The scandalous (but true) story behind ICEL’s 1969 Lectionary for Mass

By the end of 1968, the Vatican Polyglot Press was producing the first galley proofs of what was to become the 1969 Ordo Lectionum Missae, prepared by the Consilium and the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship. This document consists of a complete list of scripture references, captions to readings, responses to psalms, and verse texts for Gospel Acclamations. It is not a lectionary as such, merely a list of what a lectionary would contain. The title literally means “Order of Readings for Mass”, rather than “Lectionary for Mass”.

Working in Rome at that time was a priest liturgist of the Shrewsbury diocese, Father (later Monsignor) Peter Coughlan. He was a member of several of the Consilium working groups, and later served on the staff of the Congregation and as secretary of the Pontifical Council on the Laity.

In Wimbledon, London, were the offices of Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, a Roman Catholic publishing house who had made their name by securing the English-language rights to Pope John XXIII’s autobiography, Journal of a Soul.

Chapman’s were very interested in publishing liturgical books for the postconciliar rites. They had already produced loose-leaf binders (blue for the Book of Collects, for use at the chair, and red for the Sacramentary, for use at the altar) and regularly issued updates as more and more of the Mass went into the vernacular during the second half of the 1960s. In a short space of time they had established themselves as England’s leading liturgical publishers, and had produced the first English postconciliar vernacular hymnal, the amazingly successful Praise the Lord. They also had excellent contacts in Rome, including Fr Coughlan.

Although Pope Paul VI did not see final page proofs of the Ordo Lectionum Missae until May 1969, nor approve the project until June 25, Coughlan had had access to the Vatican galley proofs and then page proofs for months beforehand. Ahead of the official approval and publication of the volume, he systematically faxed these proofs through to Wimbledon where Chapman’s team immediately started work on them.

By the time the actual OLM was published in book form at the end of June 1969, Chapman’s already had a complete typescript of the new Lectionary, incorporating readings and psalms. In fact they were well on the way to having two, since the decision had already been taken to publish in two versions, one with Jerusalem Bible for the scripture readings (which appeared in time for Advent 1969), the other with the Revised Standard Version (which appeared in early 1970). In both cases the Responsorial Psalms were the same, using the 1963 Grail translation. The compilation of these typescripts was co-ordinated by the late Dame Teresa Rodriguez, OSB, of Stanbrook Abbey, and the head of the Lectionary project was Fr William Yeomans, SJ, an assistant editor of the Jesuit journal The Way, who had already had books published by Chapman’s earlier in the 1960s. Two desk editors were responsible for marking up the typescripts for the printer, checking for errors (these would include incorrect selections of verses or lines, due to divergences between Septuagint and Hebrew versions of the scriptures and verse numbering, not to mention comparing the final set of page proofs of OLM with the actual book published by Rome to check for any changes that might have been introduced) and, later, proof-reading the entire Chapman volumes. The present author was one of those two desk editors.

Yeomans, together with Suzanne Chapman, the Editorial Director, had already taken a number of editorial decisions in consultation with the hierarchies and national liturgy commissions of the British Isles, with whom they were on excellent terms. Two of these decisions would impact ICEL’s eventual work on the project. One concerned the captions to the readings, originally inserted by Rome because at that time lay readers at Mass did not yet exist: priests read everything. The idea appears to have been that the caption would give a busy priest, rushing in to celebrate Mass on a weekday, some indication of what the reading was about before he opened his mouth! (At that stage, Rome still assumed that priests would not have time to prepare celebrations by reading the scriptures in advance!) In Chapman’s office, these captions were known irreverently as “punch-lines”.

The very sensible decision was this: that the language used in each caption would reproduce the actual wording of the translation of scripture being used; so the JB and RSV typescripts each had a different set of captions corresponding to the wording that was used in that particular reading (or, if the line occurred elsewhere in the bible, then the wording used by that translation of scripture). Sometimes the captions would take words from several different places in the opening (or closing) lines of a reading, and the editors would have to piece words and phrases together in a kind of patchwork.

The other decision was similar, and concerned the chants between the readings: the responses to the Responsorial Psalms and the verses in the Gospel Acclamations would likewise reproduce the actual wording of the scripture translations being used: so, the responses would all use the Grail wording, except on those few occasions where a non-psalmic text was used (for example John 6:68) when the scripture reading translation would be used. The scripture verses in the Gospel Acclamation would also make used of the scripture translation, often prefiguring the same words to be heard a few moments later in the Gospel reading itself.

