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A Dialogue on Liturgy in Latin: Obscurantism or Opportunity?

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Theodore: The idea that “something you don’t understand is more mysterious and awesome” has been a talking point for over a thousand years. What other reason can be given for keeping the laity completely and utterly ignorant of the Church’s liturgical prayers?

Longinus: That seems like a huge exaggeration to me. The faithful are certainly familiar with some of the prayers. This is clear in any traditional congregation today.

Theodore: But you know as well as I that, for the vast majority of Catholic history, hand missals either did not exist (in certain times and places, they were actually forbidden), were unreadable (to largely illiterate lay populations, particularly in Catholic-majority countries where literacy rates were always comparatively low), or were not readily available or were too expensive (particularly for every member of the family to own one). Besides, it’s anti-liturgical to expect people to have their nose in a book during the whole Mass as the cost for them to understand what is being prayed. For somewhere close to 1,500 years, Catholics were needlessly denied a sacred vernacular to form their souls from the richest repertoire of devotion that exists—the Missal, where the Scriptures come alive. All because transubstantiationist Churchmen valued form (the Latin language) over substance (that which the language communicates), and posited an unnecessary dichotomy between the two. Demand and desire for a vernacular liturgy was very widespread before the Council—a handful of rad-trads aside, ask just about anyone who lived before the Council—and there was no reason the Church could not have gotten the ball rolling and found a happy via media between vernacular worship and sacred language the way literally every other serious Christian denomination has done.

Longinus: You exaggerate to a ridiculous extent! The vernacular is no “magic bullet” to ensure either participation or understanding. Plus, the Latin of the Mass invites those attending to enter into a different place and time, one that is marked by prayer and contemplation. It is far more important that the faithful in the congregation are plunged into the mysteries of the Mass than that they follow word for word what is being said, which is more reminiscent of being in school or following the latest news.

Theodore: I couldn’t disagree more. In our own day, an all-Latin-all-the-time TLM is the single most serious roadblock to liturgical restoration. What is effectively babble to the vast majority of Catholics and would-be Catholics does not appeal to most people, and is most un-pastoral in a typical parochial setting. There’s no inherent reason we cannot have reverent traditional Masses with, say, Latin Ordinaries and vernacular Propers and readings, with pastoral options to celebrate all-Latin ceremonies according to the pastoral needs and tastes of their congregations. When the choice is between a trashy liturgy they can understand and a beautiful one that is unintelligible babble, most Christians will choose trash over babble. That’s just a fact, and one that is utterly understandable. And please, spare me the usual bromides and cliches about “the Mass isn’t about you” and “your tastes don’t matter.” Those statements are not true in any absolute sense; the liturgy has always been subject to the tastes of the literati in several crucial respects. he desire to hear in one’s own tongue the prayed Scriptures and the other texts of the Mass is not an effect of original sin but springs from eminently laudable and pious motivations. Nor does a desire to know what the prayers say evince a disparagement of mystery.

Longinus: If what you are saying is true, how is it that a Mass that was stubbornly not in the vernacular for so many centuries could have nourished so many saints, and kept the Faith alive from generation to generation in a way that nothing after 1965 has shown itself capable of doing? On your interpretation, how could anyone have wanted to be, or to stay, Catholic, when they had to spend their entire lives in (as you see it) a dark prison of incomprehension? Come to think of it, Bugnini believed much the same thing as you do—and look how well his “solution” has sustained the faith of the Church!

Theodore: Sure, there were many saints in the “Age of Faith.” But imagine how much holier people would have been if they were permitted to know and pray the Mass and the Scriptures! The Church’s liturgy is not the preserve of a priestly caste; it is the rightful patrimony of all Christians. Celebrating it in a language people do not and cannot understand is no different from annihilating the liturgical texts and replacing them with babble. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons so many laity accepted the horrible “reform” of the Mass after Vatican II is that they were already so ignorant of the liturgical texts they could hardly have noticed a difference. Liturgical prayer matters because it is supposed to form the souls of those who hear or say them. God acquires no benefit from our prayers, or from the prayers being babbled in a language no one understands. Latin is no holier to God than English. If Latin has any value as a liturgical language, it’s only to the extent it evokes in the faithful a sense of universal communion and mystery; but there’s no logical reason why these same things cannot be induced while enabling the laity to pray in their own language.

