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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Could More Use of Latin Overcome the Divisions in Liturgical Prayer?

by Fr. Paul Schmidt


Father Paul Schmidt has served as the priest personnel director for the Diocese of Oakland, California, and also as diocesan director of religious education and as pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Concord. He holds a master's of divinity degree from St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park and a master's degree in English from California State University, Hayward. He was a columnist for The Catholic Voice, the Oakland diocesan newspaper, for many years. Father Schmidt is author of the book Buried Treasures: A Guide to the Catechism of the Catholic Church

This article, which has appeared in The Voice (Oakland), is reprinted from The Catholic Herald, the newspaper for the Diocese of Sacramento, with the kind permission of Julie Sly, Editor.

Can you identify the source of the following quotation from a church document: "The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rite"? Believe it or not, this is paragraph 36, no. 1, of the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Liturgy. Of course, the Council went on to speak of using vernacular languages in worship as well.

But it stated later, when speaking of extended use of the vernacular, "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" (par. 54).

What are we to say of these words of the Council, which are generally ignored today? Are they simply the dying gasp of the old order? Are they an attempt to maintain one of the most serious difficulties in liturgical prayer--not understanding the words we are praying? Or can these words help us overcome some difficulties in liturgical prayer which we face today after 30 years of vernacular worship?

When Latin was the language of the Mediterranean world, it made sense for the church to change its worship from Greek (which had been the common language) to the language everyone spoke. For many centuries, Latin remained a common language for educated people, but it lingered in the church long after most people had forgotten it. The church might have changed to vernacular sooner, if the Protestants had not done it first. The Reformation kept the Catholic Church from changing for four and a half centuries. (Protestants, by the way, did not throw out Latin altogether. Latin was used in Lutheran services, for example, 200 years after Luther. J. S. Bach wrote some of his most sublime music for Latin texts. Latin from the Verdi Requiem was used in the Protestant funeral service for Princess Diana.)

Today English is the "Latin" of the world. It is used in every country, especially in the media and in business. Will a brave pope, like Damasus in the 4th century, come along and make English the church's official language? Probably not. Having an official "dead" language not subject to continual evolution has its advantages; we do not have to keep revising Latin texts once they are written.

What could be the value of using a language that "nobody" understands in worship? Some reasons do not make too much sense, such as making the liturgy more mysterious, or yielding to nostalgia, or reasserting a Euro-centric imperialist cultural dominance. But there may be good reasons why Latin could make a comeback.

First of all, after 30 years of saying the prayers in the vernacular, it should not be too difficult for people to understand that Kyrie eleison (a remnant of Greek) means "Lord, have mercy;" that Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus means "Holy, Holy, Holy;" that Agnus Dei means "Lamb of God." People who already speak Spanish can recognize many Latin words as ancestors to the words they speak every day. So at least the directive of the Council to have us sing the Ordinary (people's) parts of the Mass should not be beyond our grasp.

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Part II: Latin as Expression of Unity  

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