At stake here is the language used for the Mass and the question of who has the responsibility for translating the Catholic liturgy into regional languages.
So why should this issue be so very controversial in the 21st century?
As a specialist in liturgical studies, I can say that, until the end of the 10th century, local bishops indeed made their own decisions about liturgical practices in their areas.
In the second century, for example, some Christian communities celebrated Easter on the actual date of Passover, while others observed it on the Sunday following that date. A final decision on a uniform date for Easter was not made until after the legalization of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine.
Even saints were regional. The first martyrs, venerated by Christians because they died rather than give up their faith, were recognized as saints in their regional Christian churches. Only later did they become part of the wider groups of holy men and women recognized as saints.
For example, two young women, Perpetua and Felicitas, martyred in the third century, were initially recognized as saints in Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. Later, their names were included in the Roman prayer over the bread and wine at the celebration of the Eucharist. As that prayer spread throughout Western Europe, their names went with it, and today they remain part of one Catholic Eucharistic prayer.
At the time, regional bishops controlled services to venerate the saints. The story of Monica, mother of a future bishop (St. Augustine) and commemorated herself as a saint, reveals the control of local bishops over customs in their areas. Monica, following North African custom, brought a food offering to a saint’s shrine in Italy, but she humbly obeyed after she was told by the local bishop — St. Ambrose of Milan — that the practice was forbidden in northern Italy.
When the western half of the Roman Empire fell in A.D. 476, regional veneration of local saints expanded. Regional bishops continued to approve petitions and regulate the commemoration of the saints as their predecessors had done. Learned monks made lists of local holy men and women and produced written copies of the stories of their lives.
The first case of a pope canonizing a local saint took place just before the year A.D. 1000.
And this was just the first sign of a new era.
Centralization of church life
During the 11th century, a new succession of reform-minded popes brought in more centralization. By the 12th century, it was popes who canonized saints, and they also had pruned a large number of “non-Roman” prayers from the Mass. This papal movement toward stricter uniformity of practice gained momentum through the later Middle Ages.
Latin, the vernacular, daily language of the ancient Romans, had long since become a learned, “classical” language no longer in common use. However, Latin remained the official language of the Western Church; liturgical rites were performed in Latin, and all of the Church’s legal, business, and academic affairs were recorded in Latin.
By the end of the medieval period, a whole system of papal bureaucracy assisted the pope, run by clerical administrators, and kept afloat by a detailed structure of fees and donations.
Movements for a reform of the Church more along the lines of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles became more vocal in the 14th and 15th centuries. These reached a critical intensity with the Reformation in the early 16th century. It was partly in response to these Protestant challenges, Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent.
In the face of Protestant insistence on using modern vernacular languages for religious services, the Council of Trent called for the promulgation of a standardized Missal, the book containing all the texts for the celebration of Mass in Latin.
This was to be used by Roman Catholics in every part of the world. Each word spoken and each gesture made by the priest was strictly prescribed, and few changes were made over the next 400 years.
Beginning of modern reforms
Until the mid-20th century, then, the Catholic Church was understood as a kind of religious monarchy. The pope was at the top of the pyramid, and cardinals, bishops, priests, and nuns on descending levels.
The ordinary laypeople formed the largest, and lowest, layer. Authority and liturgy flowed from the top down.
This static structure was shaken by the advances in technology and communication taking place rapidly during the 20th century. Pope John XXIII, elected in 1958, wanted to make changes so the church could speak to this new, complex world.
So he convoked the Second Vatican Council, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops (and their expert advisers) meant to settle doctrinal issues. And he invited observers from many other Christian churches and denominations. The Second Vatican Council was held between 1962-1965.
The council, with its stress on openness and communication, reformed the Catholic liturgy and approved vernacular translations of a revised Latin Missal. It also emphasized the role of local bishops — just as the Church had been before the 12th century.
Both Catholics and non-Catholics applauded the vernacular liturgical translations as a source of strength for dialogue among the Christian churches. And Pope Paul VI, who presided over the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, supervised its implementation.
‘The reform of the reform’
Paul VI’s successors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, however, took a more conservative approach, encouraging the use of the 1962 edition of the Latin-only “Tridentine Missal” (which has become known as the “Extraordinary Form”) and issuing stricter guidelines for preparing vernacular translations of liturgical rites, including those of the Mass (now known as the “Ordinary Form”).
As the 20th century reached its end, this tendency became known as “ the reform of the reform.”
This increasing liturgical conservatism had an impact on the preparation of the recent third edition of the post-Vatican II Missal. English translations of earlier editions were prepared using a more flexible set of directions. This third edition (2002, 2008) had to be translated from Latin into various modern languages, including English, under much stricter guidelines. The prayers were more faithful to the vocabulary and structure of the Latin originals, as a result they became awkward and clumsy in English.
Return to Vatican II
With this recent decision, Pope Francis seeks to reconnect with reforms of Vatican II. He is restoring the role of regional and national conferences of bishops in preparing and approving vernacular translations of the Mass and other rites.
He is also returning to the conciliar vision of reconnecting the modern Church with its ancient and early medieval roots with its stress on “ legitimate variations and adaptations.”
But more than that, I argue, he has revived the Council Fathers’ hope for practical, daily reconnection among all Christian churches: when all Protestants and Catholics might use the same English translations and pray in one voice, using the same words.