Latin is still the universal language of Liturgy

Latin is still the universal language of Liturgy

Bishop Arthur Serratelli

At the beginning of World War I, nearly one out of every three individuals in the United States was born in a foreign land or had parents who had been born in a foreign land. Yet at the same time there were laws being passed in 21 states restricting the teaching of foreign languages. Eventually the Supreme Court overturned those laws in 1923 and 1926. But no law can eradicate xenophobic prejudices or racism.

As the First World War escalated, common words taken from the German were banished. 'Sauerkraut' became 'liberty cabbage' and 'hamburgers' became 'liberty steaks'. More recently, to protest France's opposition to US efforts to disarm Iraq in 2003, cafeterias started renaming the ever-popular 'French fries' as 'liberty fries'. The names changed; but to our culinary delight, the taste remained.

Language somehow carries with it a weight greater than the idea it expresses. The first groups of immigrants who came to America came with their customs, their traditions and the richness of their native language. Every generation welcomes people from different countries. And whether it's Hispanics or Arabs today, or Irish, Poles and Italians of yesterday, there is a noticeable similarity.

Grandchildren find it more and more difficult to communicate in their native language with their grandparents. There is always a move to integration; and, language is a way of identification. Even in the Church, language is a vital way of identification.

In recent times, millions of young people from different countries gathered together for World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, in Toronto in 2002 and in Cologne in 2005. They celebrated the Mass with the Holy Father and found a unity that transcended their national boundaries as they voiced their prayer in Latin. Each time people gather together with the Pope for Mass, they repeat the same experience.

Ever since the fourth century, when Latin replaced Greek as the official language of the Church of Rome, Mass has been offered on every continent in Latin. Some people labour under the misconception that the Second Vatican Council abolished the use of Latin in the Liturgy. Not so.

In December 1962, the Second Vatican Council opened the door for the use of the vernacular in the Liturgy. The principle was solid. The use of the mother tongue promotes better understanding of what the Church is praying. Gradually over the years, Latin has virtually disappeared from the Liturgy. However, the Council then and the Church today never deleted Latin as the language of the Latin rite.

Certainly, the use of the mother tongue has an advantage. The vernacular helps 'all the faithful be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy ... [and which] is their right by reason of their Baptism' (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14). Nonetheless, the banishment of Latin from our public prayer is not a gain.

Continuity

There is a value to using a sacred language. We are not surprised when we attend a service in a synagogue to hear the ancient sounds of Hebrew. What a beautiful continuity in the Jewish community. Modern day Jews living in Jerusalem, New York or London hear the Scriptures in the very same language their ancestors did, in the same language Jesus heard the Scriptures proclaimed in first-century Nazareth. In any mosque, the imam recites from the Qur'an in Arabic. No one moans in dismay. The words and the language are important.

Here is a fact of human psychology: 'In religious matters, people tend to hold on to what they received from the beginning, how their earliest predecessors articulated their religion and prayed. Words and formulae used by earlier generations are dear to those who today inherit from them. While a religion is of course not identified with a language, how it understands itself can have an affective link with a particular linguistic expression in its classical period of growth' (Cardinal Francis Arinze, from his address at St Louis, Missouri, on 11 November 2006).

Language is for communication. The use of the vernacular in the Liturgy, especially in the proclamation of the Scriptures, helps us receive God's Word more readily. Nonetheless, within the liturgy, there still remains a place for the use of Latin. The hymns, the chants, the parts of the Mass that we repeat every Sunday, when done in Latin, open the community beyond the narrow confines of parochial or national boundaries. Especially in liturgies where more than one language is used, the use of Latin can bind all together in a common expression of faith.

Some of us can remember how much a part of our Catholic worship Latin used to be. At times today when we hear the Sanctus or the Agnus Dei sung in Latin, we readily recall the time when Catholics of the Latin rite in every land and in every culture offered worship to God with one language. The use of one language gave a sense of the deeper reality of the mystery of the Church. It made visible that, no matter where we were, we belonged to the same Church, sharing the same faith.

If Jews and Moslems, Hindus and Buddhists have their sacred language, why should we be completely deprived of the use of the liturgical language of the Latin rite? Many people who grew up speaking only English now sing Spanish hymns. Why not Latin on some occasions?

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli is the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, USA. His column is reprinted here with the permission of 'The Beacon', newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, in which it was first published.

Bishop Serratelli was recently elected Chairman of the US Bishops' Committee on Liturgy

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