Longinus: I get that Latin evokes bad feelings for you, but it’s not impossible to learn it, and it can actually be a deep experience to acquire some grasp of this age-old language of cult and culture (no surprise that these two terms are connected). People only willing to scratch the surface aren’t going to get much out of it, sure, but Catholicism is far deeper than just the surface. I would say Latin throws down the gauntlet: take this seriously, or go home. Are we less serious than Jews who learn Hebrew and Muslims who learn classical Arabic?

Theodore: Not everyone can learn a new language—especially Latin—with facility, and I’m morally certain that you could not understand a single oration in the Missale Romanum without the aid of a Latin dictionary. A person should not have to have a facility in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew to know and read the Word of God, in Scripture or in the Liturgy. I’m suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the complete and utter alienation of the laity from the liturgical texts for well over a millenium—such that they had to focus exclusively on transubstantiation—accounts for Catholic, even conservative Catholic, apathy over the late-twentieth-century liturgical deformations. The Church wasted most of its history forming its flock into being transubstantiationists instead of liturgists, and we’re reaping the fruits of that today.

Longinus: People were more than capable of praying the Mass without having to follow along word-for-word.

Theodore: No, they were not capable of doing that. They prayed at Mass, to be sure, but they did not and could not pray the Mass.

Longinus:You are speaking sheer absurdities. Take a little time to read Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, about the deep involvement of medieval English Catholics in their liturgy right up to Reformation, and then come back and tell me seriously that the laity were separated from their liturgy. And another thing, if I may: I resent Catholics being written off as “transubstantiationists.” This is the greatest miracle that occurs in the universe, every day, and it is rightly the focus of our loving adoration. The traditional Western liturgy is like a golden crown ready to receive the precious jewel of Christ. To have an entire society of men and woman who grasp the centrality of this mystery and orient their lives around it testifies to a depth of participation that nothing since Vatican II has been able to hold a candle to, vernacular and all.

Theodore: I’ve read Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, and my take-away from it is that while a tiny percentage of literate laymen could and did follow along with the prayers of the Mass and were deeply involved in the liturgy, the vast majority of the lay faithful were not. What Duffy does demonstrate is that the lay faithful had an emotional attachment to the liturgy; as good transubstantiationists, they knew that bread and wine were changed into Body and Blood, but that’s all they knew. They had a feeling of sacrality when they attended Mass, and liked to do as much as they could (kissing the pax brede, looking at the Host when it was elevated, smelling the incense), but they were utterly ignorant of the liturgical prayers. So they had to compensate with paraliturgical practices, devotions, and superstitions.

Longinus:Have you read Jacques Fournier’s accounts of his interviews with lay country folk in southern France? For a bunch of illiterates, they sure knew the Bible and the liturgy! Can I suggest you cure your ignorance by reading his accounts? That, by the way, was early 14th century. Have you examined records of stipends and testaments? An interesting thing: we find a very frequent demand that the Mass be fully sung, as a condition on stipends. And not from elites, but from common people.

Theodore: No one who defended the Latin liturgy ever claimed that the laity understood the prayers. Instead, they made the argument that their ignorance did not matter. I don’t dispute that people can attend a babble-liturgy and understand that transubstantiation happens when the magic words are said and the host is lifted up, but the liturgy cannot be reduced—or at least, is not supposed to be reduced—to bare transubstantiation. But the pre-Vatican II liturgical mentality was precisely that: transubstantiationism. The laity didn’t give a fig about all the rites and prayers because the Church had taught them not to; their ignorance didn’t matter. As an example of what I mean, check out questions 1392–96 of the 1938 edition of Radio Replies. The gist of the author’s defense is that it doesn’t matter if the liturgy is mindless babble to its participants, because “God understands Latin.” And that if laity want to follow along, they can purchase expensive pew missals to do so.

