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ICEL 50th Anniversary

On 17 October, the Vatican celebrated the 50th anniversary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) with a mass at the altar of the chair in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Eucharistic celebration on the 50th anniversary of ICEL

Eucharistic celebration on the 50th anniversary of ICEL

Given recent discussion that the Council of Cardinals may be suggesting reform of the liturgical apparatus of the Vatican first (after the Synod) in its recommendations for the reform of the Curia, it is an event worth reviewing. Especially since one well-established vaticanist referred to it as “farce”.

Why the harsh language? Apparently, none of the members of ICEL prior to its “refounding” a decade ago were even present, and it is not very surprising. Few things epitomize the depths to which the curia had sunk than the bungled handling of ICEL a decade ago and the resulting mess. Though many of the conferences did the best they could given the situation (one can look to the US or England and Wales as examples), bad process always spoils even the best of products.

The advantage of our age is the great access to social media and broad communications, so we can get information quickly, and provide formation broadly. The USCCB and others showed this to great success in 2011 when implementing the new translation of the Roman Missal.

The disadvantage of this same gift is an even shorter memory. The first official translation came in 1972, after about six years of work. It was understood to be rather temporary, and by the end of the decade, work began on a much more serious translation. Everyone agreed the 1972 version was not perfect, but for forty years, the local bishops’ conferences had trusted the work to ICEL in accord with the principle of Sacrosanctum Concilium. After long years of work, the new and improved English translation was finally ready… not in 2011, but in 1998. The English-speaking bishops of the world had approved it, it should have been signed, sealed, and delivered, but something unbecoming of church leaders was afoot.

Over the next five years, all the hard working bishops, liturgists, experts and consultants who had given so much to the Church they loved felt a “cold wind” blowing from Rome, as none-too-subtle (and none-too-kind) change was imposed by a relatively small number of power brokers and their allies.

By 2003, ICEL had been effectively disbanded and replaced by an entirely new commission, Vox Clara, quite different from the mission and composition of the first. It would have been more honest to just say so, and not act as though ICEL had continued as the same entity it was before Vox Clara came on the scene. To quote the late Msgr. Fred McManus, the American peritus at Vatican II who helped the bishops establish ICEL and suffered greatly as he saw it dismantled: “They could at least have the decency to change its name.”

From an impetus to the encounter of the liturgy with culture and cultures, and the reception of those into the liturgy, the focus had moved to a fixation on the Latin language and the culture of Rome. Translation is no longer about bringing the liturgy into new cultures,  but about bringing diverse experiences of liturgy into the closest approximation of the Latin as possible.

Sound like a made-for-TV drama or a Dan Brown novel? It can certainly be dramatized… but truth is so often stranger (and sadder) than fiction. Even in the Church.

Whatever you think of the translations, the 1998 or the 2011 versions, the process by which the current version was introduced was inappropriate and embarrassing for the Church, and for the loyal sons and daughters of the church who put so much effort in, as directed, and then were so harshly dismissed.

To read the documents, the history, and the full story of ICEL and what happened to the long-sought after New and Improved English Translation – and why it was replaced by a relative rush-job that was rolled out with great fanfare as the best thing since sliced bread – I recommend some serious reading here, compiled by one of the experts involved in the more recent iteration, appointed to ICEL in 2005.  

Some of the disgruntled ask if Pope Francis would completely overturn the translations. I doubt it, and do not think that is the way to go.

What is needed is an honest accounting and a healing of memories. Apologies offered and credit given where it is due. Only then can the repair and reform of the liturgy move forward, which i suspect should include a serious reconsideration of Liturgicam Authenticam (which is deficient not least for its ecumenical shortcomings) and a move to bring the best of both the 1998 and 2011 translations into a single, common Missal. Let the “old mass” inform and enrich the “new”.

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