“You know that your grandfather always loved the language of his heritage?”
My mother gave me this suggestion as I was wondering out loud which foreign language I should take of those offered in my high school program. Am I most interested in French, Spanish, or Latin? I was told that Latin would be useful if I wanted to be a doctor. I thought about that briefly, but the idea of actually getting close to bad breath and open sores did not sound appealing.
My grandfather was still alive back then. I loved him dearly. The only time in my life I fainted was when I walked into a large room at the funeral home and saw him from across the room laying in his open coffin – that was years later and a sudden realization that he was really gone.
So, I picked the language of his heritage – French.
Living in California at the time, that choice went against my observation. As the Spanish speaking population grew, and the children of the apricot and prune pickers I worked with as a young teen advanced in society, Spanish would be more useful to me.
Utility compared with curiosity.
How could anyone not want to see what was so intriguing about grandpa’s love of the French people? His family actually came to America from the Isle of Guernsey, which still is a British Crown dependency with English as its official language. It also sits right off the French coast much closer to Cherbourg than to London. How could anyone ignore that kind of mystique?
Latin, the Language of Catholicism
The reason I chose French is, I think, the same reason I appreciate Latin now. It has a mystique and importance to me, because of my heritage.
As for Latin, what other country, or church, calls Latin their official language? What other large population uses it still?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
1206 Liturgical diversity can be a source of enrichment, but it can also provoke tensions, mutual misunderstandings, and even schisms. In this matter it is clear that diversity must not damage unity. It must express only fidelity to the common faith, to the sacramental signs that the Church has received from Christ, and to hierarchical communion. Cultural adaptation also requires a conversion of heart and even, where necessary, a breaking with ancestral customs incompatible with the Catholic faith. (bold is mine)
What is more unifying than language?
And we have this instruction from Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) of the Second Vatican Council:
36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
Individual languages are quickly disappearing from the human population. Google started the Endangered Languages Project based on the Endangered Language Catalog of 3,000 languages. The project stresses the importance of language in cultural identity, values, and heritage – all of the things we can claim to have in common as Catholics – all of the things that are being attacked by the secular world today – including our own American government.
Thankfully, Latin is not on the catalog’s list of languages in danger of becoming extinct. A language is considered extinct if it stops being used at all. It can be stopped abruptly as in genocide or gradually as in a people overtaken by another society then integrated. Latin is different, because it is considered a dead language. A language is called dead if it has evolved into other spoken languages. Latin became Italian, Spanish, French, and other Romance languages.
Language, Spangwige, So What?
What has intrigued me during my discernment time before and then after entering the Church is the number of people who have no regard for Latin at all. I also still experience Novus Ordo Masses where no Latin is spoken.
The most common things people say to me:
The Second Vatican Council eliminated Latin.
My mother said at the time of the council, “Now we can finally understand the Mass.”
I speak English, what do I need Latin for?
All of this negativity about our heritage only fueled by curiosity. I could not understand it at all! My experience is that people regard with awe, others who speak multiple languages. These multilingual people even have their own word to describe themselves – polyglot. We have seen the results of studies that show that polyglots have mental advantages over others. One example states, “a positive impact of bilingualism on cognition, including later onset of dementia.”
You did not have to take lessons in Latin at a school in order to learn most of phrases said in the Latin Mass. Repetition is a great teacher.
So Why the Negativity?
My 1962 missal for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which I use monthly or more, has the Latin on the left page and English on the right page. Contrarily, the Novus Ordo missal I find in the pews has the English on the left page and the corresponding Latin on the right. Nice and neat.
The official Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI for the new Mass wasn’t promulgated until 1970 and the literacy rate in the U.S. had reached 99% before that year. So how come your mother couldn’t learn and understand what was said in Latin?
Then there is the the change in the response from “and also with you” to “and with your spirit” that had some people like me stopping in mid-sentence to correct ourselves for a period of time. We stopped, but then others finished before we could get the right words out! I was attending an all Traditional Latin Mass at the time the change went into effect. People would ask me what I thought about the changes to the Mass. My answer was always, “What changes?”
“You know… and also with you is change to, and with your spirit“.
“Not in my missal. It has always said, et cum spiritu tuo“
Apparently a poor translation after the council. Was the reason because of poorly educated scholars, or was the cause a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture not only with the our pre-Vatican II liturgy, but also with Vatican II itself? Had the secular explosion of autonomy actually reached that far into the Catholic Church?
So What Use Was Your French Language Training?
As it worked out, that choice of language became a factor in my selection by the Peace Corps to join a new project of about 30 young men in old French West Africa; a newly independent country called Gabon. It was a school construction project and the first project of its kind in the Peace Corps. They had up to that time (1962) a few teaching projects in various parts of the world. It also gave me the opportunity to experience a personal tour of his hospital and have some chat time with the famous Dr. Albert Schweitzer at Lambaréné in the interior of Gabon.
Another language can show us a marvelous world. One that we would not have imagined we could have experienced.
This one partial sentence describes a most precious advantage of being Catholic. It was written by Dom Alcuin Reid PhD, of the Monastère Saint-Benoît:
“…the connection with him whose saving action in the world of today the sacred liturgy is.”
We connect with Christ directly, as he told us to do, when we participate in the sacred liturgy. We also connect spiritually with our Catholic past and present, through the Latin language in that liturgy.
As Pope Pius XII wrote in Mediator Dei (On the Sacred Liturgy) in 1947 speaking of the same need for unity that our most recent Catechism will later uphold:
60. The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI as Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1998:
An average Christian without specialist liturgical formation would find it difficult to distinguish between a Mass sung in Latin according to the old Missal and a sung Latin Mass according to the new Missal. However, the difference between a liturgy celebrated faithfully according to the Missal of Paul VI and the reality of a vernacular liturgy celebrated with all the freedom and creativity that are possible — that difference can be enormous!