICEL follows the Latin too closely.  Tegels says that they “simply do not like the Roman Canon, at least in its present form.” [20]

Father Tegels is much gentler in his treatment of these critics, perhaps because he can be numbered among them.  For, though he claims to defend the ICEL Canon in this article, he objects to the translation of haec dona, heac munera, haec sanctae sacrificia illibata by “these gifts we offer you in sacrifice” as too close to the Latin.  In fact he says it “tends to caricature the Latin, which does not intend anything much stronger than ‘these choice gifts.'”[21]  Tegels insists that the themes of offering and sacrifice need no emphasis at this point in the Mass.

Elsewhere in the article Tegels says:  “No doubt we shall all soon be persuaded that we need new texts for the eucharistic prayer.”[22]  He was apparently persuaded quite easily.  Less than a year later, when the new Eucharistic prayers were published in Latin, Tegels commented on them in his “Chronicle” column.[23]  Although he criticized them (chiefly for their lack of “contemporary theological perspective”) he thought the new prayers offered “welcome relief from the major deficiencies of the Roman Canon.”   And believed “the Roman Canon will not compete very successfully with these new anaphoras and that in some regions at least it is destined to early oblivion.”[24] 

In Tegels opinion, the appeal of some unofficial texts is stronger still and seems to approve of their correspondence with contemporary experience.  He also notes that some are based traditions other than the Roman rite, and so do not place such emphasis on “the doctrine of consecration through the words of institution.”  He seems in general to disapprove of an emphasis on the Roman tradition, and hopes for a Eucharistic Prayer “really native to our culture.”[25]

Tegels had problems with other aspects of the Roman Catholic Church besides her rites. The National Catholic Reporter (August 7, 1968, p.4) listed him among the theologians who signed th infamous statement in opposition to Humanae Vitae organized by Fr. Charles Curran in July of 1968.

The ICEL report’s second approving quote is from a letter in The Tablet  written by Tad Guzie, SJ, St. Edmund’s House, Cambridge in December 1967.  Guzie’s letter disputed Professor Finberg’s article, “The Canon in English” which had critized the ICEL translation.

The question is precisely how one is to remain faithful to a text that will be read aloud in a language possessing different structural and rhetorical principles from Latin. The ICEL translators have offered an answer that deserves serious attention if not downright, admiration. (“The Canon in English,” The Tablet, December 2, 1967)[26] 

Guzie’s letter accuses Finberg of rejecting the ICEL principles of translation and objects to his “use of authority” in quoting the Lercaro letter “using the text entirely in his own favour” while failing to acknowledge the possibility that ICEL may “have embodied the values insisted on by the cardinal.”

Guzie denies that any dogmatic idea has been left out in the failure to translate Dei genetrix since Mary is called “‘mother of Jesus Christ our Lord’–and ‘Lord’ is one of the strongest divine titles in Scripture.”  He then recites the now-familiar defense of ICEL translations:  because the texts are meant to be read aloud, a literal translation would actually obscure the meaning of the text: “Fidelity to clear meaning is thus sacrificed in favour of fidelity to individual words.”[27]

The Problem: The Roman Liturgy Itself

Like Tegels, Guzie seems fundamentally dissatisfied with the traditional Roman rite. In a 1974 book, Jesus and the Eucharist,[28]  he reviewed the liturgical changes after the Council, and states that, “The forms and formulas of the old Roman Missal were no longer sacred”, as a result of the 1967 changes in the rubrics to eliminate some genuflections, etc. as well as the translation of the Canon.[29]

Guzie insists that the changes de-emphasize the consideration of the Eucharist as an object (in the old rite) in favor of what he considers the primary symbol, the Eucharist as action (in the new rite.)  Such a shift in emphasis also changes the interpretation of such terms as “real presence” and “consecration.”  In his view the real presence is no longer “an objectified physical presence” but “a way of symbolizing the connection between our action and the Lord whose victory it celebrates.”[30]

With such views on the Mass it is probably not surprising that a few years after writing this Guzie left the priesthood.

Although Tegels and Guzie were not ICEL members, their views cited by ICEL as supporting its work actually substantiate Professor Finberg’s charge that ICEL has been influenced by “critics who find much of the Roman Canon repugnant to the contemporary mind.” Similar opinions were publicly expressed by members of ICEL’s own Advisory Board and secretariat.

