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Pope Francis arriving to lead a Mass in Colombia on Saturday. Credit Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis, who has used his absolute authority in the Vatican to decentralize power from Rome, made a widespread change Saturday to the ways, and words, in which Roman Catholics worship by amending Vatican law to give national bishop conferences greater authority in translating liturgical language.

“It’s hugely important,” said Rita Ferrone, a specialist in Catholic liturgy who writes for Commonweal, a liberal Catholic magazine. She said that by loosening Rome’s grip on the language of prayers, Francis had restored the intention of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and erased some of the rollbacks of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. “It was especially astute that he put it into canon law because it makes it official.”

Francis has not been shy in efforts to reform the church and has tread on some of its most delicate subjects, from challenging the Roman bureaucracy that runs the church to emphasizing acceptance of gays and the divorced.

On Saturday he stepped squarely onto the battlefield of the so-called Liturgy Wars, which, especially in the English-speaking church, have divided liberals and conservatives for decades.

With “Magnum Principium,” a papal Motu Proprio — or a document issued under the pope’s own legal authority – Francis altered a key 2001 instruction by Pope John Paul II that empowered Vatican officials in Rome to ensure local translations adhered to the standard Latin.

Catholic progressives have advocated a greater use of contemporary idioms consistent with the Second Vatican Council reforms of the 1960s and many bristled under what they considered a heavy and out-of-touch hand from Rome.

Conservative opponents favored the Latin Mass, or at least more faithful translations to it in the local language, and they wanted the church hierarchy in Rome to ensure global universality and unity by making all of those translations uniform.

By amending the Code of Canon Law, Francis appears to have sided with the liberals in the debate and shifted the ownership of translations to the local bishops.

The amendment is a significant development in a liturgical schism that has split Catholics across the world and was evident at the highest echelons of the church.

In 2007, Benedict himself issued a Motu Proprio increasing access to the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, a move seen as a microcosm of the church’s shift toward traditionalism during his papacy.

In changing the law, which will go into effect on Oct. 1, the pope recalled that the Vatican Council entrusted bishops with the “weighty task of introducing the vernacular language into the liturgy.” He added that “in order that the renewal of the whole liturgical life might continue, it seemed opportune that some principles handed on since the time of the council should be more clearly reaffirmed and put into practice.”He also acknowledged the bitter feelings that the fights over liturgical language have produced, writing, “It is no surprise that difficulties have arisen” between local churches and the Vatican. He then called for “reciprocal trust” between the local churches and the Vatican department with liturgical oversight, known as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

But Vatican observers say trust is in short supply between the pope and the cardinal he selected in 2014 to run the department, Robert Sarah.

A hero to Vatican conservatives — and for many, a desired candidate in the next conclave to choose a new pope — Cardinal Sarah has been undermined by partisans of Francis who have worked on a committee to loosen the Guinean cardinal’s cherished Latin literalism.

In 2016, Cardinal Sarah called for priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem, or with their backs to the congregation. Francis promptly issued an unusual public rebuke. And in April of this year, Cardinal Sarah sent a letter honoring Benedict’s support of the Latin Mass, asserting that “modern liturgy” had caused devastation and schism. Benedict wrote that “the liturgy is in good hands,” in an afterward to a book the cardinal wrote this year.

But the liturgy seems to have been in the hands of Francis all along.

Saturday’s Vatican announcement was made as the pope visited Medellin, Colombia, the site of a landmark 1968 meeting that emphasized local Latin American influence in church decision-making. It also came just weeks after the pope — not one to invoke his magisterial authority — did just that when he announced that the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council was “irreversible.”

Progressive interpretations of those reforms in the 1960s provoked a backlash, and a “reform of the reform” movement, which ultimately had advocates at the top of the church during the reigns of John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

In 2001, the Vatican issued the Liturgiam Authenticam, or Authentic Liturgy, instructing that translations from Latin needed to be “in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content.”

That same year, the Vatican established Vox Clara, or Clear Voice, a committee to scrutinize English-language translations of the texts and prayers included in the Roman Missal. The committee advocated a close fidelity to the Latin.

In 2006, the Vatican successfully pressured American bishops to accept a more literal translation of well-known English prayers. In 2011, many English-speaking priests panned their effort, finding the language clunky and archaic.

While noting the unity instilled by the Roman Rite, Francis argued for the beauty and accessibility of local languages. He wrote on Saturday that “vernacular languages themselves, often only in a progressive manner, would be able to become liturgical languages, standing out in a not dissimilar way to liturgical Latin for their elegance of style and the profundity of their concepts with the aim of nourishing the faith.”