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The Use of Latin Underscores the Meaning of the Mass


A curious article appeared in a recent issue of Homiletics and Pastoral Review, which wishes to raise some questions regarding the use of Latin in the celebration of Mass. [see Questions Regarding the Use of Latin in Celebrating the Mass]Here’s the author’s conclusion:

“Is it possible that the Traditional Latin Mass, though beautiful sounding Latin, merely makes one feel good, but lacks the intent necessary for the words to be properly labeled as communication of love of God? Or do all of the congregants have sufficient knowledge of Latin to intend the meaning of the words agreed to or spoken? Can the words uttered in the Latin Mass, although uttered in an angelic tongue, merely be a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal”? What about the potential invalidation of a sacrament (no Eucharist) resulting from mispronunciation of an unfamiliar language? Undoubtedly the questions may cause some heated reactions, but they are only intended to safeguard and ensure the sacraments have their intended effect, especially since there is an increasing use of an unfamiliar language for the sacrament that is the source, center, and summit of the Catholic Faith—the Most Holy Eucharist.”

The obvious response is that for over a millennium, the Roman Mass has been offered in Latin, long after it ceased to be the language of the people. Did this question never occur to anyone before now? Or before the 20th century?

The main thrust of the article seems to be that it is difficult, if not impossible, to pray in a language that is not one’s own. Therefore, the individual worshipper cannot actually intend the meaning of the words, and the Mass cannot be a communication of love of God.

However, this objection misses two very important realities. When the Catechism says that the Mass is the preeminent prayer of the Church, it doesn’t mean “prayer” as a purely individual, subjective, devotional experience, but WORSHIP, that is offered publicly, corporately, and objectively, the ideal worship that is pleasing to God. This is worship as has been established by the Church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, taking into account both the human experience of religion, as well being faithful to the new reality that has now entered and embraced the human condition, that is the wedding of the human and divine in the God-Man, Jesus Christ, His Incarnation, his life, and His saving Death, Resurrection and Ascension.

Secondly: the Mass is preeminently the prayer of Christ, the offering of the Son to the Father, in which we worship and adore the Son, and join in his offering to the Father. It is not, first and foremost, our prayer. It is Christ’s prayer. It is the heavenly liturgy, into which we are privileged to take part. Now, the subjective dimension is not irrelevant – after all the Mysteries are also for us; but it is not the central thing, not the sole, or even a primary criterion of judgment of what is the Mass, and what constitutes “good” liturgy. In that sense, the intelligibility of the liturgical language (and therefore the subjective experience of praying words that in an unfamiliar tongue), cannot be the starting point for evaluating the use of Latin in the Mass. Just what role it does play in understanding and implementing the reformative principle of actuosa participatio, is a matter of ongoing discussion and (often contentious) debate. The main argument of the article rests on an equivocation between prayer, understood as personal, devotional, individual, subjective prayer (“can I pray these words in an unfamiliar tongue?”), and the objective, public worship of God as established by the Church under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and obedient to her Lord’s injunction, “do this in memory of me.”

Above all the questions of language, form, ceremony, aesthetic, all of which has occupied the Church in the 20th century, through the Liturgical Movement, the early reform of the Roman Rite and its quite radical reform (some would call it a reconstitution!) after the Council, this principle remains: the givenness and objectivity of the liturgy, which we enter into, which is a gift given to us, which shapes us and conforms us to Christ and His Mysteries, and not the other way round, which enables us to be so conformed as to live out the Mysteries in our own lives, to be a “living sacrifice” and to offer “spiritual worship.” The evaluation of the use of Latin, or any sacred liturgical language, or the vernacular, should proceed from this principle. That we are so far removed from this principle, that it is not just not understood, but practically unknown, is surely one of the more lamentable things about the state of things in the Church in our day.

The preceding guest post was written by Father Gaurav Shroff who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

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