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The tightly controlled and
highly centralized approach to the translation of liturgical texts that
has reigned in the Roman Catholic Church over the past fifteen years is
likely coming to an end. In a move that is widely expected to open the
door to more pastoral guidelines and approaches, Pope Francis has
inaugurated a review and re-evaluation of the 2001 document Liturgiam authenticam.
The move was at least a year in coming. To understand what happened,
however, it is necessary to know some background. Championed by a
handful of conservative bishops and advocates, the principles of
translation articulated in Liturgiam authenticam were intended to reassert the primacy and priority of the Latin text of the liturgy. It aimed at creating
a “sacral vernacular” through a word-for-word translation of the Latin.
It looked backward rather than forward. Ecumenical cooperation in
crafting common translations was discouraged, cultural adaptation was
discouraged, and concessions to modern developments, such as
gender-inclusive language, were absolutely ruled out. Because the
episcopal conferences could not be trusted to maintain such tight
adherence to the Latin, Roman authorities centralized the process and
retained the option to impose a translation if they wished.
The new translation of the Roman Missal into English, implemented in
2011, was guided by these principles. The resulting prayers did not in
fact resemble the Latin, as those who know and love the Latin language
attest, for Latin has its own genius. An awkward prayer in English does
Latin no honor. Yet this was the inevitable result of Liturgiam authenticam.
Many of the prayers translated according to its principles were
rendered long, complex, and stilted in English; hard to proclaim and
difficult to understand. Even some of those who had been in favor of a
new translation found the final text disappointing. A 2014 survey of
U.S. priests by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at
Georgetown University, showed that only 27 percent felt the translation
had lived up to expectations.
The English translation of the Roman Missal, the first of the new translations produced under the principles of Liturgiam authenticam, was supposed to be a brilliant success and a model for other language groups. Instead, it became a terrible warning.
Other language groups—such as German, Dutch, French, Italian, and
Spanish—prepared translations according to these principles, but they
did not implement them. Faced with the prospect of giving up well-known
and well-loved vernacular texts, and replacing them with unidiomatic and
problematic ones, the bishops balked.
In response, Cardinal Robert Sarah of the Congregation for Divine
Worship (CDW) took a hard line. When the German-speaking bishops raised
objections, he lectured them on obedience. When the francophone
Canadians and Belgians insisted that prayers that their bishops voted
unanimously to retain be retained, he said no. These examples are not
exhaustive by any means. In short, Pope Francis did not decide to
re-evaluate Liturgiam authenticam on a whim. Never a popular instruction, Liturgiam authenticam’s stock was plummeting. Something had to be done. Liturgiam authenticam was produced without consultation.
Pope Francis’s approach has already shown a marked contrast with that
style. When conservative Vaticanologist Sandro Magister broke the news
this week that a commission was being formed at Francis’s behest to
“demolish” Liturgiam authenticam, Archbishop Arthur Roche,
second in command at the CDW, had already been meeting with various
groups of bishops to solicit their input into the review. Indeed the new
roster of members of the Congregation for Divine Worship bodes well for
a full consideration of the issues. Bishop Arthur Joseph Serratelli of
Paterson, who chaired the International Commission on English in the
Liturgy during the implementation of the new translation, is well placed
to defend the status quo. But Archbishop Piero Marini, the former papal
master of ceremonies who has been critical of the instruction, will
also have his say. Several of the new appointees either are or have been
at the head of episcopal conferences, such as Ricardo Blázquez Pérez
(Spain), John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan (Nigeria), John Atcherley Dew (New
Zealand) and Denis James Hart (Australia). They will surely weigh in on
questions of oversight and decentralization from their experience.
BernardNicolas Aubertin, who is president of the Francophone Episcopal
Commission for Liturgical Translations, is well informed on translation
issues as well.
What all this will mean for the English liturgy over the long run
remains to be seen. I certainly hope that those texts that have been
translated according to Liturgiam authenticam but never
implemented (RCIA, Baptism, etc.) will be placed on hold until church
leaders discern a future direction under Francis’s guidance. As for the
Missal we have now, the U.S. bishops will no doubt be loath to revise
it. But just as the experience of the English-speaking world helped
other language groups to see what they had to do, so the insights and
experience of other groups may help English-speaking bishops to find a
way forward. The way to begin is by trusting our own people and our own
wisdom concerning prayer in our native tongu