The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Latin in the Roman Rite
Why has the Mass of the Roman Rite been celebrated in the Latin language for almost two thousand years? In this article, we examine the important reasons for this, presenting the explanations and work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope St. Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of the eminent Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Guéranger of Solesmes. The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgish und aszetish erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.
The Vernacular Polemic
Every element of the sacred liturgy comes from the organic and harmonious development of the rites over time, not from mere human ingenuity. Each is perfectly suited to its end, and this includes the liturgical language of the Roman Rite, which by the Providence of God is Latin. In the retention of this language which is now consecrated to the things of God, which is precise and unchanging in its expression, universal and unifying, one admires the supernatural wisdom of the Church.
The use of Latin has frequently been the subject of attack, but it is a fact that these attacks have come chiefly from a spirit that is not interested in the advancement of Holy Church, but rather hostile to her. They betray a schismatic and heretical spirit adverse to the sanctification of souls. One can consider only the Anglicans’ Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion; their twenty-fourth article claims that the use of the Latin language is “repugnant to the Word of God.” Other attacks come from the naturalistic spirit of rationalism, which is incapable of grasping the essence and object of the Catholic liturgy. Its proponents claim that the vernacular would benefit the masses by way of instruction, but it must be kept present that the Holy Sacrifice is not primarily didactic. While the truths of the faith are taught from the pulpit for the understanding of the faithful, as well they should be, the Mass is of a completely different order. It is the propitiatory sacrifice of Calvary, the supreme act of adoration to the ineffable God. For this reason, the renowned theologian Fr. Francisco Suarez wrote in 1597 that the purported usefulness of the vernacular is not only uncertain but even fraught with danger, and that the vaunted benefits may easily be obtained by other means (“illa utilitas et incerta est et multis periculis exposita, et alio securiori et sufficiente modo suppleri potest,” Disp. 83, section I, n. 21).
Some of the vernacular polemicists point to the Eastern rites of the Church to make their case, declaring that they have maintained the vernacular tongue in their rites, but in fact, as Monsignor Gihr points out, “the Oriental churches also reject the principle that the vernacular language should be used in the celebration of Holy Mass. The Greeks celebrate the Holy Sacrifice in the ancient Greek, which the people do not understand. The Abyssinians and Armenians celebrate Holy Mass respectively in the ancient Ethiopian and the ancient Armenian, understood only by the learned. The same holds true with regard to the Syrians and Egyptians, who celebrate Holy Mass in the ancient Syrian, and also with regard to the Melkites and Georgians who at Holy Mass make use of the ancient Greek. The same is observed by the Russians, who use only a Slavonian dialect.” One may also include the example of the Israelites, who maintained ancient Hebrew as their language of worship even though their own daily idiom had since undergone great mutation. Thus, even when Our Lord Jesus Christ stood to read the scroll of Isaias in the synagogue of Nazareth (Lk. 4:16 ff), he did so using a sacred liturgical language which was not the language of the people.
The Church’s response to the attacks on her liturgical language is one of anathema: “If anyone says that the rite of the Roman Church…ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only…let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session XXII, Canon 9). The same was reiterated strongly by Pope Pius VI in his 1794 Bull Auctorem Fidei in response to what he termed the errors and “perverse doctrines” of the Synod of Pistoia, which advocated for a Mass facing the people and celebrated in the vernacular. These condemnations are for good reason. As Monsignor Gihr writes, “In the attempt to suppress the Latin language of the liturgy and replace it by the vernacular, there was a more or less premeditated scheme to undermine Catholic unity, to loosen the bond of union with Rome, to weaken the Catholic spirit, and to destroy the humility and simplicity of the faith.” In the three sections below, we see how the famed liturgist presents Latin as the tongue of the Sacred, a language which is unchangeable, and which is an admirable means of preserving the unity of the Catholic Church in her doctrine and worship.
The Language of the Sacred
The Latin language is consecrated by the mystic inscription attached to the Cross, as well as sanctified by the usage of nearly two thousand years, and hence it is most closely interwoven with the primitive Roman Catholic liturgy of the holy Sacrifice. The inscription on the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (Jn. 19:19-20). These were the three principal languages of that epoch, and by divine dispensation they were destined and consecrated on the Cross for the liturgical use of the Church.
Divine Providence selected Rome as the center of the Catholic Church; from Rome the messengers of the Faith were sent forth in all directions to spread the light of the Gospel. Along with the grace of Christianity, together with the Catholic Faith and its divine worship, the western nations also received Latin as the Church-language; for in that tongue the Holy Mysteries were always celebrated, though the nations recently converted spoke a different language and did not understand Latin.
