LONDON—The international commission which has been responsible for English translations of the liturgy for 36 years has survived the stiff rebuke of a top Vatican official, sources close to the commission say.

Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, issued a hard-hitting Oct. 26 letter to the commission's chairman, Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland. In the letter, the cardinal called on the panel to rewrite its statutes by Easter and submit to greater Vatican oversight.

Some say that means the end of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Father Stephen Somerville, one of the original members of ICEL, said Cardinal Medina's letter looked to him like a delicate way of relieving ICEL of its duties.

“I think it's the end of the ICEL era,” Father Somerville said. “They might keep the name to save face, but [the cardinal's letter] says that ICEL employees are now working on a temporary basis. That … is a free hand to fire everybody without replacing them. It doesn’t say that they will be replaced or reduced, but one suspects that that will be the case.”

But the U.S. bishops' representative to the commission, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, distanced himself from that kind of speculation.

“That's the first I've heard that,” Cardinal George told the Register. “You can imagine anything you want, [but] I don’t see on the basis of what people are claiming that ICEL is through.”

Prompted by Cardinal Medina's letter, the governing board of ICEL met in London Jan. 21-22 to discuss the future of the embattled translation body. No draft came out of the meeting, and the substance of the talks has gone virtually unreported.

This silence led many to conclude that ICEL's situation is indeed dire, but insiders say the bishops are committed to preserving ICEL. Changes in the organization are likely, but, according to Cardinal George, “No one knows for sure what will happen.”

ICEL Executive Secretary John Page, who rarely declines interviews, was tight-lipped about the London meeting. He said attendees had agreed to refer only to a press release in answer to reporters' questions.

Page said the 11 bishops who govern ICEL wanted to be able to discuss the matter without press publicity. He gave no indication himself that the silence surrounding ICEL's current status spelled its doom, and added that talks would be ongoing.

Critical Mass

Since its establishment in 1964, ICEL has drawn mounting criticism for its translations from original Latin texts.

Critics such as Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, publisher of Ignatius Press and co-founder of a liturgical watchdog group, contend that the translations in most need of correction are those of the Mass.

“The canon is not even a translation,” said Father Fessio. “There's hardly even a relationship [between the original and the texts in use]. ... [T]he offer-tory prayer and the post-Communion prayers are terrible impoverishments of the Latin. It almost makes me want to choke when I read them.”

Another sore point is ICEL's administrative habits. Cardinal Medina pointed to instances when ICEL would not listen to bishops' directives.

“These factors,” concluded Cardinal Medina in his letter, “appear to converge towards the conclusion that the Mixed Commission in its present form is not in a position to render to the Bishops, to the Holy See and to the English-speaking faithful an adequate level of service, nor to produce with appropriate promptness the texts that will be needed in the foreseeable future.”

The letter ended with a list of “considerations” that the revised statutes are to take into account.

Between sessions at the London meeting, the U.S. bishops' representative to ICEL, Cardinal George, conveyed the impact Cardinal Medina's letter has had on the commission.

“The [explosive] point, or one of them,” he told Catholic New Service, “was Cardinal Medina's insistence that the Vatican congregation approve members of ICEL's expert advisory committee and those who work on the translations.”

ICEL's Washington office, meanwhile, acknowledged that the London meeting was convened in order for the bishops of English-speaking countries to discuss “issues arising from [Cardinal Medina's] letter.”

It listed bishops in addition to Cardinal George who took part: Bishops Maurice Taylor of Scotland, Peter Cullinane of New Zealand, James Foley of Australia, Denis Hurley of Southern Africa, John Knight of Canada, Thomas McMahon of England and Wales, and Soosa Pakiam of India.

The topic discussed at most length was the revision of ICEL's constitution, the statement said.

“The bishops of the Board are confident that the revised constitution will strengthen ICEL's ability to continue providing the bishops'conferences with acceptable drafts of English language liturgical texts,” the statement concluded.

The Liturgy Office of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., is not commenting either on Cardinal Medina's letter or the London meeting.