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Musical Musings: Liturgy

"Oh No, Not Latin Again!"

by Gary D. Penkala

Church musicians are bound to hear complaints -- and complaints are good and healthy for a music program. They help to keep it on course, meeting the needs of the congregation. Listening to constructive criticism is one way of evaluating a program's effectiveness. A musician should never, therefore, turn a deaf ear to rational criticism, for while being inevitable, it is also helpful. Any musician who has not heard complaints is either not listening or is employed by cloistered religious under vow of silence.

While I strongly believe that the church musician must listen to and consider all rational criticism, I also believe that there are many criticisms which are irrational -- criticisms which ask the musician to defy Church regulations, to disregard musical or liturgical principles, or to oppose his better judgment for the critic's personal whims. One such criticism, which I find nearly impossible to understand, concerns the use of Latin in Catholic church music.

There are a number of the faithful, not limited to the laity, who vehemently oppose any use of Latin in music, citing reasons of unintelligibility. If the Mass were purely catechetical, then we should certainly hope to understand every word offered. However the very core of the Eucharistic liturgy is the mystery of transubstantiation, whereby ordinary bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of the Son of God. Here we are certainly dealing in terms beyond our comprehension. Liturgy is not a cerebral forum where ideas are presented and discussed. Liturgy is an action, a transcendental delving into the realization of the mystery of our faith. Latin can complement this action better than much of the English verbosity we now hear in church music.

It would be as absurd for Roman Catholics to oppose the use of Latin-texted motets as it would be for Lutherans to ban the singing of Bach chorales, or for Episcopalians to ignore Anglican chant. Each represents a valid denominational tradition. Fortunately, the Anglicans still chant, and the Lutherans still sing Bach chorales. Only the Mother Church (in effect, not in doctrinal theory) has given up one of her most prized traditions.

Rev. J. Kevin Waters SJ, in Pastoral Music, writes,

Latin, the principle language of our religious expression since the time of Saint Jerome, continues to be a paradoxical source of unity even in this post-Vatican II vernacular age. Music with Latin texts binds us to the past as far back as the fourth century, and it galvanizes us to the global present in a way that neither English nor French nor Chinese can yet do. For that reason Adeste fidelis will ever be more universal than O Come, All Ye Faithful.
But how does one use Latin motets or Masses in vernacular liturgy? Does their appearance jolt liturgical sensibilities and turn the Eucharist into a concert performance? Are they old cloth sewn into new fabric which, at best, is distractingly out of place, and at worst an unnecessary patch on material not needing mending?
As in so many matters touching on faith and ethics in our time, pastoral, liturgical, cultural and environmental judgments help formulate proper answers to these questions. Appropriate examples of melding Latin and vernacular liturgical music, too, will continue to show the best way that the procedure can be executed. Without specifying where that practice may be best found in this country, one can confidently say that at least every diocese has a parish which uses Latin music in the vernacular liturgy in a convincingly right way.
It is a firmly held maxim at CanticaNOVA Publications, that Latin texts can and must be made available to musicians working in today's liturgies. Latin is not only a remnant from the past... it is a vital and necessary part of modern Catholic worship. Rather than abandoning Latin music, compromises are possible. Print a translation in the bulletin or liturgy sheet, or have a good translation read before the choir sings.

It can be said no more plainly than: "Yes, you can, and yes you should use Latin in your liturgies. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states it in a more official form:

Though existing special exemptions are to remain in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. Steps are to be taken to ensure that the faithful are able to say or sing together, also in Latin, those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which are rightfully theirs.
Latin, then, should feel quite comfortable in the Roman Church.

CNP's Latin index in our Online Catalog has a list of all our selections that include Latin texts.

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