The liturgy was made for all people and languages, not just Latin.

(iStock/malerapaso)

As a linguist and historian, I heartily agree with Grace Spiewak (“Latin is not just for encyclicals. For all Catholics, it is our living history”) on the value of studying Latin or any classical language. But I take issue with conflating Latin with Catholicism writ large.

This is not an antiquarian quibble over words. It represents a mindset and a presumption that the Roman Catholic Church is just now beginning to recognize.

Advertisement

Latin is not the cultural legacy of “all Catholics.” Eastern Catholic churches struggle now more than ever to maintain an identity that the far larger and more prosperous Latin-speaking Roman church once sought to suppress by imposing its customs, liturgy and, yes, language.

Eastern Catholic churches struggle to maintain an identity that the far larger and more prosperous Latin-speaking Roman church once sought to suppress.

His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh, the patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church from 1947 until his death in 1967, was the standard-bearer of a struggle over the presumed universality of the church’s use of Latin. At the Second Vatican Council, Patriarch Maximos’s stirring interventions helped lead to the adoption by the Latin church of long-held Eastern Catholic practices. These included the use of the vernacular in public worship; eucharistic concelebration and Communion under both species (i.e., both the consecrated bread and wine); the permanent diaconate; and the establishment of what ultimately became the synods of bishops held periodically in Rome.

Before the opening of the council, Vatican insiders had determined that the proceedings would take place either in classical or modern church Latin. But Patriarch Maximos argued that the exclusive use of Latin reinforced a “ghetto-like insularity.” Was Vatican II to be merely a plenary council of the Latin church or truly ecumenical? In the end, the use of Latin was mandated at the council, but the patriarch was not deterred.

At the first session of the council, on Oct. 23, 1962, Patriarch Maximos gave an electrifying speech that set the tone for the Eastern Catholic battle against the one-sided, Latin-language understanding of the church. He adamantly refused to speak in Latin, referring to it as “the language of the Latin church but not of the Catholic Church” and certainly not of his church. (A detailed account of Patriarch Maximos’s participation in the council can be found in Saba Shofany’s The Melkites at the Vatican Council II).

Worship is something very different than work in the classroom. To be authentic, worship must be in a language people actually speak and understand.

Patriarch Maximos also refused to follow protocol and address “their eminences,” or the cardinals, before “their beatitudes,” or the Eastern patriarchs. In his ecclesiology, the patriarchs, as the heads of local churches, did not take second place to the cardinals, who were but second-rank dignitaries of the Latin church.

Most significant, he urged the West to allow vernacular languages in the liturgy, following the lead of the East, “where every language is, in effect, liturgical.” He concluded, in true Eastern fashion, that the matter should be left to the local churches to decide. No wonder it made international headlines. He was speaking a language that even journalists, baffled by obfuscating “clericalese,” could understand. Patriarch Maximos spoke simply and clearly—and he did so in French.

In any tradition, worship is something very different than work in the classroom; at least it should be. To be authentic, worship must be in a language people actually speak and understand.

Ms. Spiewak writes, “Far from stifling or limiting” ideas, the knowledge of Latin can “reinforce core values of self-motivation, communication and originality.” In fact, the opposite is true. The use of Latin presents serious drawbacks, including its inability to easily and accurately express matters related to the modern apostolate.

It is true that encyclicals are promulgated in Latin, but they do not begin life that way. Pope Francis is fluent in Latin, but when formulating what he intends to be the official teaching of the church, he writes in his native Spanish. Only then is the document handed over to Vatican translators who render it into Latin. The translations that follow are repeatedly checked against Francis’ original to ensure fidelity to the nuances of the Spanish. The fact is that no ancient language can hope to speak with the clarity or immediacy of a modern, native language. Even in Europe, the universality of Latin was always more ideal than real. While claiming to be universal, Latin failed to represent Christianity as it was actually lived on the local level.

I am a priest of the Syriac Maronite Church who has been deeply involved in the effort to fulfill the mandate of Vatican II to restore our tradition to its original integrity. It is a daunting process that includes not only rendering ancient liturgical texts into accessible English but removing entire swaths of interpolated texts imposed from the Latin West.

Meanwhile, it is no overstatement to say that we may be witnessing the disappearance of Christianity from the very lands of its birth. Pope Francis has responded to the crisis with courage that borders on heroism. But the struggle is not his alone. It is the responsibility of all of us to become better informed about the crisis facing Christians of all communions, especially those who look and pray differently than those of the dominant, Western culture.

