Knowledge of Latin

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Priests who have adopted the «Latin Mass» for parish celebrations were present at a diocesan deanery meeting. The question was raised: After a course to prepare to manage the Latin, how long does it take to understand what one is praying? This response was given: It is not necessary to understand; it is only necessary to pronounce correctly. Is a valid Mass possible if the celebrant does not understand what he is saying? — W.O., Worcester, Massachusetts

A: There are perhaps several levels to this question: the question of understanding a text so as to achieve an authentic act of worship, and the question of minimal requirements for validity.

While this topic has not been treated in depth in magisterial documents, there are two documents which can help us formulate a reply.

The first, from the instruction «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» refers to the ordinary form and to international concelebrations. It offers, however, a general principle regarding knowing a language:

«113. When Mass is concelebrated by several Priests, a language known both to all the concelebrating Priests and to the gathered people should be used in the recitation of the Eucharist Prayer. Where it happens that some of the Priests who are present do not know the language of the celebration and therefore are not capable of pronouncing the parts of the Eucharistic Prayer proper to them, they should not concelebrate, but instead should attend the celebration in choral dress in accordance with the norms.»

The second document is from an instruction issued by the Ecclesia Dei Commission that oversees the extraordinary form and develops some of the norms in Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic letter «Summorum Pontificum,» With respect to the requirements for the priest the following is declared:

«20. With respect to the question of the necessary requirements for a priest to be held idoneus(‘qualified’) to celebrate in the forma extraordinaria, the following is hereby stated:

«a. Every Catholic priest who is not impeded by Canon Law is to be considered idoneus(‘qualified’) for the celebration of the Holy Mass in the forma extraordinaria.

«b. Regarding the use of the Latin language, a basic knowledge is necessary, allowing the priest to pronounce the words correctly and understand their meaning.

«c. Regarding knowledge of the execution of the Rite, priests are presumed to be qualified who present themselves spontaneously to celebrate the forma extraordinaria, and have celebrated it previously.»

From these two texts we can see that the ability to at least pronounce and understand the meaning of the text is considered necessary.

This means that the priest has a general understanding of what he is saying, but need not have an in-depth knowledge of all the nuances of grammar.

For the ordinary form, a concelebrant should at least know how to pronounce correctly the parts recited by all. Even if he understands little of the language of the celebration, he knows the same texts in his own language and can usually follow along. As the instruction says, if he lacks even this minimum, he should refrain from concelebrating.

Since there is no concelebration in the extraordinary form, the level of knowledge of Latin is somewhat higher. For example, a priest should be able to grasp the general meanings of the prayers, readings and prefaces. He should also be able to use the correct grammatical form for variable elements such as the names of the pope, bishop and the saint of the day.

If he has enough knowledge to pronounce correctly but is less confident with respect to the other elements, then he could still celebrate by preparing beforehand with the aid of a good translation. Otherwise, it is better to wait until he attains the minimum level of Latin.

Therefore, we can say that in the light of these documents, but also taking into account discussions among theologians, we can say that the minimum requirement for a valid Mass is the correct pronunciation of the words of consecration along with a general understanding of their meaning. This correct understanding should be able to be presumed in a priest.

Even here, the correct pronunciation is not absolute, provided the errors or lack of clarity in saying the words do not create a new meaning. For example, a priest who has developed a speech impediment due to illness could still validly celebrate if he knows what he is trying to say but cannot clearly enunciate it. In his final years, Pope St. John Paul II’s pronunciation was often unintelligible for the majority, but nobody doubts the validity of his Mass.

Beyond the minimum requirement for validity, the dignity and quality of the celebration as an act of worship demands an adequate understanding of the language of the celebration. From the external and pastoral point of view the priest should be able to proclaim the text, not just pronouncing correctly, but being able to give the proper emphasis, pause and stress that transmits the meaning of the text as a prayer.

This correct proclamation and understanding also helps priest and faithful to interiorize the prayer and allow it to penetrate and transform their lives.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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