Dec 15, 1996

NCCB Approves ICEL Revision of Roman Missal

Online Edition – December 1996
Vol. II, No. 8

NCCB Approves ICEL Revision of Roman Missal
Bishops’ Vote Signals "The End of the Beginning"

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

AT THE GENERAL MEETING of the Conference of Catholic Bishops [NCCB] held in Washington, DC, November 11-14 the American bishops approved, with little debate, the final segments of the massive revision of the Roman Missal proposed International Commission on English Liturgy [ICEL], and other re-translated texts used for Mass in the United States.

In other action involving the Iiturgy, the bishops voted to amend the guidelines for receiving Communion which are printed in the front of missalettes, approved guidelines for televised liturgies, and modified the funeral rite for celebration in the presence of the cremated remains of a body. Last June the bishops voted to ask for an indult from the Holy See to permit cremated remains to be present at funeral Masses in the dioceses of the United States.  Details of these actions will be reported in subsequent issues of AB.

Steps in Approval Process

The NCCB’s action on the ICEL proposals completes only the first stage in the complex four-fold process these revised texts must go through before any of the proposed changes may be used Mass in any English-speaking country.

First, all the ICEL liturgical revisions must be approved by all English-speaking national conferences of bishops. During this procedure, each conference may ask for changes in the texts. The US bishops alone "remanded" dozens of texts to ICEL for amendment. (The ICEL texts are used by eleven national conferences where English is the principal language, fifteen others where English is a secondary language.)

Second, all of the amendments proposed by each of the separate national conference must be re-considered by the ICEL translators.  ICEL may decide to accept these changes and incorporate them into a final version of the proposed revised texts.

Third, ICEL’s finalized text, incorporating rejecting) the remanded texts from the national conferences, must be presented again to each conference for its final vote of approval. (The BCL expects all the amended ICEL texts will be ready for presentation to the NCCB for approval in June 1997.)

Finally, after all the English-speaking national conferences approve the finalized ICEL texts, the entire revised Roman Missal will be sent to the Vatican, where the Congregation for Divine Worship (in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) will consider the proposed revisions in the English language texts.

Only after the Holy See has given approval may any revised texts be used Church’s liturgy.

Summary of the Bishops’ Actions Proper for the United States

The first item considered was the Proper for the Dioceses of the United States America. This is a supplement to the previously approved Proper of the Saints. It contained texts for the Masses on civil holidays such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day and for American saints such as St. Elizabeth Seton and St. John Neumann, including introductory biographical notes. Fifty amendments were accepted (eight of which were offered by liturgy Committee itself) and 55 were rejected.

During the floor debate on this first "action item" on the liturgy, Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis asked that "in the spirit of the change already approved by the body of bishops last June" the word priest be restored where ICEL used the Greek word presbyter (leader) — a word unfamiliar to most people and which does not necessarily carry the full connotation of the English word priest. The liturgy committee (BCL) had rejected his written amendment.

Five bishops spoke in support of Archbishop Rigali’s motion, including San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, who said he thought restoring the word "priest" throughout the texts had already been agreed upon in June.

Bishop Joseph Galante of Beaumont, Texas, commented that changing elementary terminology (like "priest") creates minor problems which can eventually combine into a major problem.

Bishop Donald Trautman, of Erie, speaking for the Committee, insisted that "presbyter" is a more precise term which includes bishops.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, Cincinnati, who heads the ICEL episcopal board, strongIy objected to Archbishop Rigali’s motion. He said that earlier segments already approved would be affected by the amendment, and thus all these texts would have to be remanded to ICEL for revision. This would, he suggested, undo everything the bishops had voted on so far. He did not explain why these changes could not be quickly be made by computer throughout all the texts, nor why this amendment would cause more difficulty for the ICEL translators than had a nearly identical motion accepted in June.

(Archbishop Pilarczyk was also elected of the NCCB Committee on Doctrine at the November meeting, defeating Archbishop Francis George, of Portland, Oregon. The Doctrine Committee checks ICEL’S work for possible doctrinal errors.)

The Rigali motion failed on a voice vote, although it sounded very close. The final vote (by secret ballot) on the segment was 210 to 15 in favor of the ICEL texts with 41 bishops abstaining or absent. (2/3 majority of the membership of the NCCB, or 178, is required for approval of all these liturgical texts.)

Segment VII: Common of Saints, Ritual Masses, Votive Masses, Masses for the Dead

The term "Ritual Masses" refers to Masses celebrated in connection with a sacrament such as Baptism (including several stages of the RCIA), Confirmation, etc., as well as for such events as profession of religious and the dedication of a church or an altar. It also includes rubrics, "for information purposes", for concelebrated Masses, private Masses and "Masses Celebrated Facing Away from the People."

