Vernacular in the liturgy: Understanding Pope Francis’ newest Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio Magnum Principium

Vernacular in the liturgy: Understanding Pope Francis’ newest Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio  Magnum Principium

Priests and the participants of the 4th World Apostolic Congress on Mercy are silhouetted against a setting sun during the event’s closing Mass at the Las Casas Filipinas in Bagac, Bataan, January 20, 2017. JOHANN MANGUSSAD

An important Apostolic Letter

Last 3 September 2017, Pope Francis signed his newest Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio, entitled Magnum Principium, by which can. 383 of the Code of Canon Law was modified. Promulgated by publication in the L’Osservatore Romano, it entered into force last 1 October 2017, even prior to its subsequent publication in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. The dispositive part of the Apostolic Letter read as follows:

“[I]n the future can. 838 will read as follows:

Can. 838 –

  • 1. The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop.
  • 2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books, recognise adaptations approved by the Episcopal Conference according to the norm of law, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.
  • 3. It pertains to the Episcopal Conferences to faithfullyprepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.
  • 4. Within the limits of his competence, it belongs to the diocesan Bishop to lay down in the Church entrusted to his care, liturgical regulations which are binding on all.

Consequently this is how art. 64 §3 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus as well as other laws are to be interpreted, particularly those contained in the liturgical books concerning their revision. Likewise I order that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments modify its own Regulations on the basis of the new discipline and help the Episcopal Conferences to fulfill their task as well as working to promote ever more the liturgical life of the Latin Church.

Everything that I have decreed in this Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio must be observed in all its parts, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, even if it be worthy of particular mention, and I hereby set forth and I dispose that it be promulgated by publication in the daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, that it enter into force on 1 October 2017, and thereafter be published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

In the light of the importance of the liturgy in the life of the Church, and the relevance of the use of vernacular in the Philippine setting (where there are many vernacular translations of the liturgical books), the full import of this new motu proprio cannot be missed. Hence, we shall tackle this subject in several parts, beginning with a review of what liturgy and liturgical law.


Liturgy and liturgical law (Prior to the new Motu Proprio)

The Code of Canon Law gives a working definition of sacred liturgy in c.834, which states:  §1. The Church fulfills its office of sanctifying in a special way in the sacred liturgy, which is indeed the exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ; in it through sensible signs the sanctification of humankind is signified and effected in a manner proper to each of the signs and the whole of the public worship of God is carried on by the mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and the members.

  • 2. This worship takes place when it is carried out in the name of the Church by persons lawfully deputed and through acts approved by the authority of the Church.


  1. Essential elements of liturgical actions

From the above, the following essential elements of a liturgical action can be deduced, the last three of which being veritable canonical requirements:

1) An exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ—which is a fundamental element of the liturgy. Thus, when a priest consecrates the Eucharist, Christ is present in the person of the minister; when the confessor absolves, it is Christ who forgives sins; even when an ordinary faithful baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.

2) The use of sensible signs, which both signify and effect the sanctification of mankind. In this regard, it is important to comment that the liturgical sign should keep close relation with the sanctification that it signifies (to the exclusion of the vulgar and the inane).

3) The public worship of God is carried out by the whole Mystical Body—i.e., it is offered in the name of the Church. Thus, c.837, §1 states: Liturgical actions are not private actions but celebrations of the Church itself, which is “the sacrament of unity”…therefore liturgical actions pertain to the whole body of the Church and manifest and affect it…. Every liturgical act is never just a private act of an individual, but constitutes the culminating moment when the whole Church renders public and complete worship to God.

4) The actions are approved by the authority of the Church. Thus, c.846 explicitly establishes:

  • 1. The liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be faithfully observed in the celebration of the sacraments; therefore no one on personal authority may add, remove or change anything in them.
  • 2. The ministers are to celebrate the sacraments according to their own rite.

5) The actions are carried out by persons lawfully deputed—a deputation that is different, as previously mentioned, from that enjoyed by all the faithful by virtue of baptism, which is a sharing in the common priesthood mentioned in c.836 and described by Vatican II.


  1. Principles of liturgical law

Liturgical actions are not private actions but are celebrations of the whole Church—i.e., the People of God united and ordered under the guidance of the bishops. This public character of liturgical actions, as well as their intimate connection with the principles of the Faith, constitute the ratio legis on which is based the exclusive competence of the ecclesiastical authority in the regulation of all matters regarding the liturgy.

