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!"