‘The Liturgy Is a Gift’: Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth Steps Down After Navigating ‘Choppy Waters’ of New English Liturgical Translations
The British priest discusses his eventful 14-year tenure as the executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.
WASHINGTON — For the past 14 years, Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth has had to sensitively steer the English translations of the liturgical books of the reformed Roman Rite — a work, he stresses, that has “largely been one of diplomacy.”
Now, the English priest of the Oratorian Community of St. Philip Neri — a community in formation for the oratory in the Archdiocese of Washington since 2013 — is stepping down as executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a job that entailed managing the commission’s day-to-day work.
A former professor of Ecclesiastical Latin and New Testament Greek at the Westminster Diocesan Seminary, Msgr. Wadsworth, 61, leaves the post with plentiful acclaim after overseeing a time of particularly intense activity that included leading the final phase of the new English translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal, introduced in 2011.
Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver praised him for his “competent leadership” in helping to enhance the “beauty and reverence” of worship. Archbishop Eamon Martin, president of the Irish bishops’ conference, thanked him for his “warmth of welcome,” expertise and courtesy. And ICEL’s current chairman, Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, praised Msgr. Wadsworth for his “astonishing grasp” of the work during a time of “choppy waters” and how he was an effective “bridge-builder” between ICEL, the Dicastery for Divine Worship and bishops’ conferences.
In this Aug. 1 interview with the Register, Msgr. Wadsworth recalls the highlights of his 14-year tenure, examines the reception and fruits of the new translation of the Roman Missal, and discusses the controversies and ongoing disputes over the liturgy, especially the fallout from Pope Francis’ restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass implemented through his 2021 motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition).
Msgr. Wadsworth, what were the highlights of your 14 years as executive director of ICEL?
When I came to ICEL, in the summer of 2009, the Roman Missal translation was in the last stage of its preparation. It was a time of intense activity, which has pretty much continued throughout my time as director.
These years have seen the greatest number of translations produced since the earliest years of ICEL’s activity and the first liturgical texts in English. This itself is a source of great satisfaction in that we have been able to give those who worship in English beautiful texts that express the full content of the meaning of the original Latin.
With the support of the bishops of the commission, I have been able to expand ICEL’s activity to include a greater engagement with the study of the liturgical texts. This has largely been through the creation of the Institute of St. Gregory for the Study of Liturgical Latin, ICEL’s collaborative project with the Department of Greek and Latin at The Catholic University of America, which hosts a series of public lectures, graduate seminars, and workshops on aspects of the liturgical text and its translation. We are also currently engaged in the preparation of a multivolume commentary on the hymns of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The new English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal was fraught with tensions and disputes between bishops’ conferences, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and ICEL, but under your leadership it was achieved in 2010 and implemented in November 2011. What was your role in that, and how did you bring opposing sides together to achieve the new translation?
I have often said that my work has largely been one of diplomacy, with the Vatican dicastery, the conferences of bishops, with priests, with liturgical musicians, with dioceses, and with parishes. I have traveled extensively throughout the English-speaking Church in an attempt to help people understand what we receive in the liturgy. Initially, this was focused largely on explaining the different principles that informed the making of the translation of the Roman Missal.
More recently, I have tried to engage in the task of collecting reactions to the missal and assembling suggestions on how the translation may be improved and continue to develop. This has meant a lot of time listening to people express their views about the translations.
The liturgy is at the heart of our experience of the Church; it would be sad if we did not feel strongly about such things. In all but the most ideologically driven circles I have found that there is a generosity in trying to find ways forward.
How has the translation been received, and what have been its fruits since it was implemented?
My impression is that it has generally been very well received and in most places people are calm when it comes to the discussion of the liturgy. Priests are understandably concerned about the ease of proclamation of some of the prayers, and there are certainly texts that would benefit from revision.
Sadly, the text approved by 11 conferences in the Grey Book of the Roman Missal [the liturgical text voted on by bishops] was considerably altered by the then Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and a considerable number of the issues that now need to be addressed can be traced to that last stage of the preparation of the text — a fact that the dicastery would readily accept.
Since the making of the translation missal, the principles and style of translation have continued to develop as we gain more experience with the translation of the other liturgical books. The Catholic Church is still young in its experience of the full implication of a vernacular liturgy, and we must expect to give this our consideration for the foreseeable future.
