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How Dead Is Latin, Really?

There will always be a place for the Church's ancient sacred language.

From an early date, the Church in the West has used Latin—not only for administration, study, and communication, but for prayer. This was natural for regions where Latin was the majority language, but as the centuries passed, the Western Church persisted with a Latin liturgy in evangelizing peoples on and beyond the edges of the Roman Empire not conversant with it, such as the North African speakers of Punic and the speakers of Celtic and Germanic languages in western and central Europe. By contrast, the Eastern Churches sometimes made use of the languages of their new converts, even when these had to be specially developed in their written forms for this to be possible, as with Ethiopia’s Ge’ez and Russia’s Church Slavonic.

There is thus a close association between the Western Church and the Latin language. Even today, when the liturgy can be celebrated in a huge range of languages, this relationship has left its mark, and Latin remains an option for both public and private prayer—not only in celebrations of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, but also for the reformed Mass.

Why has the Church been so attached to Latin? The answer is that liturgical Latin is not just a convenient language, but a sacred language. Many religions have sacred languages, or a sacred register of an ordinary language, for use in their liturgies. Islam has classical Arabic, a language not widely understood by its many millions of non-Arabic believers, and some distance from the Arabic spoken today in the Arab world. Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Jain religion share the very ancient sacred language of Sanskrit. Judaism has biblical Hebrew, and the languages of many Eastern churches today are specialized sacred languages: the Church Slavonic and Ge’ez already mentioned, and the koine Greek of the Greek churches.

Sacred languages, like sacred garments, sacred forms of music, and the styles associated with sacred buildings and sacred art, may derive from the non-sacred, but even in their origins, they often have distinguishing features. Koine Greek and Church Slavonic were literary creations rather than natural languages. No one ever spoke the sacred English created by Anglicanism and found in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible: it includes archaisms and deliberately exotic syntax to mimic Hebrew and Greek. The High German of Luther’s Bible and liturgy was the language of the imperial court, not the language of most German-speakers. Similarly, the form of Latin found, first in the early Latin translations of the Bible and then in liturgical texts, is distinct from ordinary Latin. No Roman ever said, “Amen amen dico vobis”: “Truly, truly, I say to you.” The first word of many Latin prayers, “quaesumus,” “we beseech,” was already archaic when it was first used in them.

There is a powerful religious instinct to have special, separate words, things, buildings, and music for worship. These are intended not to exclude worshippers, but rather to draw them in to something supernatural, to introduce them into a sacred zone for communication with the divine, a communication that transcends mere words. Hearing a sacred language, like entering a sacred building, is a clear signal that we are leaving the ordinary world behind. In common with other religions, the Church still insists on special vestments; sacred vessels not to be used for anything else; and distinctive furnishings, artistic styles, and language, even in the context of the vernacular liturgy.

Latin is the Church’s superlative means of creating a sense that we are communicating with God and not with human beings. Even in the act of announcing the liturgical reform that would largely displace Latin with vernacular languages, Pope St. Paul VI described Latin as “sacred utterance” and “the language of the angels”. The effect of Latin on the worshipper was noted by Pope St. John Paul II, who remarked on the sense of worldwide unity it inspired and also “the profound sense of the Eucharistic mystery” it elicited.

There is a parallel with the use of silence in the liturgy. This has a place in the reformed Missal of 1970 (for example, for the “priestly prayers”), and its importance was emphasized by John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In silence, nothing is communicated by words, but when worshipers are united in an act of adoration, a period of silent prayer can communicate at a deep level, both horizontally, in terms of a sense of solidarity, and vertically, to and from the object of worship, God. Latin does something similar in creating a meaningful frame for prayer.

It is relevant, therefore, that Latin prayers are meaningful. The liturgical formation that all adult Catholics should have should equip us to understand in general terms what is going on in Mass regardless of the language. Even people without formal Latin education know what gloria in excelsis, agnus dei, and the like mean. The Church has always encouraged the study of Latin, and this can provide us with a dimension of liturgical participation that goes beyond what we get in a vernacular translation, since (at least with prayers of ancient origin) it puts us in touch with the words used by our predecessors in the Faith, often from the time of the Fathers of the Church. We can, however, choose to focus on the words, or on the general thrust of the liturgy, just as someone praying the rosary can focus on the words of the Hail Mary or instead on the mystery being considered in that decade. Liturgy in the vernacular tends to be more insistent and demanding of our attention, word by word, particularly when we have to make responses and change our bodily posture.

The Latin of the liturgy has something special to offer those with a knowledge of Latin, since they can understand it better and be directed in their engagement with the liturgy in a more detailed way. Paradoxically, it also has something special to offer those with limited knowledge of the vernacular used in the liturgy they happen to attend. These include the speakers of minority languages and migrants. Many tens of millions of Catholics are obliged to worship not in their mother-tongue, but in a second language: in Africa, usually the old colonial language; in China, the “standard Chinese” favored by the State. The use of a vernacular inevitably favors those most at home in it, and also those who prefer verbal communication over non-verbal communication: adults over children, the more educated middle class over the working class, and even women over men.

In this way, Latin can be a leveler, like silence. As Pope St. John XXIII expressed it, Latin belongs to no one in particular, but is “gracious and friendly to all.” The experience of the sacred that Latin makes possible has been appreciated by saints and scholars, soldiers, peasants, and sinners, and even small children, since the Church’s early centuries. It remains available to us today.

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