Ancient Languages

I am still on a steep learning curve about the attraction of the Latin language in the liturgy.

I suggested that the liturgy was originally put into Latin so that more people could understand it, and wondered if the fact that it was in Latin today didn’t rather defeat that original purpose.

Someone was good enough to correct me and point out that the original Latin liturgical language was not the ‘vernacular language of the street’ but a form of courtly and formal Latin. I liked that explanation, because its nice to know that they chose a good type of language for the liturgy, but the answer didn’t really answer my main point because even if it was courtly language, the liturgy was still put into Latin so more people could understand it–not fewer, and the fact that not many people understand Latin around the world today seems to defeat the purpose. If we were to follow that line of argument today wouldn’t we use something in English speaking countries like Elizabethan English? For that matter, shouldn’t we use the Anglican Usage which is derived from Cranmer’s English?

Another reason Latin was to be preferred, I was told, was because Latin is more ‘mysterious’ and that Latin is better because, if you can’t understand it the Mass is more reverent and awesome.

This didn’t seem like a very good argument to me, and it turns out that those who hold this view are incorrect. The real reason Latin is better is a much more academic and intriguing argument. It has now been explained to me that Latin is better because it is one of the three ancient ‘sacred’ languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. If I understand it correctly the argument goes like this: “the incarnation took place at a particular place and time in history, and many things came together which were perfect in God’s timing. Galatians 4.4 says, “in the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, born of a woman.” Part of this ‘fullness of time’ was the fact that at this time these three ancient languages came together in one culture. Hebrew was the language of the Old Testament. Greek was the language of the New Testament, and Latin was the language of the sacred liturgy, and was to become the sacred language of the Church.

It is better therefore to have the liturgy in Latin.

Now I must be a total goofball still not to see the point, but this intriguing argument only raises more questions for me. For the argument to be convincing, shouldn’t it be consistent? Shouldn’t we therefore read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament readings in Greek?

If these three languages were so sacred, why did Jesus speak Aramaic? Shouldn’t Aramaic be one of the sacred languages? Indeed, when I go to celebrate Mass with my Maronite friends (who have a most ancient and venerable liturgy) they tell me with pride that the canon of their rite is in Syriac, which, they explain, is a dead language that is very close to, and derived from, Aramaic. Therefore, they say, glowing with an admirable pride, “It is only the Maronite liturgy in which the canon is said in the same language the Jesus himself said the words of consecration.”

Then I discovered that the Chaldeans also take pride in their most ancient liturgy which doesn’t use Syriac, but actually uses Aramaic, the same language that Our Lord spoke.

With what I’ve learned so far, if I’m voting for an dead, ancient language in the liturgy, the Maronites and Chaldeans get my vote.

You can see how confusing it all gets! Shawn Tribe over at New Liturgical Movement is pretty good on this stuff. Maybe he can shed some light on it all.

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  • Tom

    There are actually good reasons to use dead languages for some things. The UK patent office uses a specialised version of English called “Patentese”, which their employees have to learn. Its words are all English, but don’t exactly correspond to their current English meanings. The reason for this is so that you can have a prose description of something that has a definite, fixed legal meaning. Similarly with Vatican official communiques in Latin. It’s a fixed reference point, from which one can translate into one’s own vernacular. Theological debates are (obviously) still there, but you don’t have to worry about confusion of connotation or even denotation between one language and another, or even between one time period and another (during the 18th century, the word “nice” switched meaning from good to bad so often that when reading 18th C correspondence nowadays it is impossible to be sure which is meant). Why Latin for Mass? The principal appeal for me is that, again, it’s a worldwide standard. One can keep up with Mass no matter what the language in terms of knowing which bit you’re up to. But I can only participate in the Mass and get the words right in English, French, Italian, Latin or Mandarin – plus Portuguese and Spanish if I’ve got a missal to follow. In Cantonese, I’ve no idea, so that single Latin Mass on the list for Sunday is very valuable to me when I don’t speak the local language. I certainly wouldn’t want the Latin Mass to *replace* the local vernacular, but one a week? It’s very handy for many people.

  • James

    Attaboy – now you’re getting somewhere!In fact, Syriac and Aramaic are the same thing and they are both forms of Hebrew.Aramaic was chosen for liturgy because it was the language that our Lord Himself spoke. It was not chosen becuase it was the vernacular because, as I pointed out in one of the posts you deleted, the most popular spoken language in Roman Palestine at the time was Greek not, as Mel Gibson’s otherwise excellent film shows, Latin and Aramaic. Latin was really confined to the Roman army and Aramaic to the Jews. But the language of business and day-to-day affairs was Greek.The New Testament was written in Greek, moreover.Thus the “it was just the vernacular” argument won’t wash.These languages were chosen because they were, and are, sacred.The traditional Roman rite, the oldest in the world, was originally in Greek with some Aramaic touches. Some Eastern liturgies, however, retained the Aramaic.Up until the liturgical revolution of the 1970s, the primary languages of liturgy remained Hebrew, Greek and Latin and the vernacular was a rare exception and, by then, only archaic versions of the vernacular were used regularly e.g. Old Slavonic for the Ukrainians and Russians and old Croatian for the Glagolitic rite.True, there had been some German renderings of the Mass in the 1930s but these (and others like it) were experimental not regular.James.

