May 15, 2006

Bishops to Vote on Mass Translation

Online Edition – May 2006

Vol. XII, No. 3

Bishops to Vote on Mass Translation

ICEL Texts for Order of Mass, Amendments, Adaptations to be Considered at June Meeting

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

This June, at the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Los Angeles, the bishops will vote on the first English translations of the new Roman Missal, released four years ago — the third “typical edition” of the Missal since the Second Vatican Council.

There are two “Liturgy action items”:

1)Voting on the English translation of the Order of Mass, preceded by voting on proposed amendments to this text; and 2) A list of adaptations, proposed by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy as additions to the Missal for the United States.

The voting procedures are complex and, past experience suggests, can be confusing (see Procedures for Liturgy Actions at June USCCB Meeting).

The translation of the Order of Mass is the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), and is a dramatic improvement over the texts in current use. It reflects the objectives of the Holy See’s Instruction Liturgiam authenticam to provide more accurate translations from the Latin, and a greater sense of sacredness, “dignity, beauty and doctrinal precision”. (LA 25) We hope the text will be approved.

Beginning a “New Era”

The Roman Missal is the book of texts and rubrics for the celebration of Mass in the Latin-rite churches. The new third edition, released March 18, 2002, was originally scheduled to appear during the millennial year 2000. It was delayed for more than a year because of disputes over its introductory chapter of regulations for celebrating Mass, the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (General Instruction of the Roman Missal; GIRM) — and over issues involving translation principles. Problems with translation had surfaced during nearly a decade of protracted discussions and debates by the US bishops’ conference over new translations of the Lectionary (Bible readings for Mass) and the so-called “Sacramentary” (i.e., the Missal).

The proposed revision of the “Sacramentary” was the work of ICEL, an international group that had controlled translations of liturgical texts for the English-speaking world since its foundation during the Council.

Though eventually approved by the bishops, the revised “Sacramentary” was officially rejected by the Holy See, accompanied by a detailed critique, just two days before the new Missale Romanum was introduced. (The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments [CDW] compiled a list of “Observations on the English-language Translation of the Roman Missal”, dated March 16, 2002. The complete text is accessible on the Adoremus web site: html.

Mindful of the controversies surrounding liturgical translation, and in anticipation of translating the new edition of the Roman Missal, the CDW took two momentous actions: 1) it curtailed ICEL’s control of English translations by mandating its “radical restructuring”, and new statutes to govern its work (finally accomplished in 2003); and 2) issued an Instruction on translation of the liturgical books, Liturgiam authenticam, with the purpose of establishing “the true notion of liturgical translation in order that the translations of the Sacred Liturgy into the vernacular languages may stand secure as the authentic voice of the Church of God”. This fifth Instruction on the implementation of the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, published in May 2001, “envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal, which is consonant with the qualities and the traditions of the particular Churches, but which safeguards also the faith and the unity of the whole Church of God”. (LA 7)

The “new era of liturgical renewal” was further advanced by the Holy See’s establishing, in 2002, a consultative body of bishops from English-speaking countries, Vox Clara, to aid the CDW in overseeing liturgical translations. (Three American bishops are members of Vox Clara.)


Not all of these developments affecting the liturgy were greeted with enthusiasm by all bishops. One of the most vocal critics of the Holy See’s action was the bishop who had chaired the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) during much of the vigorous debate in the 1990s over the revised Lectionary translation (in use since 2002), and the conflict over ICEL’s proposed revision of the “Sacramentary”. He pursued his criticism of the Holy See’s intervention in liturgical matters, and especially of Liturgiam authenticam, in public speeches and articles in Catholic magazines.

Even after he was elected to a second term as chairman of the BCL in 2004, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie continued this energetic public criticism — most recently in addresses delivered in late March this year: first at the Benedictine College of St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota, (home of the Liturgical Press and publishers of the influential liturgical journal, Worship); and second at the Los Angeles archdiocesan Religious Education Congress.

Bishop Trautman’s address to these meetings, “The Relationship of the Active Participation of the Assembly to Liturgical Translations”, was published on the web site of the Diocese of Erie ( Bishop Trautman repeats his criticism of the Vatican actions, and states that the proposed Missal translation (he still calls it the “Sacramentary”), fails precisely because it follows the principles of “sacred vernacular as advocated by the Roman document Liturgiam authenticam”, which, in his view, fails to “communicate with people of a vastly different time and culture”. He criticizes the new translation for its increased use of words and phrases that denote transcendence. The “traditional element” of the liturgy, the bishop says, “can and must change with the culture.… Liturgy belongs to the people of the Church here and now.”

Contrary to Liturgiam authenticam, Bishop Trautman insists that so-called “inclusive language” is necessary. He states that “today major newspapers, magazines, textbooks, television, network news anchors, government leaders, best-selling authors, all employ sex-inclusive language”, and, with evident conviction, insists that “to refer to women using masculine language does not promote full participation in the liturgy”.

