NZ Synodal call for better liturgical language and Magnum Principium

Sacrosanctum Concilium,

Synodal feedback calls for reworking the current Roman Missal to provide better, more straightforward and accessible liturgical language.

Sadly, this request reads as if this change were not already possible.

It has been available to the New Zealand Church since September 3, 2017, when Pope Francis published Magnum Principium (The Great Principle).

In Magnum Principium, Pope Francis gave the local bishops’ conferences permission to work on and issue modifications to liturgical texts.

Although Magnum Principium concerns liturgical texts, it is part of a more extensive programme of curial reform, of which the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (To Preach the Gospel), March 19, 2022, is the most recent.

Magnum Principium follows Francis’ 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium where he addressed the need to rebalance the relationship between the Roman Curia and bishops’ conferences.

In referring to the Second Vatican Council, Francis said that the contribution of bishops’ conferences brought a ‘collegial spirit’ to the task.

Unfortunately, the ‘juridic status’ of conferences, complicated by the then Cardinal Ratzinger and the Curia’s ‘excessive centralisation’ all  ‘complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.’

In Magnum Principium, Francis shifted the responsibility and the authority for translating liturgical texts to the episcopal conferences by modifying clauses two and three of canon 838 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

He also redefined and limited the role of the then Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, now the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Beforehand the passages read:

§2. It is the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish liturgical books and review their vernacular translations, and to be watchful that liturgical regulations are everywhere faithfully observed.

§3. It pertains to Episcopal Conferences to prepare vernacular translations of liturgical books, with appropriate adaptations as allowed by the books themselves and, with the prior review of the Holy See, to publish these translations.

The revised text now reads (my italics):

§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books, recognise adaptations approved by the Episcopal Conference according to the norm of law, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.

§3. It pertains to the Episcopal Conferences to faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

Vernacular languages

To understand Magnum Principium, we must look at the larger context of the Second Vatican Council and the central principle of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of 1963, Sacrosanctum Concilium, active participation.

Local or vernacular language in Mass and other rituals predates Vatican Two.

Local vernacular language in worship has been the constant practice of the churches of Orthodoxy.

In the Western Church in the centuries before Vatican Two, Latin was undoubtedly the dominant liturgical language, but not the only one.

In the twentieth century, the Sacred Congregation of Rites permitted the use of vernacular languages in several missionary countries, including China in 1949 and India in 1950. It allowed for local languages in the Mass, except in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer.

Similarly, bilingual missals and the dialogue Mass became popular in France and Germany.

Other non-eucharistic French (1948) and German (1951) texts were also permitted.

Sacrosanctum Concilium discusses the use of vernacular languages, the need for enhanced lay-formation and participation in liturgy and the process of inculturation and issued in a period of liturgical reform and translation of texts.

Writing from Rome after the Sacrosanctum Concilium, John Kavanagh, Bishop of Dunedin, noted that it was the first Constitution approved because its ‘pre-conciliar preparation proved far more satisfactory than that of other comparable important texts’.

In New Zealand, the seven years between 1963 and 1970 saw the implementation of new rites and the introduction of new translations.

In May 1967, Peter McKeefry, Archbishop of Wellington, petitioned Rome for permission to use English in the ordination rite and received an affirmative answer on June 9 that year.

The most significant change was using vernacular in the Canon of the Mass.

In his letter, Concilium ad Exsequendam Constiutionem de sacra Liturgia od June 21, 1967, Cardinal Lecarno, President of the Concilium, wrote of the place of the vernacular in the Canon as the ‘last step in the gradual extension of the vernacular’.

Towards the end of 1969, the Apostolic Delegate put pressure on the New Zealand bishops to ‘adopt as soon as possible the new liturgical text for the Mass as issued by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’.

The Vatican had directed that only one liturgical text could exist for the same language group.

All the English-speaking churches shared a single organisation or mixed commission for translations called the International Committee for English in the Liturgy or ICEL.

The English-speaking bishops created ICEL as their official mechanism for translations at their first meeting at the venerable English College in Rome on October 17, 1963.

Geotheological politics

Fast forward to the 1990s and the division in the Church over what has become known as the “liturgy wars”.

These wars are not about liturgy but how power operates in the Church.

The growing centralisation of liturgical control during the reign of Pope John Paul II came at the expense of the authority of conferences of bishops, and New Zealand was not immune.

The process that began under John Paul II became calcified during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who promoted the use of the 1962 Roman Missal, commonly and incorrectly referred to as the Tridentine Rite.

Further centralisation came with revising mixed commissions and ICEL’s statutes by the Vatican.

Now, bishops’ conferences were less able to control ICEL’s work.