By Easter 1969, then, Chapman’s had a complete JB typescript in production, with JB readings, JB captions to readings, Grail psalms, Grail responses to psalms (except non-psalmic, where they used JB) and JB scriptures verses to the Gospel Acclamations. Just a couple of months behind, the RSV typescript similarly had RSV readings, RSV captions to readings, Grail psalms, Grail responses to psalms (except non-psalmic, where they used RSV) and RSV scripture verses to Gospel Acclamations.

In addition to these two typescripts, Chapman’s also had an abbreviated typescript containing only the captions to the readings (the JB version), the psalm responses (mostly Grail with occasional JB) and scripture verses to the Gospel Acclamations (in JB), but no actual readings or psalms ― i.e. a typescript translation of the Ordo Lectionum Missae itself as opposed to a full Lectionary. There was no RSV version of this abbreviated typescript.

Chapman’s were preparing to publish the JB and RSV altar Lectionaries for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland; but Australia also wanted to share in this project, taking only the JB Lectionary with Grail psalms. Their altar Lectionary would be co-published by Chapman’s and E.J. Dwyer Pty of Sydney, all the editorial work being done in Wimbledon. The Australian bishops took a different decision from their European counterparts: they wanted the ICEL version of the captions to the readings, the psalm responses, and the verses in the Gospel Acclamations. There was only one problem: the ICEL version was not ready. In fact it had not even been started, despite ICEL having announced its impending arrival. As well as being overwhelmed with the amount of new texts emerging from Rome, ICEL had not had access to the same advance proofs of the final Ordo Lectionum Missae as Chapman’s had, and Chapman’s therefore had a lead of more than six months over ICEL.

This displeased the then Executive Secretary very much. Fr Gerald J. Sigler had been appointed in 1965 as the first Executive Secretary of ICEL and had earned himself a reputation as a difficult person to deal with. His primary objective seemed to be to protect ICEL copyrights and earn as much money from them as possible. He drove a hard bargain with publishers, who were used to dealing with the more gentlemanly Vatican Press and other copyright holders. They did not like his style. Already ICEL was in bad odour with publishers and bishops’ conferences because they had attempted to copyright prayer endings such as “Through Christ our Lord. Amen” when these had been in use in English from time immemorial. When the Order of Mass appeared in 1969 they would come in for further criticism when they attempted to copyright the memorial acclamation “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again”, despite the fact that it had already been in use in published Anglican experimental services since the mid-1960s and had apparently been written by an anonymous Anglican clergyman during the World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi in 1961. Another act of deliberate theft was spotted in the 1970 ICEL Holy Week rites translation (made available ahead of the full 1973 Missal) in the version of the Ubi Caritas responsory, where ICEL simply took over the England and Wales Bishops’ Conference 1966 translation, changed one word, and copyrighted the text as their own!

What now took place was well in line with these and other occurrences of dubious probity. ICEL had no translation of the content of the Ordo Lectionum Missae 1969 ready and no time to produce one. Gerry Sigler therefore asked Chapman’s if they would mind letting him see their work, so that he would have an idea of the principles they had used. This would assist ICEL in producing Chapman/Dwyer’s Australian Lectionary captions and psalms responses, etc, in a timely fashion. Chapman’s accordingly allowed Sigler to see their abbreviated typescript, the one with just the captions and psalm responses.

During the succeeding weeks, proofs of the “ICEL translation” were faxed through to Chapman’s. It soon became clear that Sigler was not producing a translation at all. The proofs consisted entirely of the Chapman typescript pages, amended in Sigler’s own characteristic handwriting in order to produce a “different”, copyright-able text. Often words would be changed, or word-order; sometimes just the punctuation (and ICEL was even hotter on copyrighting punctuation in those days than they still are today) or capitalization. The only lines left completely unchanged in the entire Lectionary were the psalm response “The Lord is my shepherd; / there is nothing I shall want.” These faxes came through thick and fast, and Sigler was clearly burning the midnight oil to get it all done. As if this so-called translation was not scandalous enough, it also quickly became clear that the Sigler/ICEL text was not intended to correspond to any known version of scripture, not even the NAB. It was produced independently of scripture, and sometimes even seemed to have been produced independently of the Latin original text. Any observer looking at it would have said, “He just went through the Chapman text and changed it for the sake of having something different.” Sigler’s haste ― he appeared to be doing the entire job by himself without help from anyone else ― meant that inconsistencies and errors abounded. Where the same caption or psalm response occurred several times in different places the versions would often be different, or the punctuation different. Chapman’s editors naturally queried much of this. Proof followed proof, and revisions clarified some instances but exacerbated others.