In the issue of Worship  quoted in the 1968 ICEL report there was also an article by Fr. Gerald Sigler[31], executive secretary of ICEL.  In this article, Sigler looks forward to approval of new Eucharistic Prayers as alternatives to the Roman Canon.  These would be especially welcome  to “those who have recognized the defects of this prayer”.  He also mentions “the limitations of having only one eucharistic prayer.”[32] 

Father Sigler proposed a catechesis which would  stress the unity of the Preface-Eucharistic Prayer, a unity he believed was obscured because, among other things, “the intrusion of the sanctus tends to distract from this primary theme.”[33]

ICEL’s executive secretary also worried that the “overemphasis of the institution narrative, … by genuflections, bowing …, etc. and … by the reduction of the consecration to the barest minimum, has fragmented the Canon to the extent that a major effort must be made … to recover the integrity of the eucharistic prayer.”[34]

Sigler, like Tegels, publicly expressed opposition to the teaching of Humanae Vitae in a letter of protest that fifty-one Washington, DC priests sent to Cardinal O’Boyle, then Archbishop of Washington, DC. Several of these priest were suspended by Cardinal O’Boyle in October 1968. Although Sigler’s faculties to hear confessions and to teach were suspended, he continued to serve as executive secretary of ICEL until January 1970. Like Guzie, he later left the priesthood.

Toward the end of his article, Sigler refers to a book on the reform of the Canon, The Canon of the Mass and Liturgical Reform, by Cipriana Vagaggini. [35]

The Solution: New Eucharistic Prayers

A revealing preface to Vagaggini’s 1967 book was written by Msgr. Frederick McManus, and it begins: “One of these days the eucharistic prayer of the Roman Mass will change.”  McManus begins, and he thinks it strange that “vast numbers of clergy and laity do not seriously expect the radical liturgical changes already determined by the Second Vatican Council.”  [36]

According to McManus, the problem is not simply the Canon — the Roman liturgy itself is defective. These defects became evident as soon as the Mass was actually said in the vernacular, he argues. In McManus’ view, people “had not the remotest idea of the deficiencies of the Roman rite, especially the texts of the Roman Mass” before the vernacular was permitted. This ignorance of Latin is what prompted the “uninformed criticism” of ICEL’s provisional translations of the Mass, McManus claims. He apparently forgets that people then regularly read an English translation in personal missals.

Since these “uninformed” critics of ICEL’s work were ignorant of the original language of the prayers, McManus complains,

their “criticism was not of translation but of the inconsistency and irrelevance, the imperfections and the complexities of the Roman liturgy itself. Inevitably the use of the Roman Canon in  the vernacular, however brilliant the translation, will reveal unsuspected defects.”[37]

Unsurprisingly, McManus advocates the writing of new eucharistic prayers “which reflect the progress of theological and liturgical science and which are meaningful — or can be made meaningful through study and reflection — to the twentieth-century Christian.”[38]

These views were duly adopted by the Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy, whose secretariat was headed by McManus. In October 1967, the BCL Newsletter quoted excerpts from the introduction to the tape recording of the translation of the Roman Canon distributed by ICEL. This says, for example, that “The Roman Canon has many defects, some of which will become more and more obvious when it is regularly recited in the vernacular.” It recommends catechesis of the people on the Canon.

The December issue of the BCL, Newsletter recommended the entire November, 1967 issue of Worship (which contained the Tegels and Sigler articles quoted above) as “useful in developing a catechesis on the Canon in English or the alternative eucharistic prayers.” In the January-February 1968 issue, the Vagaggini book was added to the BCL recommendations.

Post-Conciliar “Ritual Revolution”

In 1971, ICEL appointed a general editor to supervise the translation and compiling of the first complete edition of the vernacular Roman Missal. Since influential members of ICEL had such strong views on its defects, it should come as no surprise that they appointed an outspoken critic of the Roman Canon to the post.

ICEL’s choice was a 31-year-old Notre Dame graduate student in liturgy. Ralph Keifer, who was then just completing a doctoral dissertation on the Roman Canon.

In his dissertation Keifer proposed to overcome “the difficulty of discerning a rationale for the unique form of the Roman Canon.”  He proposed a hypothesis which he believed made  it “possible to understand the Roman Canon as a coherent whole.”[39]

Keifer served as general editor of ICEL until 1973 when the translation of the 1969 Roman Missal was completed. During part of that time he also served as acting executive secretary of ICEL. Thus, the youthful Keifer directed ICEL during a crucial period when the Missal was being completed and translation of the Liturgy of the Hours was in progress. (Keifer seems a particularly odd choice for ICEL, which insists that all prayers must be in intelligible language. Keifer was one of the first two Catholics to receive “Baptism in the Spirit,” and he prayed “in tongues.”[40] He also signed the Curran statement, as did Godfrey Diekmann.)

