(Detail), Scenes from the Apocalypse, Paris-Oxford-London Bible moralisée, France, c. 1225–45 (The British Library, Harley MS 1527 fol. 140v)

Latin is still the official language of the Mass.

     At least it is for the 1,295,000,000 Catholics who belong to the Latin Rite, so called because Latin is its language, as it has been for over a millennium and a half. I’m not talking about the Tridentine Mass, which is often referred to as the Traditional Latin Mass, or TLM. I mean the ordinary Mass that you can find in any parish church.  True, you have probably never heard it in any language other than English, or another modern language such as French or Spanish.  And yes, the Second Vatican Council decreed that it should be permitted to say the Mass in local languages (see below), which quickly became the norm after the council.  Nevertheless, the official language of the liturgy is still the same language spoken by Julius Caesar and St. Augustine, the same language in which St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica and rowdy medieval scholars composed the Carmina Burana.

     About 18 million of the World’s Catholics belong to non-Latin rites such the Byzantine, Maronite, Melkite, etc. Outside of those relative few, if you’re Catholic, Latin is your liturgical language.  If you’re lucky you may hear some of the traditional language, your language, at Mass.  At the very least you should hear it in some traditional Christmas songs; you may even occasionally hear some chant in Latin.  After all, the Second Vatican Council also decreed:

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. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116)

The Laying on of Hands: Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge ordains Timothy Harris as Bishop of Townsville, Australia (https://mediablog.catholic.org.au/)

Again, if you’re lucky: the “Spirit” of Vatican II has little use for the Letter of Vatican II.  If you’re very lucky indeed you may find yourself in one of those parishes which is bringing back some of the responses, such as the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, in Latin.

     Some of you, no doubt, are asking, “What’s so lucky about that?” Glad you asked.

       Before I deal with the Latin language in the liturgical life of the Church, however, I think it will be helpful to look at sacraments, and specifically the ordination of bishops.  The bishops are the successors of the Apostles.  The ordination rite of Catholic bishops says: “Gladly and gratefully, therefore, receive our brother whom we are about to receive into the college of bishops by the laying on of hands.” And that’s exactly what happens: it has always been part of the rite that, just before the consecration itself, the presiding bishop places his hands on the head of the bishop-elect.  That same presiding bishop felt the hands of another bishop on his own head when he was ordained, the hands of a bishop who himself had experienced the laying on of hands from another bishop, and so on all the way back to the Apostles, who were touched bodily by Jesus Christ himself. A true bishop must be part of that unbroken chain of physical contact starting with the hands of our Lord: it’s an essential part of the Apostolic Succession.

     The recognition that God transmits Grace through physical means permeates the entire Catholic understanding, and really the entire traditional Christian understanding, of God’s relationship to his creation.  It’s the underlying rationale for all the sacraments, and for sacramentals like holy water, holy medals, etc.  It’s why every Mass used to end with the reading of the Last Gospel, the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, which proclaims that “The Word became Flesh.” (John 1:14)

     You’ll notice that those physical connections include not only things, but people.  Just as the physical touch of human bishops over the centuries passes on Grace originating in Christ, all of us can draw closer to God through our relationship with our older brothers and sister in the faith, the saints.  Our connection with our fellow Christians in the communion of saints is not a purely spiritual connection, either: we’ve preserved little bits of cloth and even the very bones of the saints to make that connection as tangible as possible.  We are soul and body: we need to experience spiritual realities in a physical way.

Reliquary containing a vial of St. John Vianney’s blood (http://www.papalartifacts.com/)

     That’s where the Latin language comes in.  It’s our tangible connection to, and direct sharing in, the liturgical experience of many generations of our predecessors in the Communion of Saints.  That’s why in the decree Sacrosanctum Concilium the Second Vatican Council said  that “The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (SC 36)  The document does go on to say, however, that: “since the use of the vernacular whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings, directives and in some prayers and chants.” (SC 36)  You might not think so from what has happened to the liturgy over the past few decades, but the Second Vatican Council did not mandate, or even recommend, removing the Latin language from the Mass; it was simply allowing some use of the vernacular.  Sacrosanctum Concilium returns to this point later on, when it says: “Nevertheless care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (SC 54)

       The Council Fathers understood that the Latin language serves a purpose similar to the laying on of hands.  Not the sacramental function, certainly, but the practical function of keeping alive that sense of connection to previous generations of believers.  Even more than that, it’s a tangible reminder that the Mass isn’t something that we create ourselves, or that exists only for us. It tells us in a very concrete way that the Mass is here to bind us back to something immeasurably older and greater than ourselves. It helps to turn us away from a focus on ourselves, and instead put our attention where it belongs, on our Loving Creator.

In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen

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