At a similar time, in July 2001, a rival committee to ICEL called Vox Clara was set up by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CWD).

Vox Clara was a tool to provide advice to the Holy See concerning English-language liturgical books, but unlike ICEL, it was not a representative group of English-speaking episcopal conferences.

Within this context came the new liturgical translation tool, Liturgiam Authenticam (2001) and the reintroduction of the 1962 Roman Missal in Summorum Pontificum (2007).

Translation tools differences

Following the Council, translators used a philosophy of translation called dynamic equivalence or a sense-for-sense translation.

This translation philosophy was given in the Instruction, Comme le prévoit (January 25 1969). Translations were done hastily following the Council.

But, after the initial translations were ratified, most major language groups then worked on refining and improving their translations. They worked through all the ritual books (baptism, confirmation, funerals, etc.).

Quoting St Jerome, Pope Paul IV told liturgical translators on November 10 1965: ‘If  I translate word by word, it sounds absurd; if I am forced to change something in the word order or style, I seem to have stopped being a translator.’

Nevertheless, the Pope proposed that translations should enable the faithful ‘to share actively in the liturgical prayers and rites’; therefore, the Church permitted ‘the translation of texts venerable for their antiquity, devotion, beauty, and long-standing use.’

In this short excerpt, the Pope drew the translators’ attention to the liturgical principle of actuosa participation as a principle of liturgical translation, or what Francis has called the Great Principle.

On March 28, 2001, Pope John Paul II replaced Comme le prévoit with a new instruction for translations called Liturgiam authenticam.

As the name suggests, the object was correctness.

Texts “insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet.”

Comme le prevoit had understood that a liturgical text is ‘a ritual sign… a medium of spoken communication’, the purpose of which is to ‘proclaim the message of salvation to believers and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord’.

By contrast, Liturgiam authenticam was less concerned with the comprehension of language and more with creating a distinctive liturgical language.

For example, where difficult or archaic expressions ‘hinder comprehension because of their excessively unusual or awkward nature’, they should not be avoided but considered ‘as the voice of the Church at prayer, rather than of only particular congregations or individuals’, thereby ensuring that the texts are ‘free of an overly servile adherence to prevailing modes of expression.’

Liturgiam Authenticam was the corrective to Comme le prevoit with the object to ‘create in each vernacular…a sacred style that will come to be recognised as proper to liturgical language’ that many would call a staid, clumsy rendering, using words like ‘oblation’ and ‘consubstantial with’ and ‘man’ as the collective noun for all human beings.

The translations were not without controversy nor always honest in their approach to the texts.

In the Second Eucharistic Prayer, the phrase ‘astáre coram te et tibi ministráre’, which means to ‘stand as one or as a body and minister [to you]’, was translated as ‘to be in your presence and minister to you’ as a way of ensuring people remain kneeling for the Eucharistic Prayer.

Interestingly, the episcopal conferences of France, Spain, Italy and Germany rejected their translations using Liturgiam authenticam.

The bishops of Japan contested the Vatican’s right to judge the quality of a translation into Japanese, questioning both the quality of the review and the subsidiary position in which the CDW’s review placed them.

Magnum Principium

For Pope Francis, the liturgical text and its translations are about the mission.

Their goal is to ‘announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord.’

Following the thinking of Pope Paul IV, Francis writes that ‘individual words must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act’.

Liturgical language belongs to the experience of communication and which gives freedom and the responsibility that some ‘texts must be congruent with sound doctrine.’

Francis hopes vernacular languages will share the ‘elegance of style and the profundity of their concepts’ as liturgical Latin and become the languages of authentic liturgy again.

He is inviting local churches, like New Zealand, to work on improving the texts.

In this process, the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments’ role is to promote a ‘vigilant and creative collaboration full of reciprocal trust’ between themselves and episcopal conferences.

Cardinal Arthur Roache, then secretary of the Congregation, outlined this in an Accompanying Note where he explained that the Congregation’s (Dicastery’s) role was to confirm translations but leave the ‘responsibility for the translation…to…the bishops’ conference’.

The Dicastery still has a role in reviewing enculturated “adaptations”, that is, additions or modifications introduced into a liturgy to incorporate or reflect local culture, which can include practices, movement, costume, and music as well as text.

The Synod’s call

The onus has been on the local bishops to take the initiative.

However, this work can only be done by a team of professional liturgical theologians and assisted by other professionals.

Sadly, this work will probably not be undertaken because New Zealand is such a small country without these resources.

Nonetheless, the bishops’ conference could easily permit using the ICEL 1998 presidential prayers and propers.  It would bring a higher standard of written and proclamatory English into the Mass and other sacraments again.

  • Dr Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).



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