Liturgical Prayer Must Be Intelligible: Another Excellent Paper on Magnum Principium

Fr. Mario Lessi-Ariosto, SJ, has written a strong and illuminating paper, entitled “Rights and Duties Arising from the Nature of the Liturgy: Considerations in light of the Motu proprio Magnum principium.” It is posted on the webpage of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

This paper, along with the paper by Fr. Giacomo Incitti (“Magnum Principium: For a Better Mutual Collaboration Between the Roman Curia and Bishops’ Conferences”) reviewed here at Pray Tell, are required reading for anyone who seeks to more deeply understand Pope Francis’s motu proprio. Both Lessi-Ariosto and Incitti were part of the committee of experts convened by Francis to advise him on Liturgiam authenticam and the future of translation.

The two papers complement one another. Incitti, who approaches the motu proprio from within the discipline of canon law, states that “the Motu Proprio itself establishes its governing criteria: return to the Council” and “A return to the Council means above all re-reading the text with the purpose of identifying its deepest mens or mind.” He focuses on the terms “recognitio” and “confirmatio.” Lessi-Ariosto’s paper focuses on the terms “magnum principium” and “fideliter.” His study is an investigation into the mens of the Council with regard to the liturgical reform and its implications for translation.

Lessi-Ariosto explores this territory by unpacking relevant magisterial texts arising before, during, and after the Council, and putting them into context, using important talks and statements (especially those by Pope Paul VI) made around the time of the Council which illuminate the issues.

The taproot of Magnum principium, according to Lessi-Ariosto’s analysis, is found in the conciliar concept of active participation. He outlines the multiple forms and facets of this concept (interior and exterior), and how it developed. Most importantly, he shows that active participation, as understood and expressed by Paul VI and further ratified by the Council fathers, requires that “liturgical prayer… is to be intelligible.” Pope Francis’s programmatic opening words of the motu proprio echo and point us toward this essential understanding.

Lessi-Ariosto explains, based upon the teaching of the Council fathers, that the principle of active participation is not something added to the reform for practical or psychological or pedagogical effect. Rather, the imperative for active participation is the magnum principium of the reform because it arises from the nature of liturgy itself. Thus it is not a matter of convenience which can be taken or left at will, but embodies an insight into the essence and character of Christian worship.

In analyzing Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Lessi-Ariosto’s study goes beyond the procedural question of who approves a translated text, and gets to the heart of why one undertakes the work of translation in the first place. The question of who remains important, of course, but the why which animates Pope Francis’s admirable initiative is essential to understanding the goals to which this shift in oversight is to be applied. I think this is an important point. If the bishops to whom the task now passes were to do nothing more than continue what the CDW has already been doing, they will have missed the fundamental purpose of the motu proprio, which is to further the reform and not simply maintain the status quo.

In Lessi-Ariosto’s paper, the why emerges from the historical sources. Local authorities prepare and approve translations because they are uniquely positioned to accomplish the work of making liturgical prayer intelligible to their people. This intelligibility serves the people’s active participation in the liturgy.

Paul VI’s full statement, which he quotes, makes the point succinctly:

Latin is an issue certainly deserving serious attention, but the issue cannot be solved in a way that is opposed by the great principle affirmed by the Council, namely, that liturgical prayer , accommodated to the understanding of the people, is to be intelligible. Nor can it be solved in opposition to another principle called for by the collectivity of human culture, namely, that people’s deepest and sincerest sentiments can best be expressed through the vernacular as it is in actual usage.

I would add that this statement may astonish us today because of the way it contrasts with the direction taken in the instruction Liturgiam authenticam, which, although it pays lip service to intelligibility (no. 25), extends far more zealous protection to language that is obscure, ambiguous, and difficult to understand (no. 27–29, 43), and downplays the importance of expressing the interior dispositions of the faithful (no. 19).

But, to return to Lessi-Ariosto’s point, he argues that the Council, through the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, presents us with an imperative: “We are faced with a clear declaration of the right of the Christian people to ‘facile percipere’ and of the pastoral duty of the Church to meet this right.”

He continues his study with a close examination of how Blessed Paul VI understood the demand to translate liturgical texts faithfully (fideliter), a term which Pope Francis takes up in his motu proprio. His presentation is well-argued and sourced. I recommend reading it in full. Ariosto’s conclusion? “Given these premises it was certainly not foreseeable that translations of liturgical texts would be presented and approved with an excessive attention to words, phraseology and to Latin style.”

In closing, the paper turns our attention to the demanding and still unfulfilled missionary task of the liturgy which the Church has carried in its heart from the time of the Council, and still faces in the present day:

During the meeting of translators the voice of the missionary representatives, both at the level of Relators and of participants, was clearly heard to underline the difficulties they would meet and their request for concrete aid and assistance to overcome them. At the conclusion of the Conference Msgr. R. Boudon said that their problems profoundly touched all the participants, and that he hoped that they would be offered the requested aid and assistance. One gets the impression that neither Comme le prévoit nor Liturgiam authenticam are in fact able to answer all the demands that have been made of them.

On this sober note the paper ends by articulating the author’s hope that “the spirit that moved Pope Francis to promulgate the Motu Proprio should drive the Holy See to do more along this line.”

You can read the whole thing here.


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