The bishop faults the current Lectionary precisely because it does not go far enough in gender-neutering: “With respect to inclusive language, our present Lectionary without horizontal inclusive language is inferior to other biblical translations, even to those done by fundamentalists…”, and proclaims that “instances of non-inclusive language in our Lectionary [leave] out one-half of the assembly”.

“To produce full, conscious and active participation”, Bishop Trautman maintains, “a translated text must convey the cultural context of the assembly.  If liturgical language is divorced from the reality of people’s culture, communication is impossible.  Liturgical prayer never happens in a vacuum.  There is always a cultural impact”.

We agree with these last two sentences. Liturgical prayer uses words, and these words transmit meaning. There is always a cultural impact. And it is the “cultural impact” of language in conveying the truth of the Catholic faith that is at the heart of the controversy over translation. The ancient formula, lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief, encapsulates the core objective of translation of liturgical texts, of using words and images that can carry the concept of the sacred — and can transcend our own limited, time-bound experience of the world.

We also strongly agree with Liturgiam authenticam, which said:

The Latin liturgical texts of the Roman Rite, while drawing on centuries of ecclesial experience in transmitting the faith of the Church received from the Fathers, are themselves the fruit of the liturgical renewal, just recently brought forth. In order that such a rich patrimony may be preserved and passed on through the centuries, it is to be kept in mind from the beginning that the translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman Liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language. While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet. (LA 20, “General Principles Applicable to All Translation”. Emphasis added.)

The importance of sacral language — words that convey a sense of reverence and transcendence — in the vernacular Mass texts was also emphasized in Liturgiam authenticam 25:

The translations should be characterized by a kind of language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves these texts’ dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision. By means of words of praise and adoration that foster reverence and gratitude in the face of God’s majesty, His power, His mercy and His transcendent nature, the translations will respond to the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people of our own time, while contributing also to the dignity and beauty of the liturgical celebration itself.

“Inclusive” Problems Persist

The one area where we find the new ICEL translation disappointing is its continued use of “inclusive language” — a problem carried over from its earlier draft version of 2004.

Liturgiam authenticam 30 emphasized that the nouns and pronouns in the original text “should be maintained in translation”, and suggested “catechesis” to aid in correct understanding, if there is any ambiguity of meaning. But this principle is not observed consistently in the ICEL translation.

One notable example is in the Creed, where “for us men and for our salvation” has become “for us and for our salvation”. Considering that the new ICEL rendering of Credo is, accurately, “I believe” instead of “We believe”, it is particularly distressing that the word homines (men) has been omitted.

This omission (and other similar instances) may reflect ICEL’s “translator’s bias”. In the CD video sent with the 2004 text, the executive director of ICEL secretariat, Father Bruce Harbert, speaking of changes in the Gloria states that,

Objections are sometimes raised to the use of the masculine pronoun “his” here and elsewhere in the Liturgy. The new version, “and peace on earth to people of good will”, corresponds more accurately to the Latin, and also removes the unnecessary masculine pronoun. The bishops of ICEL are taking care to make the language of the Mass as inclusive as possible.

As is well known, some ICEL bishops from other countries support this linguistic manipulation inspired by Western feminism and militantly advanced by some liturgists since the late 1970s. It is regrettable that such radical ideologies still have influence among Catholic bishops. It is simply untrue that women who are not feminist ideologues object to standard English, with its characteristic use of “man” as a collective noun. In fact, the opposite is true. (A Roper poll of US Catholics in 1997 revealed that, regarding the use of gender-sensitive language in Mass prayers and English translations of the Bible, 71 percent disagreed that “terms such as ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ … seem to exclude women”, while 69 percent disagreed that those specific terms should be avoided “when referring to people in general”.)

It is possible, of course, that such errors as this might be repaired by our bishops during the amendment process. Certainly the issue of changing English language for essentially political reasons is not merely a matter personal preference or taste, but has important theological ramifications, and it deserves to be raised at the meeting.

It is also the case, however, that when the ICEL text is approved by the USCCB, it will be sent at once to the Holy See for recognitio. Past experience with the Lectionary and the Catechism translations suggest that problems like this can be resolved and corrected by the Holy See’s review — and this may be the most likely scenario.

Changes — Amendments, Adaptations

Before they vote on the ICEL text itself, the bishops will have to deal with amendments proposed for altering the translation. If past experience is repeated, bishops could propose hundreds of amendments to the ICEL text, though the BCL sorts all these into two categories, “BCL accepts” and “BCL rejects”; and any bishop can ask for “separate consideration” of any item on either list. Only these would be subject to discussion and separate voting. A simple majority is required to accept or reject amendments. If the bishops vote to amend the ICEL text in any way, these changes would be incorporated into the text they would then vote on — and could affect the text sent to other ICEL-member countries for approval. This process could complicate and delay things, of course.

For canonical approval of the whole text of the Order of Mass, a 2/3 majority of the eligible Latin-rite bishops is required.

