St. Paul and the Latin Mass: From March 3, 1962

IT IS an intriguing thought that St. Paul, who had so much advice and instruction to lavish on his converts, may also have his contribution to make concerning our modern debate on "sacral language" vs. the vernacular in the liturgy: in specific terms, Latin vs. English.Not that the problem presented itself to St. Paul in terms in which we know it: there had not been time for the centuries-long process by which a one-time everyday vernacular had (merely by remaining unchanged) become an unintelligible sacred tongue. But there was an analogous rivalry, in at least some of the early Christian communities. This was the competition between the "speakers-with-tongues" and the "prophets."

The former raved ecstatically, uttering sounds which did not correspond to any existing human language, but which nevertheless were the effect of their possession by the Spirit and expressive of the beauty and glory of God—for which ordinary language was simply inadequate. The latter equally praised God, but used the language of every day familiar to the congregation; their acclamations, implicitly at least, included instruction and exhortation.


In comparing the two charismata, St. Paul unhesitatingly recommends the second, and precisely for pastoral reasons. He does not question the validity and beauty of the first; but he makes short work of the argument that, after all, God understands the "tongue," even if men do not. Of what use is that? he asks—if a man is speaking only to God but not profiting his fellow Christians here in the Christian assembly?

Better than any commentary is a simple rereading of his text (I Cor. 14:1-25). In the following transcription, the better to convey the application I have in mind, I have taken the liberty (may it be forgiven me!) of rendering St. Paul's propheteuein and lalein glossais, and their cognates, by "speaking English" and "speaking Latin," or similar phrases. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, they are italicized. Otherwise, the text is quoted according to the recently published New English Bible, New Testament, which with its freshness and lively style seems the most suitable for my purpose.It hardly needs to be added that I fully recognize that the question originally discussed by St. Paul, and our modern question about liturgical language, are only analogous to one another, and far from identical. Still, analogies can at times be very instructive, as we all know.

There are other gifts of the Spirit at which you should aim also, and above all prophesying in English. When a man is using Latin, he is talking with God, not with men, for no man understands him; he is no doubt inspired, but he speaks mysteries. On the other hand, when a man speaks English, he is talking to men, and his words have power to build; they stimulate and they encourage. Latin is good for the speaker himself, but it is our mother tongue that builds up a Christian community. I should be pleased for you all to use Latin, but better pleased for you to speak in English. The English-speaker is worth more than the man of Latin....

Even with inanimate things that produce sounds—a flute, say, or a lyre—unless their notes mark definite intervals, how can you tell what tune is being played? Or again, if the trumpet-call is not clear, who will prepare for battle? In the same way, if your Latin utterance yields no precise meaning, how can anyone tell what you are saying?...

I say, then, that the man who speaks Latin should pray for the ability to interpret. If I use such language in my prayer, the Spirit in me prays, but my intellect lies fallow. What then? I will pray as I am inspired to pray, but I will also pray intelligently. I will sing hymns as I am inspired to sing, but I will sing intelligently, too. Suppose you are praising God in Latin: how will the plain man who is present be able to say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, when he does not know what you are saying? Your prayer of thanksgiving may be all that could be desired, but it is no help to the other man. Thank God, I am more gifted in Latin prayer than any of you, but in the congregation I would rather speak five words in English, for the benefit of others as well as myself, than thousands of words in Latin.

Do not be childish, my friends. Be as innocent of evil as babes, but at least be grown-up in your thinking. We read in the Law: "I will speak to this nation through men of strange tongues, and by the lips of foreigners; and even so they will not heed me, says the Lord." Clearly then these "strange tongues" are not intended as a sign for believers, but for unbelievers, whereas our mother tongue is designed not for unbelievers, but for those who hold the faith. So if the whole congregation is assembled and all are using "strange tongues," and some uninstructed persons or unbelievers should enter, will they not think you are mad? But if all are praising God in English, the visitor, when he enters, hears from everyone something that searches his conscience and brings conviction, and the secrets of his heart are laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, crying: "God is certainly among you!"

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Kenneth Wolfe
6 years 10 months ago

Fifty years later, we have gone from 75% Mass attendance to about 20% (in a good country).

So, why was it a good idea to go from a sacred language to a bastardized and banal vernacular?

6 years 10 months ago
THE ENGLISH THAT I SPEAK IN CALIFORNIA is not the English spoken in Australia, or the United Kingdom, or for that matter, in Boston. Nor is the English with which the new missal is written the 'vernacular' of any of these English-speaking communities. It grates on my ears, and I am finding myself speechless. I have already long ago much given up on singing the English-language hymns that substituted for the beautiful chants of my youth.

And quite frankly, there are among my company of faith those who believe that this is nothing more than a distraction, and a signal thay 'they' can make us do whatever 'they' want us to do. It doesn't do much to instill respect for the 'shepherds' entrusted with our faith.

But, just the same, we should 'keep our eyes on the prize' in the words of Paul.
Fred Close
6 years 10 months ago

To substitute English for "prophecy" and Latin for "tongues" in St. Paul's inspired text is to rather completely miss the point of the story, and this seems particularly obvious in our endless Orwellian 1984 in which "accomodation" and "compromise" mean to figure out how to violate your conscience. English in current political discourse is bankrupt, starting at least with "pro-choice" and getting worse by the day. That it can nevertheless be a vehicle for divine worship is the challenge and mystery of the new translation of the Roman Missal.

