What Is Wrong With Latin?

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“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.

My Conclusion?

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!

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19 thoughts on “What Is Wrong With Latin?”

  1. Birgit Atherton Jones

    I, too, have a fascination with the language of my heritage – German for my homeland and Latin for my Church. That I don’t speak or understand all of it can be a gift of worship. As a cradle Catholic, I know what’s going on, know what the prayers say, and welcome the opportunity to meditate at the foot of the cross unencumbered by the need for anything but the Presence of Jesus.

  2. I was amazed at myself when a parish, run by the FSSP (Priestly Fraternity of St Peter) opened its doors here in Minneapolis MN where I live and I began to attend. This is the group that broke away from SSPX and declared loyalty to the Holy See before it was popular to do so, and has been around for over 25 years under the authority of Rome incidentally. I have never gotten more from the Mass than I do now. Thanks HL for this concise explanation of a complicated issue. But not one that should be.

  3. Latin was the language of the hated Roman oppressors who murdered Jesus in that most horrible way. In order to get by in those years after Jesus’ Resurrection, His followers had to learn the hated language, forced to adopt the speech of the monstrous Emperors who, one after the other, decreed their painful death because they were Jesus’ followers. Using the Romans’ language in their worship services seems to have been an ultimate capitulation-a supreme moment of Roman success.

    1. Just as our Church has taken over the city of Rome it has also taken Latin for itself. The spoils of war in another context. For 1,000 years Latin was lingua franca of the world by all.

      I would suggest that you forgive the ancient Roman’s and pray for their souls.

    2. The accursed Romans continue to triumph through your efforts. Forgive-yes. I can’t forget those awful atrocities, especially at the season of Lent, when the Church remembers them in graphic detail, and I in my privacy, watch “The Passion Of The Christ,” that depiction of the first Mass. Latin is no longer the world’s “Lingua Franca,” yet the Church still continues to use it. Roman tentacles continue to hold on to the Church, a testament to the depth of their evil.

    3. I was trying to imagine how a transformation from Latin to another language could have been accomplished, since it was the language of the society from which new members to the Roman church were drawn once it became legal. I suppose Pope Miltiades could felt free enough to have called a council in order to loudly announce accepting suggestions to distance themselves from Rome, and then, creating open hostility when things were just starting to get good after many years. You might object to Hebrew having been chosen because of the association with the Passion. It seems to me that actual “distance” may have been smarter if it was desired.

  4. My own French-language training is what pointed out to me in very short order that “et cum spiritu tuo” did not translate accurately as “and also with you.”

    I also found it curious that almost every other Romance language had something akin to “et cum spiritu tuo”– Italian, for example, had “e con il tuo spirito.”

    And we English speakers got “…and also with you.”

    Ho hum.

    Given that people aren’t used to thinking in terms of “and with your spirit,” it does pique their curiosity (or, in the cases of some, their indignation…) for good reason. The priesthood isn’t a 9-5 job, so it’s a particular spirit that we refer to– the Holy Spirit acting through the priest at Mass, as per his being changed ontologically upon ordination. Plus, the Mass isn’t something “ordinary” or “mundane”; it’s God entering into the mundane and elevating it.

    A priest I know who celebrates both the Novus Ordo and the TLM said, “why couldn’t they just have given us this Mass, just the English translation we currently have in the 1962 Missal?” Really. The English translation on the right side of the Latin was far superior to the translation we just abandoned, and it told us precisely what the Mass was meant to effect in us. And, if what we pray is what we believe…

    1. I should follow up to say that the priest in question said as much before the new translation– a vast improvement over the old one– became available. He’s not against the new translation at all.

