In a previous post about liturgy I discussed the practice of facing “East,” ad orientem (with the priest’s back to the congregation so that all face one direction together during prayer), as opposed to the priest facing the people, versus populum. The post-Vatican II Mass is predominately celebrated versus populum. Indeed this change to the Mass is one of the most obvious alterations brought about after Vatican II. In my previous post, I argued in favor of a re-evaluation of this practice, and perhaps a re-evaluation of several other post-Vatican II changes to the Mass. Did we go too far, too fast?
Another distinct change after Vatican II is the use of the vernacular (the common language of the people) instead of Latin. At one time, Mass was said the world over in Latin. But today most Masses use the vernacular: in France it is said in French, in Germany it is in German, in Brazil it is Portuguese, and so on. This certainly makes the words of Mass more accessible to the people. It allows ease of understanding. However, just as we examined the possibility of turning again to the East at Mass, I would like to suggest a few benefits of taking up Latin (at least in a limited way) in the Liturgy of the Mass. Below I offer just a few ideas that come to mind:
1) God is a mystery
In changing from Latin to the vernacular, the intention was to make the Mass more understandable to the people. And this is certainly important. But because the Mass has so much to do with the mystery of God, there will always be much that is unknowable. We can only know so much, and then we are lost in the depths of mystery. There is no way to fully comprehend God’s infinite Being. Human words always fall short. Certainly God reveals Himself to us using the human words of the Scripture, but even in this divinely inspired revelation much of God remains hidden to our mortal minds. The use of Latin symbolically represents this idea of mystery. When the words of Mass are cloaked in a foreign tongue it points to the mystery of God. We pray the words without fully understanding, just as we pray to a God Whom we do not fully understand.
2) Being Christian requires effort
Jesus never promised that being His disciple would be easy. He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” With that in mind, using Latin at Mass means that the people will be challenged to learn and say the correct responses; in other words, they will have to put forth more effort to follow along and participate in the liturgy. This means that the Mass will not come easy for the average lay person. But who ever said that the Mass is supposed to be “easy”? Perhaps if we were required to learn Latin for the Mass, we would also put out more effort in other areas of our religious life. If the Mass offers us the central Sacrament in the life of the Church, then the amount of effort we put into this Holy Sacrifice may translate into a greater effort in other areas.
3) At Mass we worship as one Church
While each individual parish celebrates their own unique Mass, these are really part of one Liturgical action that unites us all in one Body of Christ. Catholics are united as One Body because we participate in one Eucharistic action which began with Christ’s Passion and continues to be made present on the altar at every Mass. By using a common language (Latin) every Catholic uses the same words when participating in this mystery, and so the unity of the Body (the Church) is a tangible reality. We avoid any loss of meaning due to sloppy or incongruent translations, and we thus truly pray the same prayer of thanksgiving (eucharistia). The use of Latin unifies us even where distance may separate us.
4) It is a matter of tradition
While the use of Latin does not rise to the level of “Sacred Tradition” with a capitol “T” (equal to Scripture), it is an integral part of the Latin Rite dating back many centuries. Just as the Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Churches have their own linguistic patrimony, so too do Roman Catholics. With the introduction of the vernacular-only Mass that heritage was effectively tossed aside without a second thought. While it certainly may be pastorally wise to have some of the Mass in the language of the people (such as the readings and the homily and the prayers specific to a particular Sunday of Holy Day), at the very least, Latin might be retained for those parts of the Mass which do not change (such as the Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and especially the Eucharist Prayer itself). This would maintain a link to our liturgical past and keep us in solidarity with those Eastern Churches which have kept their historical liturgical languages intact.
5) Crossing cultural boundaries
When celebrating with Catholics from around the world, for instance at a papal Mass, World Youth Day, or at special conferences and symposiums, the use of Latin provides a common bond between Catholics who might otherwise not be able to worship together in any meaningful way. If Latin were more commonly used in everyday parish life, then large groups of Catholics from different countries would find it easy to worship together in the language of the Church. If their home Mass experience included the regular use of Latin, it would prepare them for these larger gatherings, and thus greater spiritual unity might be felt across international boundaries.
6) The vernacular can cause divisions
Here in the United States, I have been to more than one parish where a Spanish Mass is offered for Hispanic immigrants who do not speak English. This arrangement points out the obvious fact that the “vernacular” is not the same for everyone…even within the same parish. Special accommodations have to be made when non-English members join in any large number. The result is usually a division within the parish between the two language groups. Sadly, the two groups seldom mingle. When they are thrown together in an effort to build bridges and instill greater congregational unity, the result is usually an awkward bilingual Mass, in which half of the parish feels left out for half of the time as the two sides take turns with different parts of the Liturgy. It is not only ineffective, it is also sloppy liturgy. If Latin were used as a common language, the two sides might find a common form of worship that would draw them closer together and present a more proper liturgical celebration.
7) Latin prevents certain abuses
In the vernacular a priest often feels comfortable playing around with different wording and phrasing of the parts of the Mass. In other words, he may “ad lib” or omit certain parts freely in his own mother-tongue. Sometimes this is quite by accident, or through laziness, but sometimes it is through a conscious effort on his part to insert his own personality into the printed text. This is strictly forbidden, but it happens nonetheless. The use of Latin curbs this tendency dramatically. Only those priests who are fluent in Latin could possibly ad lib their own version of the prayers, and chances are that those who are fluent in Latin are traditional priests who would never dream of such a violation of the rubrics. In this way, Latin would give us a Mass that is much freer of liturgical abuses.
This is in no way a complete list of all the reasons to re-introduce Latin into the New Order of Mass. But it does give a few of the main reasons that come to my mind upon brief reflection. I do use Latin in my own personal prayer life and it has only served to enrich my spiritual experience. This is something I plan to write more about in the future. But I will end here with one final thought: The documents of Vatican II did not call for the wholesale abandonment of Latin in the Mass. The Council Fathers only recommended the prudential introduction of the vernacular where pastoral reasons suggested it would benefit the people spiritually. I think it wise that we revisit the use of Latin in the Mass and see whether our pastoral needs have truly been met by removing Latin entirely from the Liturgy of the Church.