Bishops of England and Wales Get a “No” on the 1998 Sacramentary

The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has looked into the question of whether it is possible for them to publish the 1998 translation of the Roman Missal, now that Pope Francis has returned to them their authority over liturgical translations, or so it seems from a recent report. They inquired into use of their authority on prior translations, with the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome.

That is the good news. The bad news is that the CDW has said no.

The Tablet reported yesterday that “the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said after their meeting in Leeds last week that they were ‘grateful’ for guidance that they have received from the Congregation for Divine Worship that the motu proprio ‘concerns future liturgical translations and cannot be applied retroactively.’”

The article goes on to report that

John Wilkins, associate author, with Gerald O’Collins SJ, of Lost in Translation: the English language and the Catholic Mass (published by Liturgical Press and distributed in the UK by Norwich Books), said: “I am puzzled at the emergence of this new principle that “there can be no retroactive application” of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Magnum Principium, which gives back to the bishops their responsibility for producing and overseeing translations of the liturgy in line with Vatican II. The Pope says nothing at all about time directions in his text. Rather, he wants proactive engagement from the bishops.

“In any case, such a stipulation would not seem obviously to apply to the translation approved in 1998 by all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences participating in their translation body, ICEL. They voted that 1998 Missal in by large majorities. They never voted it out: rather, their prerogative was taken out of their hands. That Missal therefore exists in limbo, on a Vatican shelf. If the English-speaking bishops want to take it down now that Pope Francis has restored their authority, dust it off and submit it for the first time for Rome’s recognitio, why not?

You can read the whole story here.


  1. How is this bad news, and if so, what else did anyone expect?

    Certainly many of the orations in the 1998 revision were quite stunning. That said, the principles that were eventually laid down by John Paul II for liturgical translations did not apply at that time, and the failure to ensure fidelity to the original Latin would by itself rule out this approval. From what I have read, Pope Francis may have broadened certain criteria for the process of translation, but did not rule out fidelity to the Latin entirely. And the Congregation in Rome would still have the authority to approve or disapprove, albeit with less of a hands-on role.

  2. It will be interesting to see how this goes. I doubt the E&W Bishops’ Conference will decide to publish anyway (too harsh to say they should not, with hindsight, have accepted the new translation). But, beyond the merits / demerits of successive approved translations of the Roman Missal, should not we Roman rite catholics be working with other western rite churches to find formulations we can share?

    1. I suspect that ship is passing as a priority and becoming a lower-level consideration, especially since other western rite mainstream churches don’t seem obliged to consider Roman Catholic considerations as a priority in their own moves on sacramental and liturgical matters. (See, for example, the recent post on a new marriage rite in a Presbyterian denomination.) And, in the American context, that de-coupling may not be so much a result of Roman Catholic de-coupling but of shifts in response to emergent churches and newer Protestant denominations, where forms of worship may be said to be much less bound to gradualism in evolution of form.

  3. “John Wilkins, associate author, with Gerald O’Collins SJ, of Lost in Translation: the English language and the Catholic Mass (published by Liturgical Press and distributed in the UK by Norwich Books), said: “I am puzzled at the emergence of this new principle that “there can be no retroactive application” of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Magnum Principium, which gives back to the bishops their responsibility for producing and overseeing translations of the liturgy in line with Vatican II. The Pope says nothing at all about time directions in his text. ”

    A motu proprio is by its nature a legal document. I am guessing that the question of retroactive application would be a legal question. Are there any canon law experts on PrayTell who can advise on whether new legislation can be applied retroactively?

    At any rate, we have from the CDW what seems to amount to an authoritative legal interpretation.

  4. The Bishops’ Conference [of England and Wales] also approved the ICEL Grey book translation of Liturgy of the Hours: Lent & Easter. (link)

    Surely this is the real “news story” here? Or do I live in some sort of parallel universe?

    I don’t share the opinion of the detractors of MR 2011 in any way, but I would just like to point out, in all charity, that their Magnum principium-inspired spectacularly myopic fixation with 1998 is blinding them to everything else happening around them. In a few years time, there will be yet more surprised outrage from the usual suspects, but by then the rest of us will have long stopped listening to them.

