Why Pope Francis is reviving a long tradition of regional variations in Catholic services

Pope Francis has changed Canon law so that translations of liturgical texts are approved by local bishops' conferences, rather than needing Vatican approval. So why is this important? Joanne M. Pierce, a professor of Religious Studies, explains.

Why Pope Francis is reviving a long tradition of regional variations in Catholic services
Pope Francis talks with bishops during the Liturgical Week at the Vatican in August 2017. AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis

Pope Francis has changed Catholic Canon law – and met with some intense reactions.

At stake here is the language used for the Mass and the question of who has the responsibility for translating the Catholic liturgy into regional languages.

So why should this issue be so very controversial in the 21st century?

Early history

As a specialist in liturgical studies, I can say that, until the end of the tenth century, local bishops indeed made their own decisions about liturgical practices in their areas.

In the second century, for example, some Christian communities celebrated Easter on the actual date of Passover, while others observed it on the Sunday following that date. A final decision on a uniform date for Easter was not made until after the legalization of Christianity (A.D. 313) by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Even saints were regional. The first martyrs, venerated by Christians because they died rather than give up their faith, were recognized as saints in their regional Christian churches. Only later did they become part of the wider groups of holy men and women recognized as saints.

Saint Monica Gives Birth to St Augustine. Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., CC BY-NC-ND

For example, two young women, Perpetua and Felicitas, martyred in the third century, were initially recognized as saints in Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. Later, their names were included in the Roman prayer over the bread and wine at the celebration of the Eucharist (Mass). As that prayer spread throughout Western Europe, their names went with it, and today they remain part of one Catholic Eucharistic prayer.

At the time, regional bishops controlled services to venerate the saints. The story of Monica, mother of a future bishop (St. Augustine) and commemorated herself as a saint, reveals the control of local bishops over customs in their areas. Monica, following North African custom, brought a food offering to a saint’s shrine in Italy, but she humbly obeyed after she was told by the local bishop – St. Ambrose of Milan – that the practice was forbidden in northern Italy.

When the western half of the Roman Empire fell in A.D. 476, regional veneration of local saints expanded. Regional bishops continued to approve petitions and regulate the commemoration of the saints as their predecessors had done. Learned monks made lists of local holy men and women and produced written copies of the stories of their lives.

The first case of a pope canonizing a local saint took place just before the year A.D. 1000.

And this was just the first sign of a new era.

Centralization of church life

During the 11th century, a new succession of reform-minded popes brought in more centralization. By the 12th century, it was popes who canonized saints, and they also had pruned a large number of “non-Roman” prayers from the Mass. This papal movement toward stricter uniformity of practice gained momentum through the later Middle Ages.

Latin, the vernacular, daily language of the ancient Romans, had long since become a learned, “classical” language no longer in common use. However, Latin remained the official language of the Western Church; liturgical rites were performed in Latin, and all of the Church’s legal, business and academic affairs were recorded in Latin.

By the end of the medieval period, a whole system of papal bureaucracy (the Curia) assisted the pope, run by clerical administrators and kept afloat by a detailed structure of fees and donations.

Pope Paul III, 16th century, Toledo Cathedral, Spain. Richard Mortel, CC BY

Movements for a reform of the Church more along the lines of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles became more vocal in the 14th and 15th centuries. These reached a critical intensity with the Reformation in the early 16th century. It was partly in response to these Protestant challenges, Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent.

In the face of Protestant insistence on using modern vernacular languages (like German and French) for religious services, the Council of Trent called for the promulgation of a standardized “Missal,” the book containing all the texts for the celebration of Mass in Latin (the “Tridentine” Missal, 1570).

This was to be used by Roman Catholics in every part of the world. Each word spoken and each gesture made by the priest was strictly prescribed, and few changes were made over the next 400 years.

Beginning of modern reforms

Until the mid-20th century, then, the Catholic Church was understood as a kind of religious monarchy. The pope was at the top of the pyramid, and cardinals, bishops, priests and nuns on descending levels.

The ordinary laypeople formed the largest, and lowest, layer. Authority and liturgy flowed from the top down.

This static structure was shaken by the advances in technology and communication taking place rapidly during the 20th century. Pope John XXIII, elected in 1958, wanted to make changes so the church could speak to this new, complex world.

A chaplain leads Roman Catholic Mass in the chapel of a ship. Official Navy Page from United States of America MCSN Dean M. Cates/U.S. Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons

So he convoked the Second Vatican Council, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops (and their expert advisers) meant to settle doctrinal issues. And he invited observers from many other Christian churches and denominations. The Second Vatican Council was held between 1962-1965.

The council, with its stress on openness and communication, reformed the Catholic liturgy and approved vernacular translations of a revised Latin Missal. It also emphasized the role of local bishops – just as the Church had been before the 12th century.

Both Catholics and non-Catholics applauded the vernacular liturgical translations as a source of strength for dialogue among the Christian churches. And Pope Paul VI, who presided over the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, supervised its implementation.