For centuries, the Latin language has ceased to be spoken in the daily life and intercourse of the world, but it will continue to live immortally by ecclesiastical usage and in the sanctuary of divine worship. It is without doubt elevating and inspiring to offer sacrifice and pray in the very language and in the very words which resounded in the mouths of the primitive Christians and our forefathers in the dark depths of the Catacombs, in the golden apses of the ancient basilicas, and in the sumptuous cathedrals of the Middle Ages. In the Latin language of divine worship, innumerable saints, bishops and priests of all times have offered sacrifice, have prayed its magnificent liturgical formulas and sung its sublime hymns.
The Language of the Unchangeable
Latin is a so-called dead language because it survives no longer in the conversation of the common people. As such it is unchangeable, while the languages of the people undergo constant improvement and remodeling, and are ever liable to go on progressing and altering. What would become of liturgical books, if, with time and the changes of the vernacular, they were subjected to perpetual change and reconstruction? By such necessary, incessant remodeling and alteration of the liturgical formulas of prayer, the original text and context would lose not only much of their incomparable force and beauty, but often notwithstanding strict surveillance on the part of the Church, would be disfigured and spoiled by circumlocutions, interpolations, omissions, incorrectness, errors and misrepresentations. Hence it would be impossible to preserve and maintain uniformity of divine worship at different times among even one and the same people, much less throughout the world. All these inconveniences are obviated by the use of an unchangeable language for divine worship. In the unchangeableness of the Latin for divine worship, the Roman Missal appears as an intangible and inviolable sanctuary, deserving of admiration and profound respect.
Since the Latin language has been withdrawn from daily life, it possesses in the eyes of the faithful a holy, venerable and mystic character. Under this aspect also, it is eminently suited for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The celebration of this mystic Sacrifice fittingly calls for a language elevated, majestic, dignified and consecrated. Just as the silent recitation of the Canon, so also the use of a sanctified language of worship, different from that of worldly speech, points to the unfathomable and unspeakable depth of the mystery of the altar, and protects it against contempt and desecration. Thus the Latin language—elevated above the time and place of everyday life—is a mystic veil for the Adorable mysteries of the Holy Sacrifice. Latin is, therefore, no hindrance to the Catholic Christian, preventing him from deriving from the source of the liturgy of the Holy Sacrifice life, light and warmth, in order to nourish his piety and devotion. It serves rather to awaken a holy awe and reverence in the presence of the obscure mysteries of the Divine Sacrifice.
The Language of Catholic Unity
As a universal language of worship, Latin is an admirable means not only of presenting, but also of preserving and promoting the unity and harmony of the Church in divine worship, in divine faith, and in conduct. The unity of the liturgy for all time and place can be perfectly maintained only inasmuch as it is always and everywhere celebrated in the same language. By the introduction of the various national languages, the uniformity and harmony of Catholic worship would be imperiled and, in a measure, rendered impossible.
The unity of the liturgical language and of the divine worship in the Church is furthermore a very efficient means for preserving the integrity of faith. The liturgy is, indeed, the main channel by which dogmatic tradition is transmitted; dogma is the root of all ecclesiastical life, of discipline and of worship. Worship is developed out of the doctrine of faith; in the liturgical prayers, in the rites and ceremonies of the Church the truths of Catholic faith find their expression, and can be established and proved therefrom. But the more fixed, unchangeable and inviolable the liturgical formula of prayer is, the better it is adapted to preserve intact and to transmit unimpaired the original deposit of faith. Therefore, all the primitive liturgies proclaim and prove that our faith is in perfect harmony with that of the first ages of the Church.
Unity of liturgical language and the consequent uniformity of divine worship form, finally, a strong bond for uniting indissolubly the churches dispersed all over the world. This unity is seen among themselves and with their common center the Roman Church, the chief and Mother-Church of them all. The bond of a universal language of worship, which embraces the head and the members of the Church, supports and promotes everywhere the unity and the common life and operation of the Church. While the use of the various vernacular languages for divine service is peculiar to the national sects, the use of Latin as the common language for divine worship harmonizes perfectly with the essence, the object and the workings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
How beautiful and sublime is that uniform celebration of the Holy Sacrifice in the Catholic Church from the rising to the setting of the sun! Thus every priest is enabled to celebrate Mass, over the whole world, no matter what country he visits. And how consoling is it not for a devout Catholic, whilst dwelling in a foreign land in the midst of strangers, to be able to hear again the words of a language which he has listened to from childhood as a second mother-tongue in his native country. He feels then that he is in his spiritual home.
While Latin is the language of the Roman Rite, the Mass contains in fact three languages apart from Latin: there are fragments of Greek (Kyrie eleison, Trisagion of Good Friday) and Hebrew (Amen, Alleluia). Monsignor Gihr writes that through the inscription on the Cross these three languages proclaimed to the whole world the dignity, power and glory of the Redeemer, the royalty and dominion of grace which He acquired by His bloody death; at the altar these languages continue to live throughout all ages, and serve to announce and to celebrate until the end of time the death of Christ for our redemption, whereby the reign of grace is ever more widely extended and firmly established.