In June 13, 1996, Archbishop Geraldo Majella Agnelo, a Brazilian who was at that time Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, praised and encouraged the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, commonly known as ICEL. Speaking to the ICEL episcopal board, headed at that time by Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, Archbishop Agnelo said: "I wish to express the thanks of the Holy See for the work undertaken by ICEL in the area of translation of the liturgical books and texts." He also referred to the "attentive work of ICEL in all its dimensions: collaborators, consultors, and bishop members."
Archbishop Agnelo further stated that the work of ICEL "has supported and continues to support the Episcopal Conferences of English-speaking countries in the direction desired by liturgical reform." Note carefully the wording "supported and continues to support in the direction desired by liturgical reform." The archbishop expressed the pope’s encouragement for the accomplishments of ICEL and transmitted the pope’s blessing on those involved in the work of ICEL.
On this occasion, Archbishop Agnelo also offered a helpful clarification about a 1969 Vatican document on liturgical translations that is known by its French title, Comme le Prevoit. The archbishop noted that while this document contains valuable principles, it is somewhat dated because it reflects the first period of liturgical reform. "It should, therefore, be integrated with subsequent norms and in reality submitted to the judgment of the experience of all these years." (The archbishop’s letter can be found in Origins, 8/1/96.)
That positive expression of commendation and gratitude in 1996 stands in apparent contrast to a recent letter of Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estévez, a Chilean who is now prefect of the same Congregation for Divine Worship. That letter, dated Oct. 26, 1999, and addressed to Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, who is the chairman of ICEL, chastised ICEL and declared that the commission "in its present form is not in a position to render to the bishops, to the Holy See, and the English-speaking faithful an adequate level of service" (Origins, 1/13/00).
In an effort to help clarify the issues, I will address three pivotal points in Cardinal Medina’s letter: a directive prohibiting ICEL from composing original English prayer texts; the requirement of the congregation’s nihil obstator official certificationfor the work of the ICEL advisory committee and secretariat staff; and the requirement that translations "accurately and fully convey the content of the original texts," which are in Latin.
Cardinal Medina’s letter clearly limits ICEL’s role to the translation of Latin texts into English. ICEL would not be permitted to compose original texts in English for consideration by a bishops’ conference. The cardinal’s letter states: "This dicastery [congregation] has also expressed its misgivings about the use of the commission’s resources for activities not concerned with translation, including the composition of original texts, which in fact are not the province of the mixed commission."
Catholic worship has, however, always included prayer texts in original languages. The Italian, Polish, French, German and Spanish (Texto Unico) Sacramentaries have original texts in those vernacular languagestexts which do not appear in the Latin or in any other vernacular translation. Why then is there a strong prohibition against English original compositions? Will these Sacramentaries in other languages be recalled? English-speaking Catholics have an obligation to offer their own contributions to the living corpus of prayer that they have received. Our faith experience of Jesus, reflecting our contemporary culture, is just as valid as the faith experience of those in the former millennium.
The Second Vatican Council’s "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" (1963) reminds us: "There must be no innovations unless the good of the church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing" (No. 23). This statement clearly envisions the need for new liturgical forms. Comme le Prevoit, the 1969 Vatican document for the guidance of vernacular translation, offers the following commentary on that Article 23: "Texts translated from another language are clearly not sufficient for the celebration of a fully renewed liturgy. The creation of new texts will be necessary" (Comme le Prevoit, No. 43). While the authority of this 1969 document has subsequently been modified, those sentences still provide a valid historical insight into what was approved thinking at one time in the life of the official church.
English-speaking Catholics have been praying original compositions in liturgical celebrations for over 25 years. These prayers originated in the vernacular and were composed as supplements to the prayers translated from the Latin. They include, for example, the alternative opening prayers for Sundays or for pastoral circumstances not envisioned in the Latin editions of liturgical books. Consider, for instance, in the Order of Christian Funerals, the prayers for a stillborn baby, the prayers for a person who committed suicide and the prayers for a person who has died after a long illness. These respond to pastoral needs that are not addressed in the Latin editions of liturgical books. In the rite of the anointing of the sick, there are original English compositions addressing the pastoral needs of people facing surgery, and for the anointing of a child or a young person. Other examples could be cited. Why in the name of the pastoral care due to God’s people should ICEL stop the composition of original texts of this sort?