Longinus:Seems like the first part of 1394 is a good response to your argument: “Do the worshippers understand all that the Priest says in the Latin Mass? Answer: Not all Catholics understand Latin, by any means. But they are all quite at home when assisting at Mass. They know what is being done, even though they cannot understand all that is being said. And it is not necessary that they should follow the sense of every word used during the sacrificial rite of the Mass.”

Theodore: To be clear, I don’t dispute that it’s relatively easy to memorize the Ordinary of the Mass—Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei—and the simple responses, though I don’t think memorization of the meaning of the ordinaries was all that common in the preconciliar days, because, unlike today’s TLM attendees—myself included, by the way—the laity did not grow up praying these things in the vernacular, and there’s no evidence of widespread preconciliar instruction on the meaning of these texts. The laity’s ignorance of liturgical prayers, and various movements to introduce the vernacular, are well-documented in the scholarship, and in the interventions of the Council Fathers at Vatican II, who supported some use of the vernacular.

Longinus:Is the late Archbishop James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore an “obscure source”? Here is how he defends an exclusively Latin liturgy: “But if the Priest says Mass in an unknown tongue, are not the people thereby kept in ignorance of what he says, and is not their time wasted in Church? We are forced to smile at such charges, which are flippantly repeated from year to year. These assertions arise from a total ignorance of the Mass. Many Protestants imagine that the essence of public worship consists in a sermon. Hence, to their minds, the primary duty of a congregation is to listen to a discourse from the pulpit. Prayer, on the contrary, according to Catholic teaching, is the most essential duty of a congregation, though they are also regularly instructed by sermons. Now, what is the Mass? It is not a sermon, but it is a sacrifice of prayer which the Priest offers up to God for himself and the people. When the Priest says Mass he is speaking not to the people, but to God, to whom all languages are equally intelligible.”

Theodore: Let me offer a translation: “God understands Latin or Swahili or Sanskrit, so it doesn’t matter that the laity are ignorant of the Church’s prayers.” Notice what he does not say. He does not say: “Silly Protestants, Catholics understand Latin. You’re projecting your own ignorance upon us!” Of course he doesn’t. Cardinal Gibbons knew that the great majority of the lay faithful did not speak or understand Latin. Now, he’s writing of Catholic laity in the early nineteenth century United States, so he can go on to say: “But is it true that the people do not understand what the Priest says at Mass? Not at all. For, by the aid of an English Missal, or any other Manual, they are able to follow the officiating clergyman from the beginning to the end of the service.” Note that this is true of those Catholics able to afford pew missals for every member of the family, and it’s true only if they are literate, and if they are willing to keep their nose glued to a book during the entire ceremony. This was, of course, not true for the greater part of Catholic history, and was not true outside the Anglosphere in Gibbons’ own time.

Longinus:You seem perpetually to side-step the question, Can one understand the Mass—and thus unite in prayer with it—without knowing the exact words of each and every prayer during the liturgy? Must one actually be literate to merit from the Mass, indeed, to achieve a high level of union with Christ in His perfect sacrifice on the Cross? But I want to attack another weak point in your case that I have allowed to slide until now. You have a ridiculously negative view of the use of missals. And yet, God chose to give humanity a book (or better, a collection of writings that would eventually become a book), namely the Bible; the Church has her ministers and musicians using books all the time; indeed, reading is one of the greatest paths of access to deepened wisdom and piety, as the history of monasticism vividly shows us. Frankly, in my experience the use of a hand missal over the decades has immeasurably increased my knowledge of and love for the Church’s divine worship. It reinforces through the eyes what I hear with my ears. I even have a detailed “mental map” of the liturgical year—the temporal and sanctoral cycles—thanks to something like “muscle memory” gained from years of consulting my St. Andrew’s Daily Missal. And, what’s best of all, the longer I live, the less I depend on that missal, precisely because I’ve been able to internalize so much of it. The book is not an end in itself, but a very powerful means of immersion in a treasury that cannot be so easily translated and transmitted in endless waves of vernacular prayers. The liturgical reformers thought they could snap their fingers and replicate in the West what happens in many Eastern-rite churches nowadays, namely, an all-vernacular liturgy in which everything is audible; but this goes so deeply against the grain of Western piety and the Western psyche that it is doomed from the start. Too many subtle and non-verbal elements are lost.

