Venite, Adoremus!

I converted to Catholicism in 1983, more than a decade after the demise of the Latin Mass. At the time I was a graduate student in Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, so I was familiar enough with Latin to know that I was not missing out on much compared to what I was reading and studying, but I still felt small pangs of regret. The Mass of the rubrics of 1960 (the so-called "Tridentine" version of the Mass, though its resemblence to what Trent mandated is rather tenuous) was available in Raleigh, so I went to it a couple of times, but even though the whole thing was in Latin it might as well have been in Chinese for all the "Latin" one got to experience. Much of the Mass was said "secretly", that is, inaudibly, by the priest, and those parts that were said audibly were said so badly that they were not recognizable as Latin. I began to form the opinion that the loss of the Latin Mass was no big deal.

I even wrote an essay, which I never sent off to any forum, in which I argued at some length against the use of Latin in the liturgy. Looking back on what I wrote, I find that I now disagree, virtually point by point, with everything I wrote. In fact, I now regard the use of Latin in the liturgy as important for almost the very reasons I offered before for getting rid of it! Given that Pope Benedict XVI has mentioned his own fondness for Latin in the liturgy (see especially his Spirit of the Liturgy, available from Ignatius Press), I thought I might rehearse some of my thoughts nearly 20 years later.

In 1985 I argued that the unity of the Roman Church lay in her doctrine, not in the language of her liturgies, and that vernacular liturgies facilitated participation by the faithful. I now think that it is rather important to have an outward sign of that doctrinal unity, and the Latin language is the perfect candidate, seeing as how it has served as the language of the Church since the 2nd century. Outward signs are important, I think, not simply because we are a Sacramental Church that recognizes that the human condition is both material and non-material, body and soul, but because we have reached a point in our history in which doctrinal unity needs to be emphasized more often than not lest it be forgotten. I am less convinced these days that hearing a liturgy in Latin will promote a lack of lay participation in the liturgy, since the participation one tends to find these days seems to me to be of limited value anyway. At the few "Tridentine" liturgies I attended there was very devout and pious participation, though of a very different variety. People were not holding hands, or singing crappy songs, or laughing and chatting during the exchange of peace, but they were participating nonetheless. They even appeared to have some idea of what was going on, even though the language was not recognizable even as Latin. Because of the work I do I sometimes travel to countries where the language is not English, and I am not always able to follow the liturgy anyway; if it were in Latin everywhere I would actually have a better chance of participating in a meaningful way, since at least I know that language. Not everyone knows Latin, of course, but neither does everyone know French or German or Italian or Chinese or whatever local vernacular they may find in use, so anyone who travels will be no worse off with Latin than the vernacular.

I mentioned the tradition of the Church's use of Latin. That does not reflect a mere antiquarian interest on my part. Latin is the language that was spoken by the first martyrs of the Roman Church; it is the language of St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great; it is the language of the Christian humanists, of St. Thomas More and Erasmus. In short, it is more than just a liturgical or theological language, it is a great treasure-trove of the human spirit that crosses the centuries and encompasses some of the greatest literature the world has ever known. In this sense it is a very fitting outward manifestation of the inner glory that is the Body of Christ.

In 1985 I argued that I could see nothing wrong with using Latin in the Mass if that is what one prefers in some aesthetic sense, but I suggested that aesthetics alone do not justify making Latin the norm. After nearly two decades of slumming through ICEL translations and sloppy theology based on sloppy language, I find that my curmudgeonly ways are now suggesting something rather different to me. The Latin language is not without its charms, of course, but it is also a remarkably suitable language for liturgy and theology, as the test of time has shown. English is good for these uses, too, I think, but the use of Latin forces one to be a little more careful in the manner of one's expression. Given its much longer history, the use of Latin also has the potential of keeping one's thinking in line with tradition.

I'm now rather obsessive in my use of Latin. I pray the Daily Office in Latin, I say many of my private prayers in Latin, and I often translate parts of the Mass into Latin as I "participate". I'll grant you it's not for everybody, but for me it's been a shot in the arm on those occasions when I've had to sit through something particularly banal.

For those of you who might be feeling some regrets of your own, either for never learning Latin, or for not taking it seriously when you were in school--well, it's never too late!


Mike L said…

As you probably know, the Mass in Rome was celebrated in Greek until sometime in the 4th century. The adoption of Latin was, at the time, the adoption of the vernacular. I wonder what the trads in Rome at the time thought of that! I also wonder whether the divergence of the Western and Eastern churches would have developed as inexorably as it did if that had not occurred.
Scott Carson said…
Hi Mike

I think that, if you take a look at Patrology by Johannes Quaasten, you'll find that Latin was adopted as the liturgical language in the Church of Rome much earlier, probably no later than the beginning of the second century.

You're right, of course, that adopting Latin was adopting a vernacular language, and my argument is not that we ought to have a language that is not a vernacular language, but that we have good reasons to all be using the same language, and rather than making that language be English or French or German or some other language over which there would be interminable arguments, why not use the traditional one? Personally, I'd be quite happy for English to be in use everywhere, especially if it was some other body than the ICEL that did the drafting.

Your question about the divergence between east and west is an interesting one. Of course Greek was also the vernacular in many parts of the Mediterranean at that time, so perhaps what we see in the divergence then is similar to what we see now: the battle of the vernaculars leading to subtle theological differences that, in the long run, add up to larger theological differences. It's kind of a long shot, I'll admit. But I am more convinced now than I was in 1983 that the use of Latin in the liturgy has values beyond its mere aesthetic ones. Obviously I can't prove such a thing, but a guy can dream, can't he?


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