USCC Watch: Fishers of People?

“‘Fish for people’ does not swim,” wrote Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua in his critique of the one of the final segments of the massive retranslation and revision of the Roman Missal proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

The bishops concluded their three-year approval process of the ICEL revisions of the Sacramentary (prayers of the Mass) at the meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC, November 11-13. The last group of texts was approved with little debate.

As in the past, hundreds of amendments were proposed, but few were accepted by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. Cardinal Bevilacqua’s amendment was one of the many rejected. It concerned the opening prayer for the feast of St. Andrew based on the Lord’s call to Peter and Andrew: The Latin, Venite post me, faciam vos fieri piscatores hominum (“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”) was rendered “Follow me, and fish for people.” The BCL insisted, imprecisely, that “This is a precise translation of the Latin.”

This typical example shows why some bishops are concerned about ICEL revisions. Although nearly everyone agrees that the current ICEL translations need improvement, the new revision is disappointing. The ICEL translators employ principles of translation, called “dynamic equivalency,” which permit great flexibility in rendering the of original Latin—including leaving out words or phrases ICEL deems outdated or unsuitable.

A common concern is that the sense of the Mass as a sacrifice is diminished by ICEL’s approach to translation. What is often sacrificed, however, is beauty, tradition, a sense of timelessness and transcendence. Too often—as in “fish for people” —accuracy is sacrificed to sensitivity (in this case, to feminists who object to the word “men.”) The result is prosaic at best.

Nevertheless, the bishops approved these last segments of the ICEL Sacramentary with few dissenting votes. An unusual parliamentary maneuver during the first day of discussion effectively silenced all debate.

Bishop Alfred Hughes of Baton Rouge asked for reconsideration of thirty-three separate texts as a group, since they all involved similar problems with untranslated words which, he argued, affected the doctrine of grace. Following the lead of Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, the parliamentarian ruled that either all thirty three texts would have to be debated and voted on individually, or the entire text would have to be remanded to ICEL.

Daunted by the prospect of interminable and unproductive floor debates (most amendments which have been brought to vote have failed) the bishops made no further attempt to amend the texts. All segments passed with more than the two-thirds majority required.

Bishops who had raised serious concerns about the texts in the past, only to have their amendments rejected or voted down, seemed weary, dispirited, resigned. Many bishops mow depend upon Rome to accomplish what they could not.

The election at this meeting of the new chairman of the Doctrine Committee is revealing. Archbishop Pilarczyk, who had served as acting-chairman of the committee following the retirement of San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, defeated Archbishop Francis George, of Portland, Oregon, in a close vote.

Although securing the approval of the NCCB was a major hurdle for ICEL, this does not mean the process is over. Dozens of texts from the Sacramentary were remanded to ICEL by the bishops’ amendments. ICEL must now review all these remanded texts from all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences (of which the US is by far the largest), and decide whether to incorporate these amendments into the final version.

Next, the revisions will be presented again to all eleven English-speaking episcopal conferences for their final approval, probably sometime in 1997.

Assuming all the national conferences approve the finalized texts, the entire ICEL Sacramentary will then be sent to the Congregation for Divine Worship, which must approve all liturgical texts before they may be used for the liturgy. It is likely that ICEL’s work will be scrutinized with considerable care.

In the past, Vatican approval of liturgical texts and changes has been routine. But the role of the Congregation for Divine Worship will be much more important—and more difficult— after nearly a decade of NCCB’s wrestling with some of the same issues that arose in debates over the Sacramentary.

How successfully the bishops are able to navigate the murky waters of the structure and procedures of the conference—itself the subject of restructure—will strongly influence their evangelical mission: to follow Christ and be fishers of men.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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