The Mass, Lesson VIII – Latin in the Mass

43 – Latin a Symbol of Unity

Besides being an emphasis of the true teaching concerning the nature of public worship, Latin is also a symbol of the unity of the Church. As at the tower of Babel the confusion of tongues marked the dispersion of the nations, so in the Church unity of speech is a lesson that Christ has joined all men in the bonds of brotherhood. The use of Latin thus connects us with our fathers in the faith. It is a heritage from the days of old and a memorial of the time when in the Western world there was only one faith and one tongue. A Catholic hears Mass in the same familiar accents in Europe, in America, in China, in the Islands of the Sea. He is at home in every land, and nowhere does the worship seem strange to him. Thus, like the Communion of Saints, our liturgical language binds together ages and countries the most remote and is a visible sign to all of the unity of the Church of Christ.

44 – Advantages of Latin

Moreover, Latin has this great advantage that it never changes. Spoken languages, on the contrary, are never fixed, but the words and phrases in them are always taking on new meanings. Hence a Liturgy in the spoken language sometimes becomes unintelligible and often positively misleading. Thus, for example, a prayer which is said during the Mass formerly began “Prevent, we beseech Thee, Lord, our actions by Thy Holy Inspiration.” Then the meaning was, “Further our actions,” or “Go before our actions.” Now, however, it means the very opposite, “Stop our actions.” So, too, the Psalms which are read in Protestant churches are now almost unintelligible to the uneducated even in English, not only on account of their subject, but on account of the words used. From these disadvantages Latin is free. There is no danger of irreverence from ridiculous or evil meanings attributed to words, but the whole service is conducted with a decency and a majesty which can be gained only by the use of a language so stately and so full-sounding as the Latin.

We all know that when a piece of our silver money has for a long time been fulfilling its part as pale and common drudge tween man and man, whatever it had at first of sharper outline and livelier impress is in the end nearly or altogether worn away. So it is with words, above all with words of theology and science. These, getting into general use, and passing often from mouth to mouth, lose the image and superscription which they had, before they descended from the school to the market-place, from the pulpit to the street. Being now caught up by those who understood imperfectly and thus incorrectly their true value, who will not be at the pains of learning what that is, or who are incapable of so doing, they are obliged to accommodate themselves to the lower sphere in which they circulate, by laying aside much of the precision and accuracy and fullness which once they had; they become feebler, shallower, more indistinct, till in the end, as true and adequate exponents of thought or feeling, they cease to be of any service at all.

45 – Disadvantages of Latin

The only objection which can be made against Latin is that it is not “understanded of the people.” This disadvantage is well known by those in authority in the Church; still, though the question was discussed, it was considered more advisable to keep to the Latin. We have seen Latin is not necessary for the essence of public worship; other languages are used, and any language might be employed. But we have seen, too, that it is not necessary for the essence of public worship that the people should understand. The reasons, therefore, for its continuance or discontinuance by the proper authorities are reasons of advantage. Is it more useful to keep Latin or to adopt the vulgar tongue? As we have said, this question was debated, and the Council of Trent decided in favor of Latin. The utility of Latin in being an Emphasis of Doctrine, a symbol of unity and a conservator of dignity was considered greater than the utility of a language in common use. This decision was reached the more readily because the Latin service is not so unintelligible as some would make it out to be. In the first place, Catholics, who are familiar with it from childhood, grow into its .spirit and unconsciously imbibe its meaning. In the second place, books in which the prayers are translated and the ceremonies explained are plenty and cheap. In the third place, the Council of Trent has ordered frequent oral instructions on the nature of the Liturgy for those who cannot find time or occasion for studying books. Hence it is a fact of experience that if we take a Protestant and a Catholic from the same walk of life, with the same advantages, the same education, the Catholic can give a fuller and better account of the services of his Church, though they are in Latin, than the Protestant can of the observances of his own sect, though all is in English. The reason is that in the Catholic Church everything teaches. The ceremonies, the vestments, the altar, the pictures, the statues, all teach through the eye far more quickly and far more thoroughly than mere words can teach through the ear.

“Although the Mass containeth much instruction for the faithful people, nevertheless it hath not seemed good to the fathers that it should be celebrated in all places in the vulgar tongue. Wherefore, retaining everywhere the ancient rite of each Church which hath been approved by the Roman Church, the mother and mistress of all churches, lest the sheep of Christ should be a-hungered and the little children should ask for bread and no man should break it unto them: the holy synod doth command pastors and them who have the cure of souls to explain frequently either in person or by deputy during the celebration of the Mass some particular of those things which are read in the Mass; and especially on Sundays and festivals to publish among other subjects some mystery of this most holy sacrifice.” – Council of Trent

46 – Our Personal Debt of Honor

When the Council of Trent ordered frequent explanations of the Mass in Church, books were not as cheap and as plenty as they are now, neither was popular education so widely spread. In our conditions, it is possible for practically all Catholics to study and understand what is done at the altar if they have the good will. Of course, we can hear Mass without a book at all or while saying the beads, and perhaps hear it more profitably than some who can give an account of every point in the service; but, as we can see from the official declaration of the Church in the Council of Trent, it is her wish that all her children should by instruction and knowledge have access to the spiritual treasures that lie hid in the mystery of the Mass. Catholics, therefore, who are receiving a Catholic education are under a special obligation of honor to acquire this familiarity with the chief action of their religion. Especially students who are pursuing the higher studies should deem it their dearest privilege to be able to enter in spirit into this Holy of Holies. Those who are studying Latin may, even towards the end of their first year, be able to follow the priest in the general order of the Mass in a Latin Missal. Those who are not learning Latin will find English translations of the Missal easy to procure at a reasonable price. Gradually the prayers of the Liturgy will become as familiar to them as those they learned at their mother’s knee, and they will be brought into close and intimate communion with our blessed Lord, who in this wonderful rite has left us the memorial of His love.