There are countless benefits that accrue from the discipline and pleasure of learning ancient languages. Authentic worship is not one of them.

Michael Caggiano
6 days 14 hours ago

You speak of the Eastern Churches' moves to reclaim their proper traditions after the Second Vatican Council. This is right and venerable and to be encouraged. However, you go on to say:

"There are countless benefits that accrue from the discipline and pleasure of learning ancient languages. Authentic worship is not one of them."

How interesting that the Eastern Churches ought to strive to recover their ancient traditions, but the Latin Church's tradition of celebrating the Mass in Latin is poo-pooed. It is laudable that the East reclaims its tradition and reclaims its proper place in the Ecclesiology of the Universal Church. But also allow the Latin Church to retain the traditions which helped Her thrive in holiness.

William Guglielmi
6 days 11 hours ago

I have no issue with the use of Latin-provided it is done correctly in accordance with the norms of the Universal Church. Likewise, I have no issue with the use of the local languages provided the norms of the Universal Church are followed. I have attended excellent Latin, English, Italian, French, Byzantine and Swahili Masses. I have also attended (mostly in my pre-Vatican II youth) Latin Masses mumbled by priests whose ability to recite Latin had diminished overtime and, in the 1970s some really poor English Masses presided over by young and undisciplined priests. Both these situations seemed to have been alleviated by Bishops actually using their authority to ensure adherence to Universal Norms. Frankly, I see the ‘traditionalist’ argument that only Latin can be a liturgical language as rather sophomoric since Greek was the first universal language of the Mass. I do not mean to imply that your well stated views are sophomoric - I don’t disagree with your basic construct. I was just laying out a more detailed argument in advance of comments I fear will soon follow.

Ron Martel
4 days 21 hours ago

Excellent comment. Thank you

David Madsen
6 days 11 hours ago

I would argue as well that Latinized English is equally inappropriate in the liturgy. Neologisms and antiquated vocabulary (e.g. oblation for the equally Latinate word offering) leave even native English speakers in the dark. If we are to celebrate in the vernacular, let it truly be vernacular and not a stilted "Latenglish."

Oz Jewel
6 days 11 hours ago

When God as Jesus ascended into heaven after accomplishing His task of earning a pathway for any in the fallen world to use to be reconciled to His Father, the Holy Spirit manifested at Pentecost.

With clarity, the Good News was announced in "diverse tongues".

The vernacular was chosen by God and the evidence would point to His choice being unchanged.

Daniel Malone Jr.
3 days 21 hours ago

On the contrary everyone heard each other in their own language. Don’t forget the diversity of languages was a PUNISHMENT from God. The universal Church requires a universal language.

Daniel Malone Jr.
3 days 21 hours ago

On the contrary everyone heard each other in their own language. Don’t forget the diversity of languages was a PUNISHMENT from God. The universal Church requires a universal language.

Alexander Duvall
3 days 5 hours ago

Correct statement, false conclusions. Everyone heard each other in their own language. They didn’t all start speaking and understanding Latin. Possible valid lesson: we must transcend our linguistic and cultural differences in order to come to appreciate what each of us brings (and God intends to bring through us), and to come to glorify God as we come to recognize the same Spirit at work in us all in the same Faith, and in the same Body of Christ... in spite of the reality of the curse. The Apostles didn’t teach of the importance of all of us speaking in the same language. You know how I know that? Because the Apostles went a lot of places, and in those different places, we’re not all speaking and worshiping in the same language as in all the other places. Honestly, Greek has greater precedent for universality in the ancient Church than Latin, but the Greeks don’t superimpose Greek on everyone.

There are several things that God originally used as punishment that are now become blessings.... in fact as Catholics, do we not consider it a blessing to bear our crosses in humility and glorify the Lord with them? So that even things that would otherwise be a curse (and admittedly still are) still become means for our sanctification.

We won’t have a universal language until the New Jerusalem, when we are at last able to speak what language we had before the curse was given, I’d imagine... though I still get the sense that we’ll know the languages that we knew before. I do know one thing though... the universal language probably isn’t Latin. I mean, who knows? We don’t know what the original language was like. But I’m going to make a reasonable guess and guess that it probably wasn’t Latin.

