Hope for decent English Roman Missal translation

authenticam ironiam

Life is full of ironies. And life in the Church is no different.

In fact, this past week we just witnessed a bit of irony that stretched right across the Atlantic Ocean, though most people seem to have missed it.

On October 4, as English Archbishop Arthur Roche had just finished giving his first major address as prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) here in Rome, people were gathering in a cathedral some 7,400 miles away in Santiago de Chile for the funeral of his predecessor, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez.

The 71-year-old Roche only got the job last May, while Medina, who would have been 95 in December, held the post from 1996-2002.

Even though three other men (all cardinals) served as CDWDS prefect at one time or another during the two decades that separated Medina’s tenure from Roche’s, the lives and liturgical activities of the gentlemanly Englishman and the gruff Chilean would frequently coincide.

Collide is probably the more appropriate word.

The man who announced the new pope

Most people around the world probably don’t know much about Cardinal Medina’s time as the Vatican’s liturgy chief.

Their clearest memory of him will be that he was the cardinal who, with great flare, stood on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on April 19, 2005 and announced that Joseph Ratzinger had just been elected pope, taking the name Benedict XVI.

But most liturgists and proponents of the liturgical renewal stemming from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) will remember the Chilean cardinal as the one who ruthlessly rode roughshod over the world’s English-speaking bishops and aggressively stripped them of their rightful authority to oversee the translations of Latin liturgical texts.

When Medina was called to Rome in 1996 to take the reins of Divine Worship (he got his red hat in 1998), Roche had just been named secretary-general of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Roche would hold that post until 2001 when he was named auxiliary bishop of Westminster. A year later he was appointed to the Diocese of Leeds, first as coadjutor and then ordinary.

The International Commission for English in the Liturgy

During his six years as CDWDS prefect, Cardinal Medina set the course that would lead more than a decade later to the current English translation of the Roman Missal, the prayers that are used to celebrate Mass.

He did this primarily by violently blocking with the work of the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a body set up in 1963 and sponsored by 11 bishops’ conferences to draft common English versions of liturgical prayers.

ICEL had prepared the first English translation of the Roman Missal (or Sacramentary) for the reformed liturgy. It came out in the early 1970s, but in 1982 the mixed-commission began working on a new and more careful translation.

It was a painstaking project that was finally finished and approved in 1998 by the bishops’ conferences that were part of ICEL. Medina’s office, however, refused to give it Vatican approval.

Vox Clara was a tool that the Vatican used to usurp the authority of the bishops’ conferences and effectively gut ICEL.

Changing the rules for translations

Instead, the CDWDS prefect — who spoke no English — moved hard on ICEL.

He informed the bishops of ICEL in 1998, through the recently created Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, that the commission had to be changed drastically according to Rome’s wishes or it was finished.

Medina formalized the threat personally in a sharp letter in 1999 to the ICEL chairman, Bishop Maurice Taylor of Scotland.

The Chilean’s next move was to issue a new set of principles and guidelines for liturgical translations. Issued in 2001 under the title Liturgiam authenticam, this document insisted on translations that were as close as possible to Latin.

Vox Clara

That same year Medina’s congregation set up the Vox Clara Committee, a group of senior bishops from English-speaking countries. It held its inaugural meeting in Rome in April 2002 under the chairmanship of then-Archbishop George Pell of Sydney (Australia).

Vox Clara’s official brief was “to advise (the CDWDS) in its responsibilities related to the translation of liturgical texts in the English language and to strengthen effective cooperation with the Conferences of Bishops”.

But, in reality, it was a tool that the Vatican used to usurp the authority of the bishops’ conferences and effectively gut ICEL.

Throughout his time at the worship office, Medina constantly and mercilessly bullied ICEL officials.

“From the start of his reign Cardinal Medina let it be known that relations with ICEL, if any, would be formal and cold,” wrote Bishop Taylor in his 2009 book A Cold Wind from Rome.

“There were no further collaborative meetings, no advice or comments were forthcoming in the course of our work and, in general, we thought that we were under suspicion,” Taylor noted.

Indeed they were.

New wine. Old skins.

A new ICEL and a new chairman

By the time Cardinal Medina retired as CDWDS prefect in October 2002 at age 75, he had forced a complete change in ICEL’s statutes and leadership.

Bishop Taylor was actually replaced as ICEL chairman a few months earlier. His replacement was the recently-named coadjutor bishop of Leeds, Arthur Roche.

During his ten years as chairman, Bishop Roche tried to walk the tightrope that was set by Liturgiam Authenticam. And he and his staff thought they had put together a good English translation of the Roman Missal, finally completed in 2008.

It was controversial and contested by many, but the ICEL’s member conferences all approved it the next year and the text was sent to Rome for final approval, which was granted.

But when the English version of the Missal was actually printed and presented to Benedict XVI in April 2010 it contained some 10,000 more changes, which ICEL had not made.

It’s suspected that Vox Clara — the body that Jorge Medina set up and George Pell oversaw — was responsible for making those changes.

The presentation ceremony itself says it all. It was a gala luncheon for the pope, CDWDS officials and…. Vox Clara. No one from ICEL was invited, not even Bishop Roche.

The old adage of being able to negotiate with terrorists but not with liturgists can take on an all too real an aspect.

Tempering liturgical traditionalism

But his story did not end there, of course.

Benedict XVI named him secretary of the CDCWS in 2012 and gave him the title “archbishop”.

During his nine years as the No. 2 at Divine Worship, he had to temper the liturgical traditionalism of the former prefect, Cardinal Robert Sarah.

But don’t expect Archbishop Roche to make any moves to repair what English-speaking Catholics — priests and people — believe is a very flawed translation of the Roman Missal.

The talk he gave on October 4 was for the opening of the academic year at the Atheneum of Sant’Anselmo, home of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute.

After Cardinal Sarah’s tenure at the CDWDS, it was reassuring to hear the new prefect reaffirm the normative nature of the Vatican II liturgical reform. But his address was otherwise unremarkable.

And his comments on translations will disappoint those who still hope that the current English-language Missal can be repaired.

“Of course, when it comes to translation there are many theories and controversies,” the archbishop said.

“If waylaid by that, it can be a battlefield of contrasting and opposing opinions. Even the most inexpert of protagonists have their opinions and can be highly vocal and self-opinionated,” he continued.

And then he added this:

The old adage of being able to negotiate with terrorists but not with liturgists can take on an all too real an aspect, but we should be consoled by Saint Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy where he writes: “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers…”

Archbishop Roche, who will probably get a red hat at the next consistory, concluded his address by wishing the professors and students of Sant’Anselmo “a good academic year, the love of the Lord you serve, a humble perseverance, and above all a good sense of humour”.

Sadly, it feels like Cardinal Medina Estévez, who was buried just hours later, got the last laugh.

  • Robert Mickens is LCI Editor in Chief.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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