‘The reform of the reform’

Paul VI’s successors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, however, took a more conservative approach, encouraging the use of the 1962 edition of the Latin-only “Tridentine Missal” (which has become known as the “Extraordinary Form”) and issuing stricter guidelines for preparing vernacular translations of liturgical rites, including those of the Mass (now known as the “Ordinary Form”).

The Tridentine Missal. Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., CC BY-NC-ND

As the 20th century reached its end, this tendency became known as “the reform of the reform.”

This increasing liturgical conservatism had an impact on the preparation of the recent third edition of the post-Vatican II Missal. English translations of earlier editions were prepared using a more flexible set of directions. This third edition (2002, 2008) had to be translated from Latin into various modern languages, including English, under much stricter guidelines. The prayers were more faithful to the vocabulary and structure of the Latin originals, as a result they became awkward and clumsy in English.

Return to Vatican II

With this recent decision, Pope Francis seeks to reconnect with reforms of Vatican II. He is restoring the role of regional and national conferences of bishops in preparing and approving vernacular translations of the Mass and other rites.

He is also returning to the conciliar vision of reconnecting the modern Church with its ancient and early medieval roots with its stress on “legitimate variations and adaptations.”

The ConversationBut more than that, I argue, he has revived the Council Fathers’ hope for practical, daily reconnection among all Christian churches: when all Protestants and Catholics might use the same English translations and pray in one voice, using the same words.

Joanne M. Pierce, Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Pope Francis meets Viktor Orban in worldview clash

Pope Francis met with the anti-migration Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban behind closed doors on Sunday at the start of a brief visit to Budapest where he will also celebrate a mass. 

Pope Francis meets Viktor Orban in worldview clash
The Pope embarked on September 12 on his 34th international trip for a one-day visit to Hungary for an international Catholic event and a meeting with the country's populist leader, and a three-day visit to Slovakia. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP

The head of 1.3 billion Catholics — in Hungary to close the International Eucharistic Congress — met Orban, accompanied by Hungarian President Janos Ader, in Budapest’s grand Fine Arts Museum.

The Vatican television channel showed the pope entering the museum, but did not show images of the two men meeting, but Orban posted a photo of the two shaking hands on his Facebook page.

On one hand, Orban is a self-styled defender of “Christian Europe” from migration. On the other, Pope Francis urges help for the marginalised and those of all religions fleeing war and poverty.

But the pope’s approach to meet those who don’t share his worldview, eminently Christian according to the pontiff, has often been met with incomprehension among the faithful, particularly within the ranks of traditionalist Catholics.

Over the last few years, there has been no love lost between Orban supporters in Hungary and the leader of the Catholic world.

Pro-Orban media and political figures have launched barbs at the pontiff calling him “anti-Christian” for his pro-refugee sentiments, and the “Soros Pope”, a reference to the Hungarian-born liberal US billionaire George Soros, a right-wing bete-noire.

‘Not here for politics’

From early Sunday, groups of pilgrims from around the country, some carrying signs with their hometowns written on them, were filing under tight security toward the vast Heroes’ Square in Budapest, where the pontiff will say mass to close the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress.

“We are not here for any politics, but to see and hear the pope, the head of the Church. We can hardly wait to see him. It is wonderful that he is visiting Budapest,” Eva Mandoki, 82, from Eger, some 110 kilometres (70 miles) east of the capital, told AFP.

Eyebrows have also been raised over the pontiff’s whirlwind visit.

His seven-hour-long stay in 9.8-million-population Hungary will be followed immediately by an official visit to smaller neighbour Slovakia of more than two days.

“Pope Francis wants to humiliate Hungary by only staying a few hours,” said a pro-Orban television pundit.

Born Jorge Bergoglio to a family of Italian emigrants to Argentina, the pope regularly reminds “old Europe” of its past, built on waves of new arrivals.

And without ever naming political leaders he castigates “sovereigntists” who turn their backs on refugees with what he has called “speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934”.

In April 2016, the pope said “We are all migrants!” on the Greek island of Lesbos, gateway to Europe, bringing on board his plane three Syrian Muslim families whose homes had been bombed.

‘Hungary Helps’

In contrast, Orban’s signature crusade against migration has included border fences and detention camps for asylum-seekers and provoked growing ire in Brussels.

Orban’s supporters point instead to state-funded aid agency “Hungary Helps” which works to rebuild churches and schools in war-torn Syria, and sends doctors to Africa.

Orban’s critics, however, accuse him of using Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism and a sword to attack opponents while targeting vulnerable minorities like migrants.

Days before the pope’s arrival posters appeared on the streets of the Hungarian capital — where the city council is controlled by the anti-Orban opposition — reading “Budapest welcomes the Holy Father” and showing his quotes including pleas for solidarity and tolerance towards minorities.

During the pope’s stay in Budapest he will also meet the country’s bishops, and representatives of various Christian congregations, as well as leaders of the 100,000-strong Hungarian Jewish community, the largest in Central Europe.

Orban — who is of Calvinist Protestant background — and his wife — who is a Catholic — are to attend the mass later Sunday.

Around 75,000 people have registered to attend the event, with screens and