  5. With respect, Mr. Duncan, I do not understand how praying in a language that most Catholics under the age of 65 do not have a working knowledge of is helpful spiritually. I know I am rather ignorant, with only a high school education, but I am trying to educate myself as a Catholic.
    I have gone to Mass celebrated in Latin at a neighboring parish. I was open to being touched by its beauty and being elevated spiritually, about which so many people have spoken. All were respectful, and it sounded beautiful, but I was completely lost. When I go to a Novus Ordo Mass, I not only respond vocally, but in my heart. It was odd and distant not to be able to do that, and I have not been back.
    I do see the advantage of having a common language such as Latin in areas or situations where there are congregants who do not speak to same language. I expect that is how Latin became the language of the Church so long ago.
    At my parish, the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated with exceptional beauty, and I always leave knowing I have encountered God, and that I have witnessed heaven on earth. Is the English language, or any other language in the local vernacular, less holy than addressing our prayers to God in Latin?
    God bless you.

    1. I appreciate your faithful involvement with our Church and would never attempt to discourage anyone engaging the Mass in any form – even sloppily celebrated.

      The practicalities of “working knowledge” or “being lost” or “less holy” are understandable judgements that initially present themselves to anyone not familiar with this Mass; a first impression.

      I have tried in my very basic article to give a sense of the importance of the language that goes beyond the practical and perhaps today requires training, exposure, and further understanding to be fully appreciated. That is what continuing education is about. We examine aspects of a thing in more detail to gain a greater understanding and appreciation.
      But, in this day of tweets, sound bites, headlines, the news in 60 seconds, and constant activity instead of reflection, it is often a disinterested proposal.

      There is much beauty in the practice of our faith. I see a beauty in using this language, and as a side issue but connected in this context, the verticality of this Mass.

    2. I don’t have any Latin training, either.

      But I’m not completely “lost” at the Latin Mass after having gone more than once. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing to get “lost” at the Latin Mass, either: because it can jolt us out of our sense of being on autopilot. It’s okay to get lost at the Latin Mass. Just keep going.

      In reality, it takes about 3 or 4 times of attending the TLM in a row before one is used to the dynamics and the rhythm. Reading up on it will also help. This is all to the good, I think. In our culture, we expect everything, including understanding, to be immediate and easily accessible: I want what I want when I wannit. But that much isn’t even true of a good many aspects of the Catholic spiritual life. Not even with regard to the basics. It’s why patience is a virtue and humility is the queen of the virtues. Those two things, in addition to diligence, are necessary for excellence in the humblest and the highest of things. If you don’t think this applies to everyday life in the mundane, try writing a doctoral dissertation sometime, or indeed any creative endeavor. Because creative endeavors don’t provide instant gratification.

      We tend to forget that God isn’t meant to be understood just with our minds, but also with our hearts, and indeed all of ourselves. And like any relationship, understanding comes through constant engagement. A lot of the Latin has sunk in over time for me, and for the little that I know that I do contemplate from time to time, I’m able to discern certain things that do get lost in English translation. And that we believe that the Word was made flesh implies that either Catholicism can speak holistically and coherently to the entirety of the human person, or it can’t. Moreover, perhaps we also forget that God, the Creator, is also creative. His ways, after all, are not our own.

  6. Speaking of things that don’t change, of things that do, even the Romans had to deal with all the
    ramifications of Odium Theologicum.

    1. Marion (Mael Muire)

      Try persuading your pastor to say several of the prayers in Latin during a Sunday Mass.

      If he does so, you’ll see some of the VII types doing back-flips off the rafters with wrath. And some younger folk, as well.

      But any number of the Millennials, who have a casual disinterest in a Hermeneutic of Rupture, will profess to liking the Latin, and will ask to have it more frequently.

    2. We have had Franciscans running our Cathedral for many years. I have found that the acceptance of Latin or any other aspect of the liturgy depends heavily on the person of the priest. The previous rector was a well liked and appreciated man because of his amazing teaching ability and knowledge. He said the Novus Ordo Mass using much Latin including having the congregation say the creed in Latin. He has been criticized even by fellow priests who argue against its use.

      The church has to take the lead and pick priests who can lead. Pandering is for politics.

    3. The church has to take the lead and pick priests who can lead. Pandering is for politics.

      Thank you.

      Because we either know who we are (and what we’re not) as Catholics, or we don’t. In John 6, Christ didn’t pander to those who objected to eating His flesh and drinking His blood.

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