Fixing the Mass

Most people who read my blog regularly already know my own liturgical tastes, but for an interesting statement of them by somebody else, there is an excellent post by Fr. Al Kimel at Pontifications. He's right about everything except the normative language of the Mass being in the "language of the people". I hate that expression. The normative language of the Mass is, and ought to be, Latin. Should it also be the normative "liturgical" language, that is, the language that actually gets used, regardless of what the normative textual language is?

I've gone back and forth on this for years. Personally, I prefer Latin, but then I can understand Latin and I'm certainly sympathetic to those who claim that they can't understand it and who prefer to hear the Mass in a language they can understand. But this preference should not go unexamined. What is it, exactly, that is at issue in this case, and why should the one preference (for a language I can understand) trump the other (for a language that is normative, ancient, traditional, etc.)?

One way of thinking about this issue is a decidedly Protestant way. According to this way of thinking, it is necessary to understand every word being said by the priest and the ministers because hey, who knows what they're really saying up there! They might be literally uttering words of hocus pocus for all we know, and to guard against heresy it is absolutely essential that the people understand every word being spoken. In addition to this worry there is the guy in the pew next to me: I don't know what he's saying, either, and he probably doesn't know what he's saying any more than I do, so who knows what in the world is the content of his mental state when he "participates" in a liturgy that he can't even understand. He might be thinking utterly heretical things while saying words he has no idea the meaning of.

These worries are misplaced. For one thing, I know for an absolute fact that people think heretical things about the Mass even when it's said in the vernacular in words they understand very well and even after having been educated about the Mass in a perfectly orthodox way. There simply is no necessary connection between heresy and understandability. A much more interesting worry is that folks in the pews will use classical instead of Italianate pronunciation for the Latin. I mean, let's get real here. People travel a great deal more these days than they did in the days of St. Pius V, so when I'm in France or Germany or China or wherever and I need to fulfill my Mass obligation I'm not going to hear the Mass in my vernacular just because I'm hearing it in somebody's vernacular, and it's in cases like these that the appeal of Latin really begins to be felt, because even if I did not understand Latin at all I bet I would understand the Mass better in Latin than if it were being said in Chinese. But even if I were deaf and could not hear the words at all, people who do understand the Mass (as opposed to the folks I mentioned at the start of this paragraph who don't seem to understand the meaning of the action even when they understand the words) will understand it even if the words are a total loss. One knows what is happening in the Mass by what is going on: where the priest is standing, what he's doing, what is happening on the altar. You do not need to understand the language to know what's happening in the Mass, so why not retain the traditional and normative Language?

Normativity is also important in this context. By sticking with the Latin text we avoid the many ICEL banalities that have become so ensconced in our culture that it's difficult to get even modest textual changes past the bishops on the grounds that it will "confuse the people", stupid morons that they are in this backwards, benighted country where everyone drops out of school in the fourth grade.

I think the vernacular becomes much more important as a consideration if we just drop all the intellectual pretense and admit that it's just a matter of preference. Once we admit that, then it does seem difficult to justify one preference over another, a preference for tradition and normativity over a preference for understandability. One way to approach this worry, however, is to consider the aesthetic side of the thing. As just about every commentator in the last twenty-five years has noted (with the exception of a few professional "liturgists", who obdurately stick to their guns in defending the beauty of such songs as "Rain Down" and other pieces of crap floating in the Glory and Praise cesspool), the vernacularistas have failed in the last forty years to produce anything like the beauty of the Latin traditional chant and song, whether congregational or choral.

Some professional "liturgists" insist that "traditional" is a relative term, that some folks think of, say, "Amazing Grace" or "Love Divine" as "traditional" songs simply because such things seem old to people who are in their 20s or 30s. On this kind of a calculus, the argument in favor of "traditional Latin" chant and hymnody appears to fall to the commonly heard objection "But at least I can understand the words to hymns like 'Love Divine'!" I say "appears" because, of course, this is just another version of the argument "We should do it in the vernacular because that's what I like better." But some people might "like" the apparently incomprehensible words of Latin chant better, and why should their preference be slighted? Indeed, before I knew any Latin at all I was listening to the great sacred music of composers such as Byrd, Bach, Mozart, and others, all of it in Latin and all of it magnificently, unsurpassedly beautiful. I didn't need to understand it to grasp its beauty, and grasping its beauty was just the first step for me on the way to grasping its truth. Of course, this can happen in vernacular settings as well. Once, in New York City, I attended a Mass said in Croation, and understood not a word of it, but it was quite beautiful nonetheless. But this is not so much an argument in favor of the use of the vernacular, but an argument in favor of the non-necessity of understandability as a condition on truth and beauty.

