Office of Worship

Why Latin?

From the EWTN Library

As you know, one of the liturgical reforms called for by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council was to give to local bishops the authority to allow the celebration of Mass in what is called the “vernacular” language, meaning the spoken language of the people.  But the fact that almost every Mass you attend today is in the vernacular has led many people to believe that it was the intention of the Council to eliminate the use of Latin altogether; and some have even adjusted their spirituality of the Mass to include the peculiar notion that they cannot participate fully in the celebration unless it is in a language they can understand.

While the Second Vatican Council did allow for the use of the vernacular tongue, in no way does it require it, and, in fact, lays great stress on preserving the use of Latin in the liturgy, as evidenced by the decree from Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, which reads,

“All the faithful should be able to sing or say in Latin the parts of the Mass which concern them”
(SC, Art. 54)

Later, after the Council, the Church, in its instruction concerning sacred music, would remind bishops that, while they may allow the use of the vernacular in public worship, they are to take special care to see that the use of Latin does not disappear completely, either by the celebration of some Masses completely in Latin, or by celebrating parts of the Mass in Latin and other parts, particularly the readings, in the vernacular.  Now, some people will argue that, if people want the old Mass, they can drive over to another church some distance away have the old Mass, and that the rest of us shouldn’t have to hear it.  But this is not referring to the old Mass.  When Pope Paul VI composed the Mass we use today, he did so in the Latin language, and gave it to the Church in the Latin language.  The differences between the old Mass and the new Mass have nothing to do with language.

Other people will sometimes object that they are not able to fully participate in the Mass if the Mass, or parts of the Mass, are not in their own language.  But this betrays a real defect in their understanding of the Mass and the way they approach the whole subject of participation. If these objections were correct, then we would have to assume that no one, prior to the Second Vatican Council, participated fully in the Mass (and some people would probably maintain that).  We would also have to maintain that someone traveling in another country, and unable to hear Mass in his own language, could not participate fully in the Mass; and this is simply ridiculous.  Liturgical participation, as the Church understands it, has little to do with physical activity and the pronunciation of words; it has to do with prayer.  To maintain that I cannot participate in the Mass unless I understand every word is to reduce the notion of participation to a mere function.

On Feb. 24th, 1980, Ven. Pope John Paul the Great wrote a letter to the bishops of the Church regarding “The Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist.” In part of that letter he reminds the bishops of why the Council of Trent chose to maintain the use of Latin in the liturgy even though it has long ceased to be a living language.  He said that the use of Latin, in his own words, “in all the world was an expression of the unity of the Church and through it’s dignified character elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery” (Dominicae Cenae, Art. 10).  In other words, what the use of Latin does is give us a sense of the Church throughout the world as a single family, undivided by language and culture; that we are not so much members of a parish community or a diocesan family, but members of the one Church of Christ which is united in the one celebration of the Eucharist. For this reason in particular, says the  Holy Father, “The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself” (Ibid.).

And even the new catechism, in addressing the subject, points out that while it is important for the liturgy to allow for the expression of different cultures throughout the world, it is always crucial to remember that the liturgy of the Church is not submissive to culture, but rather it generates and shapes it  (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Art. 1207).