Pope Francis allows Liturgy in Tzotzil and Tzeltal

Pope Francis recently allowed the liturgy to be conducted in two indigenous languages within the Mexican state of Chiapas. This is undoubtedly exciting news for the Catholics in that region, but it also bodes well for the universal Church.

While approval of these two languages cannot be equated with greater allowances for adaptation, it does not hurt the cause of those in Latin America, Asia, and Africa who have long called for further adaptation and inculturation. Since language is fundamentally a product of culture, there can be no doubt that this will fuel calls for even greater liturgical allowances beyond the language in which the text is spoken.

The allowance for greater adaptation of the Roman Rite largely ground to a halt beginning in 1970 with Liturgicae instaurationis and in 1973 with Eucharistiae Participationem. Their restrictions against experimentation were further affirmed in the Declaration on Eucharistic Prayers and Liturgical Experimentation by the Congregation for Divine Worship in their March 1988 issue of Notitiae. Ironically, the typical edition of Le Missel Romain pour les Dioceses du Zaire was promulgated in the July 1988 issue of Notitiae – the same year!  Only the Zaire Usage (1988), now the Congolese Usage, managed to squeak by the hardening position of Rome and find a permanent place among the geographical rites in the West (i.e. the Roman, Ambrosian, Braga, and Mozarabic Rites). See my paper on the Zaire Usage. Other more minor allowances include the Eucharistic Prayer for Australian Aboriginals which was created ahead of the 1973 Eucharistic congress in Melbourne.

While Pope Francis might not be willing to open the door to further adaptation, or perhaps more realistically he hasn’t given it a thought, his allowance of new languages in which the Roman Rite can be celebrated will only lead to more discussion about adaptation.

I for one eagerly await where all of this might be headed.


  1. Given that there are >7500 languages in the world, I’d suggest that opening a translation bureau could be a lucrative job!

  2. Language is actually not really a product of culture (still less “fundamentally” so). Naturally, a culture that lives by the sea may have more words for different kinds of boats, and slang terms (twerking, etc.) will reflect what is relevant to a culture. But the fundamentals of a language — do nouns decline? one, two, or more genders? SVO, SOV, or other? — generally don’t. If anything (see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) the opposite is likelier to be true.

    That’s not to say this isn’t a welcome development. The actual interesting question here is how well these new translations follow the terms of Liturgiam Authenticam.

  3. It is fairly certain that these two languages would not qualify for liturgical use under the stipulations of Liturgiam Authenticam 10 and 12. If you believe this document at all, they might be OK for General Intercessions but not for general liturgical use.

    Here’s an extract from a lengthy interview I had with the late Joseph Gelineau in 2003:

    In your opinion, is there such a thing as a “sacral language” ?

    No, for me there is no such thing as a sacral language. No matter what language it is, you can pray to God and express religious sentiments that are within you. There is nothing special about the Christian faith in that sense. There are the original languages such as Hebrew and Greek, but this has never conferred on them the privilege of being the special languages for Christian worship; because we see only too well that during the earliest centuries Christianity spread out via every language in the Mediterranean basin, right from the beginning. Now, the subsequent domination by the Latin language is a quite unique phenomenon, completely different and in fact taken to the point of exaggeration, since the people were deprived of the chance to understand the liturgy. Naturally I think it is a huge improvement that, thanks to Vatican II, henceforth we have hundreds of languages in which to celebrate and proclaim the Word. It is quite certain that for the proclamation of the Word we have to use the language that people speak. That is self-evident. I think it also holds good for the language in which one celebrates.

    So you would not be in agreement with the provisions of Liturgiam Authenticam which state that there are languages which are not suitable for celebrating in.

    That’s a terrible statement to make, absolutely terrible, mind-blowingly awful! Look, Hebrew wasn’t a rich language in terms of vocabulary – there aren’t that many words – and yet it is possible to say everything in it that you need to. No, the most elementary language can perfectly well be the language in which to proclaim the Gospel and to celebrate and pray. For me, it’s self-evident.

    Thus a Jesuit liturgist. It sounds as if a Jesuit Pope agrees.

  4. Not trying to take anything away from Pope Francis, but to what extent does he actually involve himself in such decisions vs. signing off on what the Congregation passes on to him? I have no clue on how the process works – are these requests vetted or filtered or all uniformly passed up to him to make a decision on?

  5. What about Native American languages in the US? Is there no case for inculturation here? I know of one linguistics dissertation that was written by a priest translating the common Roman Missal texts of the Mass into a language of one of the tribes of New Mexico. It was apparently sent to the Vatican for review and rejected because not enough people spoke the language. Of course, no one there could discern whether or not the translation was appropriately accurate or not.

    1. @Dolly Sokol – comment #5:
      Is the language in question a written language? If not, the priest might be able to still use his work in the context of interpretation (with the Bishop’s approval, of course).
      I do not believe that the ASL version that is in common usage was ever vetted by the Vatican, but then Liturgiam Authenticam deals with translation not interpretation.

  6. The approval of languages for liturgical use, and the subsequent confirmatio of liturgical texts in those languages, are two of the ordinary functions of the members of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

    Choctaw, Lakota, and Pima-Papago have been approved by the CDWDS as liturgical languages in the USA; liturgical texts in Choctaw and Lakota have also received the confirmatio of the CDWDS. In September 1996 the USCCB Administrative Committee approved the request of its Committee for Divine Worship that Laguna and American Sign Language also be approved as liturgical languages. I don’t think a response has ever been received for these latter two languages, and I’m reasonably certain that Pima-Papago translators never finished their work on a translation of the Order of Mass in that language.

    It is certainly possible that Bishop Arizmendi Esquivel, Bishop of San Cristobal, or some other Mexican bishop, personally asked Pope Francis about the liturgy translation in the two Mayan languages, apparently submitted to the CDWDS seven years ago. But I doubt that the Huffington Post is correct in its statement that “Pope Francis approved it (the translation) in October 2013.” Someone with access to Notitiae would be able to check the chronology of these matters.

    1. @Fr. Ron Krisman – comment #7:
      Fr. Krisman, I am currently writing an academic article on sign language in the liturgy for a communication journal, and I need an authoritative reference for the CDWDS Administrative Committee’s request that ASL be approved. I would be grateful if you could point me in the direction of such a document, since I’m new to this sort of research. Here or at lportolano at gmail would be fine.

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