In the days when Mass was said in words inaudible to all Mass-goers and unintelligible to many or most, Catholic churches were crowded. Now that we have gone to great lengths to make our liturgy audible, understandable, and shareable between priest and laity, congregations have in many places more than halved. Here is a deeply disappointing and troubling paradox.
To argue, as some do, that the disuse of Latin has half-emptied our churches is too simplistic by far. Yet the timing of the downturn, when compared with that of our drastic liturgical changes, suggests some connection.
It is disturbing to compare the widespread decline in Christian practice with the worldwide vigour and expansion of Islam, a religion that generally declines to use translations of its Arabic texts in public worship.
Though some think it perverse to use a special language for worship, historically this has been not at all unusual; one might indeed argue that it has been normal. Jesus and his followers worshipped in Hebrew in synagogue and temple, though their daily converse was in Aramaic.
The principle of linguafranca once meant for Catholics, as it does still for Jews and Muslims, that travellers wherever they might go found the utterance of their faith in familiar words.
Recited in Latin, the words of the liturgy are uplifted from local circumstance of period and nation, to become universal. Surely this gain is worth the effort of becoming acquainted at least with the basic elements of the ancient text.
The use of a sacramental language distinct from that of everyday life has the merit of reminding us that the heaven to which we aspire is indeed very different from our terrestrial existence, even though we may enjoy foretastes of heaven here on earth.
Up to this point, translators have striven to rewrite the liturgy in language as normal and as ordinary as possible. Yet, given the need for the liturgy to remind us how far is our heavenly destiny above the mediocrity of our earthly lives, the aim of these translators seems misguided. The same may be said of the music to which their words are commonly set. It may be easy for congregations to sing; but it is hardly uplifting.
By contrast, the Church possesses an immense treasury of fine liturgical music, most of it set to Latin texts. One of the saddest consequences of the loss of liturgical Latin is the prevailing disuse of this splendid musical heritage.
Today, most churches seem disinclined to use Latin at all, even for the choral parts of the Mass. We cannot blame this on bishops who discourage use of the Tridentine or 1962 rites. For the Ordinary of the Mass, comprising the words that are generally sung, is the same in the Novus Ordo as in the earlier forms; to sing it in Latin needs no episcopal permission.
The Catholic sense of belonging to a universal community, transcending historical and political divides, is a timeless concept that grows ever more pertinent as the world's peoples interact and intermingle more closely. The communion of Christians extends not only the world over, but per omnia saecula saeculorum, as we affirm when in the Roman canon we remember some of the earliest saints as though they were lately departed neighbours and friends.
What more vividly expresses this sense of community than a shared language, such as once belonged to Catholics from Dubliners to Filipinos, from Agnes and Cecilia to Mother Teresa? One may object that many of the faithful had little real knowledge of their common tongue. But doubtless many people know little of the historic and symbolic significance of liturgical vestments; that is no reason for priests to officiate in denim.
The Latin liturgy, like the Nicene Creed, may be understood superficially or profoundly or on any level between those extremes. We should not withdraw these texts on the ground that not everyone fully comprehends them.
Peoples all over the world are striving to recover half-forgotten languages, aware that any community that loses its traditional idiom has in truth lost something vital of itself. Yet the Latin Church has done little, as yet, to reverse the sudden and tragic loss of her own distinctive universal voice, so long and so widely used that it has become an inherent part of her culture. And this despite the view of the Second Vatican Council that "the Roman liturgy should express the universality of the Church; thus the people are meant to be able to recite or sing together in the vernacular but also in Latin the parts of the order of the Mass that pertain to them."
At Farm Street, the Jesuits' principal London church, solemn Mass is every Sunday sung mainly in Latin, to excellent music, before a large congregation. It would be utopian to expect this to happen in every parish. But it would not be difficult for every Mass to contain at least a little Latin; perhaps only, as a beginning, the Pater Noster. Thus Catholics everywhere would grow familiar with their most basic prayer in its Latin form; a small but very real step back towards the lost world of liturgical linguafranca.
The Church need not choose between vernacular and Latin liturgy; there is room for both. She does, however, have to choose between keeping her historic idiom in active use, and letting this treasure fade into obscurity. Our interconnected world needs global communication standards. It needs a global liturgical standard too. Shall we, the only Church that has one to offer, carelessly throw it away?
Angus Sibley is a graduate of Edinburgh University and has written extensively on economic and philosophical topics. His article, here shortened, first appeared in 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review' and is reprinted with permission.