1) Principle of substantial unity. This principle is premised on the distinction between changeable and unchangeable (immutable) elements of the liturgy: immutable elements are those which depend on the foundational will of Christ—e.g., the substance of the sacraments and whatever is more directly related to that substance; changeable elements are those which do not belong or are not directly related to the substance of the sacraments.

The principle is enunciated as follows: “By virtue of its pastoral authority, [the Church] can ordain what may be useful for the good of the faithful, according to the circumstances, times and places. But it does not have any power to change what pertains to the will of Christ, which is what constitutes the immutable part of the Liturgy.” [1]


The basis of this principle is three-fold:

The liturgy belongs to the public patrimony of the entire Church, and should therefore be subject to the regulation only of the capital offices. Thus, the Council had categorically declared that “no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC).

The liturgy is the principal factor for ecclesial communion. Thus, any arbitrariness in its celebration implies a rupture of this ecclesial communion and must therefore be avoided.

Lex orandi, lex credendi. The liturgy is closely linked to the deposit of faith. Hence, any laxity in liturgical discipline is at the same time effect and cause of important dogmatic errors.


2) Principle of centralization. This reinforces the previous principle, and is contained in c.838:

—§1. The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop (c.838, §1).

—§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish the liturgical books, to review their translations into the vernacular languages and to see that liturgical ordinances are faithfully observed everywhere.

Thus, the following are reserved to the Holy See:

1º All that refers to the validity of the sacraments (c.841).

2º All that refers to the licitud of the sacraments the regulation of which the Holy See has not decentralized to the Episcopal Conferences and to the diocesan Bishops.

3º The edition of liturgical books (c.383, 2).

4º Recognition of versions of liturgical books in the vernacular (c.383, 2).

5º Vigilance over the fulfillment of the universal liturgical norms everywhere (c.383, 2).


3) Principle of liturgical elasticity: Inculturation. A complementary principle underlies the fact that the rituals in force do not impose uniformity, but rather permits the use of different forms for celebrating, which are expressions of the richness of the liturgy of the Church. They are at the service of the pastoral function of the liturgy of stimulating and increasing the sense of Christ among the faithful (cf. IGMR, n.313).

A particular application of this principle is what has come to be known as inculturation—i.e., the incidence of the different cultures of peoples in whatever is fitting to better express the inexhaustible riches of Christ, provided that it is compatible with the Gospel and does not contradict ecclesial communion.

A different matter is the exaggerated adaptation of the liturgical norms to more specific and even simply personal circumstances—e.g., not to wear all the vestments for Mass on a warm day—under the guise of a misunderstood principle of contextualization. The Holy See has made such “experimentation impossible, unless it counts with the expressed authorization  of the Holy See”.[2]


4) Principle of decentralization. The ecclesiology of Vatican II, which re-emphasized the particular Churches and the dignity of the diocesan Bishops, opened a wide margin for Particular Law in the matter of liturgy. Thus, after establishing the aforementioned principles, the rest of c.838 enumerates the different competencies, corresponding to the need for a certain plurality of liturgical forms, in accordance with the different mentalities and traditions of different peoples (cf. SC, 37-39). This is channeled through:

  1. a) Primarily the Episcopal Conferences: It pertains to the conferences of bishops to prepare translations of the liturgical books into the vernacular languages, with the appropriate adaptations within the limits defined in the liturgical books themselves, and to publish them with the prior review by the Holy See (c.838, §3). The Instruction Varietates legitimae gave further indications on the ambit of this power of the Episcopal Conference and the procedure for its exercise (nn.55 & 66-67).
  2. b) Secondarily the Diocesan Bishop: It pertains to the diocesan bishop in the church entrusted to him, within the limits of his competence, to issue liturgical norms by which all are bound.(c.838, §4).


4) Principle of Full and Active Participation of the Faithful. Of less juridic impact than the foregoing principles is one which is latent in the whole liturgical renewal ushered in by Vatican II, and that is the desire for the full and active participation of all the faithful in the liturgy, each one according to his state and condition. (To be concluded)

[1] SCDW, Instruction Varietates legitimae, 25.I.1994, n.26.

[2] SCDW, Instruction Varietates legitimae, 25.I.1994, n.66.