Dec 31, 2007


Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 9: December 1997/January 1998


US Bishops receive letter critical of ICEL’s translation of liturgical texts.

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The Holy See has rejected a proposed revision of the ritual used for ordination of bishops, priests and deacons.

This decision was conveyed in a letter dated September 20, 1997, from Archbishop Jorge Medina Estévez, 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.

The letter stated that the ordination ritual revision, titled Rites of Ordination of Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons, "cannot be approved or confirmed by the Holy See for liturgical use".

The revision of the ritual was the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL]. ICEL is the "mixed commission" which has been responsible for translating English-language liturgical texts since the Second Vatican Council. The revision had been approved by the NCCB Administrative Committee in March 1996, 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, the Vatican letter said, "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 the translation is not without doctrinal problems". The editio typica is the authorized Latin text which provides the basis for any vernacular translation.


Because "the shortcomings are so diffused", the Vatican letter said, "minor isolated corrections will not suffice". The letter 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".

The Vatican letter stressed that the specific defects it listed was not an exhaustive list, and that the flaws in the ICEL text were of such seriousness that the text could not be approved. Some examples the letter gives are:

"…the translation is seriously deficient. Particularly problematic are the texts that form part of the Eucharistic Prayer…. Prominent among the problems is the decision of the translators to break with common Catholic usage and translate the Latin presbyteri into English not with ‘priests’ but with ‘presbyters’.

"…[The translation] fails to transmit faithfully important doctrinal aspects of the Latin original…. 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.

"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."

The Vatican’s rejection of the proposed revision leaves the existing provisional text given the Holy See’s recognitio (approval) in 1977 as the authorized English version.

Significance of the Vatican Letter

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 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.

Those who have followed the debate within the NCCB on the Sacramentary will recognize some of the deficiencies noted by the Holy See. Some of the problems with the ICEL revision of the Rite of Ordination specified in the letter to Bishop Pilla are strikingly similar to questions raised by several American bishops during the four years of deliberations over the proposed revisions of the Sacramentary. Many of the bishops’ attempts to amend the ICEL texts were unsuccessful, however, and were either rejected by the NCCB Committee on the Liturgy, or failed in voice votes.

Some observers have suggested that the Vatican letter’s unusually candid criticism of the work of ICEL translators may lead to significant changes in the procedures and philosophy of translation ICEL has customarily employed in revising and re-translating liturgical texts.

Last year the so-called "Vatican Norms" for translation of Scripture texts appeared; and earlier CDW Secretary, Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, indicated that new principles of liturgical translation were being developed by the Holy See. Reportedly this project is nearing completion.

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.

While a "forum on translation" proposed by the US bishops in 1994 has not yet taken place, plans are reportedly being made for a meeting of translators and other experts to be selected by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy before the June NCCB meeting where more revisions of the Lectionary, or Scripture readings for Mass, will be considered. It is believed that the appointment last summer of Chicago Archbishop Francis George as the US bishops’ representative to ICEL may also have a significant effect on the structure and work of the "mixed commission".

Status of Other Revised Liturgical Texts

The first volume of a revised Lectionary based on the New American Bible has been approved by the Holy See after substantial "re-revisions" to the originally proposed text were made by a panel of US bishops. The bishops employed the "Vatican Norms". The NCCB plans to go ahead with publication of the portion of the Lectionary (Volume I) which has received Vatican approval.

The ICEL revision of the Sacramentary (Roman Missal, prayers used at Mass), approved by the ICEL-member conferences, will be undergoing study by the Vatican Congregations on doctrine and liturgy.

Apparently the Vatican’s September letter was not expected to be made public; however, Bishop Pilla distributed copies of the letter to all the bishops at the November 1997 NCCB meeting. The letter was accompanied by a 114-paragraph document, "Observations on Some Details of the ICEL Translation of the Book De Ordinatione Episcopi, Presbyteriorum et Diaconorum", describing both general and specific problems with the proposed ICEL texts. The letter and Observations were discussed by the bishops during an executive session. This session was closed to the press, but the letter soon appeared on the Internet.

Since it has already become public, and because of its significance for the future of revised liturgical texts, Adoremus is publishing the letter in full, along with an outline of the contents and some quotations from the "Observations" document.

The Letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops
The Holy See’s "Observations" on the ICEL Ordination Rite

Click here for PDF VERSION of the Letter from Congregation for Divine Worship to NCCB Rejection of revision of Ordination Ritual – Jorge Medina Estévez, Archbishop Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, to His Excellency The Most Reverend Anthony M. Pilla, Bishop of Cleveland President, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (September 20, 1997) and Full version of the "Observations" on ICEL Ordination RiteCongregation for Divine Worship (September 20, 1997)

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Helen Hitchcock is editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and president of Women for Faith and Family



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.