language in liturgy


A liturgical language is one used in the official public services of any Church or Rite. It may or may not be the language spoken by the people. Sometimes it is an older, and at times, an almost unintelligible form of the vernacular. However each liturgical language was first chosen precisely because it was the language of the faithful. In the Eastern Churches there is no uniform liturgical language such as is used in the West. The universality of Latin in the West is due to the fact that Latin was the only language of culture until far into the Middle Ages. In the East, Greek, while quite common, was never the sole language of culture. Side by side with it were other languages of almost equal importance and dignity, e.g., Coptic, and Syriac. It was only natural that the Liturgy should have been translated into those languages for the people speaking them. As the faith spread the liturgy was put into the language of almost every new people evangelized. The liturgical languages used by Catholic Churches other than those of the Roman Rite are: Greek, Arabic (by Melchites), Slavonic, Georgian, Rumanian, all of the Byzantine Rite; Syriac, in the Syrian, Maronite, Chaldean, and Malabar Rites; Coptic, in the Coptic Rites; Armenian in all Churches of that Rite. In the Western Church, for the first two centuries, at least, the liturgical language at Rome was Greek. From the third century Latin became the ordinary language of the Christians at Rome; however, when it displaced Greek as the liturgical language is disputed. The change was gradual, but once effected Latin remained the liturgical language of the West. Two exceptions are to be noted: Slavonic has been used since the 11th century in Churches of Roman Rite along the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and on rare occasions Mass is said in Greek at Rome. The Church has many valid reasons for retaining the Latin in her services. Some of them are: the formulae used are most ancient and are approved expressions of Catholic Faith; Latin, being a dead language, is not subject to change as are modern tongues; the beauty and harmony of liturgical compositions would be lost if translated; a change of language would destroy the sacred music which was written for Latin meter and cadence; Latin is “a witness of antiquity for the Mass; it provides an atmosphere of home for the traveler in every land; and unity of language throughout the patriarchate is a bulwark of unity of government and faith, a protection against nationalistic tendencies which have proved such a scourge in the past. There are translations into almost every language of the parts of the liturgy in which the laity participate. Moreover it should be kept in mind that liturgy is public worship, in which the people have a part as well as the priest, and that language is only one element of worship, the ceremonial being by far the most important element.

MLA Citation

  • “language in liturgy”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 23 October 2010. Web. 20 September 2021. <>