Is Latin a sacred language?
Liturgical book, mass order in Latin. Adobe Stock
It’s the ninth in a series of articles explore the gift and promise of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
In previous articles we have dealt with complex issues related to the sacred liturgy. As the series draws to a close, I want to turn to a particularly tricky question. Is Roman Rite Latin a sacred language? And related, should we use Latin more often in liturgical rites?
The importance of the Latin language for the development of Roman Catholicism is impossible to deny. Early Christianity lingua franca was Greek. But Christianity’s mission to all nations led to literature composed in other languages, including Syriac and eventually Latin.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Tertullian is responsible for developing a specifically theological language in the Latin language. Latin, as the language of the Roman Empire, made its way. Ambrose of Milan’s commentaries on the Eucharistic liturgy for the newly baptized testify to the richness of Latin liturgical language. By the dawn of the fifth century, the basic linguistic structure of the Roman canon (what we call Eucharistic Prayer I) had become normative.
The importance of Latin for Roman Catholicism increased as the Church spread throughout Europe. Liturgical books – called sacramentaries – were used in mission territories such as Frankish territories where Latin was not initially the native language. Many Latin prayers, as found in the post-conciliar Roman Rite, have their roots in the first millennium.
As a language, Latin allows for succinct thinking. The intensive use of the subjunctive in liturgical Latin is part of the theology of the rite. We do not demand things from God, but rather approach the triune God with proper reverence. Liturgical language is full of grammatical forms in which we ask God to deign to meet our needs. Courtly language, captured in Latin, is an integral part of the Roman rite.
Additionally, Roman Rite music is tied to the Latin language. The chant tones of the Roman Rite depend on the Latin text. Yes, you can translate the text, put it in English. But it’s hard to do.
By the end of the medieval period, it was clear that the language was developing again. The Roman Rite was celebrated in Latin, but there is evidence of a mixture of Latin and vernacular in popular literature. Christmas carols went back and forth from Latin to Old German or English. Preaching was increasingly done in the vernacular. And there were mass primers written in the vernacular, at least for the literate, intended to help lay men and women attend mass.
The use of the vernacular in the sacred liturgy would eventually become a point of contention during the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church, in fact, was aware that many rites had to be translated into the vernacular. Consent to marriage, for example, should be in the vernacular so that both parties can understand what they are getting into. But the Council of Trent also affirmed the use of Latin in the rites of the Church, in particular the Eucharist. Roman Catholics, one may be surprised to learn, were not alone in this. Martin Luther developed a Eucharistic liturgy in Latin which he expected to be celebrated in university contexts, where Latin was still the lingua franca.
A change of vernacular
The first liturgical movement of the 20th century never thought that the whole liturgy would be translated into the vernacular. People should learn the Latin of the liturgy, including the chants. But by the middle of the 20th century, at least some members of the liturgical movement, including H. A. Reinhold, argued for the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. It made sense because it allowed the richness of the Church’s prayer to be accessible to a wider audience.
The Second Vatican Council, as can be seen from the reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium, did not imagine a universal adherence to the vernacular either. This opened the door to bishops requesting more extensive use of the vernacular. Yet most bishops immediately requested the vernacular. After all, many bishops themselves were not fluent in Latin. And they received this authorization.
I’m happy. Learn the sacred liturgy in English — mine lingua franca — has been an integral part of my spiritual development. I can pray Father Noster in Latin, French, Greek, Syriac and English. But the language that is an integral part of my daily life, the one where I find the most meaning, remains English. This is my mother tongue. And praying the liturgy in my mother tongue allows me to commune with God in a way that touches the core of my being.
But we have not answered the fundamental question. Was the translation an abandonment of a sacred liturgy? I want to answer, no. Strictly speaking, Catholicism never asserted that one language was the “sacred”. Since the Word became flesh, lived in a specific time and space, we dare to affirm that any language is acceptable for the proclamation of the Gospel. We have never, it must be said, asserted that a single language is the “official” language of the Scriptures. The Bible is dependent on its original languages (Hebrew, Greek and even Aramaic). It has been translated into every known language, but that changes that it is the inspired word of God.
Thus, the translation of the sacred liturgy is not a rejection of a sacred language. English has a sacred register. Spanish has a sacred register. German has a sacred register. It is possible to pray in each of these languages to the living God.
At the same time, the post-conciliar Church may have forgotten the gift of Latin. Catholicism, as Henri de Lubac noted, is not just a religion. It is the bold affirmation that all mankind can find a place in Christ, that all are called to the Supper of the Lamb. We must join with one voice in praising the living God.
So isn’t there a wisdom in being able to share a common language with each other? Latin, after all, is our common language (at least in the Roman Rite). Each of us needs to indulge in a language like Latin, to learn what it means to sing to God, sanctus, sanctus, sanctus. When we come together in Church—especially in the United States, where there is a variety of languages—couldn’t we each dedicate ourselves to singing a common language that has been shared by the universal Church?
In fact, I wonder if our total rejection of Latin (our study of the language and our learning of church songs) has done more harm than good. Again, I’m not saying we should require Latin. But can’t we teach liturgical Latin in at least some of our academic contexts? Can’t children learn to sing Church songs, including Salver Regina and the various Propers of the Mass?
I hope. With the liturgy in the vernacular, now is a good time to train people in the Latin roots of the Roman Rite. Not because Latin is more sacred than any other language, but because Latin is a shared language in the Roman Catholic Church – a language in which we can all learn to lift our hearts to the living God.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.