Rorate Caeli

Italian and English: Sacred languages?

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla

We all pray that the symbolic initiative made by Pope Francis in bringing together the President of the State of Israel and the President of the Palestine National Authority to pray for peace will bear real fruit. We hope that this public and spiritual gesture will crack open the hardened cynicism and deep fatigue that lies in the way of peace between Israel and the Palestine National Authority.

At such a ceremony, language becomes very important: not only the words used, the prayers chosen, but the choice of the specific language in which the prayers and readings are offered.  The section relating to the Jewish Community, consisting of Psalms and prayers, was read in Ancient Hebrew, which is a language that is a "sacred language" for Jews.  Not only is it the language of the Torah and Prophets.  For many Jews it is also the liturgical language of worship in the Synagogue.  The section relating to the Palestinian Community was read in Classical Arabic, a "sacred language" for Islam, the language of the Quran and the language used in the liturgical and prayer services of Islam.

The section of the prayer service relating to the Christian Community was read, curiously, in English, Italian and Arabic.
 Does this mean that the Christian Community, which includes the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, has no sacred languages, that is, languages that have a deep and direct link to the Tradition that lies at the heart of the practice of the Christian faith?  It would seem so.  English is fast becoming the lingua franca of the world.  Italian is the language spoken in the city and country in which Vatican City is located.  But they have no religious and spiritual significance as do Ancient Hebrew and Classical Arabic.  

To even bring up this as a problem could be dismissed as unimportant and even churlish within the context of a prayer initiative on the part of the Pope to foster peace in the Middle East.  Who could possibly be against such a gesture and initiative on the part of the Pope?  But surely the Bishop of Rome cannot have forgotten that Latin and Greek are sacred languages of the Catholic Church, languages that have fundamental roles in Scripture, Tradition and the Liturgy, and that Greek is a sacred language for Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who stood by his side at the prayer service.

With respect to the special role of Latin in the Catholic Church, the Pope surely cannot have forgotten the remarkable encyclical of St. Pope John XXIII, Veterum Sapientiae, in which the Latin language is confirmed as the sacred language of the Catholic Church. 

Latin therefore, so intimately bound up with the Church’s life, “is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons” as was pointed out by Our predecessor Pius XI who, having investigated this matter, indicated three attributes that are wonderfully consistent with the Church’s nature, namely: “in order that the Church may embrace all nations, and that it may last until the end of time, it requires a language that is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”

This is further and clearly affirmed by the Second Vatican Council in the Document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium:  

“6. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”

And what are we to make of the reading in Arabic of the so-called Prayer of St. Francis, which is now well-known to have nothing to do with that Saint and to come from early 20th century France? What does this mean? What is its purpose?  It certainly can be construed as a forced and sentimental use of the great Saint of Assisi and the Arabic language. 

One can hope that this prayer service initiated by Pope Francis bears fruit in a true and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.  But one must also hope that the Catholic Church recovers her memory that she does have a sacred language, and that it is not English, nor Italian, but Latin.