National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

Translation body may disband after new missal


The head of a key Vatican advisory body on English-language liturgical translations told NCR that body may disband following production of a new version of the Mass, a project that could be finished as early as 2005.

The comment, the first public hint that the three-year-old Vox Clara Committee may have a short life, offers perhaps the clearest signal yet that the bruising “liturgy wars” in the Catholic church are nearing an end. In effect, it would mean the Vatican is contemplating mothballing one of its biggest guns.

-- CNS/Reuters

Cardinal George Pell

“I’m not sure we will have a role beyond the Roman Missal [the formal name for the collection of prayers for the Catholic Mass]. I think that will be something that will be faced up to at the time,” Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, the chair of Vox Clara, said in an exclusive March 11 interview with NCR.

The interview came at the end of Vox Clara’s March 9-11 meeting in Rome, its fifth since its creation in June 2001.

Such talk indicates that the Vatican, and conservatives such as Pell, are now largely satisfied with the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy -- ICEL. This reversal suggests that a long struggle between progressive liturgists seeking greater cultural diversity and conservatives stressing uniformity based on the Roman model has largely been won by the conservatives.

Created at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to translate liturgical texts into English, ICEL is a joint project of 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences, which means that it is not under direct Vatican control. ICEL drew fire from critics who thought it took liberties with the Latin originals of liturgical texts. One example was the use of so-called “inclusive language,” meaning avoiding gender-specific terms where possible.

Under strong Roman pressure, in recent years ICEL revised its statutes and overhauled its personnel in order to come into line with more conservative translation principles spelled out in a May 2001 Vatican document, Liturgiam Authenticam.

When the Vox Clara Committee was created by the Vatican, its stated purpose was to advise the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican’s liturgical agency, on English translations. At the time, it was not clear how the English-speaking bishops would respond to Vatican pressure for reform of ICEL. Some observers felt Vox Clara amounted to an implied threat to the bishops: Go along with Liturgiam Authenticam, or we’ll use Vox Clara as an “end-run,” cutting ICEL out of the translation process altogether.

Pell denied this was ever in the cards. “It’s an interesting hypothesis,” he said. “But no, the clear ambition of Vox Clara was that ICEL should do the work. The reason for that is that we want a good translation, good in the broadest, truest sense of the word. We want it to be used.”

Whether or not Vox Clara was a bluff, in any event the English-speaking bishops never called the bluff. Instead, they largely implemented the overhaul of ICEL requested by Rome.

Before the restructuring, ICEL spent a decade and a half, from 1982 to 1998, producing a revised translation of the prayers for Mass. That text has been set aside in favor of a new draft translation of the Order of Mass, the core prayers from the Roman Missal, currently making the rounds of English-speaking bishops’ conferences. If approved by the U.S. bishops at their November 2004 meeting, and if Rome subsequently approves it, the text could be ready for use in American parishes by early 2005.

The new ICEL translation, in keeping with the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam, hews more closely to the Latin original. In general, the result is a more rarified “liturgical vernacular” that deliberately stretches ordinary English speech.

Some critics have complained that the new translation seems rushed, compared to the 16 years devoted to the earlier ICEL revision. Pell rejected this criticism. “We’ve been going for nearly three years and we’ve got 40 pages of text. I don’t think that’s evidence of excessive haste,” he said.

In terms of reaction to the new Order of Mass, Pell told NCR that at its March 9-11 meeting, Vox Clara drafted 10 questions, concerning both translation philosophy and pastoral considerations, for the congregation to consider.

One example, Pell said, is not changing the people’s responses unless there is a compelling “religious or doctrinal reason” to do so. Inside Vox Clara, Pell said, this is know as the “Moroney principle,” after Fr. James Moroney, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat on Liturgy and a Vox Clara adviser, who first articulated the argument.

Pell offered two examples, one where “the Moroney principle” applies, and another where he believes a clear theological consideration overrides it.

The first is the Latin exchange Sursum corda/Habemus ad Dominum, currently rendered in English as “Lift up your hearts/We lift them up to the Lord.” The new draft has instead, “Let our hearts be lifted high/We hold them before the Lord.”

Pell said the sense of the committee was to stick with the present text.

“I think our instinct would be to leave it well alone,” he said.

The other example comes with the Latin exchange Dominus vobiscum/Et cum spirito tuo, now rendered in English as “The Lord be with you/And also with you.” The draft has instead, “The Lord be with you/And with your spirit.”

“There I think there is a significant doctrinal issue,” Pell said.

“In all the other major European languages it’s done this way … French, Spanish, Italian, German. It’s supposed to refer back to the spirit that comes down on the celebrant for the celebration of the liturgy. It’s a complex and fairly well established theological rationale,” he said.

“My pastoral take on it is that it’s very good for people to be reminded that there is such a reality as spirit,” Pell said. “One of the major challenges to the post-conciliar liturgical reform was that it doesn’t convey as well as it might the whole transcendent dimension.

Pell said that sometimes it’s good for liturgical texts to use unfamiliar language. “It’s a bit like a children’s literature book, where they say it’s useful to have one or two words every few pages that children aren’t sure about, to extend their comprehension. There’s something a bit similar in liturgical translations, to stretch people a bit,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

The full text of Allen's interview with Pell can be found in the Special Documents section of

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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