Rorate Caeli

Contemporary Double Standards and the Church's Historic Preference for Sacred Languages in the Liturgy

By James Baresel

Some months ago, a generally excellent priest—an outspoken friend of the Traditional Latin Mass though not a traditionalist—mentioned two things in a conversation which demonstrate of how even Catholics whose orthodoxy and friendliness to the ancient Roman Rite are unimpeachable can unconsciously accept assumptions foreign to historical Catholicism and hold traditionalists to a double standard.

Emphasizing the importance of prudence, he told me of a parish whose pastor switched one Sunday Mass from (reverently celebrated) English to (Novus Ordo) Latin despite nearly unanimous opposition from a congregation generally friendly to traditional practices. Years later, the Latin Mass was the most poorly attended, few wanted to keep it, and a not inconsiderable number were still resentful—understandably so, in the mind of the priest who told the story. A new pastor then switched back to English. The priest relating this story took a less-than-understanding view of traditionalists’ current bitterness at the current paucity of options for Latin Mass.

Most Catholics having known only vernacular Masses for decades, I agree that efforts to promote Latin should not involve forcing people to give up what they are used to. But the congregation still had two Masses in English in their parish every Sunday, and a number of nearby suburban churches with English Masses at the same time as the Latin one. All they lost was their preferred combination of time, location and language. If their resentment was understandable, how much more understandable is the bitterness of some who for decades were relatively well off if they had one Latin Mass (in either form) available within an hour’s drive, often faced harassment for attending Latin Mass, and even in the best days under Summorum Pontificum could rarely find more than a handful of Traditional Latin Masses in single diocese? Indeed, the surprising thing is how uncommon it is for traditionalists in the real world (as opposed to the small, self-selected group that inhabit certain online forums) to be bitter in the face of such widespread and longstanding hostility from Church hierarchy. 

Unfortunately, the priest I spoke to is not an isolated case. Frequently, and unfortunately, priests will turn down the opportunity to provide an additional Mass in Latin in cases where granting a comparably-sized congregation of Spanish-speakers Mass in their language would be standard practice. It is now seen as more legitimate and necessary for congregants to be provided Mass in their vernacular tongue than it is to be provided Mass in the traditional language of the Church's liturgy, Latin. Even some who strongly support Latin seem to accept the very modern notion that Catholics cannot be expected to be content with Mass in a sacred language because they do not understand the words.

Historically, however, it was a generally-accepted norm that Catholics should be content with, and able to pray at, Mass celebrated in a liturgical language they do not understand. That is because the prayers of the priest were understood to be addressed to God, rather than a congregation whose members could silently address Him in whatever language they want. Being unaccustomed to Mass in a liturgical language—not the simple fact of not understanding it—was considered the only legitimate reason to not be content with it. In practice this meant vernacular languages were introduced only for converts in newly Christianized areas, and then only in particular cases rather than as a standard practice.

Aside from Egypt’s Coptic language, Mass in the first centuries of the Church was celebrated in Latin, Greek and Aramaic—which were considered the three sacred languages of the Church because they were used to proclaim “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” on the sign attached to Christ’s cross. From the Church’s earliest days, European peoples who spoke Celtic and Germanic languages attended Mass in Latin or, in the first decades after Christ, Greek. If interaction with Roman soldiers and officials assured them a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, no analogous situation existed in India. When Saint Thomas the Apostle introduced Christianity there, he offered the Divine Liturgy in Syriac—an Aramaic dialect which had nothing in common with Indian languages, was encountered outside the liturgy only in the studies of clergy and linguistic scholars and remained in exclusive use for centuries.

The most notable introduction of vernacular liturgy after the Coptic was that of what has since become known as Old Church Slavonic by Saints Cyril and Methodius in Eastern Europe. But, aside from those who retained the older Greek, both Byzantine Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches retained Old Church Slavonic until the twentieth century—long after it ceased to be a vernacular language.

I do not deny, and I will even argue, that we are in not just exceptional but truly anomalous circumstances. That is, prudence today requires the substantial majority of Masses be in vernacular languages for the indefinite future, while Latin can be no more than gently and slowly encouraged among the majority of Catholics. But it must be recognized that vernacular liturgy is what Saint John XXIII and a majority of the Vatican II Fathers who voted for Sacrosanctum Concilium insisted that it was, and what the teachings of the Council of Trent and of Pope Pius XII (among others) said it could only be—a pastoral concession which does not negate the Church’s preference for sacred languages in the liturgy.