Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why Latin?

When people find out you attend a Latin Mass, they always get hung up on the Latin part.  I remember taking a trip down to Franciscan University of Stuebenville, and spending the evening with a group of otherwise perfectly orthodox Catholics.  When a young lady learned I went to the Latin Mass, her response sticks with me to this day.  "Why Latin?  Don't you believe in the Holy Spirit and Vatican II?"  Crazy as it sounds, she didn't mean anything  ill by it.

To many, the Latin Mass is constructed as follows.  The congregation sits with their faces buried in a missal (or fingers thumbing on a Rosary) while the priest has his back turned to the faithful praying in silence so you can't hear him.  When you can hear him, it's in a language you deliberately cannot understand.  If that's how it has been taught to you, one would certainly think there's nothing about the Holy Spirit there!

From a certain perspective, there are elements of truth to each of these statements.  Yet that doesn't change the fact this characterization of the Churches ancient liturgy couldn't be any further from the truth.  Let us consider the use of the Latin language.

In my regular career, I work in a data center for a global corporation.  That data center is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  The servers in that data center are accessed by individuals in over 40  countries.  In those countries exist people speaking even more languages.  Many times, I have to be in touch with these individuals speaking a variety of languages.  We need to speak in a language we both understand.  In this case, every global support contact for our company has to be fluent in English.  Whether I am speaking to Jaromir in Kostelec, Azmat in Russia, Ignacio in Mexico City, we communicate in and are understood in one language.  If one prefers a nerdier example, a physicist in Tokyo and a physicist in New York can communicate to each other in their work even if neither knows the language the other speaks.  They speak through the language of mathematics.

The Catholic Church is like the business I work for in the aspect of its size.  She spans countless cultures and languages.  Whenever Catholic leaders from across the globe put together things having to do with the Catholic Faith, they as well have a universal language.  The documents of an Ecumenical Council are worthless from a doctrinal point of view unless in Latin.  The official liturgical books are only authoritative in the  Latin.  Attempt to write something authoritative on canon law in your native tongue with no reference to the Latin, and your likely to get laughed out of whatever venue you are in.  Precisely because the Church exists here on earth on a global scale, you need that universal language.

"Well that is the Church on a greater level.  What about the individual Church?"  You will frequently hear that question asked.  I will only say one thing.  If you look at the Mass you celebrate as different from the Mass celebrated in other Churches, you are doing it wrong.  There is only one sacrifice of the Mass.  That is celebrated in heaven, outside of time.  This one offering is made present on the altars throughout the world, due to a miracle.  No matter which day we attend Mass, we are attending the same Mass, the same sacrifice.  It was for this symbolic reason that masses were in a universal language.

Yet why Latin?  Why not English, or Swahili for that matter?  In short, it is what worked best throughout history.  There's no divine or theological reasoning behind it.  Latin was the language of all of Christianity for at least the first several centuries.   Latin was the language of the Roman Empire.  When the Empire fell, the Latin language influenced countless languages.  Most importantly, it fell out of use.  The meanings of the phrases became fixed.  In our English language, one need only look at such terms like "liberal" or "conservative" at the founding of our country, to how they are used today.  That dead language is one that can be reasonably learned by the greatest amount of people and the meaning of those words will be consistent and reliable.

Yet most importantly, this language links you to a greater tradition and patrimony.  When Christ celebrated the Passover Seder, he did not do so in the common language.  He said it in the dialect and tongue of those first Hebrews as they left Egypt.  In the thousands of years since, the language had developed.  By using the same words in the same language, it was yet another way to make present the anamnesis of the Seder.  Our defecient English language translates anamnesis as "remembrance."  To the Jew celebrating Passover (and the Catholic celebrating Mass), the "remembrance" or "memorial offering" is something far deeper.  When they partake in the rituals of the Passover, they are living what is symbolized by them.  When we Catholics of the Roman Rite assist at or celebrate Mass, we use that Latin language as a way to unite ourselves to those first Roman priests who celebrated Mass on the tombs of martyrs.  We unite ourselves with the Popes who carefully through the years developed organically that liturgy.

Does this mean that a Mass not done in Latin is somehow less of a Mass?  Certainly not!  Yet when dealing with such sublime mysteries, we go as far as possible  in immersing ourselves in them.  When dealing with the Mass, one cannot immerse themselves in it enough.

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