e-mail us
‘Vox Clara’ commission to monitor English translation


The new Roman Missal, the collection of prayers for the Mass that is the Catholic church’s most important liturgical text, may become the latest battleground in the ongoing struggle over how prayers and sacred texts are translated into English.

In this case, sources tell NCR, the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Vatican office with responsibility for liturgy, is leaving little to chance. It is creating a new body to monitor translation of liturgical texts into English. The move will likely assure that whatever role is played by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the embattled agency blamed by critics for an excessively liberal approach to translation, its work will be subject to rigorous review both by member bishops’ conferences and the Vatican.

Observers believe the principal purpose of the new body, which is to be called Vox Clara (Clear Voice), will not be to carry out translations itself, but to collect input from English-speaking experts and to provide advice to the congregation when texts arrive for approval.

In recent years the Vatican has rejected a number of translations prepared by the International Commission on English in Liturgy, resulting in delays of several years in the approval process.

“There is a logjam of texts,” one source said, “and this new body could help move things along.”

The Roman Missal, published in Latin, was presented at a March 22 Vatican news conference. It replaces the previous edition, issued in 1975, as the normative collection of prayers and rituals for celebrating the Mass. Before it begins to take effect in local dioceses and parishes, however, it must be translated into the vernacular languages.

Normally the missal would be turned over to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a body sponsored by 11 member bishops’ conferences, including the United States, for translation. Its drafts then go to member conferences, which in turn submit the texts to Rome for final approval.

Whether that process is followed for the missal remains to be seen.

Critics of the international commission, known by its initials, ICEL (pronounced eye-sell, with the accent on the eye), object to its philosophy of “inculturation” or the adaptation of texts to make them relevant to modern English speakers. The Vatican prefers a more literal fidelity to the Latin, seeing it as the best guarantee of doctrinal accuracy. The debate culminated in the May 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam, establishing more conservative principles for translation.

Whenever an English translation of the new missal is approved, Catholics are unlikely to notice vast changes. For the most part, the new missal reprises the old.

The missal resurrects some observances that were used prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), but then dropped amid post-conciliar liturgical reforms. These include a Mass for sinners (pro remissione peccatorum) and another to ask for the grace of purity (ad postulandam continentiam).

There are 19 additional feasts, some new and some restored from the older Latin Mass. Two personal imprints of the pope are the April 28 feast of St. Louis de Montfort, a French spiritual writer from whose works on Mary the pope drew the motto of his pontificate, Totus tuus, or “Entirely yours”; and a Mass dedicated to Divine Mercy, a devotion spread by the early 20th-century Polish nun St. Faustina Kowalska.

At the news conference on the missal, NCR asked about translation. Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, a Chilean who heads the Congregation for Divine Worship, said that while the “Anglo-Saxon practice” has been to have one translation for all the countries that speak English, this does not have to be the case.

In the Spanish-speaking world, he observed, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Chile all have separate missals.

If a given English-speaking country wants to submit its own translation, Medina said, the congregation “is ready to accept it to correspond to the differences in living language.”

In fact, Medina said, “there seems to be some movement in that direction.”

However the English-speaking bishops’ conferences choose to produce translations, the new body being created by the Congregation for Divine Worship will likely play a key role in reviewing them.

A liturgical expert in Europe told NCR that the Vox Clara commission could function as did a special working group created by the Vatican in 1997 to resolve an impasse over the American lectionary.

That project had been bogged down in debates over “inclusive language,” meaning a policy of avoiding gender-specific references in order that both men and women would recognize themselves in the text. The American bishops had approved a lectionary based on a moderate use of inclusive language in 1991, which was tentatively approved by Rome, but then rejected in 1994.

After years of back-and-forth negotiations, a special 11-member working group was convened in Rome from Feb. 24 to March 8, 1997, to hammer out the final text of the lectionary. Four American bishops, two officials of the U.S. bishops’ conference, four Vatican officials and one outside adviser performed revisions that were eventually adopted by the U.S. bishops and approved in Rome.

“That process seemed to work pretty well,” the expert said. “It certainly would be more efficient than awaiting written responses.”

At the time, critics objected to the secrecy of the process, and to the way the group modified decisions made with the involvement of scores of well-known American scholars and approved by the U.S. bishops (NCR, Sept. 25, 1998).

Fr. Allen Morris, secretary for liturgy of the English bishops’ conference, told NCR that should individual English-speaking bishops’ conferences opt to create their own texts, it would mark a difference in degree, rather than kind, from existing practice, since there are already cases in which translations differ.

In the Creed, for example, Catholics in England refer to Christ as “of one being with the Father,” while Americans say “one in being with the Father.”

While American and English Catholics are accustomed to saying in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” Indian Catholics recite: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002