|ROME, 10 FEB. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: I have an inquiry about the possible alternative texts for Mass
celebrated in the English language. I understand that the International
Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) holds the copyright for the
official Roman Missal text for English. As such, I'm assuming that the
official English text must come from ICEL. Is it possible for a bishop
(or a conference of bishops for a particular country) to approve the use
of another English text of the Roman Missal apart from that of ICEL? If
so, under what conditions would this be permissible? I ask this because
I noticed a parish priest using a very different text for the collect,
prayer over the gifts, and prayer after Communion when doing the Mass in
English in front of a congregation. This has disturbed me for quite some
time since I believe it is not liturgical, especially in light of No.
846.1 of the Code of Canon Law ("In celebrating the sacraments the
liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed
faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in
them on one's own authority"). —
C.B., Quezon City, Philippines
A: Although this question is capable enmeshing us in the legal
technicalities of translation norms, I will attempt to simplify it as
best I can.
ICEL is an international organ of 11 English-speaking bishops'
conferences such as England, Ireland and the United States. Some other
conferences, in which English is widely used, are associate members.
ICEL is overseen by bishops who represent the conferences, even though
it has its own staff who organize its regular activities.
ICEL is an instrument in the hands of the bishops' conferences. It is
designed to provide, as far as possible, a uniform and high-quality
English translation of the official Latin texts. The idea is to pool
resources by selecting highly qualified translators and experts so as to
produce reverent and singable English translations that are also
literarily and theologically faithful to the original.
It is important to note, however, that ICEL offers its translations to
the bishops. It has no authority of its own to officially approve a
translation nor produce new texts or modify the official texts in any
Because of the number of bishops' conferences involved, the approval
process for a new translation is inevitably complex. The process
involves each episcopal conference separately examining a first draft
and sending suggested modifications back to ICEL, which must then rework
the text and send a definitive translation back to the bishops.
When a bishops' conference receives a definitive ICEL text it is once
more placed before the body of bishops. A two-thirds majority of each
bishops' conference is required for approval. At this stage the bishops
may still make further modifications to the text as well as approve any
adaptations of the translations. They may also opt not to use ICEL's
translations and attempt to produce their own. Any such modifications
would apply only within the territory of this particular conference.
Once a bishops' conference has approved the translation it goes to the
Holy See, which may confirm the text as it is, but it may also introduce
modifications of its own. This would be the case, for example, if some
aspect of the translation is deemed unsatisfactory or if the Holy See
desires that there be a single common version of a particular formula.
The Holy See then sends the definitive text back to each bishops'
conference which promulgates the new translation in that country.
The Holy See may also approve any adaptations or new texts composed by
the bishops' conference for each particular country. These variant texts
will only be printed in the missal issued for that country.
At this moment ICEL has completed its translation of the new 2001 Latin
Missal. The text, divided into several sections, is now under
consideration by the several bishops' conferences. Part of it, the Order
of Mass (the invariable parts said by priests and faithful), has
already received definitive approval from the Holy See but will not be
used until the entire missal project has concluded.
From this sketch we can see that it is possible that more than one
official English translation of liturgical texts can exist, even though
the Holy See and the bishops themselves are striving to achieve a
uniform English rendition of the Mass. They have been successful with
respect to the future Order of Mass, but it remains to be seen if it can
be accomplished for the variable parts of the missal.
With respect to the precise question at hand it is possible that the
priest is using a different approved version of the current translation.
This would be legitimate if the Philippine bishops' conference have not
specified the use of a specific English missal and allow the use of any
approved version of the prayers.
These prayers can vary from country to country. For example, the collect
of the 21st Sunday of ordinary time in the missal used in the United
States reads: "Father, Help us to seek the values that will bring us
lasting joy in this changing world. In our desire for what you promise
make us one in mind and heart."
In the breviary used in Australia, Great Britain and Ireland, this same
prayer is rendered: "Lord, by your grace we are made one in mind and
heart. Give us a love for what you command and a longing for what you
promise, so that, amid this world's changes, our hearts may be set on
the world of lasting joy."
Although both translations are officially approved it is hard to see how
the translators could interpret the same Latin original so diversely.
Such divergences demonstrate the effective need for the new, improved
translation currently being considered.
* * *
Follow-up: Alternative English Texts for Mass [2-24-2009]
Related to our Feb. 10 comments on alternative English texts for Mass, a
South African reader asked: "Is it permissible at Mass for the readings
to be read from a non-Catholic version of the Bible rather than from the
authorized Catholic missal or lectionary? The reason for this is that
the non-Catholic version (particularly of one of St. Paul's letters) is
couched in a language which is more understandable today."
The short answer is no. All scriptural texts used at Mass must be
approved by both the bishops' conference and the Holy See before they
can be used in a particular country.
It is possible that a translation toward which both Catholics and
non-Catholics have contributed may be approved for liturgical use. For
example, in 2006 the Holy See approved a lectionary based on the second
Catholic edition of the New Revised Standard Version (published by
Ignatius Press) for use in the Antilles.
If they so desired, other bishops' conferences could adopt, or at least
allow, the liturgical use of this highly appreciated translation.
Another reader asked about other liturgical books: "I'm a little
confused about the Latin and English versions of the Catholic liturgical
and ritual books. Post-Trent there was the Roman Ritual, the Roman
Pontifical, the Roman Missal, the Breviary, the Martyrologium, and to a
lesser degree the Ceremonial of Bishops. What are they now, after
Vatican II? Do these books (like the Rituale Romanum) still exist, or
have the liturgical books been combined and placed into other books?
What about the official Latin version of these books? I can't find
The books which retain an identity similar to that of the extraordinary
rite, albeit in updated versions, are the missal, the Liturgy of the
Hours, the Ceremonial of Bishops, and the Martyrologium. Each one of
these is a distinct book.
The new rites developed after Vatican II usually had a greatly expanded
selection of Scripture and several forms of carrying out the rite
according to different circumstances. For this reason the rites formally
contained in The Roman Pontifical (rites pertaining to the bishop) and
the Roman Ritual (the principal sacraments and sacramentals) have been
divided into several books.
Thus we have a book with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults,
another for children, another for weddings, another for attention to the
sick and dying, and so on.
As far as I know there is no official book which contains all of the
rites together in a practical volume. There are some private or
semiofficial publications available. For example, there is a two-volume
book in English called "The Rites" which gathers all of the rites
together; but it is a study version, not designed for liturgical use,
and some of the translations have since been renewed. There is a very
practical Spanish version which collects the most frequently used rites
in a small-sized book ideal for use in places such as hospitals and
homes. Similar resources may exist in other countries.
The official Latin versions of most of these books can usually be picked
up in Rome or via the Internet using the Web site of the Vatican