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Bishops in South Africa unexpectedly announce new English translation of liturgical rites

New English translations of three important liturgical texts were presented at the opening Mass of the first of the bi-annual Plenary Sessions of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), taking place in Mariannhill, KwaZulu-Natal. Ricardo da Silva SJ reports from the meeting.

The first of the bi-annual plenary sessions of the SACBC began yesterday, Tuesday, 5 February 2019, at Mariannhill Monastery just outside Pinetown, Kwazulu-Natal.

At the opening Mass of the February 2019 bishops’ plenary session, Bishop Edward Risi of Keimoes-Upington – who oversees the Department of Christian Formation, Liturgy and Culture at the SACBC – introduced a new English translation for three common liturgical rites. These are The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, The Order of Confirmation and Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children.

Following communion at the opening Mass, Risi greeted the congregation and announced the launch of the revised English translation of the liturgical texts. He stressed that the change applied only where these rites were being used for celebration in English and that other language groups could maintain their present translation and rite.

Although, he did encourage those of other African languages, to read through the new texts to “reevaluate their texts for greater accuracy”. He reiterated though that the change to the English is “in no way to say that in Zulu or SeSotho there has to be a change” or in any translations other than English. But he, especially, encouraged those of languages other than English to see what has been “newly incorporated, since 1989, into the Order of celebrating of Marriage”.

The new texts may have appeared as a surprise to the many gathered for the Mass but, according to the bishop, this has come “after many years of toil and hard work” and was by no means an overnight decision.

He recalled a meeting in Cape Town in 2011 where work on these new translations was already being done, to revise the translation of the Eucharistic Prayers for Children and to ensure that the texts contain “language for the appropriate age”.

In the case of these Eucharistic Prayers, specifically, care has been taken “to capture the original flavour” of the texts which were originally in Italian, German and Spanish, respectively.

These texts are the most recent addition to an ongoing body of texts that are being revised and translated. The Pauline Sisters in Nairobi are responsible for printing these for the African Church.

New translation of three liturgical rites printed by Pauline's Nairobi. // Bp José Luís Ponce de León
A new translation of three liturgical rites is printed by Pauline’s Nairobi. // Bp José Luís Ponce de León

All bishops present at the opening Mass received a copy of each of the books containing the new translations of the rites.

Risi asked them to communicate the changes to the priests and deacons in their respective dioceses and to ensure that they are officially promulgated and in use by Pentecost Sunday 2019.

He added that priests are welcome to implement the new texts, and changes to the rite of Matrimony, immediately in their parishes; even though the use of the new translation will only be mandatory later this year.

In the case of the Order of Celebrating Matrimony, the new text signals not only a revised translation but “an alteration in the evaluation of the rite itself; not of the rite but of the content of the rite”, which must be observed when the translation comes into official effect. The bishop pointed especially to changes “in the introduction and the way that the rite itself is conducted”

Speaking of the reason for the new translations, the bishop said that this work has been done “to reevaluate and to translate more precisely the English texts, and the Pauline’s are doing it for the Church of Africa.”

It was also clear that Risi senses the possible resistance that may come given the not-too-distant-past experience of introducing new liturgical translations.

Aware of this, he stressed that “the whole purpose of this [new translation] is not just to find ways of translating things differently but it’s to find the way of communicating the faith of the church, which is expressed in the words of worship […] The faith of the church is expressed by the way we celebrate and what we say when we celebrate the sacraments […] And so let us make this our prayer, that the faith of the church, that we, the people of God, may more beautifully express in the use of these texts. “

Listen to Bishop Edward Risi launching revised liturgical texts at SACBC Plenary Meeting

* 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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Ricardo da Silva SJ
Ricardo is a member of the South African region of the Jesuits and an ordained deacon of the Roman Catholic Church. In 2020, he received a master's degree in journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York, where he was an African Pulitzer Fellow and reported on religion, mental health, housing and other social injustices. Before moving to the U.S.A., Ricardo served as acting editor of spotlight.africa and was on the team at Jesuit Institute South Africa. His preparation for ministry as a Jesuit has taken him to study theology in Brazil, philosophy in the U.K and brief working stints in Zimbabwe and Spain. As a Jesuit, he has ministered to refugees, migrants, people experiencing street homelessness, young adults, seminarians, the elderly, and high school and university students, staff and faculty. Before entering religious life in 2007, Ricardo worked in marketing, communications, and brand management before joining the Jesuits in 2007. Ricardo holds dual citizenship, having emigrated from Portugal to South Africa at the age of six with his mother.

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