Comboni Missionaries Helped Bridge the Gap between Sacred Scripture and the Language of the People

By: Father Mariano Tibaldo, mccj

In the first half of the last century the Comboni Missionaries in Africa produced — in addition to specialized studies disseminated in various articles for magazines and books — 63 grammars, 88 dictionaries, 114 catechisms, 23 books of sacred history, 54 prayer books, 137 textbooks: primers, readers, and texts for arithmetic, history, geography, and more.

This vast production, it is important to underline, was not the work of missionaries working in isolation. It was a task nourished by daily contact with people, asking them questions, listening to them attentively, and observing them carefully.

When a missionary is sent to a so-called “mission” area, he has the main task of studying the languages and culture of the people. Knowledge of the language is essential because the missionary’s job is to proclaim the Gospel.

Furthermore, at the roots of this effort, there is an attitude of appreciation and esteem for people and their culture of their ability to understand and “embody” Christian truths.

A missionary is a “man of the Word.” But the Word of God must be made into the language of the people. The need to translate it into the local language therefore arises, but it is not a simple thing.

“How do we translate temple, pagan, sin, grace, justify, or save? What does God do when he forgives?”

These questions from Comboni Missionary Fr. (later Bishop) Giuseppe Sandri get at the heart of the matter. Sandri studied in Cincinnati and, in the mission field, he translated, with a team of local people, some books of the Bible into South Africa’s Xitsonga language. It was part of a vast project in cooperation with the South African Biblical Society. His queries highlight the difficulties of translating the Bible in a way that makes sense for the people.

Before Vatican II, the primary book used in Christian formation was a catechism from 1912. Bible translations were limited to some biblical stories translated as aid to the truths of faith contained in the catechism. The first translations of entire books of the Bible into the language of the common people were the work of missionaries from the churches of the Reformation.

The translation of the Bible for Catholics was one of the fruits of Vatican II, favored by a new climate of ecumenical openness and by the rediscovery of the centrality of the holy book in the life of Christians.

When the translation into local languages is the result of a joint effort with the missionaries of other Christian churches, the so-called Deuterocanonical and apocryphal books must be added. These are the books of the Old Testament not included in the Hebrew canon and not accepted by the churches of the Reformation but present in the Catholic tradition (parts of Esther, Judith, Tobias, First and Second Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, and some chapters of the book of Daniel).

Bishop Sandri’s statement on how the translation of the Bible proceeded is interesting: “Even after having found the true meaning of the Hebrew or Greek text, it is necessary to render it in current Xitsonga.”

In my experience working in Africa — I worked thirty years in Africa in Uganda and Kenya — I was always amazed at the desire of African Catholic Christians to read the Bible and improve their knowledge of biblical facts and characters — a desire certainly stimulated by the examples of many Christians from other churches for whom the Bible is the essential tool of prayer and Christian formation.

Now the Bible is in people’s homes, it is read in the family and in the various circumstances of life: the birth of a child, a wedding, a funeral, a visit to a sick person are very much felt by the members of a small community and there is always a catechist or leader ready to guide those present in the reflection of a biblical passage.

Above all, it is the instrument of prayer and formation in the small Christian Communities where one meditates, prays, shares reflections, and applies what the Sacred Book tells to today’s life. The Word of God helps people to discover the presence of God in their lives and to have that hope that sustains them in the struggle to improve the difficult conditions in which they find themselves; the words of Jesus give strength to fight and not be discouraged in the face of the difficulties and often the tragedies of life.