The history of Catholic liturgical practices is long and complex, ranging the world over, across many cultures, languages, historical eras, and countless other complicating factors. Perhaps because of its complexity, the Church’s liturgical history raises many questions for Catholics. For the Church in the West, one of the most controversial liturgical questions today is whether and how much Latin should be used in the liturgy. As we near the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, it is a good time to take a look back at what the Council had to say. Liturgical and Latin experts agree that it is high time to revisit this important conciliar text to better understand the value of using Latin in the celebration of the liturgy and its role in preserving the Church’s unity.
So, what did the Second Vatican Council say about the use of vernacular in the liturgy, and its proper place along with Latin? Here we will be focusing on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC)) 54: “In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This 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, according to the norm laid down in Art. 36 of this Constitution. 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. And wherever a more extended use of the mother tongue within the Mass appears desirable, the regulation laid down in Art. 40 of this Constitution is to be observed.”
Article 36, as referenced above, says: “1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. 2. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters. 3. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And, whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language. 4. Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned above.”
And Article 40 gives guidelines which are to be followed when “an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties.”
There are points here that are certainly open to interpretation, and the Church has seen a wide array of interpretations of the particulars in these texts over the last 60 years, and as a reflection of this ambiguity, even the implementation was gradual and somewhat inconsistent. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was promulgated on December 4, 1963, which led to a missal a year later that was a version of the 1962 missal with the people’s parts in English. A Sacramentary was produced in 1966 which allowed nearly all texts in the vernacular; two years later, the entire Mass could be said in English, but this was still a version of the missal of 1962. In 1970, the Novus Ordo Roman Missal appeared in Latin, and this was finally approved in its English-language form in 1974, 11 years after Sacrosanctum Concilium. Updated editions would follow over the next few decades, with the third and most recent edition being implemented in English at the end of 2011.
The text of Sacrosanctum Concilium in no way mandates that all celebrations of the liturgy must be entirely in the vernacular, nor that the form of the Mass must be substantially changed. In fact, as we have seen, the Council Fathers explicitly state that the faithful should know their responses in Latin, and that Latin remains the normative language of the Latin Church and should be preserved. Considering these two points, it seems that the reform of the liturgy drifted outside its lane a bit, to say the least.
Reform of the Reform?
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio is the founder and editor of Ignatius Press, and a co-founder of Adoremus Society. After hearing a talk by Father Brian Harrison in 1995 entitled “On the Reform of the Reform of the Liturgy,” Father Fessio became convinced that the implementation of the Council had been skewed, and that what was needed was to take another look at the Council’s directives and the pre-conciliar Mass, and reform the reforms that had already taken place. What did that effort look like in practice?
“For me, what that meant was that I took all the options in the Novus Ordo, and wherever there was an option that was closest to the Mass before the Council, that’s the option I would use,” Father Fessio told Adoremus. “It is permitted to say the entire Novus Ordo in Latin, but my understanding of the Council was where the vernacular was needed for the people—because you couldn’t expect them to understand the readings in Latin, for example—I did the vernacular. The unchanging parts, the Ordinary, I did in Latin.”
Since Father Fessio has never served as a pastor of a parish, he said that it was easy for him to implement this in his celebration of the Mass. But according to the Jesuit, the best place to begin implementing this reform of the reform in a parish is by praying the Greek Kyrie, followed by the Latin Sanctus and Agnus Dei, then the Gloria, and finally the Creed.
This is the principle articulated thoroughly in then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), and repeateded during his papacy. One example of this can be found in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis: “I wish to endorse the proposal made by the Synod of Bishops, in harmony with the directives of the Second Vatican Council, that, with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful, it is fitting that such liturgies be celebrated in Latin” (62). The liturgies Pope Benedict is referring to are large, international gatherings, but this is fully in continuity with what the Council Fathers said.
Father Jerry Pokorsky is the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, VA, in the Diocese of Arlington. Ordained in 1990 for the Arlington diocese, he is co-founder of CREDO, a society of priests committed to promoting a faithful translation of the liturgy. He is also co-founder of the Adoremus Society (along with Father Fessio and the late Helen Hull Hitchcock), and remains on the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors for Adoremus.
CREDO focused its efforts on the translation of the Mass into English, promoting faithful and accurate translations untainted by political correctness or agenda. Adoremus came along after that, and it “not only encouraged the accurate translation of the liturgy into the vernacular, but the organization also promoted the ‘reform of the reform’ of the liturgy according to the norms of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the vision of Joseph Ratzinger in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Father Pokorsky said in an interview with Adoremus.
