Giving Thanks for Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez (1926-2021)

COMMENTARY: Aside from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, no curial cardinal achieved more on critically important issues than did the Chilean cardinal, who died Oct. 3.

Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez of Chile, the senior cardinal deacon, announces from the balcony of St Peter's Basilica the name of Germany's Joseph Ratzinger as the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church April 19, 2005 at the Vatican.
Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez of Chile, the senior cardinal deacon, announces from the balcony of St Peter's Basilica the name of Germany's Joseph Ratzinger as the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church April 19, 2005 at the Vatican. (photo: THOMAS COEX / AFP via Getty Images)

Walking down the corridor to his apartment on the evening of April 19, 2005, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez could be overheard singing softly to himself. It had a been a very good day — a day of great joy, gaudium magnum, to be precise. He was very happy and quite content for everyone to know it. 

Earlier that evening, Cardinal Medina, in his role as senior cardinal deacon in the College of Cardinals, had announced to the city and to the world that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected pope. It was fitting, for Cardinal Medina was, like Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the key figures of the John Paul pontificate. 

Cardinal Medina died Oct. 3 in his native city of Santiago, Chile, just a few months shy of his 95th birthday. His funeral was held the following day in the metropolitan cathedral. 

St. John Paul II’s Curia had a handful of very bright stars; one thinks of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, longtime vicar of Rome, and Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, prefect of bishops. But a special place was held by the two scholar-cardinals, Ratzinger and Medina. The former was there for the long haul, 23 years, and shaped the landscape of the pontificate. 

Cardinal Medina was in the Curia for only six years (1996-2002) as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. He was a bulldozer who got things done, and in a hurry. More than anyone else, he solved the translation problem that had plagued the liturgy since the early 1970s.

Ordained in 1954 for Santiago, Cardinal Medina, like his German counterpart, was a scholar-priest who attended Vatican II as a peritus, or theological adviser. He distinguished himself at the Council, and returned to Chile as a longtime professor and grand chancellor of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. In 1984, he was consecrated auxiliary bishop of Santiago, and then was appointed bishop of Rancagua (1987-1993) and later Valparaiso (1993-1996). 

His theological acumen earned him appointments to the International Theological Commission and to the editorial committee for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In 1993, he preached the Lenten retreat to John Paul and the Roman Curia.

By 1996, when Cardinal Medina was appointed prefect of worship, the translations of liturgical books into English had become something of a quagmire. Disputes abounded regarding sacral language, biblical translations, gender pronouns and “dynamic equivalence” rather than a more literal approach. The hurried translations done in the 1970s were to be reviewed and it fell to the Chilean cardinal to bring a resolution to the issue.

He did, ending the translation wars. 

Within months of his arrival at CDW, Cardinal Medina rejected outright the proposed new English translation of the Rite of Ordination. That had never been done before, and Cardinal Medina delivered such a withering judgment of its quality that his detractors took to calling him “Cardinal Pinochet” in the same way that Ratzinger was maligned as the “Panzerkardinal.” 

Cardinal Medina was just getting warmed up. In 2000, John Paul promulgated a new edition of the Roman Missal in Latin, requiring a new translation into English. Those who desired a more faithful, more sacred and more beautiful rendering of the Latin liturgical texts in English thought they would have wait several generations.

Cardinal Medina thought differently. He took the liturgical establishment by surprise, pushing through the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam in 2001, mandating rules for a more faithful translation. He reworked the procedures and personnel for the main English translation­ bodies, and established the Vox Clara committee of bishops from around the English-speaking world to supervise the work. Cardinal George Pell was the chairman.

Ten years later, with relatively few objections, the entire English-speaking world smoothly received a common, beautiful and faithful new translation of the Holy Mass in English. Cardinal Medina was retired by then, but it was his principal achievement, immeasurably improving the celebration of Mass in English the world over.

That it took a Spanish-speaking Chilean to solve the English translation problem was remarkable, but it was not linguistic ability as much as courageous determination that got the job done. Pope Francis has rolled back some of Medina’s Liturgiam Authenticam, giving national episcopal conferences more authority, but there is little appetite in the English-speaking world for another round of translations, which are massively time-consuming and expensive. Cardinal Medina’s achievement will stand for years to come.

While the Missal absorbed much of Cardinal Medina’s attention, he nevertheless was instrumental in John Paul’s 2002 motu proprio Misericordia Dei, which clarified that general absolution was possible only in very rare circumstances — circumstances that never prevailed in certain countries where it had gained some traction, like Australia, Ireland and Canada. While Church teaching had been clear on that issue, controversies lingered and defiant practices continued. Cardinal Medina’s decisive action brought an end to that.

And then just weeks before his retirement in October 2002, Medina bulldozed another longstanding irritant. The revision of the Book of Blessings after the Council was widely acknowledged to have been disastrous. The blessing prayers were banal and, most remarkably, there were no actual blessings — no Sign of the Cross by the priest or deacon, just prayers said near the object or person to be blessed. There was no time to get that dog’s breakfast revised, so Cardinal Medina just decreed that, henceforth, all blessings were to include the Sign of the Cross, no matter what the Book of Blessings said. 

If you bring a rosary or a holy picture to be blessed and the priest actually blesses it, thank Cardinal Medina.

Cardinal Medina endured vehement criticism, not all of it delivered in fraternal charity. By 2001, it was well known that more than half of the complaints by bishops about the Roman Curia were about the style of “Cardinal Pinochet.” True enough, but aside from Cardinal Ratzinger, no curial cardinal achieved more than Cardinal Medina did on critically important issues. English-speaking Catholics, in particular, have reason to be grateful.