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Liturgical Latin — Reconsidered

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 3: May 2003

Liturgical Latin — Reconsidered

by Joseph P. Swain

In the arts, innovation is cheap. Particularly in the twentieth century, when the premium put on originality was never higher, the rush of enthusiasm that greeted artistic revolutions usually lost sight of the historical experience that nothing ages so quickly as a new idea when novelty is its only virtue. To see its true worth, just wait a generation or two: the test of time will always tell. This is no less true of liturgy, that touchstone of the sacred arts, which undertook its own revolution after the Second Vatican Council. As many of the resulting liturgical initiatives are appraised anew, after the cool distance of nearly four decades, perhaps it would not be amiss to consider once again the liturgy’s very sinews, its language. Could Latin, mostly banished from the modern liturgical scene, inspire us anew?

To clear away misapprehension at the outset, let us understand that raising this question does not criticize the work of the Council in the slightest. The Council actually did not ban Latin and mandate the vernacular for liturgy. On the contrary, "particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites" (

Sacrosanctum Concilium

, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: 36.1). The option for the vernacular comes second in the Council document. No less a voice than Cardinal Avery Dulles made precisely this point in a recent review of the Council ("Vatican II: the Myth and the Reality",


, February 24, 2003). It is rather the widespread exercise of the option, the "particular law", that we inspect.

Now to some possible advantages of liturgical Latin over the vernacular, beginning with its symbolic properties.

Symbolic qualities

"Eighty-seven years ago our predecessors founded a new nation on this land using the ideas of Liberty and that everyone is created equal. Now we are fighting a big civil war to see if any nation founded on these ideas can last for long."

This is what might be called a translation of the opening of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from mid-nineteenth-century rhetorical American English into turn of the twenty-first century American English, or, the vernacular. Nothing of the original literal meaning is lost; indeed, this version is more readily comprehended by the average American than Lincoln’s original words. But it has lost most of its impressive weight. The Gettysburg Address is as close to sacred scripture as American political discourse comes, yet to sense this quality we must hear the original, old, even anachronistic expressions and turns of phrase. "Eighty-seven" has the same literal meaning as "Four score and seven" but not the same connotations — connotations that have symbolic power that comes in part from recognizing that we are hearing a historical language, a voice from the past. Likewise, there is no loss of literal meaning when we say "Holy, holy, holy" in place of "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus", but the connotations of history, millennial traditions, and an ethos that constitutes a sacred semantic are all gone, as they must be from any vernacular translation. It takes ages for a language to accrue those symbolic attributes. The very modernity and normalcy of vernacular speech automatically excludes them.

That is why so many of the world’s religions have never abandoned their sacred languages, inscrutable as they have become to the great majority of their modern adherents. Orthodox Jews have their ancient Hebrew, the eastern churches their Slavonic, the Hindus their Sanskrit, and even Shinto traditions are performed in a Japanese that is incomprehensible to anyone outside the priesthood. These sacred utterances, impossible for most to understand literally, are yet rich with symbolism for believers.

A great virtue of this kind of symbolic meaning is its immunity from casual manipulation. The fixed "dead" semantic of the ancient Latin itself is partly responsible, but so is the history attached to the language. The symbolism of Latin is a package: we cannot edit it, or choose which of its many significances we like at the present moment. The revival of liturgical Latin, for example, might prove distasteful for many because part of its symbolism comprises the "old Church" and what it stood for in their experiences. The vernacular, symbolically weightless, can reflect the theological passions of the moment; with Latin we have to face up to all of the past.

Neutral yet universal

A professor of German once told my class how the planners of a summit meeting between the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the French President Giscard d’Estaing finessed a delicate issue of language etiquette. Both leaders could speak the other’s tongue, so which would be used? The solution: they spoke English, a neutral language. What was the problem? The simple fact that in any situation where there are native speakers and non-native speakers of the language in use, the latter are at a disadvantage and feel so. When the slightest question of nuance or usage arises, the native speakers instantly assume the roles of unimpeachable authority, for in the realm of their native speech, so they are. The vernacular is the heaviest of all cultural impositions. To create linguistic equality among diverse groups, a neutral language is a handy thing.