It is important to remember that “the Council didn’t mandate the vernacular; the Council permitted the vernacular,” Father Pokorsky said. And even in the production of vernacular texts, there were mistranslations. “The dumbed down mistranslations neglected the ‘sacral vocabulary’ (words like ‘merit,’ ‘beseech,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘holy,’ etc.).” One example, he said, is translating Et cum spiritu tuo as “And also with you” rather than “And with your spirit,” as the current translation accurately reflects.
While Latin is the official language of the Church and emphasizes her Catholicity, Father Pokorsky said, there are certain pastoral reasons for Masses in the vernacular. “In America, it is prudent to celebrate Spanish and Vietnamese Masses (for example) where needed,” he said, but added that pastoral concern is often confused with political fervor—to the detriment of the Church. “Unfortunately, invoking a rigid ‘multiculturalism’ rather than polite pastoral sensitivity and accommodation accentuates our differences rather than our unity in Jesus.”
At this point, is it possible to implement these principles in practice at the parish?
Father Dylan Schrader currently serves as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Westphalia, MO, and St. Anthony Parish in Folk, MO; he also serves as the diocesan Latinist for the Diocese of Jefferson City, MO, for which he was ordained a priest in 2010. “Since the liturgy is the prayer of the Church and not private devotion, obedience to the Church’s vision for the liturgy ought to be sufficient motivation” for the faithful to know the Latin responses, Father Schrader told Adoremus.
Additionally, knowing the Latin responses helps unite Catholics around the world. “Especially in today’s global, multi-lingual society,” Father Schrader noted, “there is a great value in Catholics from a variety of language groups to be able to pray together in a common language that does not favor one group over the others.”
But, he added, Latin doesn’t just happen to be one among many other languages to choose from for the liturgy. “Latin remains the normative, traditional language of the Roman liturgy,” he explained, “and Catholics ought to be familiar with it, just as they should with other parts of their heritage and identity.”
As a parish priest, Father Schrader has seen the challenges of implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium’s directives concerning Latin in the liturgy (SC, 54) firsthand. There are typically four levels of acceptance among parishioners, he said: “In my experience, a small number of parishioners are highly resistant to introducing Latin; the majority are slightly resistant; a very small minority favors it; and another small group—mostly young people—is at least open to it.” According to Father Schrader, many people in the pews associate Latin with “going backwards” to pre-Vatican II days, so there is at least some resistance from most in the pews. But, he added, the small but significant interest and desire to see Latin reintegrated into the liturgy can—and should—be encouraged and developed.
There are challenges, of course. Priests are responsible for the liturgy in their parishes, but Father Schrader said that a certain strategic—and prudent—approach is necessary.
“A priest cannot effectively introduce Latin into a parish on his own by simply putting his foot down,” Father Schrader said. “A more helpful approach may be to educate people on the nature of the Mass and the liturgy in general and to build up other elements of Romanitas [the Roman character of the liturgy] and a sense of the transcendent.” Father Schrader, along with Father Fessio, recommends teaching the responses piecemeal, perhaps starting with the sung Greek Kyrie, followed by the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and so forth. Both acknowledge that the simple chants are easy to learn, easy to sing, and easy to remember—and before long the assembly will be proficient.
It is important to clarify the context in which one may implement these changes in the language of the Mass or other liturgical activities. A pastor must understand “why things are the way they are in a given parish,” Father Schrader said. “What is the history? Have the parishioners lived through a series of traumatic liturgical changes? Are they afraid of more changes? Worn out? Angry? A good parish pastoral council can be invaluable. If a pastor is able to have honest conversations about what he would like to do and why, while also listening genuinely to the perspectives of the parishioners, everything will go much better.”
Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth is a priest of the Oratorian Community of St. Philip Neri, and is Executive Director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), a role he assumed in July 2009, and which he will continue to hold until November 1, 2023. He told Adoremus that there have been improvements over the years in the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium at the parish level. While the document mandates that the principal parts of the Mass must be known by the people in Latin, he said, this does not seem to be the experience of many Catholics, “although the use of the chants of the third edition of the Roman Missal, which are easily sung in Latin or the vernacular, has somewhat improved things in this respect.”
Beyond the action of the liturgy itself, the renewed use of Latin can be an apologetic opportunity, as well. “Because of the situation in the Church today, with so much of our tradition forgotten or never learned, we often have to take the approach of teaching Catholics about their Catholic faith and heritage as if it were a matter of apologetics,” Father Schrader said. “That’s where offering them good experiences of Latin can help, such as a Mass with some Latin chants beautifully sung by their children and grandchildren.”
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland, OR, in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Catholics Answers Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets, and is the author of Fatima: 100 Questions and Answers about the Marian Apparitions and Church Councils: 100 Questions and Answers (both out from Ignatius Press). Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their five children.