Participation is the great rallying cry of the post Vatican II generation, and a final worry to address is the question whether people will really be able to "participate" in the Mass if they can't understand its language. I note with some interest here that Fr. Kimel endorses, as do I, the ad orientem priestly orientation at the Mass. Once upon a time folks thought it would help the laity to "participate more fully and meaningfully" if they were to envision the Mass as a kind of conversation between them and Christ, or if they were to envision the Congregation, including the priest, as "gathered around" the alter, or if they were to envision the Mass as a kind of "banquet", with Christ as the "presider". In short, "participation" is like any other shibboleth: I can make it jibe with just about anything. Hearing the Mass in the vernacular enables you to "participate" more because you can understand what's happening? On the contrary, it give you opportunity to question the truth of every word you hear, thus destroying whatever "participation" you thought you had. Hearing the Mass in the vernacular enables you to "participate" more because you can understand what's happening? On the contrary, hearing it in Latin forces you to "participate" even more, because you have to be very alert to every little thing that is happening in order to know where you are in the Mass and what's going on. Hearing the Mass in the vernacular enables you to "participate" more because you can understand what's happening? Hearing it in Latin makes you part of a greater multitude of saints stretching back from today to the second century, when Latin was already itself the "vernacular", the "vulgate" or language of the vulgus (Latin for "crowd"). By participating along with this great multitude of faith and tradition by becoming one with them in language you "participate" in a much more important and meaningful way than merely by "understanding" the language in words for your own, private purposes. Our faith is one of symbols, indeed, we ourselves are imagines Dei, images of God; the use of Latin is far more symbolic than the vernacular could ever be in this sense.

One could go on and on with the demolition of the "participation" hoax, but there is no need: we won't see a return to Latin across the so-called Latin Rite any time soon, even if BXVI approves a general indult for the Mass of St. Pius V. Too many people have been swayed by their own indolence: it's certainly a lot easier to attend a Mass in the vernacular, and I think, dear reader, that you know as well as I do that it's not about "active participation" for most people, it's about getting in and out in less than 50 minutes without paying any more attention than one has to. For folks like that, folks that Fr. Al has rightly dubbed the "baptized pagans" of our parishes, it doesn't matter whether the Mass is in the vernacular or Latin or ASL or liturgical dance. Just get it over with.

But for the rest of us, for the folks for whom the Mass is the center of a life well lived here on earth, I see no reason not to reclaim the great glory of the Latin Rite: the Latin language and its liturgical trappings, including music, prayers, and much else. Like it would kill you to learn how to say a few words in Latin? Give me a break.


John Farrell said…
Man, you are on a roll! I agree with you completely. The German church in Boston's south end where I used to go to the Latin mass has been sold by the archdiocese. However, the church where it will now be held turns out to be a lot closer to my home.

So I'm looking forward to it.
Pastor Chad said…
I am not about to debate the arguments one way or another on using Latin for the mass. I just wonder how one particular vernacular, Latin, became standard practice. If we want to be traditional, should we use Greek, or Aramaic?

I agree on the beauty of the Latin over against most vernacular versions. I do not think we have the musical ability to match what has been created for the Latin.
Scott Carson said…
Pastor Chad

Thanks for your comment.

In my opinion, there is a stronger case to be made for Latin than for either Greek or Aramaic, though personally I would not object to the use of Greek. Of course, I understand Greek, too, so much of what I would say in defense of Greek would be the same as what I have already said in defense of Latin, and the objections to Greek would, I take it, be substantially the same as the objections to Latin.

The defense of Latin rests not on its being a quondam vernacular language in its own right that somehow became standard practice, but rather on the idea that it became standard practice at a very early point in the Church's history, and remained standard practice throughout the vast majority of that history, right up until about 40 years ago. From roughly the middle of the second century until roughly the middle of the 20th century--for 18 centuries--Latin was the liturgical language of the Church, whether or not anybody in the pews could understand or was even listening.

Now I don't know about you, but to me 18 centuries seems like kind of a long time. Maybe not so very long when weighed against, say, eternity itself, but when weighed against the overall temporal instantiation of the Church Militant, it's about 90%. So as far as traditions go, I'd say it's right up there in terms of permanency and universality, and those things matter a great deal.

People are fond of pointing out that the Church's unity lies in her doctrine, not her language or her liturgical practice, and I don't disagree with that. But elements of the tradition that are so ancient and so venerable ought not to be tossed off so lightly. My argument for the use of Latin in the liturgy is partly personal, partly aesthetic, partly Platonic. In my post I mostly address the reasons that have been adduced for getting rid of it, and I still think that my arguments have yet to be adequately answered. Put another way, I think that I can legitimately ask, "Why not use Latin in the Mass?" So far, the only answer people ever give is, "Because nobody understands it." If that answer goes away, what's left? As far as I'm concerned, that answer is already gone, so I'm waiting for the return of the Latin.

However, I will also add this, which I did not play up in my post. Latin is the language of the vast majority of the Latin Church's martyrs. Beginning with the Holy Martyrs of Rome in the mid-first century, right on through the martyrs of subsequent persecutions up until the seventh century, Latin was the language used to offer praises to God as the fires licked one's feet or as one's tongue itself was pulled out. To me, it is an important sign of solidarity with that witness to continue to lift my voice to God in the Latin language. That is why I pray the Office in Latin, and that is why I would like to at least have the choice of attending a Mass in Latin. John Farrell at least has a choice, though he has to drive a ways to get it. I can't even do that, since there no Latin Masses that I can get to without spending a night in a hotel in a city far from my home. With a family of four, that becomes a rather difficult thing to get done every weekend.

It's ironic, in a way, that some of the folks who defend the use of the vernacular are also proponents of greater choice in liturgy, and yet they seem rather intent on ruling out this particular choice, though for no good reason that I can see.

You may be right that we no longer have th musical ability to match the great Latin art of the past; all the more reason to draw upon that treasury, if true. But I think that plenty of folks can sing the stuff, so let's not be timid about dusting it off and giving it a try!

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