One notorious example was a caption to the Luke Gospel of the ten lepers (17:11-19) which ran “He threw himself at his feet and thanked him.” Sigler somehow managed to change this to “She threw himself at his feet and thanked him.” When this was queried, the amended version came back as “She threw herself at his feet and thanked him”, as if the reading was about Mary Magdalen or the woman with the issue of blood! Yes, Sigler was clearly not working with the texts of the readings in front of him, and yet he tried to insist that this and other captions be printed incorrectly in the Australian Lectionary. (Eventually both British Isles and ICEL Lectionaries changed this caption to “He threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him”.) When the ICEL “blue book” finally appeared, errors such as these had mostly been removed, and yet the Australian Lectionary initially went to the printer based on Sigler’s faxed proofs. A different kind of case was when captions would contain “Anna” but the person mentioned in the succeeding reading was “Hannah”, and vice versa ― one of the hazards of producing a text independent of any scripture translation. There were in fact too many instances of this sort of conflict.

One of the most egregious psalm errors was in the response to Psalm 34/33, Gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Dominus, translated in both NAB and Grail as “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. Sigler altered this to read “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”, an inaccurate rendition to say the least which would never get past today’s Liturgiam Authenticam-minded censors. It also typifies the bigger problem already referred to, which to this day occurs throughout the ICEL Lectionary: a response to a psalm will use different wording from that contained in the body of the psalm text perhaps only a few lines further on. People will sing and hear two differing versions of the same line or verse in rapid succession. That sort of thing has led to endless confusion over the years. If only ICEL had taken a policy decision to have a complete correspondence with the wording of whatever version of scripture was being used! But then, of course, there would have been no need for an ICEL Lectionary at all…

The grapevine says that a future US Lectionary revision, perhaps as far down the road as 10 years from now, will make sure that the captions, psalm responses and Gospel Acclamation scripture verses will all use the wording of the scripture translation or psalter being used, so the NAB translation for the captions and Gospel Acclamation verses and RGP for the psalm responses. Let us pray that this will be so. In the meantime, we can remember that the ICEL captions and responses we still use today were concocted by Gerry Sigler, working alone at high speed in a less-than-ideal fashion. They should have been withdrawn years ago.

It appears more than probable that if ICEL’s current project, a complete new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours, ever comes to fruition, it too will suffer from the same kind of difficulties of consonance with version(s) of scripture used in different countries. The wisest thing would seem to be to abandon it now, rather than pouring time and resources into an ill-conceived idea.

Gerry Sigler died in 2012, and was rightly lauded for his immense contribution to the early years of English-language vernacular translations; but it has to be admitted that the ICEL Lectionary was not his finest hour. In fact he resigned from the position of ICEL Executive Secretary in early 1970, before the ICEL Lectionary was finally published in book form. I have often wondered if he was getting out before the manure hit the ventilator.


  1. I can now add “Liturgy” to “Laws and Sausages” as things I don’t really want to see being made! Thank you for a fascinating story.

  2. On the topic of Scripture translation, “Why don’t we translate the Neo Vulgate into English for use in the Liturgy?” It already takes the latest biblical research of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts into account and incorporates the traditional Latin wording of particular texts such as, “Ave, gratia plena.”

  3. Fr. Steven Sanchez : On the topic of Scripture translation, “Why don’t we translate the Neo Vulgate into English for use in the Liturgy?” It already takes the latest biblical research of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts into account and incorporates the traditional Latin wording of particular texts such as, “Ave, gratia plena.”

    The concern (among Biblical Scholars) with regards to the Nova Vulgata centers on two points: 1) the adequacy of the NV in accounting of the complex textual tradition (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Vet. Lat., etc), and 2) the accuracy of the NV in its translation.

    The NV, at times, proves to be more of an eclectic text. At various points in the book of Psalms (for one example) the NV waffles between a) literal translation (either of the Hebrew or consulting the other textual witnesses), b) defaulting to the “traditional” Vulgate reading, c) opting for a reading that may have some precedent in liturgical manuscripts, or d) opting for an Old Latin reading where the Hebrew or Greek reading is preferable.

    From a scholar’s perspective, the NV is a difficult text to endorse for liturgical use or otherwise. It does do somethings quite right, however, it is hard to argue the things it does right outweigh some of the translation committee’s more questionable choices.

    Just a point for consideration.

  4. This gives me hope because as these stories come out about translations and their translators, in 50 years the translations of the 2011 Roman Missal will have the same stories to tell. It is the humanity of it all, the theological prerogatives and financial incentive(!) that keep me readings these stories. Words have tremendous image building and lesson learning ability and we form our foundations of belief on them. The agendas of each age and translator come through loud and clear as we look back at how we got the words we did.

