Saturday, 16 April 2011

Why is Latin used as a sacred language?

In this post, I want to examine some of the reasons put forward by Catholic authorities before Vatican II for using Latin as a liturgical language.  I draw on three sources: a theological textbook entitled De Sacrosancto Missae Sacrificio by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (the future Pope Benedict XIV) published in 1755, Fr Nicholas Gihr's The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (1902) and the last great papal affirmation of the importance of Latin, Pope John XXIII's Veterum Sapientia (1962).


The reasons advanced for the use of Latin may be summarised as follows:

1.  It is unchanging.  By contrast, modern languages are constantly evolving, and changes of meaning would give rise to controversies or require constant revision.

2.  It bring about unity among Catholics.  Using a single language is conducive to the unity of the church and the unity of the liturgy.  By contrast, vernacular liturgies have been associated with heresy and schism.  More practically, a lingua franca enables Catholics to communicate easily with the Holy See and with each other.

3.  Its use is hallowed by age.  It links the church of the present day with the early church, and also with the church of the future.  It also enables Catholics to read the writings of the Fathers and magisterial texts of previous ages.

4.  It is not associated with a specific nation or people, and there is in any case no vernacular language that is of special authority that the church could use.

5.  It is precise, and it is difficult for translations to bring out the full sense of the original texts. 

6.  It is mysterious, like the Mass itself.

7.  It is noble and beautiful.  By contrast, many modern languages are "risible".

8.  It protects the Mass against being profaned.

9.  It veils the defects of the celebrating priest.

10.  It helps to maintain the faith unchanged, like liturgical conservatism generally.

11.  It is sanctified by being one of the languages of the inscription on the cross.

12.  The people would not follow the sense of a vernacular liturgy.


Here are the translations:

Benedict XIV, De Sacrosancto Missae Sacrificio

Indeed, what man of sound mind would give this advice, that, in order that the people be more fully instructed in the mysteries of the Mass - something which could easily be achieved by parish priests and holy preachers - that the Mass be translated from the Latin language into the common tongue, since there are so many common languages which are clearly risible and entirely to be scorned?  Moreover, there is not only no people, but scarcely any city which does not have its own language, and each language changes as the years pass....  It follows from this that whenever there was a change the opportunity would arise for numerous controversies and suspicions.  And, while the people would indeed understand the words of the Mass if it were translated into the common language, they would yet follow very little of the sense, and this would bring about innumerable errors....

....If the Church has retained the Latin language in the celebration of Mass over the length of so many centuries without anyone protesting, and there was never anyone (if one excludes the most recent times) who raised their voice and stirred up the people against this custom, there is thereby much authority for the custom....

It is therefore to be concluded that there is a constant and firm custom that the language of the Mass should not be changed, even if the language of the people changes.  Rather, Mass should be celebrated in that language in which it has been celebrated from the beginning, even if that language has died out among the common people and only learned men still have a knowledge of it....


N.Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (1902)

The Latin language is consecrated by the mystic inscription attached to the Cross, as well as sanctified by the usage of nearly two thousand years, and hence it is most closely interwoven with the primitive Roman Catholic liturgy of the holy Sacrifice. The inscription on the Cross : "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin (John 19.19, 20). These were the three principal languages of that epoch, and by divine dispensation they were, so to say, destined and consecrated on the Cross for the liturgical use of the Church.... In the first centuries these three languages were employed predominantly, if not exclusively, in the liturgical service....

....From the beginning of Christianity the sublime mystery of the Mass was celebrated, the sacramental means of grace were administered, God was glorified, men were sanctified and led to salvation in this language. It is without doubt elevating and inspiring to offer sacrifice and pray in the very language and in the very words, whose forcible yet sweet tones once resounded in the mouths of the primitive Christians and our forefathers in the dark depths of the Catacombs, in the golden areas of the ancient basilicas, and in the sumptuous cathedrals of the Middle Age. In the Latin language of divine worship innumerable saints, bishops and priests of all times have offered sacrifice, prayed and sung; in it the most magnificent liturgical formulas are composed, prayers of incomparable beauty.... Should not this ancient Latin language of divine service, so venerable and hallowed in its origin and use, be extremely dear and precious to us, so that we would not for any price give it up or be deprived of it at the celebration of Holy Mass?

...The Latin language is better suited than the languages of different countries to the celebration of divine worship, not only because it is very perfect, but furthermore because, as a so-called dead language, it has the incomparable merit of being at the same time unchangeable and mysterious. The genius of the Latin language possesses great perfection : it is distinguished for its dignity and gravity, clearness and precision, for its richness and euphony. It is, therefore, often difficult to render the complete sense, and still more difficult, and sometimes utterly impossible, to bring out in a translation the beauty, the strength, the dignity, the unction, the depth and the wealth of thought of the original Latin....

