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Rome and Tokyo close in on agreement over Missal translation

Japanese bishop delighted by Vatican's receptive response

<p>The 1978 edition of the Japanese Missal</p>

The 1978 edition of the Japanese Missal

  • ucanews.com correspondent, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • April 17, 2014
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For years work has been underway to revise the Japanese Missal, but the task of updating the 1978 edition has proven to be a thorny problem.

The work is daunting. The goal is not so much a word-for-word, literal translation as one based upon a close examination of the cultural background and the particular linguistic characteristics of Japan. The actions and gestures used in the liturgy require equally painstaking care.

Perhaps the biggest complication has been that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, whose approval is required for any new translation, has until now requested translations that adhere closely to the Latin original.

Recently however, “the atmosphere in the Congregation has changed dramatically,” said Bishop Masahiro Umemura of Yokohama, president of the Committee for the Liturgy at the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Japan (CBCJ).

On March 18, Bishop Umemura visited the Congregation with fellow committee member Fr Franco Sottocornola of the Xaverian Missionary Fathers and committee secretary Toshimitsu Miyakoshi to submit revised editions of liturgical documents including “The Order of the Mass and Eucharistic Prayers 1 – 4” and “The General Instruction of the Roman Missal.” They also gave a report on the current state of affairs in Japan.

There was reason to expect Bishop Umemura’s reception to be a cold one. Contention had arisen between the CBCJ and the Congregation in 2006 and 2007, when draft translations of liturgical texts into Japanese met with resistance in Rome. The dispute centered on certain departures from the Latin original.

For instance, in translating the Latin phrase, “Et cum spiritu tuo,” (“And with your spirit”), the CBCJ decided that the literal translation of the Japanese ‘rei’ for the word ‘spiritu’ would cause misunderstanding among Japanese people, for whom the word would connote the idea of evil spirits or ghosts. Instead, they proposed changing the translation currently in use, “Mata shisai to tomo ni” (“And also with the priest”), to simply “Mata anata to tomo ni” (“And also with you”).

For years this was deemed unacceptable by the Congregation, and little progress could be made.

“In the past, the Congregation kept merely reiterating basic principles and regulations,” recalled Bishop Umemura. But, to his surprise, “this time they gave us a chance to actually explain our reasons for the changes.”

In recent years, the Congregation’s prefect, secretary, and its official handling Japan’s submissions have all been replaced. At the March meeting, the Japanese delegation met not only with Msgr Stephan Hünseler, the new official in charge, but also with Congregation Secretary Archbishop Arthur Roche, who had worked on the revised English translation of the Missal. The two listened to the delegation’s explanations for about two hours. This was the first time a secretary-level official had participated in these discussions.

According to CBCJ committee secretary Miyakoshi, the Congregation’s concern about the “Et cum spiritu tuo” dilemma no longer revolved around faithfulness to the Latin. Instead, Archbishop Roche only raised three matters for consideration: first, the importance of coherence between this response and translations of certain scriptural passages; second, that the phrase reflects the Holy Spirit at work in the priest in a special way through the Sacrament of Holy Orders; and, third, that the flock must be taught the significance of this phrase.

A formal response from the Congregation will be given within three months, but in the meantime the Japanese see the meeting as an encouraging sign that dismissive attitudes toward the local churches may be changing. “This was the first time we were able to participate in the discussion on an equal footing,” said Miyakoshi.

Bishop Umemura believes that Pope Francis’ ascension to the papacy is having a significant influence. “I felt that the pope’s inclination to let the local bishops handle their own affairs has been given considerable weight throughout the Curia.”

He noticed a similar change in attitude at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, too, which he also visited during his time in Rome.

“The bishops of each country have expended considerable time toward their duty in preparing [translations of] the Missal and the guidelines for the rituals,” Bishop Umemura said.

“In the future, I expect Rome to give the bishops’ conferences of each nation her unreserved trust, and to entrust matters to them accordingly.”

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