And right now? It doesn’t require a universal language, because there are translators. ... and be careful here, are you suggesting that Eastern Catholics that have always used Greek, even before the Roman Church used Latin, need to start doing our Liturgies in Latin? No Pope has ever suggested such an absurd thing. No offense, it’s just not traditional. Maybe you think it is. But it’s not. I praise God that the Popes have not forgotten us, even though many who are members of the Roman Church think that the ways that Rome does it is the only way to do it, and the changes that the Roman Church adopted (culminating in the Tridentine Mass) is the only way to do it for the whole Church. ...The most traditional Popes never banned our Liturgies, which are much older... and of great antiquity... practiced in the times of some of the earliest Ecumenical Councils. Nor did any Pope force us to say our Liturgies in Latin... nor was it ever required by any Pope or regarded as a term for reunion of the Greeks that they adopt the Tridentine Form. And I’m going to go out of my way to say that they never will do either of those things. Because in spite of what you may think, this idea you appear to have of “tradition” just isn’t traditional. It’s false piety. It may have been cute in some ages, when it was kissing up to your Patriarch who happens to also be the Pope, but when you have to be around other Catholics and Orthodox who aren’t Latins, it’s really ugly and damaging to everyone involved. It destroys charity, it disregards tradition, and it divests the Body of its many different types of members that build up and maintain a healthy Body, not damage its cohesion. Unity is not uniformity. Unity in uniformity is a statue. Granted, not all non-uniformity is life. Living non-uniformity is very particular and very finely tuned... but just like the Creation of organic lifeforms, so also the ecclesial lifeform that is the Bride of Christ is also shaped and molded by the Spirit from the dust of the earth, and made into a complex living organism. One part of the Body trying to make other parts of the Body what it is divests the Body of its benefits, its health, and at worst, its very life.

John Walton
6 days 9 hours ago

While I agree w Dr. Amar, my personal experience still leaves me in awe of the Latin liturgy, 8 years of Dominicans and 8 years of Jesuits. My wife is perennially irritated when we recite the Apostle's Creed and I use the present tense of "is seated" -- I think Jesus, as an equal tripartite, sat himself and was not passive in his selection of arrangements.

Ron Martel
4 days 21 hours ago

That’s very acceptable but may not be for everyone.

Kenneth Wolfe
6 days 8 hours ago

Another example of most of the Saints (from Ignatius of Loyola to Francis Xavier to Robert Bellarmine) doing it all wrong for so many centuries, this time on liturgical language. Good thing we have the “mandate” of Vatican II to “fulfill” so there is no trace of anything that connects the Church of Today to any time before the 1960s.

William Guglielmi
6 days 6 hours ago

Mr. Wolfe, you response is one of those I lamented about above. Do you truthfully believe that today’s Church has no connection with anything prior to the 1960s or are you exaggerating to reinforce your obvious view that Vatican Ii got nothing right. If you truly hold that the Church has no connection with the past I must vigorously disagree. If you are merely exaggerating I would disagree but somewhat less strenuously. The post-Vatican Church is the same Church that was founded by Christ. The deposit of faith resides in it as much today as in 1959. The Humans who led the Church have made errors since the First Century and will continue to do so until the ends of time. The Eucharist, the Trinity, and the other tenets outlined in the ancient Creeds remain. This, not what liturgical language is used what is important. Your reference to three great Jesuits reinforce my views. Each of these great saints made errors; Ignatius ran afoul of the Inquisition, Xavier was criticized for ordaining native clergy, and Bellarmine was less than solid concerning Copernican cosmology. Yet, each achieved canonization.

Daniel Malone Jr.
3 days 20 hours ago

While yes the post Vatican II Church is the same Church founded by Christ it does not change the fact that your article is entirely wrong. Everything about to Traditional Latin Mass is superior to the new mass up to and including the language. Why was it the Protestants who first put the mass in the vernacular? And the Protestants who said their masses facing the people? And communion in the hand? These are abuses. If you look at the changes the reformers made to the mass it’s the same changes that were made later at Vatican II and post Vatican II. You may be able to fool liberal lukewarm Catholics but this young new generation can clearly see the superiority of the Latin Mass.

I mean our Church is dying. More and more leave the faith and Churches are closing. A mere 1/3 of CHURCHGOING Catholics believe in the real presence. How can this be? That’s a key element of our faith. The fact is the only place Catholicism is striving is where tradition is. God have mercy on your soul.