  • James

    I should add, to be fair, that old Slavonic and old Croat are still understandable by modern Ukrainians and Croats, even though archaic forms.But they are understood by them as a sacred language now, perhaps a bit like the archaic English of the 1662 English rite.The Church has always been willing to make vernacular exceptions where there is a driving pastoral necessity which does not mean that a few trendy Americans would like it but rather that the Emperor of Kievan Rus’ would refuse any toleration of Christianity without it and would kill Christian missionaries.THAT’S what “pastoral necessity” means!It does not mean pandering to the fancies of jaded Westerners who have long since lost any understanding of liturgy and can’t be bothered with the Latin.James.

  • When i was at school..age 11-18 we had the opportunity to learn Latin. Much to my regret i chose not to study it going round saying ‘it’s a dead language’. It was me who was dead! Nowadays i got to 2 Benedictions & a weekly Latin Mass & with all the major Feast Days being in the Solemn Latin rite or extraordinary/Tridentine.i love hearing my little boys 8 & 10 singing at the top of their voices ‘Adoramus in ateurnam’.. swinging the i expect what i’m saying is the Latin Mass has a rare beauty. On weekdays we go to the Low Mass…

  • Dear Fr. Longenecker,Perhaps this will not answer the question you ask, and I’m trying not to be glib, so please forgive me if it sounds that way.If one goes back to Sacroscanctum Concilium and reads it, it says that “Latin is to be retained in the Latin liturgy.”In 99 percent of all parishes in the West, this is not the case. Even in places where they use the ordinaries in Greek (Kyrie) and Latin, this does not occur at daily Mass, although I have been to a few that have.In other words, the Latin thing is all about obedience to the Second Vatican Council. That and “Gregorian chant is to be given pride of place in the Sacred Liturgy.”Again, a matter of obedience to the Council. For me, it is simple as that. There are many other good reasons also, but I will leave obedience as the key one that I will cite.

  • Father,I find this whole conversation very interesting. Aside from the liturgical part of things language is interesting. In the Orthodox Church in this country we are going through a similar situation. We want the church to grow but at the same time we want to cling to the past. Although my church is Romanian no one speaks Romanian any more. If I was to swtich back to Romanian I would loose all but me and my cantor. Small church gets even smaller. Okay I can see the argument to return to the old rite but why not serve it in English? Why use a lnaguage that no one will understand? I agree that some of our brother clergy are horrible liturgists, but is this going to make it better? Some food for thought.

  • If you’re a complete goofball, so am I. None of these reasons make the least amount of sense.Only valid reason I can see is that it’s an important part of the Church’s tradition, and should be used and reverenced as such. Saying it’s better is just plain foolishness.

  • bernadette

    I think what people might have meant by “mysterious” was “mystical” , which is different and I do think that is also a consideration in favour of Latin. Yes, the historical and academic reasons for favouring it are foremost in preferring it as the language for the Mass but I don`t like to dismiss the mystical as well… it`s very important because our human intellects, however great, can`t grasp or explain it all.

  • Anonymous

    Father: Keep in mind that Jesus our High Priest was all but silent in the Crucifixion. When He did speak, He didn’t forbear to include the use of a sacred language not understood by most of His hearers. This strikes me as not irrelevant.Romulus

  • Fr. Peter and Fr. Longenecker,Again, with all due respect. We don’t have to figure it out from our personal preferences.As obedient Catholics, all we have to do is follow what the Chorch an Council teaches.

  • Anonymous

    One other point: to obsess about “understanding” in the context of liturgy is to a great degree begging the question, namely that what’s taking place at the altar ought to be comprehensible in the first place. It’s a Protestant obsession, a reduction of theology to whatever passes through an evangelical filter. In her recourse to signs to convey transcendent truths not reducible to plain speech, the Church is only following the example of our Lord, who, scripture informs us, never taught the people except in parable. I readily concede that I don’t understand the Incarnation or the Atonement or transubstantiation. I don’t really understand God’s perfect simplicity, nor what it means for me to be transformed into that image. A God we could understand, Flannery O’Connor reminds us, would be less than ourselves.Romulus