    And as far as Mr Wilkins’s assertion that 1998 should be revisited because the Bishops “voted that 1998 Missal in by large majorities”, the same is true of MR 2010. As an argument, it’s not exactly watertight. MR 1998 doesn’t exist “in limbo” either – it was officially rejected by the Holy See in 2002, its status is not in any doubt.

    1. How is that a big “news story”? The LoH has been progressing in sections, now at various green-book and grey-book stages. England & Wales’ approval of one of these steps for one of the sections is hardly earth-shaking.

  5. I wonder whether CBCEW just asked so that they could evade the pressure to do something, in the expectation of a negative answer. After all the staff at CDWDS have not yet changed, so they would say that, wouldn’t they.

    1. But the CDWDS’s prefect was recently and rather extraordinarily publicly corrected by Francis for allegedly taking insufficient account of the new translation reality that Francis wishes to usher in. If the CDWDS is taking a “nothing new here” approach, it would seem to be replicating its prefect’s error.

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable of Francis to want his departments to execute his desired policies. Is this department doing so? Hard to tell, I guess.

      1. But there is a notable difference on what Cardinal Sarah said in interviews and the actual documents and decisions released by the Congregation itself. The last seems to have always been held up. So if it was an official request to the CDWDS, then I think we are safe in assuming the decision has staying power.

  6. I wonder if the real concern of the CDW is not to appear as though it is erasing prior Vatican edicts/rulings on translations. If so, it would be a posture of respect to the past – and to the real people (many of them still alive) who made those decisions – while still holding fast to the new process that Pope Francis’s motu proprio has opened for the future. If so, the CDW couldn’t be faulted for that stance.

    My own recommendation to the Bishops of England & Wales – from both a legal & a psychological perspective – would be to make a few minor emendations to the 1998 translation and re-submit it. See what the CDW does then.

  7. If the English-speaking church continues to be committed to the ICEL mixed commission approach, then doesn’t this guidance mean that yet another round of fresh translation, followed by revision cycles and approval, is in store? That can take several years – if there is a consensus among the conference to even start the process. The bishops may decide that now is not the time.

  8. If the English-speaking conferences of bishops were to re-adopt the 1998 translation, with necessary changes and additions, the question of retroactivity would presumably become moot. The new rules would apply, and CDW would have to suck it up. If they continue to obstruct, the Pope should intervene.

  9. It is important to distinguish two different questions which have different legal consequences. Translation, and adaptation. The 1998 submission contains both, and under MP one requires confirmatio and the other recognitio.
    What we need, urgently in my opinion, are texts for the ‘collects’ which satisfy the criteria laid down prior to LA, e.g. of comprehension by most members of any congregation, and of singability. By ‘collects’ I mean those variable prayers which are not heard repeatedly but must be grasped at first hearing – Opening Prayer, Prayer over the Gifts, Prayer after Communion, and Prayer over the People. Is there any reason for not having an optional collection of these based on 1998, only the celebrant needs a copy (not even all concelebrants).

  10. Anthony Hawkins has some wise words that the bishops would do well to heed. The collects are much needed, and the (very fine) 1998 work is available right now. It contains translations into good English that could be accessed and used in short order. If this entails sorting them out, so that what is submitted for confirmatio is only the translations, leaving aside new compositions, so be it. The “recognitio” for original compositions could certainly wait.

    The barrier, however, is going to be the CDW, because they do not want to approve anything but a “whole” Missal. The Poles fell afoul of this when they tried to change the words of a prayer in Holy Week that was incorrect, and the CDW sent it back and said no, we won’t do anything until your whole translation is submitted. So they are still using MR2! Again, procedural roadblocks are thrown up by the Congregation and they stand in the way of bishops doing their pastoral best when it comes to translations.

    Sadly, I wonder if the Bishops went to the CDW not seeking a “yes” but seeking a “no.” They are getting a lot of mail from people who are very upset and want them to do something. Perhaps they feel their bishops are failing to use the options the Pope has given them. As long as they can present their decision as coming from higher authority, they think they can get these people to desist and it takes the heat off them. That’s what I fear may be happening.

    If instead, as I hope, there was truly an interest in seeking permission to use the best of that earlier effort, then I concur wholeheartedly with Silvia Gosnell, who suggested the bishops should go ahead and make their changes and submit it. See what they do.

    Working together with a Roman dicastery, after all, does not mean bishops must wait until the dicastery tells them they may sneeze. How long would the Brazilians be waiting to discuss married priests, if they waited for the Cong. for Clergy to give permission? The best way forward is assertive leadership from below.