Alexander Duvall
3 days 6 hours ago

A big part of the problem with what you’re saying (please justly consider what I’m saying, even with the presence of my directness, and please don’t try and put me, or any other Eastern Catholic, in a box without first hearing us out completely... I am theologically very conservative... and if you look at our Liturgy... we aren’t liberals (or at least maybe most of us aren’t (we Byzantine Catholics don’t even use instruments in Liturgy)... I’m not liberal... so don’t categorize me or what I’m saying before you finish ... because I’m going to say things here that liberal Roman Catholics say, but I’m not using this as they use it... just because someone uses facts to lead to false conclusions doesn’t mean the facts are incorrect... Though, yes, there are factual inaccuracies held by many used to advance their agendas... Anyway, just get to the bottom of what I say before you categorize and discount what I’m saying or stop reading because you think you know where I’m going).) is that capital “T” Tradition doesn’t look like the developments in the Latin Church, whenever they happened . Getting rid of the permanent diaconate, restricting the Eucharistic Wine to the clergy, among other things are novelties. Apostolic Tradition knew nothing of these novelties. (I’m not saying they compromise the essentials of authentic Faith, just that they’re not the *most* traditional practice in the sense of Apostolic and universal practice of the Church for the first good number of centuries.)

Your opposition to Eastern Catholic perspectives is misplaced. I think you think we’re liberal, we’re not. Objectively-speaking, we’re the more traditional ones. I mean, if you really look at it... you all are the ones that changed everything (still love you all, and think that your developments can enrich the Church in seeing you all’s unique ways of approaching Church life... but you all’s perspectives and practices can’t be forced on the whole Church... and capital “T” Tradition should be preserved before regional developments in lower ‘t’ traditions built upon the foundation of Tradition with the capital ‘T’))... Something that we have to be careful of is regarding the novelty as traditional... it doesn’t matter how long it was practiced in any section of the Church... it doesn’t make it older or universal... anyone suggests returning to the *original* traditions actually practiced by the Apostles is regarded as the person of novelty... but it’s really quite the opposite.

The Roman Church used to say the Mass (before it was called “the Mass”) in Koine Greek, before it was “translated into the more-vernacular Latin”. The “Kyrie eleison” is a remnant of this in the Latin Mass. I’m not suggesting the Roman Church return to the original Greek, used by the Apostles for Scripture and the liturgical life of the Church in a lot of places... for the Koine was itself a usage of the most common language in the Roman Empire. That’s why the Scriptures were written in that language. If they wanted to be so focused on preserving the original language of the Church... the Apostles would have never left the Hebrew.

And using what Pontus Pilate had written above the Cross as basis for using Latin and Greek in addition to the Hebrew is a terrible argument. So a non-Christian, non-Jew, Pagan is making liturgical decisions on behalf of the Church now? Come on!

...ultimately, yes the Latin Church should seek to preserve and be faithful to the good that it has developed... and that the Roman Church has preserved the Latin Mass as a reality is good.

...But, please promise me that you will *never* again equate lower-case ‘t’ Latin traditions with capital ‘T’ Apostolic Traditions. The celibacy requirement to become a priest in the Roman Church for instance (I value it, and I am not suggesting that the Roman Church leave it... and nor am I of the view that that will fix any problems... in fact due to illiteracy of the authentic Tradition of the Church, it may function to promote actual novelties that are certainly inconsistent with Apostolic Tradition...)—what I mean by mentioning this is the danger of calling the development “Apostolic” or calling it “Tradition” with a capital “T”... Conflating Latin developments at *any* point in time, in the Middle Ages or at the Second Vatican Council with capital “T” Tradition is dangerous.

Please acknowledge that. Because otherwise we’re creating a sense of a break when there are dynamic developments in general practice.

Yes, there are those who used the Second Vatican Council’s changes as license to depart from the deeply held teachings of the Church, and in some case from the way that the Catholic Church as a whole has always taught and practiced. We as Eastern Catholics are not condoning those things. We are as adamantly opposed to those things as you are. But we see some things that happened as actual returns to /earlier/ tradition... more faithful to the way things were before things went crazy, and different sections of the Church ran different directions. Love you. But please take what we say with a grain of salt.

