National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted: March 16, 2004

Interview with Cardinal George Pell

March 11, 2004

By John L. Allen, Jr.

NCR's Vatican Correspondent John L. Allen Jr. interviewed Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, March 11. Pell chairs the Vox Clara Committee, which advises the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican's liturgical agency, on English translations.

NCR: How did you come to be chair of Vox Clara?
Pell: Very obviously, I was asked by the congregation whether I would consent to work on such a committee. I said yes, and I finished up chairing.

Is liturgy something in which you had a particular interest?
Well, you certainly couldn't describe me as a liturgist by any stretch of the imagination.

Is liturgy a bit like war … too important to be left to the liturgists?
You said that, but that's nicely put. I did write my thesis on early church history, second and third century stuff, so I've got a very solid grasp of Latin. I had a long history of concern about the accuracy of the liturgical translations going back plus or minus 15 years.

Given that one of the congregation's main concerns was fidelity to the Latin, it makes sense you would be someone to whom they would turn.
That's right.

Vox Clara was born in response to a specific crisis, which is the need for a new translation of the Roman Missal. Once that specific project is finished, what do you see as the role Vox Clara will play?
I'm not sure we will have a role beyond the Roman Missal. I think that will be something that will be faced up to at the time. It's interesting, one or two senior curial people have mentioned quite informally that it's not a bad sort of model. Everybody knows we're advising the congregation, so we can be asked. We've got to defend what we're doing or not doing. There is quite a transparency about it, as distinct from a congregation asking a number of anonymous experts for their advice. But whether that will be taken up and followed, I don't know. Our specific mandate for the moment is simply to advise and to help on the Roman Missal, and it might not go any further than that.

Also the ratio translationis?
Yes, most of the work for that has been done under us.

The bottom line is that you're not sure there will be a Vox Clara after we have a new Roman Missal in English?
That's correct.

That will be up to the congregation?
Yes. It's taking a lot of time. I mean, I don't begrudge the time, because the issues are enormously important.

What time commitment has Vox Clara entailed for you?
I've been in Rome twice a year since it started for Vox Clara work. With other odds and ends and bits of interest I've got in Rome, it takes you away quite a bit.

Is there much conversation over the phone and e-mail when you're home?
Not too much. Regular, but not every day of the week by any manner or means. We let people get on with the work. As you know, we're not doing the translation work, we're simply advising.

I imagine it also involves a fair bit of study.
Sure, sure. I've got to read the texts, obviously, and to reflect on them.

When Vox Clara was created in July 2001, it was not yet clear what the future of ICEL was going to be. Some critics felt Vox Clara was potentially an end-run around ICEL, meaning that if ICEL could not be reshaped in light of the congregation's druthers, Vox Clara could step in and take over. Was that ever on the table?
It's an interesting hypothesis. 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.

To date, you believe the new ICEL is doing a fair job?
That's correct.

Have the Australian bishops reviewed the draft translation of the Order of Mass?
We haven't discussed it as a collectivity, which we will. Fr. Bruce Harbert has been out to speak to us at our November or December conference, and he was well received. We haven't had a joint discussion, but the liturgical commission is working on it.

Is the plan for the Order of Mass to be issued separately from the rest of the Missal, so that it could go into immediate use?
I think that's the ambition and the expectation of Vox Clara.

The ICEL bishops will meet this summer to finalize the text, which would then be submitted to bishops' conferences. In the States, the conference could approve the text in November and then request recognition from Rome. The hope would be to have the Order of Mass ready for use in early 2005. Does that seem possible to you?
That's certainly the ambition. One or two good people are not absolutely sure that can be achieved. But my attitude is, let's go for that. We were set up in November 2001. That's two and a half years ago, and we've got 30-40 pages of text. I'd like to see that happen. But we don't want to compromise the quality, nor do we want to compromise the reception by people feeling that they're unreasonably rushed. But I think we can get over these things.

As you know, one criticism of the first generation of ICEL texts after the council was precisely that they were rushed. Some critics would say there seems a to be a similar kind of rush afoot now, for understandable pastoral reasons. Are you concerned that there has been undue haste?
Let's start from the other end, and I'll repeat my timeline. 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.

You're confident that due diligence has been given to this project and that it doesn't bear the imprint of "rush?"
No, I don't think so, although it needs to be tightened in a number of respects.