    1. “The best way forward is assertive leadership from below.”

      Except that it depends on who the leadership is and what they think forward is.

  11. How do Vatican officials whose primary role requires them to offer service to the
    Bishop of Rome and to his brother bishops, so egregiously simply tell the bishops of England and Whales that there can be “no going back”. I cant help but wonder if there is some tongue in cheek to gently use the pope’s words to rebuke any effort to take prompt steps to implement “The Great Principal” in a way likely to well serve the vast majority of English speaking Catholics who either roll their eyes at or tune out the Latinate prayers of the 2011 translation. Yes, it is true that all 11 episcopal conference where English is a primary language approved that 2011 translation, but many of them under duress and years and years of what amounted to ecclesiastical bullying by CDWDS under the leadership of cardinals whose only expertise in the field of liturgy was their own experience of saying Mass. In great contrast, the 1998 translation was the result of a nearly 15 year process of wide consultation with priests and laity prior to submitting it to Rome. Perhaps Pope Francis needs to step up to the bat again soon and take a few more swings at the clericalism which lies at the root of this protracted debate. The conditions for sound and respectful debate are absent when those perceived of as “at the top” think of themselves as the only reliable voices defending what they insist is the only authorative and orthodox understanding of translation rules and regulations.

  12. Father Jack Feehily: Thank you. Well said!

    Alas, I have just spoken with a sure source in England, and he has confirmed what I (Rita Ferrone as well) feared, namely, that the Bishops of England & Wales on seeking from the CDWDS a clarification regarding a new vote on their part on the 1998 Sacramentary were in fact looking for “no” as the answer. They got exactly what they wanted.

    The lead editorial in this week’s TABLET is critical of the E & W bishops for deciding to stand firmly with RM 2011.

  13. I am surprised that no one has mentioned Archbishop Roche on this question and the English and Welsh bishops. He did have a position in ICEL — I’m just wondering about ‘wheels within wheels’ here.

  14. Our Bishops have spoken. Following their November meeting in Leeds, the Bishops of England and Wales have issued a statement of no-change; the current translation of the Roman Missal will remain in use in spite of the recent statement of Francis restoring the responsibility for liturgical translation to local churches.

    “My Oh My Oh My’, to quote a line from a Leonard Cohen lyric.
    After their meeting, the Bishops are quoted as saying that they were “grateful” for the guidance they had received from the Congregation for Divine Worship advising that the ‘Motu Propio’ “concerns future liturgical translations and cannot be applied retroactively”. Grateful? They should have expressed their dismay and disappointment that the 1998 text could be so easily dismissed. Caught between a rock and a hard place they have taken the ostrich option.
    Just as they rolled over when the current text was foisted on a voiceless people in 2011, so they have done again.

    Their voice hides behind legalistic phrases and the people are blamed for misunderstanding Rome. We are told that we must wait until there is a new standard Latin text, with the jocular comment from Archbishop Peter Smith -“I am not sure I will be around to see that”. Nor, I would suggest, will many others, given the level of frustration felt by so many of the diocesan communities that they pastor.

    The Archbishop goes on to acknowledge that “a lot of people were very upset” with the current translation but then adds “I think that most of us have got used to it”. And just where are the evidential facts to support such a statement? Whose hand in Rome added historicity to an understanding and interpretation of this text?

    Meanwhile, a much-praised translation from 1998 approved by all of the English-Speaking conferences lies gathering dust when it could be assisting in our Eucharistic prayer. Many whose theological background and personal writing is both recognised and respected have expressed their support for this text, anxious that the great…

    1. Write a comment of the required length, post it, then edit it and there are no length restrictions. There is a time limit on how long after posting a post can be edited, though, so you would need to do it immediately.

  15. Thanks for your suggestion Paul
    I have offered AWR the whole of my Catholic Times article which appeared this weekend in UK as a separate post. I haven’t heard from him yet.
    This is an issue that must not be allowed to rest.
    Eamon Duffy’s remarks in this week’s Tablet are very much to the point.
    Just a pity the bishops weren’t able to read them before reaching their flawed conclusions

  16. The full article from the Catholic Times UK of December 1st is now posted as a separate post on pray tell. If you want to read the whole piece you will find it under ‘recent postings’

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