Who has advised the congregation to limit the work of ICEL in this regard? What is the objection to these texts, all of which have been approved by the conferences of bishops? How liturgically impoverished we would be if ICEL had not composed prayers for the funeral of someone who has committed suicide or for the death of a young child. The shepherds of the church need to be counted on this issue of pastoral sensitivity to God’s people.
If original texts are permitted in other languagestexts which do not appear in Latin and are presently in use by people throughout Europewhy is a limitation put on ICEL’s work of providing original texts for English-speaking Catholics?
In March 1994 the Congregation for Worship and Sacraments issued an instruction on inculturation and the Roman liturgy. That document said in part: "It is by the mother language, which conveys the mentality and the culture of a people, that one can reach the soul, mold it in the Christian spirit and allow it to share more deeply in the prayer of the Church" (No. 28). ICEL has understood these words and provided the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States as well as the other English-speaking conferences with original prayer texts that those conferences have approved. In so doing, these episcopates joined in an effort similar to those undertaken by the Italian, Polish, French, German and Spanish episcopates. Why should that work now stop? Are all these episcopal conferences misguided?
In his June 13, 1996, letter, Archbishop Agnelo also cited Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter on the liturgy and commented: "Along this line there is need to make further clarifications to the bishops’ conferences, in order to increase their involvement and their influence in something that is their right and duty: translating liturgical books and texts." These are notable words. Archbishop Agnelo speaks of increasing the involvement and influence of our episcopal conferences "in something that is their right and duty." Cardinal Medina, on the other hand, speaks of lessening their influence by requiring a nihil obstat from the congregation for all involved in the work of ICEL. Why is there such a decided shift in the public utterances of the congregation? What are bishops to understand? There is a difference here not only in content but in tone and style.
Cardinal Medina’s letter states: "The members of what are currently termed the Advisory Committee or the Secretariat and their respective collaborators shall require the nihil obstat of this congregation in order to assume and to maintain their posts."
Up until this time, the episcopal board of ICEL has approved membership on the ICEL advisory committee. That advisory committee consists of liturgists, sacramental theologians, biblical scholars, classicists, experts in English literature and in church music. The bishops of the ICEL board, along with directors of the national liturgical commissions and present and former members of the advisory committee, have until now nominated candidates for the advisory committee. Who is better able to know these English-speaking scholarsthe episcopal board members of the countries in which the scholars live and work or a dicastery in Rome?
Certainly the dicastery would consult, but whom would they consult? Is this not a question of collegiality? Those nominated for the ICEL advisory committee normally attend two or three meetings as guest participants before the question of their membership is decided. Prospective candidates furnish a curriculum vitae which is then sent to the members of the episcopal board. The bishop on the board who belongs to the national conference for the country in which the candidate lives has to give his approval. All this takes place before ICEL’s episcopal board votes on the proposed candidate. If the nominee is approved by the vote of the episcopal board, that person then serves a term of seven years. Is this whole process not a proper exercise of collegiality? Is it not a proper expression of the principle of subsidiarity?
It might also be noted that the executive secretary of ICEL is appointed by a majority vote of the members of ICEL’s episcopal board. Certainly the bishops on that board should be trusted to select the person who facilitates the day-to-day work of ICEL.
Those bishops’ conferences that share a common language are responsible for international translation commissions. On this point the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" is very explicit: "Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority to specify adaptations, especially liturgical language" (No. 39). English-speaking bishops at the Second Vatican Council in 1963 foresaw the need for combined effort by their respective countries to prepare new liturgical texts in the vernacular. It was this effort that gave birth to ICEL. At the present moment, ICEL is a joint commission of 11 conferences of bishops. Parallel international commissions for other major language groups also exist, for example, a commission for German-speaking and French-speaking countries.
The requirement of the nihil obstat from the Roman congregation seems to demean the episcopal conferences. It would appear that the bishops who are members of the 11 English-speaking episcopal conferences are in a better position to judge the experts in English translation than are those removed from the English-speaking world. The council Fathers of Vatican II were quite clear regarding the competence of the episcopal conferences: "In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent and territorial bodies of bishops" ("Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," No. 36, par. 1).