....As a so-called dead language, it is unchangeable, while the languages of the people undergo constant improvement and remodelling, and are ever liable to go on progressing and altering. What would become of liturgical books, if, with time and the changes of the vernacular, they were subjected to perpetual change and reconstruction? ...[I]t would be impossible to preserve and maintain uniformity of divine worship at different times among even one and the same people, much less throughout the world. All these inconveniences are obviated by the use of an unchangeable language for divine worship.... Since the Latin language has been withdrawn from daily life, from the ordinary intercourse of mankind, since it is not heard on the street or in the market-place, it possesses in the eyes of the faithful a holy, venerable, mystic character.... The celebration of this mystic Sacrifice fittingly calls for a language elevated, majestic, dignified and consecrated; religious sentiment demands this, and the Latin tongue answers this requirement. Just as the silent saying of the Canon, so also the use of a sanctified cult language, different from that of profane intercourse, points to the unfathomable and unspeakable depth of the mystery of the altar, and protects it against contempt and desecration. The majesty of the divine worship depends, indeed, chiefly on the devout, dignified and reverential demeanor of the celebrant; but the liturgical language contributes also its share thereunto, and a foreign language is suitable, in a measure, to veil the defects and repulsive routine of many a priest, and to prevent them from appearing so glaring....

...As a universal language of worship, Latin is an admirable means not only of presenting, but also of preserving and promoting the unity and harmony of the Church....

...The unity of the liturgy for all time and place can be perfectly maintained only inasmuch as it is always and everywhere celebrated in the same language. By the introduction of the various national languages, the uniformity and harmony of Catholic worship would be imperilled and, in a measure, rendered impossible. How beautiful and sublime is that uniform celebration of the Holy Sacrifice in the Catholic Church from the rising to the setting of the sun! Thus every priest is enabled to celebrate Mass, over the whole world, no matter what country he visits....

...The unity of the liturgical language and of the divine worship in the Church is, therefore, a very efficient means for preserving the integrity of faith.... [T]he more fixed, unchangeable and inviolable the liturgical formula of prayer is, the better it is adapted to preserve intact and to transmit unimpaired the original deposit of faith. Therefore, all the primitive liturgies proclaim and prove that our faith is in perfect harmony with that of the first ages of the Church.

...Unity of liturgical language and the consequent uniformity of divine worship form, finally, a strong bond for uniting indissolubly the churches dispersed all over the world, among themselves and with their common centre the Roman Church.... The bond of a universal language of worship, which embraces the head and the members of the Church, supports and promotes everywhere the unity and the common life and operation of the Church. History confirms this; for it proves that a difference of liturgies, that is, the introduction of national languages into the liturgy, frequently gave or threatened to give rise to heresy and schism....

[T]he use of the Latin as the common language for divine worship harmonizes perfectly with the essence, the object and the workings of the Catholic Church.... [S]he constitutes but one family of God, one kingdom of Christ, a kingdom not of this world, but exalted above every nation of the earth. Therefore, it is proper that the Church, when celebrating divine worship, when offering the divine Sacrifice, should make use not of the language of some one single country or nation, but of a language that is universal, consecrated and sanctified. Thus at the altar it is a figure of the heavenly Jerusalem, where all the angels and saints in unison (una voce) sing their "Holy, holy, holy" and Alleluja.


John XXIII, Veterum Sapientia (1962)

And since in God's special Providence this language united so many nations together under the authority of the Roman Empire - and that for so many centuries - it also became the rightful language of the Apostolic See. Preserved for posterity, it proved to be a bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe....

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.

Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin formal structure....

[The Church] further requires her sacred ministers to use [Latin], for by so doing they are the better able, wherever they may be, to acquaint themselves with the mind of the Holy See on any matter, and communicate the more easily with Rome and with one another....

[I]t seems particularly desirable that the instrument of mutual communication be uniform and universal, especially between the Apostolic See and the Churches which use the same Latin rite.

When, therefore, the Roman Pontiffs wish to instruct the Catholic world, or when the Congregations of the Roman Curia handle matters or draw up decrees which concern the whole body of the faithful, they invariably make use of Latin, for this is a maternal voice acceptable to countless nations....

Furthermore, the Church's language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings....

It is altogether fitting... that the language [the Church] uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular....

It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church's teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.


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