John Mack
6 days 7 hours ago

In the early centuries Latin or Greek (or some version of them) were the language of the Christian peoples. So wahy has it come to be that some people residt uisng the language of the common people? There is a tendency among some Christians towards a kind of idolatry. the belief that the Incarnated Christ was frozen at some period of history (preferably in the past) or in some social or economic class.

jckedari2002@yahoo.co.in
6 days 7 hours ago

LITURGY IS THE WORK AND WORSHIP OF THE CHRISTIAN ASSEMBLY,AND EVERY WORD AND ACTION OF THE PRAYERS AND ACTION MUST BE UNDERSTOOD BY THE CONGREGATION, NEEDLESS TO SAY THAT THE LANGUAGE USED IN THE WORSHIP MUST BE KNOWN TO THE PEOPLE, LATIN IS A BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE BUT IS NOT THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE BY THE WHOLE WORLD, SO KEEPING ITS BEAUTY, WE NEED TO VERNACULARIZE IT AND BRING IT DOWN TO THE COMMON MAN WITH MUCH CARE AND REFINED LANGUAGE OF THE PEOPLE. JOHN KEDARI

Michael Caggiano
5 days 22 hours ago

I respectfully disagree that "Every word and actions... must be understood by the congregation". This implies that children, and those with mental difficulties are not able to participate in the Liturgy, when as baptized parts of the body of Christ they clearly can.

Ron Martel
4 days 21 hours ago

In your humble opinion

Vincent Gaglione
5 days 23 hours ago

I have no idea when Latin became the standard language of the Roman Church. But that is irrelevant to the fact that the Eucharist in the earliest Church was celebrated by Christians of various communities in various languages, most likely in the vernacular of those languages, the languages of common peoples – Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and whatever else was spoken by whomever else may have joined the Christian communities. The Catholic Church was not created in the Middle Ages in princely courts and cathedrals, rather in some of the slums of the ancient world by people that many “good” Catholics today might find reprehensible with whom to sit in a pew, eh?

Judith Gerharz
2 days 22 hours ago

We live still in the long shadow of the Motu Proprio of Pope St. Pius X on Sacred Music where the proper language for the Roman Church is Latin and the proper music for the sacred liturgy is Gregorian chant. That was Pius's rallying cry at a time much different from ours. Should we go back there? It is a classic journey. Take the stage to the train station. Take the train to the harbor city. Take a steamer to Rome.

Judith Gerharz
2 days 22 hours ago

We live still in the long shadow of the Motu Proprio of Pope St. Pius X on Sacred Music where the proper language for the Roman Church is Latin and the proper music for the sacred liturgy is Gregorian chant. That was Pius's rallying cry at a time much different from ours. Should we go back there? It is a classic journey. Take the stage to the train station. Take the train to the harbor city. Take a steamer to Rome.

Hugh McLoughlin
23 hours 19 min ago

You assert: "His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh, the patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church from 1947 until his death in 1967, was the standard-bearer of a struggle over the presumed universality of the church’s use of Latin." This, quite frankly, is nonsense. Maximos IV was not involved in any campaign to diminish the use of Latin. He had no interest in what happened in Latin-rite liturgies. He was merely concerned with preserving Eastern-rite liturgy, ecclesiology and culture. He did not lead the campaign for the introduction of the vernacular into the Latin-rite.

In his Introduction to “The Melkite Church at the Council”, the late Fr Robert Taft SJ (himself a Melkite and also a friend and colleague of my late friend, Fr Clarence Gallagher SJ, Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute 1990-95) wrote: “At Session I of the Council, Maximos’s electrifying opening speech on October 23, 1962, set the tone for the Melkite onslaught on the one-sided, Latin vision of the Church. He refused to speak in Latin, the language of the Latin Church, but not, he insisted, of the Catholic Church nor of his. He refused to follow protocol and address ‘Their Eminences,’ the cardinals, before ‘Their Beatitudes,’ the Eastern patriarchs, for in his ecclesiology patriarchs, the heads of local Churches, did not take second place to cardinals, who were but second-rank dignitaries of one such communion, the Latin Church.”

John Zupez
14 hours 52 min ago

The dividing issue is whether we are in Church to impact God (propitiation) or to consciously absorb the meaning of what is said and so ourselves be the ones impacted (expiation), Isn't this what divides us, more than we advert to in arguing each from our own point of view. It all goes back to St. Jerome's translation of the Greek word "hilasterion": did Trent rule out the possibility that this was a mistake? (Also, a small point but is Pope Francis writing in "Spanish" or in his native Portuguese?)

Advertisement

The latest from america

There’s nothing wrong with setting a particular practice aside for a time and trying something else. Maybe you could pray with the psalms. Or maybe take a book of spiritual reflections and let that invite you into prayer. Or maybe you could just sit quietly in God’s presence.
James Martin, S.J.August 19, 2019
A Mass for young adults on Dec. 7, 2016, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
All youth counselors should be aware of this connection.
Jane Cooley FruehwirthAugust 19, 2019
‘Blinded by the Light’ captures the angst and joy of being a teenager.
Kerry WeberAugust 16, 2019