Is Latin Making a Comeback?

Latin is an excellent way to learn English.

Does that sound counter-intuitive?

It’s based on my own experience of studying Latin. I don’t know that I learned much Latin, but the study of it taught me the English language inside out. Studying Latin was a beneficial activity for me that I do not regret in the least.

Nothing gets arguments going like the subject of the Catholic Church and Latin. I’ve seen remarkably exaggerated comments from people on both sides of this discussion. To me, Latin is a language, and like every other language, it is a tool for communication. The Latin that we use today is easy stuff, mainly because it’s a dead language. That means it doesn’t have the burden of idioms from common usage to muddy it.

We basically use the Latin of the great Roman poets, not the every day Roman. It is simple and clear. For that reason, studying Latin is an effective prism for viewing a huge mess of a language like English. Latin allows the student to boil English down to its skeletal roots and see how it hangs together from the inside.

I’m not quite so enthusiastic about Latin as liturgy. I think it had a place once upon a time, and still has a place in a limited usage, even today. But the mass is more than the language in which it is prayed. The mass is communion and communication. It is prayer, worship, and mystery, all rolled into one.

Wrapping all this in a language that is inaccessible to most people can easily push the mystery over the edge into magic. The mass is many things, but it is not an incantation. The Eucharist, which is the sum total of the Church itself, is the point where heaven and earth meet. It is the simple and plain way in which ordinary people can reach out and touch the living Christ and, like the woman who touched the hem of His garment, be healed.

It is not a magic charm and it is not a superstition.

For many people the Latin mass deepened the mystery of the mass to the point that it became inaccessible. Rather than the reverence which proponents of the Latin mass feel and miss, it became something that verged on superstition for a lot of people.

Mass in the vernacular is an antidote for that. By making the mass accessible, it allows people who are willing to bring worshipful hearts to their mass attendance to enter into the upper room.

The mass is a re-creation of Calvary. It is where heaven and earth meet in the Eucharist which is given for all. As such, it should be both beautiful and accessible. That’s why  I dislike it when the liturgists load it down with ugly words like “consubstantial.” Not only is this language inaccessible to many people, it is flat-out ugly. I think that it challenges the reverence that the mass is due with this ugliness.

As for the question of whether or not Latin is making a comeback, I hope it is. Latin is a beautiful language. Studying Latin is a useful enterprise. The Latin mass should be an option for those who benefit from it and who grow spiritually by participating in it.

But the mass needs to be accessible. After all, the mass brings us into contact with a Savior Who spoke to us about rainfall and harvests, lost coins and wedding feasts. If He could be accessible, so should the celebration of His Body and Blood.

I know that those are fighting’ words. So now that I’ve said them I’ll back off and let the discussion begin.

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  • James E-Chip Stone

    Regarding your “fightin’ words,” I don’t see how anyone could dispute what you say here. Of course, Mass should be celebrated in the vernacular. Participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic Celebration is essential to our liturgical life.

    I don’t think that detracts one bit from the beauty of the Latin liturgy, which all Catholics should experience, and the better they understand Latin, the more beautiful and meaningful that experience will be. In fact, the new translation of the ordinary rite for celebrating the Eucharist is so much more meaningful to me now, because I was already very familiar with the “Novus Ordo” (a term many people object to nowadays) in Latin. I would not want to just attend Latin liturgies, but I still love them.

    There is so much to be gained from the study of Latin, I could probably write a book on it, so I’ll stop here. But if I could name one thing that would benefit most Catholics from understanding Latin better, it would obviously be a richer knowledge of their faith traditions through this ancient treasure that our Church has helped preserve (besides the ability to be able to understand Gregorian Chant when you hear it).

    Thanks for the post, Rebecca!

    • hamiltonr

      Thank YOU James !

  • Dale

    Hey, I studied Latin in high school, too! I can’t say I remember much of it, but agree that it helped my English. That might be true of studying any foreign language, since doing so requires that you take its structure apart and consider how it is put together. Doing so requires that we also think about the structure of our primary language. But, of course, many English words have Latin origins, so that is a bonus.

    As for the language of Mass, I think it is wonderful that we have the choice of Latin, or English or Spanish or possibly other languages (depending on where you live.) And for persons who travel the world, the possibility of Latin Mass might make attendance more comfortable, it that is what you are familiar with. Hooray for choice!

  • FW Ken

    From what I can glean, people who cared knew what was going on in the old days, and people who don’t care are clueless about the English liturgy. That said, I’m not a devotee of the Latin Mass, but I’m glad it’s there for people who are.

  • AnneG

    I’m glad we have Mass in the vernacular. I’ve never studied Latin, but have started learning because it really helps with grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary in most western languages. The most important thing, though, is our great font of history, Tradition and wisdom in Latin. I’m also glad there are masses available in Latin for those who prefer it. It really does get on my last nerve when people, almost always my age or older, refuse to use any Latin in liturgy, though.
    I’m glad some classical programs are bringing its study back.
    Btw, Rebecca, “consubstancial” is the word in Spanish and it isn’t ugly.

  • AnneG

    One thing I don’t like about Latin: declining nouns. Agreement of person and masculine, feminine or neuter, number and tense is enough. That’s why we did away with it in Spanish.

  • kenofken

    When I was studying anatomy and other aspects of biology, I came to regret that I hadn’t been taught at least a basic background in Latin. In anatomy in particular, I often see people fail because they’re struggling to stuff hundreds of “meaningless” exotic names for body parts into their memory. The same happens with species nomenclature in biology. Of course, they’re only meaningless arbitrary terms because we never learned the language. In Latin, they’r wonderfully descriptive (and memorable) names.

  • Sue Murphy Umezaki

    I also studied Latin all four years of high school (classical, not ecclesiastical – I went to public school, and wasn’t Catholic then, for that matter), and I think it was very valuable. It not only helped with English, but also helped immensely when I took on Japanese in college, and beyond. Having that Latin base has helped in my involvement in music over the years as well, and still helps in simply enjoying sacred music to this day.

    I am attracted to the Latin Mass, though I don’t have easy access to it here in Japan, but I really like the way you articulated the importance of having Mass in the vernacular. I can see that even more clearly living in a country where Latin is even farther removed from the vernacular language and the culture in general.

  • detroitsteve

    Even though the Jews of Jesus’ time mostly spoke Aramaic, didn’t they use Hebrew for their religious rites?

    The great historian of religion Mircea Eliade once spoke about the difference between sacred & profane spaces & the role language plays. I always felt an archaic language like Latin creates a greater sense of mystery & transcendence – some things are so vast that none of us can speak of it directly – but then I am an artist living in a world of facts that does not need art.


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