Theodore: You can make these assertions all day long, but I don’t find them at all convincing. The fact that one can efficaciously participate in the liturgy despite the Church’s artificially imposed roadblocks does not justify the roadblocks. One can fruitfully participate in a clown-Mass Novus Ordo, but that does not mean that clowns and balloons in the liturgy conduce to fruitful worship. Likewise, celebrating the entire liturgy—all of it, all the time—in what amounts to babble does not conduce to fruitful participation in the liturgy. What it does conduce to is liturgical minimalism—transubstantiationism; it conduces to a superficial Christianity and an ignorance of Christian doctrine.

Longinus:Is ignorance of the language a roadblock to the laity’s participation in the liturgy, or does our participation hinge on something other than knowing the words of the prayers? I’ve asked this same question several different ways and you still haven’t answered it. Besides, if there isn’t some sort of basic catechesis going on all the time for children or new Catholics, the liturgy all by itself is not likely to provide that, regardless of the language. And if you want to talk about superficiality, how about the way the vernacular language can go in one ear and right out the other? What is easy for us can turn out to be like water off a duck’s back.

Theodore: Your claim that understanding what is being prayed is not absolutely essential to fruitful participation in the liturgy sounds to me like saying: “Love for one’s spouse is not predicated on romance, since it’s possible to love someone without liking them. Married couples don’t need to work on liking one another, as long as they ‘will the good for each other.’” So too, liking what one is praying because one understands it is not necessary for loving God, but it sure does conduce to active participation, in much the same way that a common language among humans facilitates communion, although such understanding is not absolutely essential to communion.

Longinus:Your point that we should know our liturgy better, and strive to know it better, is obviously right; I just don’t think that translates into “therefore vernacular.” Years ago, I realized that it would be optimal to prepare for Mass instead of just showing up, so I took to reviewing the prayers and readings of the Mass the evening before, with the aid of a good liturgical commentary, e.g., Dom Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year or Parsch’s The Church’s Year of Grace. My preparation expands my understanding and enriches my time at Mass.

Theodore: Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-Latin. I just think an all-Latin-all-the-time liturgy is not conducive to participation for the vast majority of the lay faithful, which is why the vast majority of Catholics—even conservatives who are doctrinally orthodox—detest the TLM and don’t avail themselves of it when it is offered. Other denominations—e.g., the Orthodox churches and even traditional high-church Protestantism (Lutheranism in particular)—have, in my opinion, historically achieved a far more Catholic balance between sacrality of language, universality, mystery, and intelligibility than Catholics have, what with Rome’s historic idolization of the Latin-only liturgy, a stance contrary to the Scriptures and to the early Fathers (no, I’m not a liturgical primitivist; not everything primitive is good or useful for us today, but not everything primitive is bad or useless either). For example, at least as late as in the time of Bach, vernacular high-church liturgies were the norm in the Lutheran world, but services were often sung entirely, or nearly entirely, in Latin—with Gregorian chant and polyphony, in additional to orchestral music—in university towns where most of the population was educated and could understand at least most of what was sung. Furthermore, in traditional Protestantism (as in Orthodoxy), church-vernacular was elevated and hieratic, not colloquial. I don’t see why we Catholics can’t have the same thing: the traditional liturgy with Latin Ordinaries and vernacular Propers, with pastoral options for all-Latin or all-vernacular where genuine pastoral needs suggest one would be more fruitful than the other. The liturgy is not merely—or, for that matter, primarily—what we offer to God, but what God is offering to us: divine instruction and communication through the readings, through the chants, through the hymns, and, preeminently, through the Sacrament itself. Why shouldn’t we hear the words of the Gospel chanted in our own tongue? Why shouldn’t the faithful be catechized through sequences like the great Lauda Sion—which beautifully summarizes the Church’s Eucharistic theology—chanted in the vernacular on Corpus Christi? How can chanting the Church’s own prayers in the vernacular not sanctify the faithful?

