Thursday, November 6, 2008

On Liturgical Latin (and Becoming a Trad by Accident)

I'm sure you've all heard many of the arguments before for Latin over the vernacular language in the Roman Catholic Liturgy: continuity with centuries of tradition, universal liturgical connection with the rest of the world, etc. You've probably also heard at least one "practically, it just works out better!" argument: The one with the foreign priest whose accent is so thick you can barely understand him if you're straining all your energy to hear (which most people aren't)...

What about our listening skills? Compare three alternatives an intelligent person has to choose from: 1) listening to a Liturgy (even one well-celebrated) in English (which will here stand for "the vernacular", as English is our vernacular); 2) listening in English and reading along in English; or 3) listening in Latin and reading along in English (though there are many differences, for my purposes I include the silent canon with this Latin to differentiate it from heard English).

1) When's the last time you truly listened and prayed along with the Eucharistic prayers? I'll be honest - the Liturgy is the backbone of my spiritual life, and this morning I was thinking about this blog post as much as the sacrifice that was happening at the altar! And I try to pray along! (And this is presupposing a priest who says the prayers lovingly, as opposed to one who rushes through or shouts through the whole thing). No, the modern human mind is much too good at not listening. Next!

2) Perhaps reading along with important things like the Eucharistic Prayers might help in paying attention (setting aside the sheer inconvenience of four plus prayers to choose from) - but after about a week of so doing, most people feel (or at least, I feel) this is a poor use of one's energy, because the same words are being spoken as are being read, thus this reading actually makes one feel bored. Thumbs down.

3) Latin &/or silence. The idea here is, you're reading along (or praying along however you like), and you're not bothered by the priest praying his prayers. Yes, your participation is an important part of the liturgical action, but here your participation is your own! You're not bullied into doing things one way or another. You read along and pray at your own pace. Because you're fully in charge of your prayer here, it can be much easier to pray deeply, especially if you're inclined to do so.

So there's my argument (for listening) against always using the vernacular.

But wait - there's more! Next comes my argument for vocal prayer against always using the vernacular! I have two examples to prove this point (and, predictably, I save my favorite for last).

On Sundays, when we say the creed... Who else finds their brain checking out somewhere between "I believe in God, the Father almighty" and "I believe in the Holy Spirit", even though the mouth continues to recite by rote the same powerful, easily ignored words? And this profession which should be a mental revisiting of the basic tenets of our faith?

Even better - think of the last time you prayed the rosary in a group setting. Imagine a theoretical passer-by who is unfamiliar with Christianity but fluent in English, who tried to figure out what was meant by this prayer, repeated over and over again. Don't you think he would be most puzzled by wondering what a "wombjesus" is?

Think about it, and think about how we pray, especially as a group. Prayers are poetry in a certain sense, sure, but do we ever consider their actual meaning, or whether we should perhaps say them in a way that reflects that?

Another classic example is the grace before meals. Punctuated as it is usually spoken, it runs like this:
Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive.
From thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Little wonder people have been known to change the words! Do we really consider when we say that prayer that our meal is a gift that we receive out of the Lord's great bounty? Of course not! But we rarely question it, because we understand what each individual word means.

I'm ranting. The point is: Latin makes sense, precisely because it doesn't.


  1. By which you mean /I/ have been known to change the words. ;)

  2. I've actually been meaning to point out to you that the prayer makes sense until you change the words. But yes, that is what I mean.

  3. OM nom nom nom


  4. Anonymous2:10 PM

    I was just reading this and I had two thoughts:

    1. I ought to send this to the cranky parish employee that I spoke to yesterday.

    2. I was so sure you were quoting from the Apostles Creed, which we ought to pray every day at the start of the rosary, rather than the Nicene Creed which is really only recited on Sundays, but I couldn't prove it until I googled because I couldn't recite the Nicene Creed by heart. The Nicene Creed begins with "We believe in one God." Point proven, dear.

  5. Good catch, Anne. I /was/ quoting from the Nicene Creed, but I was recalling the Latin and translating. I forgot that the current translation uses "We." So dumb. Can't wait for the new one to take effect.


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