There were 25 accepted amendments on this segment; 153 were rejected. Bishop Trautman commented that three bishops were responsible for 56 percent of amendments. These three were Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Bishop James S. Sullivan of Fargo, and Bishop Alfred C. Hughes of Baton Rouge.

The printed lists of rejected amendments contained several pages of Introductory Notes giving the BCL’S rationale. The notes still relied heavily on a controversial 1969 document on translation principles, commonly known as Comme Ie prevoit.

One passage in these notes reads:

The Committee carefully considered all motions based on stylistic concerns. However, due to the length of the process and the complexity of remanding texts to ICEL for further consideration of eleven episcopal conferences, motions based on objections which are basically stylistic in nature (even if the points are well taken) were not accepted.

In fact, bishops offer amendments because they see theological problems resulting from the translation. This consideration, as well as the confusing nature of the process, are illustrated by the only intervention from the floor on this segment.

Bishop Alfred Hughes offered 33 amendments, all concerning the translation (or nontranslation) of such Latin words as valere, facere and mereri.. In each case Bishop Hughes offered a theological explanation of his objection. For example,

Besides failing to capture the full force of the Latin this rendition considerably weakens the theology of grace which implies God’s initiative in enabling us to be able to act.

The BCL’S rationale, however, treated the theological problem Bishop Hughes raised as one merely of style:

Usually mereo or mereor appear in the Latin text because of the requirements of the cursus in Latin prosody.

Since all his amendments were made for a similar reason, Bishop Hughes asked if they could be discussed all at once. This led to considerable confusion and a ruling by the parliamentarian, insisting that either each of the 33 amendments could be brought to vote individually, or the entire text could be remanded to ICEL. There was no intermediate possibility.

This unusual ruling terminated useful discussion. Faced with the prospect remanding the whole text to ICEL or discussing 33 amendments one at a time, a negative voice vote ended Bishop Hughes’ effort.

Segment VII passed by a vote of 190 to 33 with two abstentions. Forty-one bishops were absent or did not vote.

Later that day, Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss described the mood of the bishops:

You’ll notice that even those who had written interventions, there were very few that came back when their interventions weren’t accepted to argue [for them] because they know the mood of the body. And the mood of the body is to accept the work of the committee. All of the arguments have been made — pro and con — on the translations. So the matter now is pretty much over.

Archbishop Curtiss’ comments correctly predicted the attitude of the bishops in subsequent votes on the ICEL revisions. The day after he made these remarks, the bishops reviewed and quickly approved the final sections of the ICEL Sacramentary, Segment VIII.

Segment VIII: Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions, Antiphonal for Volume Two, Other Texts

This was the longest of the segments voted on at this meeting, and, according to Bishop Trautman 270 motions were submitted on this segment. Only a few were accepted.

The Introductory Notes to the rejected amendments added a section on the translation of antiphons which asserted that the norms for translating antiphons, which are to be sung, are "more flexible" than for texts intended to be spoken.  ICEL contends that it has translated the antiphons so that they can be sung several times over in response to verses from a psalm, and if possible without books, especially during the communion procession. Since they are to serve this purpose, the antiphons need to be short, rhythmical, and uncluttered by weak syllables and unimportant words.

ICEL was also concerned with the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables which "meant in some instances that every word of the Latin text was not always translated." 

These "dynamically equivalent" principles echo the rationale for the ICEL Psalter — and the style of both the Antiphonal and the Psalter are strikingly similar. A few examples from the written amendments:

Archbishop Rigali suggested that in the opening antiphon for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary: "It would seem advantageous to retain the traditional form of the citation from the Hail Mary. There would be less confusion for the people:’ He advocated the restoration of "thee" and similar words. The BCL replies that the modernized "Hail Mary" already appears in Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers approved several years ago.

Bishop Roberto Gonzalez, co-adjutor of Corpus Christi, objected that "dance for joy" (Psalm 132) was not an accurate translation of "exsultet." The BCL contended that the corresponding Hebrew word "is translated dance. The root gil implies something to do with a circle. …It is likely… that it connotes a dance for joy, such as a ring dance." Bishop Gonzalez registered a similar objection to the translation of a passage from Matthew: 5, and received an identical reply.

Cardinal Bevilacqua took issue with the translation of the opening prayer for the feast of St. Andrew based on the call to Peter and Andrew beside the lake of Galilee. The Latin Venite post me, faciam vos fieri piscatores hominum (Follow me and I will make you fishers of men) is rendered: "Follow me, and fish for people."