To prophesy means to articulate God's perspective on our situation, and thus has nothing as such to do with the merits of Latin or the vernacular as the language of the Mass. But to claim that Mass attendance is down because of the use of the vernacular is also quite a stretch. What if the lesson of the last 50 years is that we in the West believe we "won" the wars against Nazis and Communists because of our own strength; are wealthy because of our own ingenuity and hard work; and are mature enough to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong? That trifecta has taken down greater civilizations than this. Who is convicted of their sinfulness by the word of God at Mass? Who repents? Who praises God for his mercy? Who receives it to pass on to their neighbor?

John Feehily
6 years 10 months ago
I find Mackenzie's analogy instructive. It is strange, indeed, that anyone should regard Latin as more sacral merely because the texts are largely unchanged. Am I the only one who thinks that the controversy surrounding the most appropriate language for worship has more to do with personal taste than anything more objective. The fact that it didn't occur to anyone until the middle ages that the language of worship should be anything other than what people spoke and understood should be the first clue that Sacred Tradition favors an intelligible language that communicates with both God and those who are worshipping Him. To use the term Traditional to describe the Latin Mass is surely the misuse of a word intended to refer to that which was handed down from antiquity.
Lisa Weber
6 years 10 months ago
Thanks to R.A.F. MacKenzie S.J. for a most interesting analogy.  Latin may be traditional, and the universal language of the Church, but I think of it this way - if a Latin Mass is said in Africa or China or anywhere else in the world, the local people do not understand it any more than I do.  The universal language of the Church leads to universal confusion.

And the reason for Mass attendance declining over the last 50 years probably has little to do with the Latin Mass and much to do with the fact that the Church has been slow to react to a rapidly changing society, particularly with regard to social changes for women.
6 years 10 months ago
Praise God there are still people of common sense willing to speak up. With so many needy bodies and souls in this broken world of ours, it is nothing less than an outrageous scandal to have to waste so much time and energy on such frivolity.
Des Farrell
6 years 10 months ago
I have to agree with comment 6 and also want to add something about the Resurrection. If we actually believe that Jesus rose from the dead and because of that then we are heirs to eternity then a great deal of the issues that the church is dealing with are brought into proper perspective. I enjoy Latin Mass and the history of the church but it has little to do with understanding and evangelizing the Resurrection, undoubtedly the most important and strangest event in the history of the world.
Mike Evans
6 years 10 months ago
Does anyone believe Jesus spoke in ancient Hebrew, modern Greek or Imperial Rome's Latin? He spoke in simple everyday Aramaic, the vernacular of his region, and probably with a Gallilean accent. We are such pompous and elitist Pharisees to insist on Latin or Latinized English. On Pentecost, everyone heard the 'good news' in their own native tongue. Probably the best example of God's plan for evangelization.
Paul Ferris
6 years 10 months ago

The great and I mean great R.A.F. Mackenzie has weighed in on this subject. I hesitate to say anything beyond his opinion but let me enter where angels fear to tread....The Eastern Church which is part of the Catholic Church has always favored the vernacular which was pointed out to the Bishops at Vatican Council II. In the Maronite Church out of respect for Jesus the Aramaic, a dialect of Jeus is still used in part of the liturgy.

Growing up with both Latin and Maronite tradition, I followed the Latin along in the St. Joseph Daily Missal. Compared to Eastern Rite prayers, the Latin Mass is very simple and cut and dried.

I could not understand the Maronite Liturgy but there was enough mystery and incense that I got the idea that it was definately speaking to God. Later the Maronite Church in America translated the liturgy into English.l What a great discovery of so many beautiful prayers.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss.,



Jeffrey Thoms
6 years 10 months ago
Jesus did speak Aramaic and had a poet's grasp of the language to engage the people in his preaching with one parable and beautiful admonition after another. He also used the sacral language of Hebrew when celebrating the Passover Meal and then the Last Supper. He was able to converse easily with the Romans (Pontius Pilate, for example) in Latin and possibly to the Hellenists in Greek, though we do know that he used the Septuagint (Greek) Scriptures. Truly a polyglot in his human nature, Jesus knew that there was a "time (and a language) for every purpose under heaven" (cf Ecclesiastes 3:1). The different Eastern and Western rites of the Catholic Church today have their sacral languages - even the Greek that is used for Divine Liturgy in Greece is not always the contemporary tongue of the street there, but an ancient, biblical (Attic) Greek.
Let us Latin Rite Catholics then not be ashamed of our heritage, as the good Pope John (XXIII) would urge us at the very dawning of the Second Vatican Council (cf Veterum Sapientiae)!
We have made no mention yet of our parishes with a bi or even multicultural setting. In many parishes around the country, for example, English is not their mother tongue - and increasingly so!). Following along in their Missals, then, Mass in Latin trandscends this culture and that and helps us to in fact see each other as sisters and brothers in the Lord - and not "us and sworthy them". We hear the homily preached well in our mother tongue and all is right with the world - truly the "most beautiful thing this side of heaven"!
Lash LaRue
6 years 10 months ago
I will dissent; I think the analogy limps. St. Paul was distinguishing a private language understood only by the divine versus the vernacular understood by a community. Latin is not a private language. 

A better analogy would be a bilingual service, as when Spanish is mixed with English, or Latin with English (the homily). I have attended Jewish services, where Hebrew is commonly used. So is the thesis that Jews are smart enough to do this, whereas Catholics are not?

I think the article trivializes both St. Paul and the issue.  
Bob Baker
6 years 10 months ago

Let's not forget Pope John XXIII's Veterum sapientia, that he wrote in 1962. The primacy of Latin was beyond a doubt, especially after 1500 years.

Using a missal, with Latin one on side and English on the other was not a very difficult exercise, either.


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