An interview with Andrew Grillo, professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm.

This piece originally appeared as a feature on Rai News, and was conducted by Pierluigi Mele.

Within the Catholic Church, there is a debate among experts on the liturgy. One of its flashpoints is the document Liturgiam authenticam (2001). We discuss it here with the theologian Andrea Grillo, a professor of liturgy at the Atheneum of Saint Anselm in Rome.

Professor, there is a debate in the Church of Rome, which at first might seem only to be of interest to the “insiders,” but which is in reality important to all the people of God. We are talking about translation of the liturgy. As you know, the Second Vatican Council initiated a Copernican revolution in Catholic liturgy. Under Pope John Paul II, the document Liturgiam authenticam was issued. It provides the criteria for the translation of the liturgy from Latin to the various languages. We know that the current Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship is the ultra-conservative Cardinal Sarah, who dreams of a “reform of the reform” of the Catholic liturgy. What, in your view, are the limitations of Liturgiam authenticam?

The first thing to say is that the 2001 document is part of a long chain of texts produced by the central magisterium – papal and curial – between the late 1980s until the first decade of the new century. All these documents are united by one characteristic: they are the fruit of fear. They are a reaction to the trust and confidence that the Second Vatican Council had introduced into the Church of the 1960s and 1970s, overcoming the anti-modern trauma that had paralyzed the Church for more than a century. Now we move back to the old mistrust and suspicion. They brought back the nineteenth-century frame of mind. In this particular case, it is the mistrust and suspicion of modern languages ​​and modern cultures. The authority to translate them has been taken away, and keeping in line requires a method of translation from Latin that yields a result that is, one can say without exaggeration, comic: If you follow the rules laid down, the resulting text is incomprehensible; but if you want a text that is understandable, you have to violate the rules. This is the experience of all the national episcopal conferences for the past 15 years. It is happening widely. The events related to the Missal translation into English, German, French, and Italian are just the best known examples.

How is it possible that a “Church in missionary outreach” [the reference is to Pope Francis’s frequent call for a “Chiesa in uscita”] is now so preoccupied with textual fidelity to Latin?

The issue is that Latin became the symbol of an untouchable and mummified tradition. Latin is made the focus of attention in order to avoid dealing with reality. But one must recognize that Latin, the language in which the Church expressed itself for 1500 years, is neither the Church’s original language nor the one in use today. The Latin language is no longer alive, because it is no longer spoken by children. Dante understood this 700 years ago. This doesn’t mean we can be ignorant of Latin. But it does not justify the reactionary illusions of those who want us to “start from the Latin.” Today you have to be able to start from French, English, Italian…

A the liturgical level, in your opinion, what improvements would render the liturgy a more effective means of the inculturation of the Gospel?

Precisely at the level of “translation,” we must recognize that the modern languages can express aspects of the tradition that the Greek and Latin were unable to express. Each language has its pros and its cons. Even Latin and Greek have limitations that the French or English can overcome. In every case, the translation must always be faithful and respectful. But you have to define what that means: fidelity and respect towards a text must keep in mind two subjects: who wrote it and who reads it. As a result, a good translation is never simply literal. Language is always much more complex than a sequence of words. For word-for-word translation, we turn to Google Translate. The Church should look farther, as it always has.

Can you offer examples?

We don’t have to provide obscure and extraordinary examples of inculturation. The act of worship is by its very nature inculturated. This was the experience of the apostles Peter and Paul, of Pope Gregory the Great, and of the theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. Anyone who wants to lock the church into a literal translation from the Latin does not know its two-thousand year history and is guided solely by a visceral and boorish anti-modernism.

Benedict XVI promulgated the document Summorum Pontificum, which deregulated the celebration of the Tridentine rite. Isn’t this contrary to the spirit of the Council? What does Pope Francis think? 

You ask me “What does Pope Francis think?” I answer simply: Francis thinks. This is enough. If you really think about the question, you can’t ignore the theological and pastoral mess, this parallelism of incoherent and conflicting forms. How to change it, in what timeframe and with what approach, are among the array of opportunities that depend not only on the thing, but also on the context. And the Pope knows this and thinks about it properly.

How prominent are these traditionalistic positions in the Church?

In terms of numbers, they are few. In terms of media attention, they are great. However, one must carefully distinguish between different nations and churches. Not all countries are the same and not all the churches are on the same level. The question of dealing with traditionalists becomes unmanageable if you must follow universal rules that are valid for the whole Church. Only the competence of individual bishops, who know the local differences, can address it adequately.

Would you like to add anything?

I want to tell a story that may help to explain the issue. I heard it from Rita Levi Montalcini, on television. Many years ago, a new piece of translation software was introduced, which could translate anything from any language. But literally. A clever provocateur went to the debut event and put the whole system in crisis. He asked for a translation into Chinese of the English axiom “out of sight, out of mind.” The computer translated it into Chinese characters. Then the same person asked for a translation into Italian. And the result was “invisibile imbecille” [invisible imbecile]. If you miss the axiom’s metaphorical sense, it is completely misunderstood. On the basis of Liturgiam authenticam, we risk continually producing translations like “invisible imbecile.”

Ninety percent of the liturgy is metaphorical language. To attempt to translate it literally is purely illusory. Through fear, disasters are created. Freedom and creativity are demonized. But without freedom, metaphors cannot be understood. It is enough to point to Liturgiam authenticam’s rule that translations must respect the rhetorical figures in the Latin original. But this is precisely what that you can never do. Each language has its own unique figures. Translating is not imposing the rhetorical figures of one language upon another, but to mediate between one and the other. And for this, one needs freedom. We can’t sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

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