In No. 36 paragraph 4 of this constitution we find the clear statement of the authority given to episcopal conferences to approve vernacular liturgical texts. The council Fathers also said: "The revision of liturgical books shall allow for legitimate variation and adaptations" ("Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," No. 38). To impose abruptly a nihil obstat is to question the working relationship between the conferences of bishops and the congregation. But the words of Vatican II on the role of bishops in overseeing the translation of liturgical texts are clear. The commentaries are clear. It is within the competence of the conference of bishops to oversee and direct liturgical translation. The nihil obstat is an intrusion in a process in which there already exists a proper balance. It has already been established that any liturgical text approved by a conference of bishops must be submitted to the congregation for confirmation. That safeguards both the pastoral responsibilities of the episcopal conferences in caring for the prayer of the local church, and the role of the Holy See in overseeing the liturgical life of the church throughout the world.
Four years ago, Archbishop Agnelo spoke of increasing the episcopal conferences’ involvement and influence in translating liturgical books and texts and reminded us that this is "their right and duty." It can only be hoped that Cardinal Medina’s letter will be refocused.
Concern has been repeatedly expressed for preserving the content of the Latin texts that are designated "typical." This is essential, since it is of the very nature of translation to communicate faithfully to a given people in their own language, that which the church, by means of this Latin text originally intended to communicate to another people in another time.
In his recent letter, Cardinal Medina states that vernacular texts must be accurate and fully convey the content of the original Latin text. Cardinal Medina’s statement must, however, be placed in the context of the insistence of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI that these translations into living languages would become "the voice of the church" at prayer. However, recent directives of the congregation aimed at ICEL’s work appear to require a word-for-word, syntax-for-syntax correspondence between the Latin and the English texts. The congregation has implied on several occasions that strictly literal translation is the primary goal, and that if the vernacular texts cannot always be immediately understood by those who hear them, explanations can be given afterwards in the homily or by catechesis. Does not such an approach run counter to the great hope of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Paul VI?
Anscar J. Chupungco, O.S.B., former president of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, has pointed out: "Fidelity to the original refers to the content or meaning of the text, not to the form or component words and phrases. That is why a word-for-word translation is not a guarantee of fidelity to the text" (Newsletter of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, December 1994).
Liturgical translation is an art, more than a science. It deals primarily with communication. Consider, for example, the fact that the vast majority of texts in our liturgical celebrations are translations from another language. All the texts in the present and proposed Sacramentary, except for some original compositions that are found mostly in the Sunday opening prayers and certain collects for saints, are from the Latin. All the texts from Sacred Scripture are translated from Hebrew, Greek or in a few cases from Aramaic originals. We need to be sensitive to the problems that translators face in trying to bridge the past and the present, classical and contemporary idiom, different cultures, different grammatical and lexical systems. Roman collects are Roman, not American, and yet they are destined to become prayers expressed in contemporary culture and English idiom. No translator can render a Latin text into contemporary English that has exactly the same meaning, form, nuance, tone and feeling of the original. The translator will always be faced with making choices between legitimate word alternatives. The translator will always be involved in interpreting and adapting to a new grammatical structure and lexicon.
How literal should a translation be? Should it be made one word at a time or one phrase at a time, or is it sufficient to render the meaning of each sentence? This is an important question that raises significant issues. Liturgical translations have also another requirement. They must be effective when proclaimed aloud. Some texts must be suited for singing. All liturgical texts are meant to be prayers coming from the heart.
ICEL has faced no easy task in presenting to the English-speaking world accurate, dignified and intelligible liturgical texts suitable for public proclamation and singing. When the vernacular was permitted for use in the Roman church's liturgy more than 3 5 years ago, there was little experience or expertise available in Catholic circles for dealing with the vernacular as a liturgical language. ICEL deserves the thanks of the church for having pioneered the development of a scholarly, sophisticated and systematic approach to the translation of Latin liturgical texts into English liturgical texts.
This is a critical time for liturgical translation. It is a time of transition, new challenges and new opportunities. It is a time for prayer, reflection, serious study, critique and discussion. It is within this context that I offer these reflections on three pivotal points in Cardinal Medina's letter.