Latin in the Liturgy

03-06-2016This Week in Vidi DominumFr. Will Schmid

I thought Vatican II did away with Latin in the Mass?

One of the more challenging aspects of my priesthood has been correcting the errors of what people think Vatican II did. There are many myths about Vatican II. Unfortunately, this is one of them. Allow me to explain what Vatican II actually said about Latin in the Liturgy.

One of the four major constitutions of the Second Vatican Council is the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (also known as Sacrosanctum Concilium). This beautiful document on the Liturgy was constructed to help the faithful develop a deeper sense of participation in the Sacraments. As a part of this movement toward more full, active, and conscious participation, Sacrosanctum Concilium allowed for the Sacraments to be celebrated in the vernacular (or the common language of the people). The Church believed that the use of the vernacular in the Sacraments would be of great benefit to the people of God. I think we can all agree that this was a tremendous blessing from the Church.

Our ability to celebrate the Sacraments in English has helped us to participate more fully, consciously, and actively. However, at the same time, Sacrosanctum Concilium also expressed the importance of preserving the beautiful traditions of the Roman Catholic Rite. Although it encouraged the use of the vernacular, it did not envision the complete elimination of the Latin language from the Mass. Paragraphs 36 and 54 of Sacrosanctum Concilium remind us of the Church’s desire to preserve Latin in the Liturgy. Paragraph 36 states, “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” In addition, paragraph 54 states, “Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”

As a pastor of souls, I have the responsibility of following what the Church teaches and doing what the Church asks. It is clear from these two passages from Vatican II that the Church desires her people to be able to know their Mass responses in Latin. This is a part of my liturgical responsibilities. The way I have discerned to do this at St. Mary Magdalene Parish is through the holy seasons of Lent and Easter. That is why parishioners encounter various Latin Mass parts during these two seasons. In this way we have an opportunity to learn them and offer glory to God through them.   

So, are we going back to an all Latin Mass?

It is important to state right off the bat that the Church never left the Latin Mass behind. In fact, the official translation of the Mass for the Roman Catholic Church is Latin. Our English translation is exactly that: a translation. It is the English translation of the Latin text. Mass can always be said in Latin - its official language. However, what the Church has done since Vatican II is allow for the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular. Thus, most Masses in America are celebrated in English. The Church envisions that English be used regularly for most Masses and for most Mass parts in English speaking countries, but it does not envision an entire elimination of the Latin language from Masses in English speaking countries. 

Why is Latin so important? After all, isn’t it a dead language?

Sometimes it is easy for us to forget that we are Latin Catholics. It is a beautiful part of our culture and heritage and, as Sacrosanctum Concilium reminds us, should continue to be a part of our celebration of the Eucharist. That being said, most of us have never studied Latin. Therefore, it is not a common language for Americans to speak. In fact, as Americans, most of us speak only one language: English. This is part of the reason why Americans find Latin in the Liturgy so difficult. We have only learned to speak one language. Most other countries and cultures speak multiple languages. It is not odd or out of the ordinary for other cultures to incorporate another language into conversation and/or prayer.

Recently, I was in Haiti on a mission trip. Although the vast majority of Americans are wealthier and more educated than Haitians, the people of Haiti learn more languages than Americans. They learn Creole, French, and some even learn English. In fact, some of the Haitian Masses I experienced were trilingual: Creole, French, and Latin. They even have Latin Mass parts in Haiti because they too are Roman Catholic. This is another benefit of Latin in the Liturgy. It shows our universality. Because of Latin, I was able to sing some of the same Mass parts with the Haitians. When chants were sung in Creole and/or French, I was not able to sing with them.      

How am I supposed to participate in the Mass when we sing or say Latin parts?

Participation in the Latin chants begins by prayerfully listening to them. Offer your ears and your attention to God as an act of prayer. It may take a while to learn how to sing the Latin Mass parts. That’s okay. You are still participating in the Mass if you offer your ears and your hearts to God through your active listening of the Latin chants. It is false to think that if I am not singing something, I am not participating. Pope Benedict XVI in Feast of Faith, said,
“Listening, the receptive employment of the senses and the mind, spiritual participation, are surely just as much ‘activity’ as speaking is. Are receptivity, perception, being moved, not ‘active’ things too? What we have here, surely, is a diminished view of man which reduces him to what is verbally intelligible…
In more concrete terms, there are a good number of people who can sing better ‘with the heart’ than ‘with the mouth’; but their hearts are really stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing ‘with their mouths’. It is as if they themselves actually sing in the others; their thankful listening is united with the voices of the singers in the one worship of God.” (124)

Also, spend time learning the chants throughout the week. There is an amazing website called, “YouTube.” Have you ever heard of it? You can search for the audio of the various Latin chants and listen to them and even practice singing along with them until you get the hang of it. What a great way to allow the Mass to linger with you throughout the rest of your week.   

This is easy for you Father, you studied Latin in the seminary. It’s hard for me.

This is simply an untrue statement. Latin is not easy for me. I have had to work very hard to learn how to speak, sing, and pray in Latin. It is something I am still working on all the time. Many days I will intentionally pray the Liturgy of the Hours in Latin, even though I don’t always know exactly what is going on, so as to continue to develop my Latin speaking abilities. My love for Latin is wrapped up in my deep appreciation for the Roman Catholic Church. It is an appreciation that has taken a long time to develop and has demanded great sacrifices from me. Yes, I did study Latin in the seminary. I took two formal semesters of Latin in college seminary and spent part of a summer assignment in independent study so that I could pass the Latin reading comprehension degree requirement for a Master of Arts in Theology. In all honesty, it was worth the sacrifices. I have a much deeper love and appreciation for the Liturgy because of my Latin studies. Also, I have a better understanding of the English language and the meaning of English words. We must never forget that a large portion of our language comes from Latin.