Longinus:You say that Latin has alienated the vast majority of Catholics from tradition. No, I think it is the Modernist spirit that has caused them to alienate themselves. They don’t avail themselves of tradition because they don’t want to do so: they would have to say goodbye to too many comforts in order to do so. But beyond that—is liturgy something we’re supposed to “get” right away? No, of course not; and Eastern liturgy is so rich that even in the vernacular it takes many years to assimilate it. So too with the traditional Latin liturgy. I have been attending it for over thirty years, and all during that time I have come to know it and love it more and more, both by simple attendance and by reading and thinking. It is a lifetime courtship before the heavenly wedding feast. I would not want to see it touched. It is a great mystery and a great testament to the faith and culture of generations before me. It seems to me that you have a hang-up about something below the surface—as if it offends you that there are Roman Catholics who love a Mass that is not in their vernacular and that it will take them many years to understand.

Theodore: No, what offends me is those who want to impose the extreme Latinity of the traditional rite on everyone today, for it is the single biggest obstacle to liturgical restoration.

Longinus:But, in spite of what you say, you seem to be speaking from lack of experience. When I started attending the old Latin Mass, I did not at first look at every page; I was just drawn to it by its mystical atmosphere. Later, I began to follow it carefully, to get more familiar with the prayers and readings. This led me into a whole new dimension of treasures. And then, years later, I was able to put the missal down, because I was very familiar with what was happening and being said. This is what I mean by giving it time. The things that look like obstacles cease to be obstacles. Love becomes the all-seeing eye.

Theodore: An all-Latin-all-the-time liturgy absolutely is useless babble, and Saint Paul himself tells us as much when he says it is better to speak two words of vernacular prophecy than ten thousand words in a sacral language (i.e., tongues) that no one understands. I suppose it’s not surprising that the transubstantiationists pay more heed to the senseless traditions of men than to sound logic and the very words of God—the Protestant Reformers may have been heretics, but they really were onto something here.

Longinus: Since when is a sacral language “babble”? Is that how the Russian Orthodox view Church Slavonic? Is that how the Greek Orthodox view their ancient biblical Greek? Is that how Copts view Coptic, or Armenians Armenian? Your vision is far too narrow. What this conversation has persuaded me of is the need to rise above pastoral utilitarianism to a liturgical mysticism that finds in the provocative “scandal of the particular” an occasion, and an incentive, for lifelong effort sustained by prevenient grace. Nothing worthwhile is easy of achievement, and we all instinctively know that. The easy accessibility of the vernacular has not been the salvation of liturgy, but its kiss of death. I thank God every day for the unlikely survival of the Roman Rite, that is, the old Latin liturgy. It has kept alive intensely liturgical prayer at a time when a superficial simulacrum of said prayer has buried it beneath instantaneous (and therefore negligible) comprehensibility.

Author’s note: This dialogue, or rather, Longinus, does not attempt to present all of the arguments that can be given on behalf of the use and retention of Latin in the Western liturgy. A more comprehensive formal treatment may be found in my lecture “Why Latin Is the Right Language for Roman Catholic Worship,” which is available in text and video here.

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