If early 2005 is the optimistic hope, what is the worst-case scenario in terms of how long it might take?
Who knows, who knows? I would hope not too long after that. I would also hope that the rest of the material, which they say is gestating ready to descend upon us … whatever is the progress on this part of it, it doesn't necessarily mean that anything else is being held up. It should all be going ahead. They're translating the rest of the Roman Missal, and that work is going ahead parallel to consideration of the part we're looking at now, the Order of Mass. Whatever the fate of the ultimate publication of the Order of the Mass, it shouldn't in any way hold up the rest of the proceedings.

Any sense of when the rest of the Roman Missal will be ready?
I'll repeat what I've been saying since I was put in this job, which is "a couple of years." But I started saying that three years ago. Nonetheless, a lot of work has taken place, I've been told.

Has Vox Clara seen any of this other material?

But it will come before you?
At some stage, yes.

How do you organize the work internally in Vox Clara when you're looking at a text?
Obviously, I read it. I'm not a specialist translator. I read it and compared it with the Latin for two things. First, what some people now call "proclaimability," though it's an ugly word. Second, for a basic fidelity to the Latin. That's what I do. For the more detailed points, I think all of us who are bishops were dependent on the experts who are serving us. We're very well served both by the people in the Vatican, and the two or three experts we have.

People such as Fr. James Moroney, executive director of the Secretariat of the Liturgy for the U.S. bishops?
He's got a crucial role, but it's primarily coordination. The experts we have are listed [in the press release]. That's Jeremy Driscoll, Dennis McManus, and Cuthbert Johnston.

When Vox Clara meets, how detailed does the discussion get?

Do you go line-by-line, phrase-by-phrase?
We do that, but that's not necessarily the most productive way. That's a temptation for us. After all, we are not translating the text. We try to abstract certain observations and questions. We've actually put 10 questions to the congregation that they might be interested to take up with ICEL. They are general questions, rather than asking, why did you say this, that or the other in that particular example? These are broad questions both of translation, principles of translation, but also pastoral considerations. All of us are working out in dioceses. For example, what somebody in London might easily get his tongue around, myself as an Australian where we don't open our mouth much, we might have more difficulty in pronouncing that easily.

So in part, this is pastoral reaction to the proposed text?
Partly, very definitely.

You said you try to assess the text for proclaimability. How do you go about that?
We might read it, and even on occasion we've had people sing it.

In the tension between proclaimability and fidelity to the Latin, how do you strike the balance?
It's a one-by-one thing, but generally it certainly can be done. The first priority in my mind is fidelity, doctrinal fidelity. That has to be married, though, with proclaimability. Our ambition is that the text will have quite a number of memorable parts, which is a higher level of proclaimability, a higher aspiration.

Liturgiam Authenticam struck a conservative note when it said that certain parts of the Mass, especially the people's responses, should be changed only for very compelling reasons. Do you agree?
I don't want ICEL to read from whatever you might write what we've said to the congregation, because the congregation might not accept everything we've said. We're there to advise the congregation, full stop. What the congregation does is its business. But you've touched upon one point, which as you say is elaborated in Liturgiam Authenticam. It's what we in the committee call "the Moroney principle," which we refined a little bit at our most recent meeting. Part of it follows what I said previously. The first requirement is fidelity, doctrinal and to some extent linguistic. The first element of the Moroney principle is that the parts that the people use, the whole instinct is to conserve them unless there's a clear reason for changing it. This also applies to those parts in the common of the Mass which are pronounced by the priest, and which the people are quite used to. The whole instinct there is conservation if it possibly can be done. In the proper of the different Masses, the parts that are said by the priest, the need for conservation is less demanding. I suppose you will have seen yourself, one of the more controversial elements in the translation as we have it is how you translate sursum corda/habemus ad dominum. Unless a change is clearly needed for some religious or doctrinal purpose, or for some reason of fidelity, I think our instinct would be to leave it well alone. That's one of the considerations we have brought up, which follows directly and explicitly from Liturgiam Authenticam.

As well as your pastoral concern?
That's right.

In that case, is there a doctrinal issue?
Not as far as I can see.

What about another well-known example, "and also with you" versus "and with your spirit?"
Ah, well there I think there is a significant doctrinal issue.

