As often happens in matters theological, chance counts more than necessity. By pure chance, in fact, in order to complete an article for a magazine yesterday, I checked the official Italian translation of one of the best known and most important texts of the liturgical Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium – the definition of actuosa participatio in SC 48: “per ritus et preces id bene intelligendum.” After having ascertained the substantially correct translation of the Italian version, I became intrigued. The site www.vatican.va offers, in the upper right, all the other 12 official versions. I clicked on the EN (English) version and discovered the first mistake! Then I clicked FR and ES: everything okay. But then I clicked PT (Portuguese) and once again, a mistake. Since the matter deserves a full discourse, I start from the beginning and recount the story as it began for me.
“Active Participation” as the Key to the Liturgical Reform
I have never forgotten the moment, 18 years ago, when for the first time I began to understand what was at stake in the central sentence of SC 48. It was 2003, the 40th anniversary of SC, and the Archdiocese of Turin had organized the presentation of a “sociological survey” – edited by Domenico Cravero and the results can be read here. On that occasion I was asked to present the change in the concept of “participation in the liturgy” that took place with Vatican II. That was the occasion when I made, for the first time, a “synoptic reading” of “participation of the faithful” found in the encyclical Mediator Dei of Pius XII with the “actuosa participatio” of SC. And the light bulb went on. As Aristotle says, things are understood in two ways: by analogy and by difference. I then understood that the model of “participation” proposed by SC is not understood if the differences with respect to the previous concept and practice are not carefully noted. In a word, the “participation of the faithful” is understood by MD as “actus animae,” as an act of the soul, aimed at “having the same sentiments as the crucified Lord.” It is a purely interior participation, which takes place “in front of” the rite, not “through the rite” or “in the rite” or “thanks to the rite.” The novelty of SC lies precisely in departing from this idea and this practice, which generates “silent spectators,” and in seeing the liturgical rite as “mediation,” as “common language,” as “common action.” It then became clear to me that of the three adverbs used to qualify participation (conscie, pie, actuosa), the first two stand in a certain continuity with MD, while the third is the real novelty.
The Importance of “Actuosa /Active” as an Attribute of Participation in the Liturgy
I want to pause a bit longer on this adjective which is easily misunderstood. Participation is called “actuosa” because it consists of a common action. It is not only a representation for the sake of learning and making one’s own, or upon which to feel emotion and devotion (the descriptors “conscious” and “pious” lead to this), but it is an “action to be shared.” This is a very important aspect, especially for the function that SC 48 performs with respect to what follows in the document. In fact, it is because of this “redefinition of participation” that the following articles (49-58) set out the liturgical reform of the Order of Mass. The rites – first of all the eucharistic rites and then all the others following – are reformed because participation implies action. If it had simply been a matter of bringing “consciousness” or a “piety” to greater maturity, the reform would not have really been necessary. If it were simply a question of “understanding” and “being pious,” new rites and old rites would be substantially equivalent. If, on the other hand, the “common action” of Christ and the Church is at stake, then the decision to reform the Orders is justified and supported by nothing other than the acquired evidence of this need for “participation in common action”. Here, then, is the relevance of the question I came across almost by chance.
An Uncomfortable Witness: Girardi’s Comment on SC
To the premises presented so far I must add an extremely important fact. I draw it from the most recent of the commentaries on the conciliar text, i.e., from the first volume of the Commentario ai Documenti del Vaticano II (ed. S. Noceti and R. Repole, Bologna, EDB, 2014), where Luigi Girardi offers a precise set of notices that opens us to the deeper meaning of SC and also to an elaboration of its texts. With regard to n0. 48 he notes the following:
”The text presented in the aula was written as follows: ‘Ut ritus et preces bene intelligentes, ea actuose, conscie et pie participent”. The verbs intelligere and participere had as their object rites and prayers. Taking up a proposal by Cardinal Bea, … the text was changed… The rites and prayers are not merely an external reality, they are the mediation by which one accesses the mystery celebrated. This type of understanding does not stop at the rites, nor does it reach the mystery of faith without them; on the contrary, the mystery of faith is understood precisely through the rites and prayers with which it is celebrated. The final state of the text is decisive for a renewed understanding of the symbolic mediation of rites … and for the proper emphasis to be given to the ritual form of the Eucharist “(179)
This historical and systematic fact is absolutely decisive. It allows us to discover even better that the change made to the text leaves behind a “ceremonial” reading of the rites and prayers and allows the liturgical reform to find its true justification. Rites and prayers are not primarily “objects” of an interior intelligence, but “mediations,” “languages,” and “codes,” thanks to which and through which we can have an understanding of the mystery. Considering this historical reconstruction, it is surprising that today, 60 years after the official text of SC, there are several vernacular languages in which, according to the official tradition published on the website www.vatican.va, the text approved by the Council is not translated, but rather the earlier draft. And no one has made a stink about this blunder.
Translations Without Textual Basis
Without having been able to do a complete examination of the 12 languages, but limiting myself to the main European languages, I observe that:
- German, Hungarian and Spanish (and also the Polish version, which does not appear on the site) literally translate the Latin, transmitting the “means / mediation” value of the Latin “for” into the target languages; understanding occurs “through” or “by means of” rites and prayers.
- Italian and French translate with greater freedom, transforming the complement of “medium” into a “state in a figurative place”: understanding occurs “in rites” and “in prayers”;
- English and Portuguese translate a different text, the one before it was amended, and thus reduce the rites and prayers to “objects” of intelligence. This is completely illegitimate and gravely false.
What Is at Stake in All This?
The difference in the concept of active participation consists, as we have seen, in a different relationship between the liturgy, Christ and the Church. The inner and intellectualist, sentiment-based and ceremonial model, which corresponds to the definition of MD of 1947, would consider it normal – and even advisable – that during Mass the people “participate” without participating, i.e., by doing something else. This was quite possible in that system, and it would be possible even after the Second Vatican Council if we thought of rites and prayers as “objects of intelligence.” When, on the other hand, they are rediscovered as “mediations,” as “languages,” as “codes,” the rites and prayers require not only an act of reform, but a reception of the reform so that participation becomes truly “active” – i.e., to put rites and prayers into the common experience of the whole Church. Already Romano Guardini, 100 years ago, said that the liturgy was not primarily a form of knowledge, but “a doing, an order, a being” (Liturgical Formation, 18). If we read the concept of “active participation” in a reductive way, we misunderstand the reform and its reception. The reform was a necessary step, but not a sufficient one. Both those who consider it unnecessary and those who consider it sufficient are wrong. The former fight it head-on, the latter empty it from within. One of the ways of emptying the liturgical reform of meaning is to misunderstand the purpose for which it was made, i.e., for the liturgy to be a common action of the whole church. In the moment in which rites and prayers are reduced to “objects of intelligence,” the perception of this necessary and further step forward with respect to the liturgical reform is lost.
What Can We Draw from this Discovery?
All that remains is to draw three small recommendations from this surprising discovery.
- It would be advisable for a translation of the text approved by the Council to be offered as soon as possible, at least on the official Vatican website, in all 12 languages, and not a provisional, unofficial, and highly problematic text.
- Alongside this “technical” remedy, which is however very urgent, the structural link between “active participation” as an end and a “liturgical reform” as an instrument must be rediscovered.
- Just when it is understood that Latin is no longer a living language, and perhaps only if this is understood, one must take care to provide versions in living languages which are not “more myopic” than Latin, nor which falsify what the Latin says in an understandable way for only a few initiates.
Andrea Grillo teaches liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.
Reprinted with permission from Munera. Translation awr.