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Theme: The Latin Conundrum

May 27, 2007

On the demise of Latin in the liturgy and the awkward balancing act (as exhibited by the statements of then-Cardinal Ratzinger below) of pushing for its greater use while at the same time honoring the fateful decision of Pope Paul VI to “part” with it…

[*see update below concerning Pope Benedict’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum]

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Excerpts from Veterum Sapientia – On the Promotion of the Study of Latin issued on February 22, 1962 by Pope John XXIII (boldface mine):

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.

Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin for mal structure. Its “concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity” makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression.

For these reasons the Apostolic See has always been at pains to preserve Latin, deeming it worthy of being used in the exercise of her teaching authority “as the splendid vesture of her heavenly doctrine and sacred laws.” She further requires her sacred ministers to use it, for by so doing they are the better able, wherever they may be, to acquaint themselves with the mind of the Holy See on any matter, and communicate the more easily with Rome and with one another.

Thus the “knowledge and use of this language,” so intimately bound up with the Church’s life, “is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons.” These are the words of Our Predecessor Pius XI, who conducted a scientific inquiry into this whole subject, and indicated three qualities of the Latin language which harmonize to a remarkable degree with the Church’s nature. “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time . . of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non vernacular.”


Bishops and superiors-general of religious orders shall take pains to ensure that in their seminaries and in their schools where adolescents are trained for the priesthood, all shall studiously observe the Apostolic Sees decision in this matter and obey these Our prescriptions most carefully.

In the exercise of their paternal care they shall be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, writes against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the liturgy, or through prejudice makes light of the Holy Sees will in this regard or interprets it falsely.

Excerpts from the Second Vatican Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, December 4, 1963:

36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

2. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters…

54. In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and “the common prayer,” but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people, according to tho norm laid down in Art. 36 of this Constitution.

Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them…

116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services…

Excerpts from Address to a General Audience, November 26, 1969 by Pope Paul VI (given just days before his revised rite of the mass Missale Romanum was to take effect):

It is here that the greatest newness is going to be noticed, the newness of language. No longer Latin, but the spoken language will be the principal language of the Mass. The introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power and the expressive sacrality of Latin. We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance. We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant.

We have reason indeed for regret, reason almost for bewilderment. What can we put in the place of that language of the angels? We are giving up something of priceless worth. But why? What is more precious than these loftiest of our Church’s values?

The answer will seem banal, prosaic. Yet it is a good answer, because it is human, because it is apostolic.

Understanding of prayer is worth more than the silken garments in which it is royally dressed. Participation by the people is worth more—particularly participation by modern people, so fond of plain language which is easily understood and converted into everyday speech.

POPE PUSHES FOR WIDER USE OF LATIN,” Catholic World News, February 22, 2002 (boldface mine):

Pope John Paul II has recommended the use of Latin in the Roman liturgy and in seminary training.

In a message to a conference being held at the Salesian University in Rome, the Holy Father emphasized that Latin remains the official language of the Catholic Church, and expressed his desire that “the love of that language would grow ever strong among candidates for the priesthood.” The Pope’s message itself was written in Latin, and read by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State.

The conference to which the Pope addressed this message was commemorating the 40th anniversary of Veterum Sapientia, the apostolic constitution in which Pope John XXIII wrote of the importance of Latin as an important part of “the patrimony of human civilization.”

Pope John Paul underlined the same message, pointing out that the use of Latin “is an indispensable condition for a proper relationship between modernity and antiquity, for dialogue among different cultures, and for reaffirming the identity of the Catholic priesthood.”

From The World Over: Cardinal Ratzinger interview, Raymond Arroyo with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Catholic News Agency / EWTN September 5, 2003:

Raymond: And that sense of sacrifice and worship that you’ve talked about so eloquently, how do you see that being restored concretely? Will we see a return to the ad orientem posture, facing the East, the priest facing away from the people during the Canon, a return to the Latin, more Latin in the Mass?

Cardinal: Versus orientem, I would say could be a help because it is really a tradition from the Apostolic time, and it’s not only a norm, but it’s an expression also of the cosmical dimension and of the historical dimension of the liturgy. We are celebrating with the cosmos, with the world. It’s the direction of the future of the world, of our history represented in the sun and in the cosmical realities. I think today this new discovering of our relation with the created world can be understood also from the people, better than perhaps 20 years ago. And also, it’s a common direction – priest and people are in common oriented to the Lord. So, I think it could be a help. Always external gestures are not simply a remedy in itself, but could be a help because it’s a very classical interpretation of what is the direction of the liturgy. Generally, I think it was good to translate the liturgy in the spoken languages because we will understand it; we will participate also with our thinking. But a stronger presence of some elements of Latin would be helpful to give the universal dimension, to give the possibilities that in all the parts of the world we can see “I am in the same Church.” So generally, popular language is …

Raymond: A good thing.

Cardinal: …a solution. But some presence of Latin could be helpful to have more experience of universality.

From “Move To Revive Latin Mass Reflects Deep Vatican Concerns On Liturgical Abuse,” Spirit Daily, April 20, 2005:

While on at least one occasion Cardinal Ratzinger has virtually expressed his wish that the liturgy had never been so radically changed, he cites advantages to the Novus Ordo. When Messori asked him if Masses should be said in Latin again, the prefect replied, “That is no longer going to be possible as a general practice, and perhaps it is not desirable as such. At least it is clear, I would say, that the Liturgy of the Word should be in people’s mother tongue. But otherwise I would be in favor of a new openness toward the use of Latin.” That openness will now be expressed in the expected indult, which may in its turn reverse the Church’s course and bring elements of the older rite back into the liturgy.

Commentary from Catholic World News on Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, issued on July 7, 2007:

Perhaps the most intriguing line in the Pope’s explanatory letter accompanying the motu proprio comes immediately after he notes that “the two forms of the usage of the Roman rite can be mutually enriching.” The Pope says that new Prefaces, and celebrations for some new saints, should be added to the 1962 Missal. Then he adds: “The Ecclesia Dei ommission, in contact with various bodies devoted to the usus antiquior, will study the practical possibilities in this regard.”

That passage confirms that Pope Benedict sees Summorum Pontificum as one necessary step in a long-term reform of the liturgy. He apparently hopes that some elements of the new Novus Ordo liturgy will be integrated into the old Mass, while as some aspects of the extraordinary form will enrich the ordinary. In the long term, one suspects, the Pope sees a convergence of the two forms, bringing about the true organic reform of the liturgy that Vatican II envisioned.

“In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture,” the Pope writes. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”

See also:
AP: For future, Pope looks to Mass of the past
CWNews: Conference highlights enduring influence of Latin language
BBC News: Latin makes Vatican City comeback

Wikipedia: Mass of Paul VI
Alfred Marnan/Latin Mass Society: Is this THE story of the Millennium?

Related Posts:
Report: Pope’s Latinist pronounces death of a language


From → Themes

One Comment
  1. Mitch permalink

    I know that many, many people miss the Latin. At least, a minimum of the Ordinary should be in Latin. The Consecration in Latin would go a long way in fufilling the wishes of the Council, the retention of Latin and vernacular both. I never understood why the 1965 was trashed. It had the best of both. Perhaps this is reasonable for the world today.

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