Cardinal Bevilacqua said, "’Fish for people’ just does not swim!" The BCL insists, inaccurately, "This is a precise translation of the Latin."

Despite these and similar difficulties with the texts in Segment VIII, there was no floor debate on this segment. 

The votes were as follows:

IA. Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions Passed 213 to 22

IB Antiphons and Songs for Volume Two Passed 217 to 19

IC. Other Texts Passed 213 to 23 with 2 abstentions

II. Variations in Volume Two Passed 218 to 17 with 2 abstentions.

III. Pastoral Introduction to Volume Two Passed 217 to 16 with I abstention.

Weariness, Discouragement, Confusion

Some observers may conclude, understandably if inaccurately, that the overwhelming majority by which the ICEL texts were approved indicated the bishops’ enthusiasm for the ICEL revisions. An accurate interpretation of the bishops’ vote is somewhat more complex. There were several other reasons for many bishops’ positive vote. For many, it was almost certainly a desire to end the process. Some have become disheartened by conflict and discouraged by the outcome.

There has been little attempt, on the part of those who advocate the "updating" of the language of the liturgy to conceal their irritation with bishops who have been critical of the ICEL texts, arguing for caution in "inclusivizing" and greater fidelity to the original Latin text in the liturgical translations. Some bishops who have proposed compelling and scholarly arguments, only to have them dismissed by the Liturgy Committee, have become deeply discouraged by the process which has been skillfully controlled to achieve a pre-determined outcome. It is hard for some bishops to see that their work has been of any use in overcoming deeply entrenched opinions which have pervaded the liturgical establishment for many years. Their lapse into silence in the face of seemingly insuperable opposition is not surprising. Even before the November meeting, some bishops were convinced that only Rome’s intervention could successfully resolve the situation.

The prospect of prolonging the debate and approval process seemed to deter even those bishops who had submitted amendments and taken an active role in the debates in the past. One bishop said privately that he believed continued debate would have been counterproductive; it would have only irritated many of the bishops.

Archbishop Curtiss summed up the mood of many bishops when he commented in a television interview after the first day of voting:

I think for the most part the debate 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.

Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond made a telling comment during the discussions. He said, … 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?"

Bishop Sullivan’s surprise at discovering a new Eucharistic Prayer illustrates the confusing liturgical situation, in which not even bishops can keep abreast of developments. He evidently forgot that at the November 1994 NCCB meeting the bishops approved an English translation of the so-called "Swiss Synod" prayer, for use in the United States.

The Holy See confirmed the new translation the following May. By early 1996 the Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs and Occasions, with its several options, was published by the Liturgy Committee and made available for the celebration of Mass.

Controversy May Delay Confirmation

Vatican confirmation of the ICEL revisions of the Roman Missal may not be so quickly forthcoming, however.

In the past, this final step, approval by the Holy See, has usually amounted to a pro forma confirmation of the action of the conferences. But the new ICEL texts are likely to be given unusually careful scrutiny by the Congregation for Divine Worship.

The dispute over principles of translation has not been confined solely to the ICEL revisions, but surfaced several years ago, with the English translation of the Catechism for the Catholic Church, and in Scripture translations. Two English lectionaries based on two updated "inclusive-language" versions of the Bible, the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] and the Revised New American Bible [RNAB] have failed to receive Vatican approval. Other "inclusivized" Biblical translations have been rejected by the bishops (the Revised Grail Psalter), have been not been given approval for liturgical use (the ICEL Psalter). One such version has been strongly criticized by the chairman of the BCL (The New Testament and Psalms-An Inclusive Version).

Within this context of controversy, approval of the new Sacramentary revision will be unlikely until the continuing dispute over the principles of translation has been satisfactorily resolved by the Holy See.

In a recent interview, the newly appointed pro-prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Bishop Jorge Medina Estevez, commented:

There is reason to lament the fact that some translations are not faithful but quite fanciful [fantasiosi]. I believe that the texts of the Leonine, Gregorian, and Gelasian Sacramentaries have a perennial richness and value. And it is possible to translate them with fidelity. At times translation is confused with interpretation, but they are two different things.

Seven years ago, in his "Apostolic Letter on the 25th Anniversary of the Liturgy Constitution" (1989) Pope John Paul II 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, 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" (par. 20).

Clearly the objective evaluation of the activities of liturgical bodies and their guidelines still needs to be done, and will now have to take place in Rome.



The Editors