A young Catholic's encounter with Latin at Chavagnes International College

A young Catholic's encounter with Latin at Chavagnes International College

Alexander Morrison

Alexander Morrison, who is 17, and his younger brother are from England, and attend the recently founded Chavagnes International College in France. He writes of his impressions on encountering Latin in the Liturgy for the first time, as celebrated at this boarding school which draws students from around the world - including Australia.

My brother and I come from a practising Catholic family, but before going to Chavagnes we had not been exposed to anything other than the Mass in English in our local parish. We assumed that this was all the Church had to offer, and we went along, often reluctantly, helped by a series of good priests and the example of our parents.

However, at the college we were presented with something different: the priest faces East during the Mass [towards the altar] and apart from the readings all the ceremony is in Latin. This very traditional Novus Ordo forms our staple liturgical diet, which we gratefully receive at 7:30 each morning. As a result, my brother and I have grown more and more attached to "the traditional way".

Perhaps learning Latin has helped our appreciation of the liturgy, but for us it was more than just a change of language in the Mass.

To an average outsider, particularly a non-Catholic, it may seem as if our liturgy is theatrical or eccentric, but not so: for us, it is

a) a link to the many saints and martyrs who used Latin at Mass (albeit with an older missal);

b) a continuation of the Tradition of the Church; and

c) a recognition of our great heritage.

Personally, I am not surprised that many pupils, most of whom have experienced Latin liturgy for the first time at Chavagnes, also like it for all these reasons. Both my brother and I are now of the opinion that, if it were universally possible, this would be the ideal setting for the Sacrifice of the Mass, since it reassures us that the action of the Mass is miraculous and holy - in other words, it aids our faith.

For us, it is a boost we need to continue practising our faith without reluctance. But why has Latin had such an impact, and why do we now wholeheartedly support its use?

The most obvious reason is the fact that Latin is still the official language of the Church. It seems fitting to continue to use it for the sacred words of the Mass, especially since these days Latin is not used except for a few dignified purposes - mottos, university graduations and suchlike.

The elevation of the words of the Mass above everyday speech is appropriate seeing as the Mass is the supreme prayer of the Church to Almighty God. And yet there is a quiet solemnity and dignity in the Latin Mass which I have not seen elsewhere.

English translation

The current English translations are perhaps to blame for any apparent lack of dignity where Mass is said in the vernacular, particularly when one considers that they have been intentionally stripped of repetition, which is what makes the original Latin text so likeable. Also, one is not distracted by the priest's own voice when he says Mass in Latin, because it is no longer a commonly spoken language; this is helpful when considering that the priest acts in persona Christi.

You may ask, "do the students at the college know the text of the Mass, and understand what is actually said?" Yes, we all follow Latin/ English missals, and we know the responses by heart in both English and Latin.

Some may think that Latin is too old-fashioned for the students. Insofar as it is an ancient language largely untaught in state schools, yes. But so what? Because Latin has become something for classicists and a select number of schools, modern culture has rejected it as being "old- fashioned". But we are not put off by other people's rejection of Latin - we are encouraged by the knowledge that we are preserving as well as using it.

Another advantage we see in the use of Latin relates to its pastoral value, for the college wants all of its students to be unashamed to hold their Catholic faith.

Long ago, young Catholics proudly knelt to say a Pater Noster or an Ave Maria because apart from being the language of learning, Latin reminded them that they were members of the universal Church, different from the reformed churches, who rejected Latin prayers when they rejected Rome.

This pride in the heritage of the Church is being instilled in us at Chavagnes, a pride that for one reason or another is not emphasised enough in many parishes. But a return to Latin in the liturgy could, I believe, be of tremendous service to young people.

All of the senior boys at Chavagnes decided recently in a discussion that incorporating "street culture" into the liturgy (through dancing, pop hymns, Youth Masses or Children's Liturgy) is not beneficial to today's Catholic youth; it will give them nothing solid to fall back on, and when their tastes change, they will lose interest.

However, if they were familiar with the traditions of the Church, its rich musical heritage and its solemnity, they would have a much clearer idea of their Catholic identity. If the pupils of our college (especially the younger boys) are anything to go by, most teenagers would probably be attracted by the sense of mystery emphasised through the use of Latin at Mass.

One of our pupils, Patrick Adams, commented recently to a visiting journalist (John Preston, The Sunday Telegraph Review, 6 June 2004) that he likes "all the traditional bits" which form part of college life: "I like how when we go to Mass the priest stands facing the altar in the traditional way", he says. Perhaps the "traditional bits" which intrigued Patrick and his friends will also convince others and give them the assurance they need to persevere as Roman Catholics.

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