    And as our Catholic Bibles now have the Our Father that Jesus said the exact same one we say at Mass, we’re getting close to getting it right.

    Thank you Paul Inwwod for this fascinating reflection and I look forward to your reflection on the formation of the Liturgiam Authenticam in 50 years.

  5. The conflict between psalm text and responsory text never ceased to bother me in celebrating Mass every day for the last 35 years. It seemed so perverse that the response never “responded” to the psalm as heard (often) in the final line.
    As for the Neo-Vulgate, it was introduced into the Office just about the time the Office was no longer sung much in Latin. If you remember, as I do, singing Sunday Vespers before 1970, just listen to a recent recording of Vespers. (The Solesmes monks, for example, recorded the old version under Dom Gajard and the new version under Dom Claire. Both are still available on CD.) Psalm 109 is simply jarring in the Latin version that is not what we remember. Yet the differences are merely due to the insoluble conflict of Hebrew and Septuagint sources, so the change was not more (or less) correct, simply different. The numerous English versions of this psalm make this clear to anyone who lacks skill in Latin and Greek.

    1. @Gregory Hamilton – comment #8:

      That would be the Jerusalem Bible. Other translations use other words such as bowl. NAB has bushel-basket, but I wonder how many young folk today know what a bushel is anymore.

  6. Or a dictionary, apparently.

    Paul Inwood : @Gregory Hamilton – comment #8: That would be the Jerusalem Bible. Other translations use other words such as bowl. NAB has bushel-basket, but I wonder how many young folk today know what a bushel is anymore.

  7. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” was the episcopal motto of a very fine Scottish priest, bishop and former Presbyterian Minister: the Rt Rev Henry Grey Graham, Auxiliary Bishop in Saint Andrews and Edinburgh (1917-30).

    Grey Graham, as he was always known, was born on March 8, 1874 at the manse, Maxton, Roxburghshire, the fifth son and last of the ten children of the Rev Manners Hamilton Nisbet Graham, minister of Maxton, and his wife, Margaret Jane Ritchie. Descended from a long line of Presbyterian ministers, his father’s brother, the Revd Henry Grey Graham, was a well-known historian. After Kelso burgh school, Henry, aged just 15, went up to St Andrews University in 1889. MA 1st class Maths) 1893. BD (1st Class, many prizes) 1896. Assistant to Professor of Hebrew (1896-97). Assistant minister: Dalserf, Lanarkshire, 1897-1900; Park Church, Glasgow, 1900-01. November, 1901 ordained as assistant and successor Avendale, Strathaven, Lanarkshire.

    On Sunday, July 12, 1903 (!!!) he announced from pulpit his resignation and his intention to seek ordination as a Catholic priest. Received into Holy Mother Church at Fort Augustus Abbey on August 15 and in October enrolled at Scots College, Rome. Ordained for Archdiocese of Glasgow, December 12, 1906, and in July following appointed curate at Our Lady of Good Aid, Motherwell. In 1915 appointed PP at Longriggend, Lanarkshire. Named Auxiliary Bishop, St Andrews & Edinburgh, August 30, 1917 (titular of Tipasa in Numidia) and ordained bishop on November 16 by Archbishop John Aloysius Maguire (Glasgow) with Bishops James McCarthy (Galloway) and John Toner (Dunkeld) as co-Consecrators. When Abp Smith died (Nov 24, 1928) Grey Graham was passed over, despite having run the archdiocese splendidly, and Andrew Thomas McDonald, O.S.B., Abbot of Fort Augustus, 3 years older and with less experience, was appointed. This was shameful.

  8. Paul Inwood wrote:

    “One concerned the captions to the readings, originally inserted by Rome because at that time lay readers at Mass did not yet exist: priests read everything. ”

    Except when a member of the minor order of Lectors was present and was assigned to read.

    1. At the time under discussion, 1969, when the new Order of Mass and Roman Missal were on the threshold of being introduced, the dispositions of the previous Missale Romanum were still in place. The Epistle was read by the priest (at High Mass, chanted by a subdeacon), the Gospel was read by the priest (at High Mass, chanted by a deacon).

  9. @Paul Inwood: On a side note, could you assist in tying down the references you give to “Christ has died” having been present in experimental Anglican liturgies in the 1960s, and also the 1961 New Delhi reference. I’d not come across those before and would be very grateful indeed to get access to any materials about them.

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