You are a gifted musician, and during your tenure you introduced technology to distribute music of the Roman Missal, which is now posted online. This was considered a bold move but one that earned praise from all over the world and enabled chant to regain its first place in the liturgy. What gave you this idea, and what have been the effects?
The Roman Missal in its third typical edition contains the greatest amount of music ever to appear in a liturgical book. The English translation of the missal adapts all of these Gregorian chants for use in English, offering the basis for a universal common repertoire of liturgical chant both in Latin and English.
I am always gratified to hear these chants sung in a wide range of celebrations, as they seem to have been readily received. This is due in no small part to the decision to implement the Order of the Mass (including the sung parts) before the rest of the missal. This enabled many people to become familiar with those elements of the Mass that are common to every celebration and to make them their own. All these chants are available on the ICEL website.
Moving forward, our international music committee continued to work in producing chants for all the liturgical books. This has reached its culmination in the musical settings of the hymns of the Liturgy of the Hours, which are now available (The Divine Office Hymnal, GIA, 2024), with chant and metrical hymn tunes given for each hymn.
If Gregorian chant is to have pride of place in our liturgy, as Sacrosanctum Concilium mandates (116), it is wonderful to have chant melodies accommodated to the English texts as an alternative to the perennial option of the Latin chants.
What are your views on the current struggles over the liturgy, especially regarding Traditionis Custodes and the restrictions on the traditional Mass? How can bridges be built to prevent further alienation of those who attend the older liturgy?
We live from the liturgy — it is our deepest engagement in the mystery of Christ in this life; it shapes us and forms us. From our baptism until the last sacrament we receive, we are caught up both with the life of God and in communion with each other in the Body of Christ.
When I became executive director in 2009, I settled on what I thought to be a relatively uncontentious formulation: The liturgy is a gift that we receive from God and do not make for ourselves. I soon found out that not everyone was happy with this concept.
Tradition comes to us from the past; it is the gift of those who came before us and those who have formed us. We are the recipients of this patrimony, and through us it lives in the present as we, in our turn, hand it on to others.
I think everyone knows I have a great love for the older liturgical forms and their celebration has always been part of my life, although in my 33 years as a priest I have always served in situations where the post-conciliar liturgy was the norm. I have greatly benefited from an understanding of the older liturgy, not least because it sheds light on what we currently have, providing the all-important footnotes.
The coexistence of the reformed and old Latin Rite liturgy has been criticized, with some liturgists saying the new form is incompatible with the old. What is your view on this? Can they be mutually enriching, as Benedict XVI said in Summorum Pontificum, or not?
Because Tradition is such an important aspect of the unfolding of the Church’s life, a radical lack of continuity would seem to be undesirable. My understanding of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was not so much as a pastoral initiative, as some have suggested, but rather an attempt to allow the light of Tradition to shine on all our liturgical experience.
As the Church permits a variety of styles of celebration, the unity of the Roman Rite is now specifically a textual unity: We use the same prayers and meditate on the same Scriptures. As any clinical psychologist will tell you, a person needs to make peace with their past. I do not believe the Church is currently doing well on this score, and there needs to be a far greater knowledge and experience of what we have received.
The core of the Roman Rite is a body of the texts that date from the first millennium. In order for us to understand this patrimony, we need far more enthusiasm for the teaching and learning of Latin; even with an entirely vernacular liturgy, the principal sources of our liturgy are all in Latin.
I would like to see a greater engagement with the culture that our liturgy has produced — the Roman Rite is the matrix of a civilization that has given us not only a liturgy, but music, art, architecture and literature. The principle of mutual enrichment is rooted in our history and so inevitably points us towards the future.
What are your plans now that you have stepped down from ICEL? Will you still be involved in liturgical matters?
As we moved towards the completion of a second translation of all the liturgical books (only the Book of Blessings and the Collection of Masses for the Blessed Virgin Mary are currently not in process), it became clear to me that it was time for someone else to take on the task of executive director. The bishops of the commission have been reluctant to release me, twice asking me to withdraw my resignation.
At their meeting in February, they accepted my resignation and began the process of appointing my successor. With the recent appointment of my successor, Father Andrew Menke, we have now determined that he will begin on Nov. 1. I remain in ICEL’s employ as director of the St. Gregory Institute for the Study of Liturgical Latin and a consultant to the commission. After a brief sabbatical at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, I take up an invitation to teach in the theology faculty at Georgetown University in January. I shall also have more time to spend with my Oratorian community here in Washington, D.C., and to be more involved in the formation of our community and the parish entrusted to our care.