As the Church grew and spread in the years after Christ’s death and resurrection, one of the challenges facing the early Church was the need to find a balance between local Christian communities and the universal nature of Christianity. When some of the followers of St Ambrose of Milan visited Rome, they reportedly were slightly disturbed that the liturgical customs there were slightly different than they were used to in the North. St Ambrose is reported to have advised them to adapt to local customs with the now famous maxim “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
The Church has always had to manage this tension and various Popes have reacted to it in different ways. Pope John Paul II, for example, favoured a centralising view with maximum authority vested in Rome. Benedict XVI as a younger man favoured local bishops’ conferences having a lot of authority. He later changed his mind, some say motivated by his real life experiences of the workings of bishops’ conferences. Pope Francis tends towards a more collegial approach where he governs the Church with the bishops and favours more localism.
At the weekend, the Pope amended Canon Law slightly to emphasise a point made at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that local Church leaders rather than the Vatican should supervise the translation of the Mass into local languages.
Prior to Vatican II, of course, Catholics in the west all celebrated Mass in the same fashion and language: Latin. Vatican II changed this and while the bishops present at the deliberations in Rome clearly wanted Latin to play a prominent role in the liturgy in the future, local languages soon became the conventional way the Mass was celebrated in most parts of the world.
It made sense that local bishops’ conferences would supervise the translations before submitting these translations to Rome for final approval - the so-called recognitio. The key challenge for translators was to remain true to the original Latin text while rendering it in a way that made sense when spoken in another language.
The Missals that emerged in English sacrificed faithfulness to the text in favour of language that they found more free-flowing. For example, ‘Dominus vobiscum’ became ‘The Lord be with you’ but the response – ‘Et cum spiritu tuo’ – became ‘and also with you’ instead of the more correct translation of ‘and with your spirit’. Interestingly, the translation of the Mass into the Irish language was much more faithful to the original text than was the English.
To carry out the translation work, Ireland teamed up with other English-speaking bishops’ conferences and handed the task to ICEL – the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.
While translated Missals were approved by Rome, tensions eventually emerged between ICEL and the Vatican officials responsible for approving the translations. In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam insisting that translations had to be absolutely faithful to the original text. The Vatican also established the so-called Vox Clara Commission to directly supervise English translations – the move effectively made ICEL impotent.
The Pope’s new change will restore some of the local authority while still ensuring that the final word rests with Rome.
The change won’t lead to a new English Roman Missal, at least in the short to medium term. At a very practical level, too much money has been spent on the recently-revised Missal that is now used in Irish parishes. People have also got used to the new translations so further changes are – for now at least – unthinkable. The change is, however, likely to affect other liturgical books that are in preparation.
Could a better job be done with the Missal currently being used in Irish parishes? Probably. For the most part, the people’s parts of the Mass are fine – as are the core prayers of the liturgy. Where the Missal is probably deficient is in some of the opening prayers and other parts of the Mass like that which change on a regular basis. Some of these texts are clumsy to say the least.
The challenge for those entrusted with the work of liturgical translations remains the same: provide for a liturgy which is prayerful, uplifting and meaningful while remaining true to the original texts that underline the universality and catholicity of the Church. It’s a tall order, but it was ever thus.
The bigger story, of course, is that this change is yet another bold assertion from Francis that he is a faithful disciple of Vatican II and we can expect more localism and shared responsibility with local bishops.