The current situation between Cardinal Sarah and Pope Francis cannot be understood without first understanding a central document of the Second Vatican Council. Roman Guardini, in his book “Meditations on the Mass,” notes that, in the period immediately before the Second Vatican Council, the Mass was a “sacred spectacle” or a “mysterious proceeding” for many Catholic faithful. At the Second Vatican Council, the Council Fathers addressed in the document “Sancrosanctum Concilium,” “The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” this same problem about which Guardini was concerned.
The Council Fathers wanted to write a document that would encourage a reform of the liturgy such that it would not be a sacred spectacle or mysterious proceeding. Among other means to do this, “Sacrosanctum Concilium” permitted the use of vernacular languages such as English, Spanish and French in the Mass. Notably, the document commands that “the use of Latin is to be retained,” but allows for the majority of the Mass to be in a common language. Today, “Sacrosanctum Concilium” remains a point of contention for many Catholics.
Traditional Catholics often see the document as ushering in a new era of cheap, irreverent liturgy. Progressive Catholics see the document as evidence that the Latin liturgy was ossified and useless, and that the novus ordo liturgy is an evolving thing, never static, always adaptable to the needs of the people. Many are not aware that this document exists, and if they are, remain perplexed as to its proper interpretation.
“Sacrosanctum Concilium” remains difficult today not only for the lay faithful, but also for the leaders of the church. We see this difficulty manifested in the recent exchange between Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah, Prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship. On Sept. 9, the Vatican released a motu proprio by Pope Francis titled “Magnum Principium.” In his introduction to his motu proprio, Pope Francis states that his goal is to encourage the great principle of “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” that is, the reformation of the liturgy to the needs of the people. Pope Francis notes that when producing translations of the Mass in their own language, Bishop Conferences around the world are required to have their translations approved by the CDW.
Pope Francis sees this lengthy and bureaucratic process as unnecessary, and accordingly introduced into canon law the provision that Bishop Conferences be given more authority to translate and revise the Mass in their respective languages. In addition, Pope Francis abrogated, or obsoleted, provisions set out by an earlier document produced under Pope St. John Paul II entitled “Liturgiam Authenticam” that required strict and literal adherence to the Latin text of the mass in any translation.
A few days following, Cardinal Sarah sent a letter to Pope Francis, thanking him and attaching a commentary that his office had produced on the latest motu proprio, seeking to make it easier to understand. Cardinal Sarah also submitted the commentary to a French newspaper, “L’Homme Nouveau,” for publication.
Pope Francis responded to Cardinal Sarah, thanking him for the letter but noting that their was an inaccuracy in the commentary concerning the authority of Rome. Essentially, Pope Francis said that the commentary, in explaining his motu proprio, granted to the CDW more authority than it now had. The Bishop Conferences would hereafter, he continued, not need to follow strict provisions of the CDW concerning their translations; instead, they would simply need approval before publishing them.
The whole business of liturgical translations is surrounded by very particular requirements of Canon Law, and is accordingly complex. Both Cardinal Sarah and Pope Francis’ letters are attempts to reduce the complexity for priests and the lay faithful. Instead, Catholic news outlets have taken this correspondence as evidence of some sort of feud between Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah, a fact flatly contradicted by the amicable and prayerful tone of both letters.
Every news outlet I could find, whether progressive or conservative, took two letters, intended for the greater good of the Church, as fuel for their political machine. In fact, both the Pope and the Cardinal want the liturgy to be, in the words of “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” “an abundant source of graces and a means for continual formation in the Christian mystery.” We would do well to follow their example.