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Pope Francis becomes proactive on the liturgy

In recent weeks Pope Francis has rocked the liturgical world several times, first with an address to the annual Italian National Liturgical Week and then on September 9 with a motu propio (an official papal document issued on his own initiative) changing the Church’s canon law with regard to the procedure for approving liturgical translations in the modern languages.

In his address to the Italian liturgical week Francis made where he stands on the post-Vatican II liturgical reform crystal clear. He called it “irreversible” and did so invoking his own “magisterial” (official teaching) authority. As far as I can tell this is the first time since his revelatory interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro (September 2013) that Francis has spoken so clearly in favor of the past fifty years of liturgical reform. We can think of him, after all, as the first Vatican II pope since he is the first Bishop of Rome who was ordained after the Council.

In general, Jesuits are not well known for their active interest in the liturgy and Francis is no exception. On the other hand, he seems very careful in his liturgical practice. He is certainly solemn and serious when he presides but he seems to favor Italian over Latin and certainly has dialed down the fancy vestments favoured by his predecessor. His major liturgical appointment of Cardinal Robert Sarah (Guinea) as the prefect (or president) of the Vatican Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was somewhat quixotic. Archbishop Piero Marini, who had been the papal master of ceremonies under Pope John Paul II and the first years of Benedict XVI, was widely rumoured to be Francis’ choice to replace Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera (Spain), himself no fan of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms. But Francis chose Cardinal Sarah instead, perhaps because Sarah’s previous Vatican office had been discontinued.

Sarah has proven himself to be less than enthusiastic about the post-Vatican II liturgy. He seems to have dragged his feet after Francis made it clear that women should be allowed to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. A few years ago a recommended the “reform of the reform” thus allying himself with those who want to revisit the reform by returning to a single Eucharistic Prayer (prayed silently in Latin and facing away from the people), restoring the prayers at the foot of the altar, the older prayers at the offertory (now called the Presentation of the Gifts and the Preparation of the Altar) and so forth. He claimed papal support for this but the Vatican quickly disowned his statements. This past June Sarah modified his recommendations to suggest a “reconciliation” between the Ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman Rite (the reformed and the pre-Vatican II). Many of his suggestions, eg. communion received on the tongue and kneeling, seem much more like the position of the reform of the reform.

This past July also marked the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum, which greatly expanded permission to use the pre-Vatican II liturgy – the Mass as well as other sacraments. That move encouraged traditionalists to work to establish these liturgies in a large number of dioceses.

Now, with his latest decree returning the major responsibility for translation to the bishops’ conferences Pope Francis has doubled down on his intention of decentralising the Church. To be sure the Vatican will still have the final say on liturgical translations but the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) is now strongly encouraged to work more cooperatively with the various bishops conferences. The technical change in Canon Law 838:2 and 3. Canon 838:2 now requires a recognitio for any significant changes ( or additions) to liturgical texts that the conferences have added to the base (or typical) edition published by the Vatican. Recognitio seems to mean a more serious vetting.

Onthe other hand, Canon 838:3 uses the word confirmatio for texts that have been translated from the Latin. Confirmatio seems to mean simply that the CDWDS puts the Vatican’s stamp of approval on the translations. An important consequence of these changes is that the special commission, Vox Clara, that Pope John Paul II instituted in 2002 to review all English translations is now redundant. Another consequence is that the French- and German-speaking conferences that have resisted a strict application of the Vatican’s instruction on translation (Liturgiam Authenticam, 2001) will have some more leeway in proposing their own texts.

What shall come of all this is anybody’s guess. It might be premature to expect the English speakers to call for a revision of the 2010 translation of the Roman Missal, a translation that has no end of consternation for many people. Although I have heard of at least one bishop who asked to have a look at the translation that ICEL (the International Commission for English in the Liturgy) had prepared and was voted on by two-thirds of the bishops in all of the English-speaking conferences in 1998 and subsequently shot down by the CDWDS. Adopting that translation as an alternative would certainly please a great number of people. I would imagine that the bishops will require less strict application of the stipulations of Liturgiam Authenticam in future translations. Eventually the Missal will be re-translated I am sure. In the meantime we’ll just have to wait to see what the bishops do. The ball is in their court. SA

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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John Baldovin SJ
Professor of Historical & Liturgical Theology at the Boston College School of Theology & Ministry where he teaches liturgy and sacraments.

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