More and more parishes are serving multiple linguistic communities, and the common practice of having a designated "Spanish Mass" or "Vietnamese Mass" doesn’t solve the problem here, because there will always be worshippers whose native language is not the vernacular of the moment. In effect, they are placed at the lowest table of the banquet. Latin has the peculiar properties of a dead language: besides owning a vocabulary of unchanging meaning, no one learns it as native speech anymore. When liturgical Latin is spoken, there are no natural superiors.

This situation is reminiscent of Lazar Zamenhof’s dream for his brainchild, Esperanto, which he hoped would become the world’s common language and thus an agent for world peace. It would have to be learned, not as a native, but as a second language by all, and thus confer a linguistic equality on all. In other words, the flip side of Latin as a dead language is its potential as a universal liturgical language for Catholics. The recent film about Father Damien the Leper, Molokai, shows Damien teaching a small group of parishioners how to sing the Agnus Dei, to the same Gregorian melody, as it so happens, as is used in my own parish. The thought occurred immediately: these native Hawaiians might feel at home in my church in central New York when the liturgy reached the Agnus Dei, for then they could sing the melody we all know using the language we all share. The experience of participating in a liturgy in a far-away place and finding the same traditions, the same music, and the same words as vibrant symbolism of a living Catholic (i.e., universal) faith is a profound one. Could liturgical Latin, at least for, say, the Ordinary prayers, make such experiences universal?


The trump card of the vernacular languages over Latin, of course, is comprehensibility, so that all might "understand the Mass", but this matter is not as simple as first appears. We have to ask what is comprehended.

The vernacular reigns supreme in the realm of literal comprehension: what the text actually says to a linguistic community of that vernacular. In those parts of the liturgy where the content of what is said is at the center of significance, the vernacular is indispensable: the readings from Scripture above all. Particularly in view of the renewed interest in Scripture and the homily’s link with it, the precise literal meaning of the readings — as precise as a vernacular translation allows — must be available to all hearers.

At other points in the liturgy, however, "understanding the Mass" is not so much comprehension on the literal as on symbolic levels. Most of us could retell the Gospel after Mass, if asked, but how many of us remember the content of the proper prayers each Sunday? Could most Catholics really say a lot more about the real meaning of "begotten, not made, one in being with the Father" than about "congenitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri"? It could be argued that in these cases, perhaps even including the Eucharistic prayer, the content gives way in significance to the very act of praying. And liturgical action inspires best when it is richly overlaid with symbolism, the natural heritage of liturgical Latin.

And if Catholics were to study the Creed so vigorously that they might understand "begotten, not made, one in being with the Father", could they not easily assimilate the Latin phrase that contains the doctrine? What about assimilating Kyrie eleison and the other commonly sung prayers, as Pope Paul VI fervently wished in Jubilate Deo (1974), as we have assimilated "alleluia", "Maranatha", "Amen" and other foreign terms? Using foreign terms in a consistent context so that their meaning becomes second nature is routine in all language communities, routine because it is easy and because the conservation of the original connotation is so important in such cases.

Macaronic liturgy

As with many of life’s interesting problems, it appears that the choice of liturgical language must weigh competing advantages and trade-offs. No small part of the vernacular liturgy’s missing gravity and solemnity is due to the lack of an ancient, sacred language such as most other major world religions proclaim with pride. On the other hand, few now would tolerate reading the Scriptures in a foreign language.

Article 54 of Sacrosanctum Concilium provides a compromise:

54. In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This provision is to apply in the first place to the readings and "the common prayer", but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people….

Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.

Did the Council foresee the different kinds of comprehension required for inspirational liturgy: literal for the didactic, textual moments, and symbolic for the liturgical actions? Or did it merely point to the common sense of ancient tradition? Before the Council, a Catholic Mass in America would have had Greek (Kyrie eleison), Latin, Hebrew (alleluia), and English (homily) conjoined together. A renewed macaronic (mixed language) liturgy cannot resolve all linguistic divisions, but it might meet the gravest concerns on either side of the question of liturgical language.


Joseph P. Swain’s career includes work in musicology, music education, performance, reviews, and composition. He has published books on music and musical languages and his articles have appeared in The New Oxford Review, The American Organist, The Diapason and Pastoral Music. He is presently associate professor of music at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.



The Editors