The Language of Liturgical Celebration

How Latin Could Serve as a «Bond of Unity»

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By Uwe Michael Lang, CO

ROME, MARCH 11, 2011 ( Language is not only an instrument that serves to communicate facts, which it seeks to do in the most simple and efficient way, but it is also the means to express our mind in a way that involves the whole person. Consequently, language is also the means by which we express thoughts and religious experiences.

Christine Mohrmann, the great historian of the Latin of Christians, affirms that «sacred language» used in divine worship is a specific way of «organizing» the religious experience. In fact, Mohrmann maintains that every form of believing in supernatural reality, in the existence of a transcendent being, leads necessarily to the adoption of a form of sacred language in worship, whereas radical secularism rejects any form of it.

In this connection, Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, explained in an interview to the Italian daily La Repubblic in July 2009 that «the use of sacred language is a tradition in the whole world. In Hinduism, the language of prayer is Sanskrit, which is no longer in use. In Buddhism Pali is used, a language that today only Buddhist monks study. In Islam, the Arabic of the Koran is used. The use of a sacred language helps us to live the sensation of the beyond.»

The use of a sacred language in the liturgical celebration is part of what St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae calls the «solemnitas.» The Angelic Doctor teaches: «What is found in the sacraments by human institution is not necessary to the validity of the sacrament, but confers a certain solemnity, useful in the sacraments to exercise devotion and respect in those who receive it» (Summa Theologiae III, 64, 2; cf. 83, 4).

Sacred language, being the means of expression not only of individuals, but rather of a community that follows its traditions, is conservative: it maintains the archaic linguistic forms with tenacity. Moreover, introduced in it are external elements, in so far as associated to an ancient religious tradition. A paradigmatic case is the Hebrew biblical vocabulary in the Latin used by Christians (Amen, Alleluia, Hosanna, etc.), as St. Augustine already observed (cf. «De doctrina christiana,» II, 34-35 [11, 16]).

In the course of history a wide variety of languages has been used in Christian worship: Greek in the Byzantine tradition; the different languages of the Eastern traditions, such as Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic and Ethiopic; Paleo-Slavic; the Latin of the Roman rite and of the other Western rites.

Found in all these languages are forms of style that separate them from the «ordinary» or popular language. Often this separation is the consequence of linguistic developments in the common language, which then are not adopted in the liturgical language because of its sacred character.

However, in the case of Latin as language of the Roman liturgy, a certain separation has existed since the beginning: Romans did not speak in the style of the canon or of the prayers of the Mass. As soon as Greek was replaced by Latin in the Roman liturgy, a highly stylized language was created as a means of worship, which an average Christian of Rome of late antiquity would have had difficulty in understanding.

A foundation

Moreover, the development of Christian «latinitas» could have rendered the liturgy more accessible to the people of Rome or Milan, but not necessarily to those whose mother tongue was Gothic, Celtic, Iberian, or Punic. Nevertheless, thanks to the prestige of the Church of Rome and the unifying force of the papacy, Latin became the singular liturgical language of Christianity, and subsequently one of the foundations of culture in the West.

The distance between liturgical Latin and the language of the people became greater with the development of the national cultures and languages in Europe, not to mention the mission territories. This situation did not foster the participation of the faithful in the liturgy, and that is why the Second Vatican Council wished to extend the use of the vernacular, already introduced to a certain degree in the preceding decades in the celebration of the sacraments (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy «Sacrosanctum Concilium,» Article 36, No. 2). At the same time, the council stressed that «the use of the Latin language […] should be kept in the Latin rites» (Ibid., Article 36, No. 1; cf. also Article 54).

However, the conciliar fathers did not imagine that the sacred language of the Western Church would be totally replaced by the vernacular. The linguistic fragmentation of Catholic worship was pushed so far, that many faithful today can hardly recite a «Pater Noster» along with others, as can be seen in international meetings in Rome and elsewhere.

In an age marked by great mobility and globalization, a common liturgical language could serve as a bond of unity among peoples and cultures, apart from the fact that the Latin liturgy is a unique spiritual treasure that has nourished the life of the Church for many centuries. Undoubtedly, Latin contributes to the sacred and stable character «which attracts many to the old use,» as Benedict XVI wrote in his Letter to Bishops, on the occasion of the publication of the «Summorum Pontificum» (July 7, 2007). With the wider use of the Latin language, an altogether legitimate choice, but little used, «in the celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI, could manifest, in a stronger way than it has often up to now, that sacredness» (Ibid.).

Finally, it is necessary to preserve the sacred character of the liturgical language in the vernacular translation, as noted with exemplary clarity in the Instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments on the translation of liturgical books Liturgiam Authenticam of 2001. A notable fruit of this instruction is the new English translation of the Missale Romanum, which will be introduced in many English-speaking countries in the course of this year.

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Oratorian Father Uwe Michael Lang is an official of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments and consultor of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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