ICEL’s General Editor shared with McManus the view that after the Council “radical” liturgical changes where made, as he wrote in his 1983 book, The Mass in Time of Doubt, in a chapter entitled “Fracturing the Images: The Reform of the Roman Rite”, changes which

“helped to precipitate a revolution in our ritual, a revolution so great that it has fractured a relationship that endured for centuries between ourselves and our images of God.”  [41]

Keifer admits that these revolutionary views were not actually contained in the revised liturgical books (the 1969 Missal, for example) but were brought about by “agents of reform.”   “Most of the changes now officially endorsed would not have happened if it had not been for grassroots initiative”, he says.[42]

Keifer had difficulties with the Roman rite as a whole, but especially with the entrance rites, which he believed are, like the Roman Canon itself, “not entirely coherent.”[43]  His views on the Roman Canon remained negative.

In his 1983 commentary on the Introduction to the Lectionary, Keifer instructed his readers that “Sunday use of Eucharist Prayer I is pastorally irresponsible.” [44]

Question ICEL? Impossible!

Since ICEL members themselves acknowledge that their agenda for the reform of the Roman liturgy is much more “radical” than that  explicitly authorized by the Second Vatican Council, it is  ironic, indeed, that its critics are so often charged with rejecting the Council when they ask  for accurate translations of liturgical texts and authentic implementation of the actual Council documents.

Even directives from official Vatican sources which call for the elimination of abuses, or interpret the Council differently from ICEL have been called “a loss of nerve”[45] Apparently in the minds of many of its members, only ICEL knows what the Council intended; and those who do not agree with ICEL members’ “revolutionary” views of the liturgy — even if they are bishops — are accused of having an outdated, pre-Conciliar mindset.

An incident recounted in Sister Kathleen Hughes‘ biography of Godfrey Diekmann, A Monk’s Tale, illustrates this dismissive attitude. In the late fifties St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville built a new abbey church.  Its design, in which Diekmann was involved, was decidedly “contemporary”.  Andrew Greeley visited the abbey, and Diekmann showed him the model, enthusiastically pointing out all its advanced features.

Greeley asked the perhaps not too innocent question:  “But Godfrey, what if it is not the architectural wave of the future?”  Godfrey stopped dead in his tracks, frowned as though this thought had never occurred to him, and then waved his hand: “Impossible!”[46]

If ICEL members see themselves as the liturgical wave of the future, this may account for why criticism of any kind — from grumbling in the pews to detailed theological critiques from bishops — is so easily to brushed aside.  Evidently, criticism of ICEL’s  agenda is thought to be not only misguided or in error, but — “Impossible!”

[1] This is sometimes called the O’Connell-Finberg Missal after its two translators, or the Knox Missal because the readings used the translation of the Bible by Msgr. Ronald Knox).

[2]The Tablet (London) May 27, 1967 pp. 581-582.

[3]The Tablet (London) November 18, 1967, pp. 1200-1201.

[4]  The Consilium was the group officially charged with the responsibility of implementing Vatican II documents on the liturgy.

[5]The Tablet (London) December 2, 1967, pp. 1241-1242.

[6]Duncan Cloud, “The ICEL Canon: A Further Critique” in the Tablet (London) December 23/30. 1967, pp. 1326-1327.

[7] “Report of International Committee for English in the Liturgy” NC Documentary Service February 12, 1968.

[8]G. B. Harrison, One Man in His Time: The memoirs of G. B. Harrison 1894-1984  (Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press Ltd., 1985)  Excerpt reprinted in Shaping English Liturgy , edited by Peter C. Finn and James M. Schellman (The Pastoral Press, Washington , DC) 1990. pp. 461-467. (Quoted passage on p. 465.)

[9]”Lingua Revocata”  The Tablet (London) January 6, 1968, p. 3.

[10]John Page was appointed executive secretary by the episcopal board of ICEL in 1980; he had been associate executive secretary since 1974.

[11] John R. Page, “ICEL, 1966-1989: Weaving the Words of our Common Christian Prayer,” in Shaping English Liturgy , edited by Peter C. Finn and James M. Schellman(The Pastoral Press, Washington , DC) 1990. pp. 473-489. (Quotations from p. 474.)

