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Communication of elegance

HONG KONG (SE): Pope Francis has promulgated an apostolic letter which in part focusses on the manner of the translations of the liturgy, but it also implies a strengthening of the role of bishops’ conferences as decision-making bodies in their own areas.
Released in September as a motu proprio, which literally translates as on his own impulse, the document has legal effect and applies in all areas to which it is addressed.
It takes its validity from the authority of the person issuing it, not from the accuracy or coherence of its content. It is a form of legislating commonly used by popes to make minor changes to canon law, establish institutes or grant favours.
However, the latest promulgation from Pope Francis appears to challenge the rationale of the 2001 instruction from Pope John Paul II on the process of liturgical translation, as it centralised authority in Rome rather than at the bishops’ conference level.
Pope Francis’ motu proprio reaffirms the Vatican II vision of bishops around the world taking back their proper role in determining appropriate liturgical translations to be used in official texts.
Pope Francis is not just moving deck chairs on the Titanic, but directly addressing the values underlying the production and reception of liturgical words.
He frequently turns back to the original instruction from Pope Paul VI in 1969, Comme le préviot (on translations of text for liturgy with a congregation), which was superseded by the 2001 instruction, Liturgicam authenticam (authentic liturgy). It demands “the original text, 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.”
The document also includes derisive words about the instruction from Pope Paul, saying that it impeded the process of inculturation, especially in some languages, and consequently proved to be a block to renewal.
Nevertheless, in drawing his primary inspiration from this castigated text, Pope Francis is seeking to rehabilitate many of its aspects.
He has taken lengthy texts verbatim from Pope Paul and quoted them in his latest motu proprio. He points to the description of a liturgical text as a medium of spoken communication, a sign perceived by the senses and used to convey a message, but at the same time he says the word remains a mystery.
Two of the most poignant texts he quotes relate to fidelity to people’s own language, as well as literary form.
“For this purpose, it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language.”
“… Fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words, but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre,” he writes.
“A faithful translation, therefore, cannot be judged on the basis of individual words: the total context of this specific act of communication must be kept in mind, as well as the literary form proper to the respective language.”
La Croix comments, “And now they are no longer the words of an obsolete instruction, much less a document standing in the shadows of official disapproval. They have become Pope Francis’ own words, spoken for our time.”
Alongside a motu proprio comes a change in canon law.
But Pope Francis’ document has put a new slant on the words in fidelity.
The bottom line meaning of Pope Francis needs to be grasped to come to an understanding of what fidelity now means in translation, as it adds the dimension of words not merely being a shadow of their Latin originals, but having an integrity of their own.
La Croix comments, “Whereas Liturgiam authenticam (2001) advocates preserving the content and integrity of the original texts so as to develop a sacral language spoken only in divine worship, (Pope) Francis has a different agenda.”
He describes the role of the vernacular texts as functioning in much the same way as the liturgical Latin does in its elegance of style and simply allowing the concepts, rather than the literal words, to nourish the faith.
Pope Francis does not praise liturgical Latin as a model because it is removed from everyday life, or for historical preservation, but holds up two virtues; its elegance and ability to express profound concepts.
Except for a handful of examples, it is difficult to talk of the 2011 English translation of the liturgy as having elegance and Pope Francis has gone back to the spirit of Vatican II, which foresees vernacular languages coming into their own as liturgical languages, with an elegance and richness proper to themselves.
The 2001 instruction is still in force, but Pope Francis says it must be followed in as far as possible, a hint that there is room for interpretation.

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