by Fr Chris Chatteris SJ
Pope’s Intention, December 2018
In the Service of the Transmission of Faith.
That people, who are involved in the service and transmission of faith, may find, in their dialogue with culture, a language suited to the conditions of the present time.
‘In the beginning was the Word’. John the theologian has left us with a vision of God who is both love and logos, a God who is loving and intelligible and who desires to communicate with us. This is God’s nature – a loving, communicating Trinity of persons. That is why we human beings can make some sense of God. Because we are creatures of a loving self-communicating God, and we therefore reflect our Creator (though in an extremely limited fashion), God makes sense to us both on the emotional (loving) and intellectual (thinking) level.
We talk nowadays of people having emotional as well as academic intelligence. This is an important insight. We do not communicate like computers, exchanging lots of information. The words we use are not just information bytes. There is a whole colouring of our communication which is infinitely subtle and beautiful. The tone of voice; the intonation; the cultural context; one’s mood at the time of speaking; the relationship with the interlocutor; these are just some of the divine subtleties which make up the marvel which is our human communication.
So, when we say we are made in God’s image and likeness, perhaps the most important aspect of that likeness is this ability to communicate thanks to the grace of language. Language and love make us truly God’s children.
How important therefore to choose our words about God the Father, the Incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit with the utmost care and reverence. How important to enter into dialogue with others in a way which always strives to help them to truly understand and to know, insofar as we human beings are capable, something of the loving and communicating nature of our God. How important to speak words which will enable others to meet and to enter into a relationship with the Word.
This astounding theological insight is why Christianity is a translating faith. In the beginning was the Word and in the beginning of the Church there was translation of the word. St Paul and the Evangelists translated the story and sayings of Jesus into the koine or common Greek of the time in order to make it as widely accessible as possible to the culture of the Mediterranean world. Soon, the Christian scriptures began to be translated into other tongues and we have not ceased to do that throughout the missionary history of the Church. In that sense the Catholic Church can be said to be radically Pentecostalist – that we make sure that the scriptures and the liturgy are translated into tongues which are intelligible, both intellectually and emotionally, of the people to whom we bring the Good News.
We need to beware of resting on our laurels here. Translation is hard work and once we are done we might be tempted to take a break for a century or two, or longer! But language and culture are dynamic; they are forever changing. Hence, the way something is said and understood in one generation can shift in the next. If we wait too long we can find that the language as people actually speak and understand it, has moved beyond the way our translations express things. People no longer speak and understand the Latin of the Vulgate; rather ‘Latins’ now speak Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. The King James version of the Scriptures are written in a form of English which native speakers no longer use.
There are some forces which contrive to hold onto older and less intelligible translations. One is nostalgia; another is tradition; a third is the beauty of these ancient forms. A less worthy reason is that when scriptures are only intelligible to an educated, priestly minority, this conveniently gives them added power. The members of the priestly class who come out of the culture which has produced the ancient translation can have the further status of being culturally associated with the said version. In the days when Latin was the dominant liturgical and theological language of the Church, to be a priest from one of the Latin cultural groups meant something.
But the incarnate Word still wishes to speak, in and through those who are involved in the service and transmission of faith, in the languages and cultural forms of all the peoples of the world. May the Holy Spirit continue to enliven our hearts and loosen our tongues.
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