If it passes, the entire text would then be sent to the Holy See for approval and confirmation (recognitio). If it fails, however, the members of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy will decide the next step to propose to the conference. According to the ICEL Statutes, if it proves “unfeasible” to achieve a common translation for the English-speaking countries, as Liturgiam authenticam urges, each country can provide its own text. Though this outcome may be unlikely, confusion and delays in achieving a worthy translation of the Missal would almost certainly ensue; and no one wants a repeat of the liturgical conflicts of the 1990s.


In contrast to the amendments, proposed by the BCL and/or bishops, which would affect the translation of the main ICEL text of the Order of Mass, the adaptations proposed would become actual additions to the Missal for the Church in United States. Because of this, each of the proposed amendments requires a 2/3 majority vote of the Latin-rite bishops.

At the bishops’ November 2005 meeting, they first discussed a list of proposed adaptations. After a lively discussion, they voted overwhelming to table this until after they had a chance to examine the text of the Missal they were asked to “adapt”.

Most of these adaptations are familiar from books now in use. Surprisingly, the new list of “adaptations” includes two new prayers — for already-blessed holy water — both original compositions salvaged from the rejected “ICEL Sacramentary”.

The most familiar of the proposed “American adaptations” is inserting the memorial acclamation, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” to those given in the Missal. Though familiar to Americans, this “acclamation” never existed in the Latin Missal. It was an invention of ICEL that was placed first on the list of alternatives given in the printed text. Arguably, providing many options led to the addition of unauthorized acclamations. “Keep in mind …” and “We remember …” are so often used that even priests have been surprised to learn that these are not legitimate alternatives. Based on past experience, when there many options, people do not know which texts are in the Missal and which may be ad-libbed by the priest.

“Options” and “Original texts”

In its “Observations” rejecting the “ICEL Sacramentary”, in 2002, the Congregation for Divine Worship commented on “original texts”, stating, in part:

F. Consistent with the principles enumerated above regarding the book’s structure, and also with the communications sent by this Congregation well over a decade ago to the various Conferences (e.g., Prot. n. 866/88, 24 June 1988 as well as to the Executive Secretary of the Mixed Commission, Prot. n. 410/88, 18 June 1988, acknowledged by him 10 days later), in addition to other instances in the meantime in which this Dicastery has publicly taken the same position, the Congregation must insist that the texts newly composed by the Mixed Commission be excluded from the Missal. Supporting this decision are several serious concerns, namely:

• that the procedures set forth in the 1994 Instruction Varietates legitimae be upheld as regards adaptations to liturgical books for the sake of inculturation;

• that the proliferation of original texts not hinder the meditation of the faithful and of their pastors on the richness already found in the prayers of the Roman Liturgy;

• that the desire for constant variety, typical of many consumerist societies, not come to be regarded in itself as constituting a cultural value capable of serving as a vehicle for authentic inculturation.

(from Observations on the English Translation of the Roman Missal, Congregation for Divine Worship, March 16, 2002)

The proposed adaptations, though technically applicable only to the United States, in fact do affect other countries who use the ICEL texts. In fact, some English-speaking countries have been using the US version of the “Sacramentary” from the beginning; and all ICEL-affiliated countries are affected by changes made by the bishops of the United States.

This “international” effect of the US Conference’s actions should be very seriously considered before approving “local” adaptations to the international version of the Roman Missal. Such a unilateral move by our bishops would likely be interpreted as a kind of “cultural imperialism” — and in any case would disrupt the unity of liturgical translations in a given language that the Holy See calls for.

The End of the End of the Beginning?

No one can predict with certainty the outcome of the bishops’ voting on the first of the Missal translations. Attitudes of the 1960s are still deeply entrenched in some circles, and old attitudes and old habits sometimes die very hard.

Nevertheless, as I said when the first draft of the new ICEL translation of the Order of Mass appeared, there are strong indications that the kind of liturgical changes that Catholics will soon experience will be welcomed by most for what they are — a genuine recovery of the sacred dimension of Catholic worship that was sorely diminished by misguided flirtations with the “spirit of the age” that prevailed four decades ago. But, as William Ralph Inge, the Anglican dean of St. Paul’s in London, once quipped, “He who marries the Spirit of the Age will soon find himself a widower”.

One of the things we have learned, in the forty years since the Second Vatican Council, is that Catholic worship cannot — and must not — be confined to any one culture or age. The Liturgy transcends time, truly drawing believers of today — in our own communities circumscribed by time and place — into genuine communion with all Christians throughout the world and in every age.

The Second Vatican Council permitted the translation of the timeless Latin Liturgy into contemporary tongues not to change the Church, but so that she might more effectively transmit the unchanging truth of the ages to the people of our time. To remain vital, the Liturgy must maintain this connection with all ages — past, present, and yet to come. Four decades later, we are now discovering anew what this means and what must be done to accomplish it.

The approval of this translation of the Order of Mass, the first part of the Missal to be presented for vote, is a fundamental first step in the “new era of liturgical reform”.


Helen Hull Hitchcock, editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and member of its executive committee, is president of Women for Faith & Family. She edited The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God (Ignatius Press, 1992).






Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.