Latin: A Universal Language for the Universal Church
Like the fixtures and implements of the liturgy, the quality of the language used is essential for its properly beautiful, theologically correct and magnanimous celebration, most especially through its poetic dignity, universality and sacredness. While the specific wording and language employed in the liturgy have varied over time and in the distinct rites of the Church, and the beauty of its expression can be contingent upon the aptitude of the priest, the choir and the faithful participants, liturgical language has been guided by overarching principles of aesthetic and theological significance throughout history; only in the recent decades of the Church have these principles been so widely disregarded.
Since the first institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, its celebration has been predominantly, and when allowed by circumstance, expressed through a holy, sacred language, a language set apart from daily use and thus consecrated to God. For Christ and the Jewish people of his time, this language was Hebrew, known by few but used as the ordinary liturgical expression of Jewish rituals, including those in the Temple and that of the Passover meal of which Christ partook and transubstantiated into the first Divine Liturgy. Providing a link to eternal tradition, a universality across regional and racial distinctions (without the need to accommodate separate Masses for each language group), a reverence elevated above ordinary colloquialisms and informality and a doctrinal consistency unachievable in a vernacular, a sacred language continues the linguistic universality begun at Pentecost and is invaluable for creating the unity, fidelity, reverence and mysticism proper to liturgical celebration. Pope St. John XXIII thus declared,
By the working of its nature, the Latin language is most suitable for furthering every kind of cultural initiative among all sorts of peoples, since it does not incite jealousy, but is equally accessible to every race of men. It is not partisan, but rather, favorable and welcoming to all. Nor would it be right not to mention that there exists in the Latin language an innate, noble harmoniousness and propriety – ‘a way of speaking which is dense with meaning, rich, and abundant, full of majesty and dignity.’ It has qualities within it which are uniquely conducive both to clarity and to seriousness.
For this reason, in the Roman church, Latin has been the language of liturgical expression since its earliest days, and while it may have been adapted from the common or “vulgar” tongue of the people during the times of Roman persecution, when the Church could not express itself with fullness and confidence, this soon changed. As Pope St. Paul VI wrote, “[Rome] offered the infant Church, as it emerged from the terrible bloody ordeal of persecution, the bond of the Latin tongue for the new liturgy, for ecclesiastical law and as a means of communication between peoples of different origin and culture, making them all one by the use of the same language, in the profound reality of a mysterious unity.” Latin has given Catholics a means of being lifted out of the mundane and into the heavenly, of hearing the same Mass in every nation and culture throughout the world and of being connected to the saints who celebrated the same liturgy with the same language for all time.
Despite the insistence on using more vernacular in the liturgy at Vatican II and in subsequent documents, it was never desirous for Latin to be wholly removed from the Mass, nor for the language of the Mass to become so devoid of reverence and distorted with customizations and simplifications as it frequently is in the Novus Ordo today. Thus, Sacrosanctum concilium taught, “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” Paul VI elaborated further on this point:
The Ecumenical Council Vatican II, in the Decree, Optatam totius on the formation of priests, in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Liturgy and in other documents, has repeatedly advised and inculcated the necessity of this study and use of Latin. It is precisely for its educative and formative value that We desire that Latin should continue to hold a place of honour in our midst.
 Michael Davies, The Catholic Sanctuary And The Second Vatican Council (Charlotte, NC: TAN, 1997), 5.
 Pope John XXIII, Apostolic Constitution On the Necessity of Promoting the Study of Latin Veterum sapiential (22 February 1962), §3.
 Pope Paul VI, “Need for Latin Remains Unchanged,” L’Osservatore Romano (9 May 1968), at EWTN, www.ewtn.com.
 Sacrosanctum concilium, §36.
 Pope Paul VI, “Need for Latin.”
Though I love the Latin Rite, Vatican II never intended, through the addition of “mother tongues”, the post Vatican II abuses of the Liturgy which by their nature lowered our sacred understanding of what is happening at Holy Mass. They wanted greater participation!
From Sacrosanctum concilium 48 - The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.
The beauty of using the Latin language is that it allows us to pray as one. As I finished the Camino and assisted at the Pilgrim Mass in St James’ Compostela, I was so very happy that parts of the Mass, usually those where everyone responded, were in Latin. As we prayed in Latin all sense of this or that nation is dissolved and we are simply, Catholic.
What the Church should not go back to is a Mass where some people choose to pray the Rosary in the midst of Mass because they don’t know what is going on.
Great and thoughtful article! Thanks!