Which is?
I'll give you a more general reason, then I'll give you a personal pastoral take on it. Quite a lot has been written on this, and as a preliminary I would say that in all the other major European languages it's done this way …French, Spanish, Italian, German. I think 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 for it. My own particular pastoral take on it is that I think it's very good for the people to be reminded that there is such a reality as spirit. I've had kids who, when I ask what God is made of, give me some version of, "sugar and spice and everything nice." I remember one sixth grade boy saying God is "unreal." In Australian slang, though it's fading a little bit now, if kids said something is "unreal," it meant that it was very good. "Unreal" means terrific. But this rather cheeky young fellow, I think he was inclined to say that God is unreal. With a continual reference to spirit, you're confronted with it. People ask, 'What's a spirit?' So that's an idiosyncratic, supplementary sort of reason. I think it's pastorally good. 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. If we can help recapture that by small repetitions of 'with your spirit,' I think that will make a small contribution.

So on the sursum corda the principle of conservation applies, while on et cum spirito tuo there's a compelling theological reason to override the principle?
That's my personal take on both those things.

Why do you call the idea of conservation "the Moroney principle?"
Because he's the secretary of our group, and he might have been the first in our little group to enunciate it, to try to spell out these different considerations and put them together. So it's passed into our little parlance, in our small, low-key group, as "the Moroney principle."

Let me ask you something I hear from a lot from non-experts, which is that as important as questions of translations may be, the quality of liturgical experience is much more influenced by how good the homily is, how beautiful the music, and how welcoming the community. If you really wanted to do something about liturgy, wouldn't it make more sense to address these other variables?
I mean, these other things are enormously important. Whether they are so clearly superior to this issue I think is debatable, but it's not a debate that's particularly worth having. You see, it's a very difficult thing to do anything about the welcome in a community, the quality of preaching, but here with these translations -- that's something that we can improve. Also, if you get the right quality of language, it can be a great help to worship, in calling people to prayer. You've only got to look at the enduring influence of something like the Book of Common Prayer, or the King James Bible. Even though its language is no longer appropriate, the King James Bible was written to be proclaimed. You've only got to getup and read it and you can feel that. I don't want a quaint translation. I want something that is clear, though not everyday by any manner or means. I think 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.

So language is important because it shapes the way we think?
That's right. Lex orandi, lex credendi ... the rule of worship is the rule of belief.

The preference all along has been common texts in all the major languages, even though sometimes American English and Australian English and Indian English can be very different. In your view, why is it important to have a common text, rather than having the individual bishops' conferences do their own thing?
I'd like to state that certainly my personal ambition, and certainly the ambition of Vox Clara and the congregation, is to have one translation across the English-speaking world if we possibly can. That's an appropriate reflection of the unity of the church. There are many other opportunities for what you might call inculturation, or local flowering, these sorts of things. We're not just a collection of national churches, we are one universal church throughout the world. Hence one English version, perhaps with a few little local variants, is certainly the ambition, and I think it's worthwhile and appropriate. To be slightly contentious and provocative, English increasingly has today in many parts of the world the role that Latin had. … The knowledge of Latin is declining. I'm probably in the last generation of bishops who had a thorough grounding in Latin. Right through most of my schooling, in Australia and in Rome, nearly all the texts were in Latin. I did all my oral exams in Rome in Latin except for the last year, which was the first time you could do it in a modern European language the lecturer understood. My generation represents something of the end of an era. In Africa and in Asia today, translators are not working from the Latin but from the English. For the English to be accurate is important. Also the ratio translationis, when it appears, for specialists in translation in Africa and Asia, it will probably be quite helpful.

The ratio was intended to set out principles for the translation of the Order of Mass. Is this a cart-before-the-horse exercise, since the ratio is just being sent around for comment now, when the Order of Mass is virtually a fait accompli?
Not necessarily, because at least the first two parts of the ratio are just spelling out what's in Liturgiam Authenticam. Also, there's been regular informal contact between those working on the ratio and the leadership of the ICEL. It will also be useful for the secondary translations I've mentioned [for translations from English into Asian and African languages]. It may even be that people in other language groups will find the English ratio translationis of some considerable interest.

Anything else?
Everybody in Vox Clara is pleased that we haven't been embroiled in too much, or any real controversy. It's a low-key committee, it's only a committee of advice, and we're keen to keep it that way.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: