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We Are in the Middle of a Love Story – Latin and its Place in the Roman Church

September 8th, 2013, Promulgated by Gen

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the Mass is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, states similarly that, “every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others” (SC I.1.7). Throughout the entire history of the Church, this sentiment has ennobled our sacrifice of praise, directing us to offer to God the best that we possibly can. The goal in doing so is not to render each Mass a performance, or to “show off” our abilities. Rather, the sole purpose to offering Mass is the salvation of souls. Indeed, this is why it is the “source and summit,” for it gives us Christ to bring us to Christ. The Mass is the total offering of the Son by the Father for the remission of our sins, a commemoration of the Paschal Mystery wherein Christ ransomed us back to Himself.

tlmAnd so it is not entirely surprising that our Masses are often termed “celebrations.” The common question in sacristies around the world is, “who’s celebrating Mass today?” And celebrate we must, for the Mass is the setting in which God comes to us under the guise of bread and wine. He comes into our midst, into our very bodies, at the request of His servants, his clergy. “O admirabile commercium!” Our joy at such a reality ought to be brimming over, unbounded and uncontainable. The energy, the adrenaline, are surely there for the faithful whenever the priest holds aloft the host and the chalice saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The Scriptures are filled with accounts of uncontainable joy and enthusiasm. The psalms often highlight the praise of God “with timbrel and harp,” exhorting us to “clap our hands” and “be glad!”

So, glad we must be. Glad we are. Blessed are we who are called to the supper of the Lamb. Christ summons us personally to His altar to receive Him worthily, and this invitation ought not to be turned down. He gave Himself wholly for us; all that remains is for us to give ourselves wholly back to Him. And that is where the nature of sacrifice enters into our Earthly liturgies. If this encounter between God and man is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, does it not follow that we should actually make it seem as such? Are we not called to channel our joy and Eucharistic zeal in such a way as to lift up our souls just as the priest lifts up the Blessed Sacrament?

This is one of our universal calls as Christians. Every person has an invitation from God to serve Him in some way unique to the individual. Some are to be spouses, others monks and nuns, still others priests. There are an infinite number of vocations God gives to His people, but the one that links us all is a call to do Him homage in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The Church recognizes this universal call, and does so even so clearly as to recognize it in Her very name: the Catholic Church. This call, this catholic, universal, borderless summons of the Almighty, binds us one to another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We all approach the same God; we all approach the same altar.

This is why unity in worship is integral to the Christian life, and infinitely beneficial to the Christian soul. We are all individuals celebrating Christ’s selfless gift on Calvary, but when we come together in prayer as a community, we must direct our enthusiasm in a single, refined direction. Just as a prism takes light and sends forth the colors of the rainbow, so must our worship function in reverse. The various colors of our worship must be fused, blended, refined, so as to produce one single ray of light, one beam, one unified vision. If we focus on the individual colors in our lives, if we define ourselves by “my parish” and “your parish,” we automatically shrink the scope of the Faith to a local thing, not a catholic experience of God.

    This is why the beauty of a Latin liturgy is just that: undeniably beautiful. It takes the thousands of tongues of praise with which God has gifted us, and unifies them, binding them in one so as to create a harmony of perfect sacrifice. For in this liturgical, linguistic union, we lose ourselves in the immensity of Christ and His Church, focusing not on our own limited capabilities or cultural experiences. The value of Latin in the liturgical life of the Church is that it strips us of our pride, minimizes our ego, makes the Mass entirely sacrificial and Christ-centered. Our Masses far too often seem to canonize the community, or worse yet, to worship it. Latin makes this impossible, due mostly to the fact that it is a foreign tongue. It makes us all equals in the eyes of the Church.

Latin is not meant to stifle our joy. Nor is it meant to appeal to a small circle of erudite priests and seminarians. It is the universal, the catholic language of the Church, and serves, as I have said, to gather our many disparate voices into one. The ancient people of the Old Testament attempted to build a tower to reach the Heavens, and were punished for their arrogance by a multiplicity of tongues. The Mass reverses that, and rewards our humility with a unification of tongues.

And not just “tongues,” but hearts and minds, as well. Latin is, by its very nature, perfectly suited to liturgical worship. A primary attribute is that it compels us to raise our hearts and minds precisely because it is foreign. It challenges us to be attentive, to think, to offer praise to God with our whole being and not sit back in our pews with a spirit of complacency. When we praise God exclusively in our own language, our praise runs the risk of becoming too casual, too “familiar” with God. While God gave Christ to be our friend and brother, He gave Christ, too, to be our King and Savior. Latin stirs in us this royal sentiment, addressing our sovereign and savior in a language which sounds fitting for such an instance.

Latin, also, is a beautiful, poetic, passionate language. While many languages are similarly beautiful, Latin eclipses them with its antiquity and its nobility. It has a clear ability to transcend the present and appeal to those things which are eternal. Latin is outside of our present-day existence on the street, and this is why it continues to be set apart for use in our liturgies. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters have their own sacred language reserved for liturgy, so, too, do we. It is a language of poetic beauty, and therefore makes the Mass seem “entirely other.” Many of our brothers and sisters dislike Latin for just this reason, explaining how it makes them feel alienated. However, their focus remains on their own personal tastes and experiences, and fails to look up and take into consideration all the members of the Church. We must be an inclusive Church, and the boundaries of our inclusivity don’t end at the parish parking lot.

Latin is lofty, fitting for kings. Latin is beautiful, fitting for God’s creation. Latin is ethereal, fitting for the Mass. Latin is inclusive, fitting for use by the entire Church of God. To claim that Latin does not meet the needs of the Church, that it keeps the laity at arm’s length, is to have a regrettably narrow focus. If we feel intimidated by the use of Latin, the looming prevalence of chant and polyphony, the absence of vernacular hymnody, we should ask ourselves “why?”

The answer will invariably be along the lines of, “it makes me feel little.” We might feel lost, confused, isolated. We might feel wholly unwelcome at, even uninvited to participate in the Sacred Mysteries. But what we must realize is that we will only feel that way if we are unwilling to surrender totally to Christ. If we feel this way, we are placing ourselves, our own insular and limited perception, above that of Christ’s Church. Latin only makes us feel overwhelmed if we fight it out of a sense of entitlement. We must always approach the altar with a spirit of absolute humility. Rejoice, yes, but temper your rejoicing with the realization of who you are.  We are, each of us, sinners. We trust in God’s mercy. And we approach the Mass with a sense of great joy, but simultaneously, with some measure of hesitation. After all, we should be in awe when we attend Mass.

The depth of the Mass is unfathomable (hence “awe”). At the words of a mere man, Christ descends to our altars, in our very presence, and makes Himself wholly present in the Blessed Sacrament. Do we really feel that the merits of community singing outweigh the reverence and solemnity demanded of such an awesome gift? Do we really place more of an emphasis on our own desire to belong, on our own insecurities, than we do on approaching God with humility? Latin ensures just such an approach, and does so through its timelessness, through its beauty, through its foreign nature.

This is its allure to this current generation. For so long, our youth have been coddled, their Masses emasculated and robbed of their depth. On a subconscious level especially, they are rebelling against this vernacular status quo (given the opportunity, of course). Present any child, teenager, or young adult with Gregorian chant, and it will bring about a change in them. They may or may not be able to explain the nature of this change. It may not even be visible to our eyes. But what is of tantamount importance is that there is in his heart no animosity, no hostility, no resentment. There is an openness to Latin, to chant, to Tradition. And that is the main difference between our youth and the generations of the 60’s and 70’s.

  And so all that is left for us to do is reintroduce Latin, to expose our young people to the unquestionable beauty of the Faith, so richly embodied in her use of that venerable language to convey Truth. There is no reason to be shy in defending the use of Latin in the Church’s liturgical life. Bl. John XXIII, the Roman Pontiff who oversaw the first portion of the Second Vatican Council, stated in no uncertain terms that, “The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular” (Veterum Sapientia). Champions of so-called “reform” attempt to point to him and his successor Paul VI as defenders of vernacular liturgy. However, this is far from the truth of the matter.

Indeed, the Second Vatican Council reconfirmed again and again that Latin is the universal language of the Church. It is the universal language of Christian prayer. After all, Gregorian chant has “principal place” in Catholic liturgy. Paul VI himself expressed this sentiment when he wrote, “The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended with great care, instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the most abundant source of Christian civilization and the richest treasury of piety. We must not hold in low esteem these traditions of your fathers which were your glory for centuries” (Sacrificium Laudis). The two Conciliar pontiffs uphold the use of Latin, and direct us to defend its use.

Unfortunately, we have seen no such realization of the Second Vatican Council. We have, however, seen its documents subverted for political agendas which run entirely contrary to the heart of the Church. Those who profess to serve “the Spirit of Vatican II” have, in most circumstances, never even read the documents it produced. Rather, they allow erroneous teaching to take up a home in their hearts. And why? It would seem counterintuitive to reject something so timeless as the “traditions of your fathers” for something so new and innovative.

The simplest explanation is that those who were entrusted with implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council had, many of them, long since ceased to realize their love affair with Truth. Saving souls took an auxiliary role in the Church’s mission. Community-building took primary place. No one who authentically loves the Church, the Mystical Spouse of Christ, would so zealously rob Her of Her majesty, and so dreadfully undercut Her sacred liturgies. Ven. Pope Pius XII reminds us that Latin “affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of true doctrine.” By placing the most sacred words ever pronounced in our own language, in making them seem suddenly so deceptively mundane, we lost that safeguard. And does a lover strip his love of dignity, of security, of beauty? Does a lover seek to diminish the complexity of his partner in order to appreciate her? No. If he loves her truly, he will strive to learn her ways, to contemplate them, to interact with them in such a way as to keep the flame of their love ever burning.

