DSCF7134, a photo by Fr Tim Finigan on Flickr.
I had a couple of discussions with people recently on the subject of Latin in the liturgy. But why is this even being discussed? The situation is set out in Sacrosanctum Concilium.
36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
36. 2 . But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters.
54. In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and "the common prayer," but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people, according to the norm laid down in Art. 36 of this Constitution.
Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.
Thus, the use of the vernacular was clearly envisaged as an aid to understanding of, for example, the readings, and perhaps for catechetical purposes. It was never the intention of Vatican 2 to abolish the use of Latin or render its use a rare event. Nor was it intended that English should be used as a language-in-common where members of a congregation had many different mother-tongues. In the light of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the extension of the use of the vernacular to the point that it has become almost universal looks like abuse and needs to be dealt with. Likewise, there is a need to crack down on the use of English in multi-national congregations, for example, in student chaplaincies.
But whilst rules are meant to be adhered to, there is also a need to present the underlying reasons and counter the view expressed by on of the individuals I was talking to, which was that Latin was pointless and elitist. That is a strange argument. If Latin were to return to widespread use in the liturgy, then it would, by definition, not be elitist. Many a youngster in the city slums was able to overcome a poor start in life through the exposure that the Catholic church gave them to the cultural heritage that it had nurtured for the best part of two thousand years. To argue that Latin should be allowed to disappear is an aspect of the idea that if some people haven't got something, then nobody should have it. This is equality by levelling down. I am all for equality, but it should aim to level as many as possible up to the highest standard, not down to the lowest.
Most of the arguments against using Latin in the liturgy are more or less spurious. People know what is happening, in so far was what is happening at the Mass is knowable. It is absurd to suggest otherwise. Given that the Mass is primarily an ACTION, there is an advantage in putting the words into a language other than that with which those present are familiar with from daily use, as they then focus their attention on the overall event that is taking place in front of them. At the same time, the use of a dead language helps to convey the sense that there is an element of mystery about this event.
Latin is also one of the three sacred languages recognised by the Church, the others being Greek and Hebrew - in which the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews" was written on the board fixed over the head of Jesus at the crucifixion.
Fosters unity within the church
There are advantages now which were less significant forty years ago. People travel more. Study abroad is widespread, both to learn foreign languages and as part of programmes such as Erasmus. In some countries there is a shortage of priests, who then have to be imported from somewhere else, and might not be familiar with the local language. The Catholic church has a substantial musical heritage, most of which cannot be used in translation. Latin has the potential to pull together national groups in parishes where people might come from many different countries. This is especially so in English speaking countries where language is politically loaded and class divisions are cemented by subtle language differences, as well as in language borderlands such as Belgium and Western Poland, where language can stir up ancient enmities.
There is a particular benefit in the use of Latin in parishes whose members are immigrants from many different countries. In this situation, the weekly celebration of Mass in the immigrants' own languages has the effect of splitting up parishes into groups whose members hardly ever even get to see each other.
Vernacular languages are subject to change. Words change their means and associations. Expressions change. Means of expression are politically loaded. Usages can quickly become outdated. The use of a dead language ensures that there is always a stable reference point.
Putting the genie back in its bottle
Having unleashed this particular genie, it is going to be a difficult task to put it back into its bottle. It needs to be done sensitively but with a firm sense of purpose. It is necessary to give leadership to the generations who have become accustomed to hearing Mass in the vernacular. Partly this is going to have to be done from the pulpit, partly through study groups. One route is through the use of Gregorian chant, which if taught properly is thoroughly enjoyable for the participants. The task is urgent.