[12] Msgr. McManus has been a member of the ICEL advisory board since its founding in 1963 as well as treasurer of the civil corporation which controls the revenue from ICEL’s copyrights since its incorporation in 1967.  He has also been Executive Director of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy and President of the Liturgical Conference. He was a peritus at Vatican II serving also on the preparatory liturgical commission and the post-conciliar Consilium for the implementation of the Council.

[13]Frederick R. McManus  “Texts and Translations: The ICEL story” in Living Light, Spring 1995, pp. 47-56.  (Quoted passage, p. 52.)

[14]Ref. 13 pp. 48-49.

[15] Ref. 13, p. 49.

[16]Thomas J. Shelley Paul J. Hallinan: First Archbishop of Atlanta (Michael Glazier, Wilmington, DE) 1989. Quote is from p. 250 and from an August 14 letter from Archbishop Hallinan to Cardinal Dearden. See footnote 39, p. 337.

[17]See Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, The Monk’s Tale: A Biography of Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN) 1991, p. 119

[18]Fr. Diekmann took over as editor of Orate Fratres on the death of its first editor, Rev. Virgil Michel, OSB in 1938 and was editor until 1964.  In 1965 his title was changed to editor-in-chief, and he continued in this position until 1983.  Since 1984 he has been listed as editor emeritus.

[19]Aelred Tegels, “Chronicle,” Worship , November, 1967, pp. 561-565.  Quoted passage on p. 562.

[20]Ref. 19, p. 562.

[21]Ref. 19, p. 563.

[22]Ref. 19, p. 561

[23]Aelred Tegels, “Chronicle,” Worship August-September, 1968. pp. 442-443.

[24]Ref. 23, p. 443.

[25]Ref. 23, p. 444.

[26] “Report of International Committee for English in the Liturgy” NC Documentary Service February 12, 1968.

[27]The Tablet December 2, 1967, p. 1266.  Finberg denied that he rejected ICEL’s translation principles, suggesting that the ICEL translators did not follow their own principles.  He also takes issue with the suggestion of Cardinal Heenan that people listen carefully to the canon in translation to decide whether they like it or not ,since “they will have no opportunity of comparing the ICEL version with one that is indeed accurate, clear and dignified, for no such alternative is being offered.” The Tablet, December 9, 1967, p. 1290.

[28]Tad Guzie, SJ, Jesus and the Eucharist  (Paulist Press, New York) 1974.

[29]Ref. 28. p. 108.

[30]Ref. 28, pp. 112-113.

[31]Gerald J. Sigler, “Themes for a Catechesis of the Canon,” Worship November, 1967, pp. 523-530.

[32]Ref. 31 p. 523.

[33]Ref. 31, p. 524.

[34]Ref. 31, p. 526.

[35]Cipriano Vagaggini, The Canon of the Mass and Liturgical Reform (Alba House, Staten Island, NY) 1967. Peter Coughlan, translation editor. Preface by Frederick McManus.

[36]Ref. 35, p, 9.

[37]Ref. 35, p. 10.

[38]Ref. 35, p. 11.

[39]Ralph Allen Keifer, “Oblation in the First Part of the Roman Canon: An Examination of a Primitive Eucharistic Structure and Theology in Early Italian and Egyptian Sources” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1972.  Quotations from the abstract published in  Dissertation Abstracts  International A: The Humanities and Social Sciences, p. 3759-A (Xerox University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI) January, 1973.

[40] Ranaghan, Kevin and Dorothy, Catholic Pentecostals, Paramus, NJ: Paulist Press, 1969. See especially Keifer’s own account of his “Baptism in the Spirit” at a Protestant prayer meeting in 1967. (Quoted on 15-16)

[41] Ralph A. Keifer The Mass in time of Doubt: The Meaning of the Mass for Catholics Today  (National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Washington, DC) 1983.  The quote is on p. 56 from a chapter entitled “Fracturing the Images: The Reform of the Roman Rite.”

[42]Ref. 41, p. 59.

[43]Ralph A. Keifer, “Our Cluttered Vestibule: The Unreformed Entrance Rite,” Worship  May, 1974, pp. 270-277, (Quote from p. 272.)

[44]Ralph A. Keifer, To Hear and Proclaim: Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass With Commentary for Musicians and Priests (The Pastoral Press, Washington, DC) 1993, p. 116.  (This is a republication of the original 1983 commentary.)

[45]Frederick R. McManus, “The Genius of the Roman Rite Revisited,” Worship, July, 1980. pp. 360-378. Quote from p. 369.  This was said in reference to the 1970 decree of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Liturgicae instaurationes.

[46]From a taped interview with Andrew Greeley quoted in Hughes, Ref. 17, p.173.






Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.