Sunday, May 9, 2010

On Sacrificing the Latin Language

Clearly the most noticeable new departure is that of language. From now on the vernacular, not Latin, will be the principal language of the Mass. For those who appreciate the beauty of Latin, its power and aptness to express the sacred, substitution of the vernacular certainly represents a great sacrifice. We are losing the idiom of the Christian ages; we become like profane intruders into the literary sanctuary of sacred language; we shall lose a large portion of that wonderful and incomparable, artistic and spiritual reality, Gregorian chant. We indeed have reason for sadness and perhaps even for bewilderment. What shall we put in the place of this angelic language? We are sacrificing a priceless treasure. For what reason? What is worth more than these sublime values of the Church? The answer may seem trite and prosaic, but it is sound because it is both human and apostolic. Our understanding of prayer is worth more than the previous, ancient garments in which it has been regally clad. Of more value, too, is the participation of the people, of  modern people who are surrounded by clear, intelligible language, translatable into their ordinary conversation. If our sacred Latin should, like a thick curtain, close us off from the world of children and young people, of work and the business of everyday, then would we, fishers of men, be wise to allow it exclusive dominion over the speech of religion and prayer?

-Pope Paul VI, Address to a general audience, on the new Ordo Missae, 26 November 1969.
ICEL, Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts, par 1762.

It's no secret that I like Latin.  The language is beautiful to hear spoken or sung, and the process of hearing beautiful sounds and simultaneously reading a profound text (with full knowledge of their unity) has deeply impacted my own spiritual life, powerfully lifting me up into the prayer of the Church.

But the academic position I inhabit as a student and hopeful scholar of the Roman liturgy requires that I take a step back from my personal preferences and experiences (thought without discounting them entirely) and look more objectively at the nature of the liturgy, which is derived from the twofold purpose of the liturgy: the glorification of God and the sanctification of man (SC 112).

There is no question that through the Latin language, a principal element in the patrimony of the Church, God is glorified; the question is only to what degree modern man is sanctified or deterred from sanctity through the Latin language.  That phrases the question a bit harshly, yet it does point to where the liturgical reformers were looking: which is more important, the preservation of this beautiful element of our tradition or the salvation of souls?

Naturally, the response is a both-and, just like everything else in our lives.  But in the absence of an opportunity to formally study this question (classwork really puts a damper on my thesis research), Our Lord has placed in my life experiences that have helped me to understand what I once experienced as "the other side."

When Latin acts as a roadblock to participation, it seems to usually boil down to one of two reasons: The first is psychological blocks.  Often times, people have difficulty processing a foreign language, are unable to concentrate when they don't understand the words being spoken, are scarred by childhood experiences connected to the Latin language or liturgy, or simply feel excluded by the language barrier.  These things are difficult to change.  In other cases, however, the primary element that is lacking is simply proper handouts.

Intelligent participation in the liturgical action requires that one know what is going on.  This really hits home to me whenever I leave my missal at home, or there is a special procession with extra prayers.  I find myself sitting or standing with everyone else, intending for Our Lord to heed the prayer of the priest, for I trust in its beauty and efficacy, and yet filled with strong feelings of resentment and exclusion.  I ought to be able to pray these prayers!  But without knowing any of their content, I am truly up the creek without a paddle.  I know that I will be guided to shore eventually, but I am entirely unable to propel myself down the river - and when that contemplative propulsion is what God asks of us (unless we are reasonably impeded), does it not make sense to provide those oars to our people wherever possible?

When I happened upon this quote from Pope Paul VI, I was struck by how closely it mirrored my own sentiments.  Our Latin legacy is truly a treasure, one that cannot be lost.  Still, it does seem that the majority of people are brought to a place where they are able to insert their hearts into the worship of God more easily and more fully when the liturgical rites are in their native tongue.  Who am I to deny them that privilege when Holy Mother Church has so graciously (and so humbly) allowed it?

Spiritus sapientiae et intellectus, miserere nobis.


  1. The liturgy being in the vernacular of the people didn't seem to be a stumbling block for people prior to the 20th century. I refuse to believe that 20th century man is so fundamentally different that the church must make such a radical change, especially concerning the parts of the mass that never change from week to week, and the prayers that were to be uttered silently by the priest.

    If someone finds the mass celebrated Latin to be a stumbling block, it's clearly an issue of pride, that can be cured with humility. Most of the mass is said on our behalf by the priest, in persona Christi. Though it can be good to follow along in a hand missal/handout/whatever, it is perfectly fine, sufficient, and good that when assisting at mass we simply pray for our hearts to be unified with Christ through the actions of the celebrant (and other ministers). Our role at mass, though active, is a receptive role. This modern idea that "active participation" equates to doing something other than being receptive to God's graces is foolish, erroneous, and a-traditional. Receiving God's body and blood, and unifying one's heart with the action of the priest is not passive; to do so correctly takes a tremendous amount of dedication. And the Latin language helps with this -- it communicates to us that the liturgy is something bigger and older than we are, points us to receive that which is given.

    Also, the above passage from Paul VI is one of a long line of writings that makes him seem schizophrenic. In his publication of Jubilate Deo, a book of Latin chants he says that EVERY parish choir should be familiar with at minimum, he makes a different statement.

    Finally, his position goes far beyond what Sacrosanctum Concilium actually prescribes. It prescribes giving the option of saying SOME parts of the mass in the vernacular, particularly the readings. What happened is that the vernacular became the norm in practice, even though Latin is the norm in law.

  2. Oh, the liturgy in Latin has been a stumbling block for people for centuries, Aaron, along with (in many cases) poor catechesis. Why else do you think the traditions of singing vernacular hymns and praying rosaries during Mass came along? Because people weren't praying the Mass; they were just praying at Mass. It's little different from singing hymns instead of the propers at your average novus ordo.

    Vatican II didn't just throw out Latin 'cuz they'd been overrun by moderns (though it's not unlikely that they were). All of those decisions, even the liturgical ones, had been led up to by prior magisterial and theological documents and discussions.

    And, for the record: Hand missals were actually outlawed until about the turn of the 20th century. We only have them because the liturgical movement insisted that people should be more aware than, should be able to participate more fully than, "whatever father is praying is good for me."

  3. The problem was a lack of catecheis. People were not being taught the Liturgy was the 2nd Vatican Council called for.

    The East used vernacular language far before we did here in the West.

    I don't really think people have problem with Mass in the vernacular in of itself. The problem is that the translations that are presently being used in the Missal of Paul VI are pathetic attempts at translating the Latin.

    Even the Latin that's used in Church isn't quite the vernacular Latin of the day when it was in use. There's an elevated quality to the Latin, which if we're going to have vernacular language, we should be using language that's outside the norm of street conversation, thelogical and transcendent.

    My position as far as use of vernacular in Mass is for the readings, the introit, the gradual, alleluia, offertory, and communion verse. The Ordianry should be in Latin as well as the Canon and the Dominus Vobiscum.

    My thoughts are better conveyed here:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...