St Jerome, “Linguistic” Hospitality and Inculturation

When it comes to matters liturgical there is often a danger to read things into the words of Pope Francis.  All too often, liturgists of every shade tend to think that Pope Francis agrees with whatever position they themselves hold (this was the point I made here and here during the Synod for the Amazon). In this sense I think we are much better served by examining what Pope Francis actually says and does.

Liturgical inculturation is one such area where there are many different views in the contemporary Church. When dealing with Inculturation there are different views of what is best for Catholics today and what the Holy Father should be doing. But again, I make the point that looking at what the Pope said is better than arguing about what he should say.

As an example of this, we ought to note Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letter Scripturae Sacrae Affectus on the Sixteen Hundredth Anniversary of the Death of Saint Jerome. Admittedly here he is not dealing with liturgy or inculturation per se, but rather what we can learn today from the work of St. Jerome. But in this context Pope Francis dedicates a section of the letter to translation as inculturation. I quote the entire section below:

By his translation, Jerome succeeded in “inculturating” the Bible in the Latin language and culture. His work became a permanent paradigm for the missionary activity of the Church. In effect, “whenever a community receives the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit enriches its culture with the transforming power of the Gospel.” Here a kind of circularity is established: just as Jerome’s translation is indebted to the language and culture of classical Latin, whose influence is very evident, so his translation, by its language and its symbolic and highly imaginative content, became in turn an impetus to the creation of a new culture.

Jerome’s work of translation teaches us that the values and positive forms of every culture represent an enrichment for the whole Church. The different ways by which the word of God is proclaimed, understood and experienced in each new translation enrich Scripture itself since, according to the well-known expression of Gregory the Great, Scripture grows with the reader, taking on new accents and new resonance throughout the centuries. The entrance of the Bible and the Gospel into different cultures renders the Church ever more clearly “a bride bedecked with jewels.” At the same time it witnesses to the fact that the Bible continually needs to be translated into the linguistic and mental categories of each culture and generation, also in the secularized global culture of our time.

It has been rightly pointed out that an analogy exists between translation as an act of “linguistic” hospitality and other forms of hospitality. This is why translation does not concern language alone but really reflects a broader ethical decision connected with an entire approach to life. Without translation, different linguistic communities would be unable to communicate among themselves; we would close the doors of history to one another and negate the possibility of building a culture of encounter. In effect, without translation there can be no such hospitality; indeed hostility would increase. A translator is a bridge builder. How many hasty judgments are made, how many condemnations and conflicts arise from the fact that we do not understand the language of other persons and fail to apply ourselves, with firm hope, to the endless demonstration of love that translation represents.

Jerome too had to counter the dominant thought of his time. If the knowledge of Greek was relatively common at the dawn of the Roman Empire, by his time it was already becoming a rarity. He came to be one of the best experts in Greco-Christian language and literature and he undertook a still more arduous and solitary journey when he undertook the study of Hebrew. If, as it has been said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” we can say that we owe to Saint Jerome’s knowledge of languages a more universal understanding of Christianity and one steeped more deeply in its sources.

With the celebration of this anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome, our gaze turns to the extraordinary missionary vitality expressed by the fact that the word of God has been translated into more than three thousand languages. To how many missionaries do we owe the invaluable publication of grammars, dictionaries and other linguistic tools that enable greater communication and become vehicles for “the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone!” We need to support this work and invest in it, helping to overcome limits in communication and lost opportunities for encounter. Much remains to be done. It has been said that without translation there can be no understanding: we would understand neither ourselves nor others.

One comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Pope Francis no doubt takes a lot of flack for how some things he says get translated, precisely because they sometimes can sound “inhospitable” in English. Our conversations on inclusive language definitely fall into the category of hospitality. Am I welcome in this community or not? Per my earlier post about the Liturgy of the Hours, it makes a difference whether text is translated “brothers” or “brothers and sisters,” or whether it is “sons” or “sons and daughters.” I’m glad to see that Pope Francis values the concept of hospitality in language, in any case. Now let’s make sure it happens.

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