When priests and bishops stripped our liturgies of their natural language, of their chant, of their vestments, of their altars and sacramentals, they stripped the Bride of Christ of her wedding garments, and forced Her to stand there, mirroring Christ, unprotected and derided by the centurions. We force on Her brow the crown of thorns of feigned inclusivity. We place in Her hand the sceptre of castrated authority. This is not the act of a lover. This is the act of those whose love has run cold, if it has ever run at all.

The absence of Latin betrays a premature end to the love story of the Mass. When we cease to offer the best we are able to offer, when complacency rules our liturgical sensibilities, we must pause and ask ourselves why our affections have run cold. Why do we turn so ashamedly from our noble and rich heritage? Why do we shirk Tradition?

We do so because we do not know how to love. Latin is the Church’s language of universal love. It is, by its very nature, a language of poetic beauty, and therefore perfectly suited to communicate Christ’s love for us through His Church. It demonstrates, too, the victory of that love, for what was once a pagan tongue uttered by Romans over two millennia ago is now the pure language of the Church which rose up and choked out that culture of fear and lust. The Roman Empire fell, and was swiftly replaced by the Roman Church, which maintained the imagery and symbolism of the Empire in order to convey the absolute power and love of Christ, Who is Priest, Prophet, and King.

Indeed, in the Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Church states, “Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs” (SC I.1.7). Latin is the bridge between worlds, in which this “perceptible sign” directs us towards a deeper understanding of the Sacred Mysteries. Through its veil of mysticism, we enter into a direct contemplation of the immensity and wonder of God.

And this is no mistake. Over 2,000 years, new vernaculars have come and gone, but the original vernacular of Latin has remained. It was that language that Pilate used to pronounce his sentence. It was that language that graced the sign above Christ’s head. It was that language that the martyrs breathed in their last moments. It is this language that transmits to us, unbroken, the entirety of our Tradition. And it is this Tradition that demonstrates to the faithful that we truly are “in the middle of a love story, and each of us is a link in this chain of love. And if we do not understand this, we have understood nothing of what the Church is.”

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10 Responses to “We Are in the Middle of a Love Story – Latin and its Place in the Roman Church”

  1. avatar y2kscotty says:

    A marvelously crafted essay. However – a quibble… the “original vernacular” was the local vernacular (Greek, Aramaic, etc.). A further quibble: in the Eastern Church, there are many vernaculars. And one more: the sign above the crucified Jesus was in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. However, this essay is worth our meditation.

  2. avatar Gen says:

    Indeed. That’s why I put “Roman” in the title. I’ll be covering Greek in another forthcoming post.

  3. avatar Bernie says:

    My gosh! What a powerful essay.

    “If we focus on the individual colors in our lives, if we define ourselves by ‘my parish’ and ‘your parish,’ we automatically shrink the scope of the Faith to a local thing, not a catholic experience of God.” —-That’s exactly where we are, presently.

    “A primary attribute is that it compels us to raise our hearts and minds precisely because it is foreign.” —-Yes!!!

    “Many of our brothers and sisters dislike Latin for just this reason, explaining how it makes them feel alienated. However, their focus remains on their own personal tastes and experiences, and fails to look up and take into consideration all the members of the Church.” —-Nail-on-the-head sentence

    “For so long, our youth have been coddled, their Masses emasculated and robbed of their depth.” —-Another nail-on-the-head

  4. avatar BGP says:

    Lingua Liturgae Romanae pulchra est

  5. avatar BGP says:

    Sorry that should have been ‘Liturgiae’ not ‘Litugae’

  6. avatar Richard Thomas says:

    I am sorry this is not the proper post to ask this but what was the follow up of the St Thomas Parish issue with the changing of the locks?

  7. avatar Jim says:

    To Richard Thomas: Sorry this probably isn’t the place to answer this, but if you go online to the St. Kateri Parish Website, open the parish bulletin for Sunday, September 1st. Fr. English has a letter in there that talks about the issue. But it’s not to the liking of St. Thomas people. 🙁

  8. avatar y2kscotty says:

    Quibble again: “Roman Church”, as I understand it, is the church in Rome. Our Church, however is the “Catholic Church” – no other adjectives apply. See: http://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/churb3.htm
    This does not negate the general thrust of Gen’s essay.

  9. avatar BGP says:

    ‘Roman Church’ is often used synonymously for ‘Latin Church’ the ‘Roman Church’ is part of the Catholic Church. Latin is the liturgical and sacral language of the Latin church. Latin is not the liturgical/sacral language of every Church which is part of the Catholic church. For example Church Slavonic is the language of the Slavo-Byzantine Churches which are part of the Catholic church.

    I am unsure if using ‘Roman Church’ in place of ‘Latin Church’ is technically incorrect.

  10. avatar BGP says:

    y2kscotty- I went and read the essay. Yes the universal church is the Catholic church not the Roman Catholic Church. However sometimes other adjectives do apply, not all Catholics are bound by the same code of cannon law for example. In discussing Latin as a church language we are only talking about the western part of the church, hence Gen uses the monkier Roman.


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