  • Anonymous

    Fr. Longenecker,Latin is the traditional language of the Latin-rite churches. And the Catholic Church has its own history and culture, which she wishes to preserve. As Joseph Ratzinger points out in his book, Truth and Tolerance:”Anyone entering the Church has to be aware that he is entering a separate, active cultural entity with her own many-layered intercultural character that has grown up in the course of history. Without a certain exodus, a breaking off with one’s life in all its aspects, one cannot become a Christian [or convert to Catholicism from fundamentalism or Evangelicalism]. Faith is no private path to God; it leads into the people of God and into its history. God has linked himself to a history, which is now also his history and which we cannot simply erase (Truth and Tolerance, p. 71).”The history of the People of God is not a matter of archaeologism. Neither is it a matter of picking your favorite ancient language. You have decided to become a member of a living faith with a living history and a traditional, sacral, liturgical language. That is why Latin is relevant and important and makes a difference to Catholics and not some other ancient language.Janice

  • James

    Go Jackie! I’m with you on this one, girl. I love hearing the kids sing the Latin, too. It’s truly beautiful.Fr Peter, I agree that you shouldn’t switch back to Romanian since that is really a vernacular.As you know, after the Romanian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia formed the modern state of Romania, the hierarchy of the Orthodox churches of the former principalities (the Metropolitanate of Ungrovlahia and the Metropolitanate of Moldavia), in 1872, decided to unite to form the Romanian Orthodox Church.In the process, they canonically separated from the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Romanian Orthodox Church declared autocephaly. In the same year a separate synod was constituted.The Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1885. It became a Patriarchate in 1925, when the ranks of the Romanian Orthodox Church grew following the formation of Greater Romania.Thus the ancient liturgical language of your Church is really Greek.If you went back to that, I suspect you would get more, not less, people!James.

  • Janice, Excellent and well said!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you very much, Brian.Janice

  • The best reason I’ve heard in favor of the use of Latin is that it is a “dead” language–it is no longer changing or evolving. Unlike English, where we have ICEL and every English speaking bishops conference battling over every little word, what it means, on and on. Latin saves us from this problem. And, as a former Anglican, worshiping with anything written by Cranmer just really rubs me the wrong way. Sorry.

  • As a “young fogey”, aged 23, I have a few simple reasons for wanting Latin. I grew in Bishop Tod Brown’s favorite parish. The pastor of Corpus Christi used to be the auxiliary. After a lifetime of pop guitar masses, I went to a real one with chant. The people at my old parish insist that their way is “more fun.” I absolutely hate the disrespect that is constantly shown for Mary and the Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament at parishes like this.I want Latin because the liberal headcases won’t be able to pervert it the way they have the Novus Ordo.I also think many people here are missing the whole concept of “reverence” and that a little guitar-free silence and Gregorian chant might go a long way towards fixing that.Also, many people here have studied some Spanish, which helps immensely in understanding the Latin.In any case, there is a hope that a wider practice of the original mass might inform the Novus Ordo and make it what the Council intended.

  • It might be worth noting that, in Summorum Pontificum, the Holy Father doesn’t seem to have been concerned with whether Latin was better than the vernacular; he was concerned with establishing that Latin is a language with a legitimate role in Catholic liturgical life. I find many of the arguments advanced above (worldwide standard, obedience to the Council, depth of tradition, informing the Novus Ordo) quite convincing as arguments that Latin is a legitimate language for Catholic liturgical use, and not very convincing at all as arguments that Latin is superior (for Catholic liturgy) to all other languages.The major argument I see above that is truly an argument for Latin superiority—the sacred-languages argument—is one that I simply don’t follow. But it’s also answering a question that the Holy Father doesn’t seem to have asked.Peace,–Peter

  • I agree with you Peter. Thanks for an intelligent and incisive comment.

  • Andrew

    The question of whether Latin is better or worse than vernacular is irrelevant. Latin is efficient in a way that English could never be but it also lacks such simple tools as the definite article. Both are good, beautiful languages.We should preserve Latin and retain its use in the liturgy because it is the language which unites us dearly with our Fathers and with our tradition. We do not use Latin because it is an objectively ‘better’ language. Because of its history, Latin is and should be the primary language of the Church and granted pride of place, as the Council says.

  • Jameson

    I’m a youngin’, 24, and one of my favorite things about liturgy in Latin, whether ordinary or extraordinary, is the sense of communion. Not the cliched communion of the community standing around, but the communion of saints. I feel a lot closer to St. Thomas when singing “adoro te” or “tantum ergo” and to St. Ambrose when singing “te deum” and to all the saints of the west when hearing the beautiful, simple Latin of the vulgate, which all of them knew. And being closer to the saints is, as the Church has always taught, a pretty good way of getting closer to God.

  • The Armenians, both Catholic and Orthodox also use the ancient form of their language for the Divine Services. The music (most of it chant) is also quite beautiful.