Peace Breaks Out in the ‘Translation Wars’

There was something fitting about the end of the last conclave, when it fell to Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, retired prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, to announce that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected Pope. For, along with Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Medina was the most successful of Pope John Paul II’s curial appointments. He served only six years, and was subject to much criticism, but he managed to succeed where it was thought success was impossible. It was Cardinal Medina who resolved what used to be called the “translation wars.”

The measure of the cardinal’s success was evident at the recent meeting of Vox Clara — the board of bishops that advises the Holy See on translation of liturgical texts into English. The meeting was remarkable precisely in its ordinariness, despite the fact that matters it was handling were thought dangerously combustible only five years ago.

Vox Clara marked its fifth anniversary at the Rome meeting, and this year also marks the 10th anniversary of Cardinal Medina’s arrival at the Congregation for Divine Worship. A remarkable 10 years it has been.

The recent news that bishops’ conferences in the United States, England and Wales, Scotland, New Zealand and Australia have quickly approved the new proposed translations of the Roman Missal into English was unthinkable a decade ago. In 1996, it was thought that those who desired a more faithful, more sacred and more beautiful rendering of the Latin liturgical texts in English would have to wait several generations.

The translation establishment, formally institutionalized in the International Committee for English in the Liturgy (ICEL), had become a quasi-autonomous body often at odds with desired direction of the Holy See and the bishops it was created to serve. In 1996, the desire for a better English translation of the Mass seemed destined to remain only a frustrated desire.

Turning Point

Enter Cardinal Medina.

Within months of his arrival at the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Chilean cardinal rejected outright the proposed new translation of the Rite of Ordination. That had never been done before, and Cardinal Medina delivered such a withering judgment of its quality that the “Cardinal Pinochet” whispers against him began, comparing him unfavorably to the Chilean dictator.

It marked a turning point. Cardinal Medina waited, forced revisions and finally a superior translation of the Rite of Ordination was produced. That was just the prologue.

In 2000, a new Roman Missal was published, requiring new translations in all the vernacular languages. In 2001, Cardinal Medina published, with Pope John Paul II’s approval, Liturgiam Authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy), which laid down the new rules for translation — more accurate, more sacred and more beautiful.

The document was the definitive pre-emptive strike in the next round of the translations. It was released almost surreptitiously, while Pope John Paul was on a visit to the Ukraine — no press conference, no explanations, no warning.

In quick succession, Cardinal Medina ordered a reconstitution of ICEL, and installed a new chairman, Bishop Arthur Roche of ­­­­­­Leeds, England. He then followed up the same year with the creation of Vox Clara, an advisory committee for English translation matters, chaired by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and including senior archbishops from the whole English-speaking world.

Vox Clara was an imaginative bit of creative collegiality, as it allowed the Holy See to consult with residential bishops around the world in a manner that did not descend into the bureaucratic structures that often failed to conform to the desired purposes of the Holy See.

Cardinal Medina retired in 2002, but had set in place in only six years the initiatives that produced the surprisingly easy approvals given in recent months to the proposed new translations. His successor, Cardinal Francis Arinze, has been able to implement Cardinal Medina’s reforms with little difficulty.

For example, when confronted this spring by the possibility that the U.S. bishops might balk at the new translations, Cardinal Arinze wrote a firm letter to Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Both the Congregation for Divine Worship and individual bishops’ conferences are “bound” to conform with Liturgiam Authenticam, the cardinal stressed, and the Vatican consequently will not approve any translations that conflict with the document’s guidelines.

The result of the process initiated by Cardinal Medina is that within a few years a new more faithful, sacred and beautiful English translation of the Mass will be heard in parishes worldwide. What was previously thought impossible will have been accomplished in short order as the Church reckons.

On its fifth anniversary, Vox Clara issued a tranquil press release that looked back with satisfaction on all that has been achieved. That too marks a change — five years ago the very creation of Vox Clara was criticized as a secretive plot to undermine the translation establishment. Now it is the translation establishment.

The lessons of the “translation wars” are that bold reforms are possible, if courageous and creative leadership is not lacking. Cardinal Medina and the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments endured much grief in the intervening years; one frequent visitor to the Apostolic Palace commented in 2001 that more than half of the complaints by bishops about the Roman Curia were about the vigorous style of Cardinal Medina at the congregation.

True enough, but aside from Cardinal Ratzinger, no curial cardinal achieved more than Cardinal Medina did on critically important issues. English-speaking Catholics the world over have reason to be grateful.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

served as the Register’s Rome

correspondent from 1999-2003.

‘A Definite Change for The Better’

This prayer, from the beginning of Eucharistic Prayer I, is representative of the approach taken by ICEL in its proposed new English translations of the Order of Mass prayers.


(Bold words were left untranslated by ICEL 1973 text)

Te igitur, clementissime Pater, per Iesum Christum, Filium tuum, Dominum nostrum,
supplices rogamus ac
uti accepta habeas et benedicas hæc dona, hæc munera, hæc sancta sacrificia illibata.


ICEL 1973 TEXT (the one currently in use)

(Bold words were not in the Latin text)

We come to you, Father,
with praise and thanksgiving,
through Jesus Christ your Son.
Through him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.


(Closely follows the Latin text)

Most merciful Father,
we therefore humbly pray and implore you
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord,
to accept and bless
these gifts, these offerings,
these holy and undefiled sacrifices.

“The texts we have now, everyone admits — including old ICEL as well as new ICEL and the Holy See — are not adequate expressions of the faith,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said June 15 at the U.S. bishops’ spring conference in Los Angeles, the Adoremus Bulletin reported in its July-August 2006 issue. “Quite deliberately — and it’s documented — there was an attempt to delete sacrificial language; the theology of grace and merit was excised when it could have been included.”

Said Cardinal George, “I think these changes are not just something we have to put up with, but rather they’re a definite change for the better.”

(Register staff)