Learning “The Language of the Land”


In a recent article in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, some odd questions are raised about the use of liturgical Latin:

Is it possible that the Traditional Latin Mass, though beautiful sounding Latin, merely makes one feel good, but lacks the intent necessary for the words to be properly labeled as communication of love of God? Or do all of the congregants have sufficient knowledge of Latin to intend the meaning of the words agreed to or spoken? Can the words uttered in the Latin Mass, although uttered in an angelic tongue, merely be a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal”? What about the potential invalidation of a sacrament (no Eucharist) resulting from mispronunciation of an unfamiliar language? Undoubtedly the questions may cause some heated reactions, but they are only intended to safeguard and ensure the sacraments have their intended effect, especially since there is an increasing use of an unfamiliar language for the sacrament that is the source, center, and summit of the Catholic Faith—the Most Holy Eucharist.

At Liturgy Guy, 1P5 contributor Brian Williams responds:

The obvious response is that for over a millennium, the Roman Mass has been offered in Latin, long after it ceased to be the language of the people. Did this question never occur to anyone before now? Or before the 20th century?

The main thrust of the article seems to be that it is difficult, if not impossible, to pray in a language that is not one’s own. Therefore, the individual worshipper cannot actually intend the meaning of the words, and the Mass cannot be a communication of love of God.

However, this objection misses two very important realities. When the Catechism says that the Mass is the preeminent prayer of the Church, it doesn’t mean “prayer” as a purely individual, subjective, devotional experience, but WORSHIP, that is offered publicly, corporately, and objectively, the ideal worship that is pleasing to God. This is worship as has been established by the Church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, taking into account both the human experience of religion, as well being faithful to the new reality that has now entered and embraced the human condition, that is the wedding of the human and divine in the God-Man, Jesus Christ, His Incarnation, his life, and His saving Death, Resurrection and Ascension.

Secondly: the Mass is preeminently the prayer of Christ, the offering of the Son to the Father, in which we worship and adore the Son, and join in his offering to the Father. It is not, first and foremost, our prayer. It is Christ’s prayer. It is the heavenly liturgy, into which we are privileged to take part.

A friend of mine posted her own take on the issue on Facebook. I found her thoughts to be unique and compelling, inasmuch as they should be obvious to all of us when considering this issue:

Latin? But I don’t know Latin? That makes no sense. I like knowing what’s being said and what I am saying.

Both my mom and sister are ESL teachers. My mom specifically works with the immigrant population. These are people who come here from all over the world and come to her classes to learn English (the language of our land). It’s hard. Really hard. Some of these folks have little formal education in their own native tongue. But they persevere. Why? Because they want to be citizens of this great country. I find that very ennobling.

I’ve had the great privilege to meet and speak with some of my mom’s students. She’d invite them to our home for dinners or for holidays to celebrate with us. On these occasions they would sit there at our table and do their best to talk with us. They’d struggle to find the right words or to pronounce things just right. But we’d help them out. I was very aware that they must have felt a little awkward and out of sorts. But this just endeared them to me all the more! I couldn’t help being in awe of how they willingly struggled so that they could become a part of a new country. Such dignity and strength!

And so enter Latin. The ancient universal language of the Church. Do I speak, read, or understand Latin? No. Very few do. But it has always been the Church’s “language of the land”. So I too am a poor immigrant pilgrim. I am welcomed and wanted, but there are demands put on me. It’s difficult. It can make me feel awkward or out of place if I let my insecurities get the best of me. But mostly it bestows a great dignity and nobility upon me. I am sacrificing certain familiar comforts for the sake of becoming a part of something higher, something greater. I want to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. So for those of you who might find yourself a little frustrated by the newer American “press one for English” practice. You think to yourself “hey it used to be that immigrants wanted to and submitted themselves to the learning of English. If you love the United States then just learn the language please!” Consider as Catholics part of the Church Universal we are called to the same heroic struggle. And it’s a beautiful thing. A struggle that ennobles and exalts while it unifies.


The writer [of  the Homiletic & Pastoral Review article] finally uses the spousal relationship to illustrate how important using a common familiar language is for communicating love effectively.

Stunning – his blindness to the certainty that the most intimate and profound communications of love and dedication between spouses come without the use of any words at all! It is in the secret language spoken in silence known only to husband and wife that the mysteries of their love are communicated one to another. Words? Words seem cheap in comparison to this mystery.

This reality is precisely why the Latin Mass effects those who open themselves up to its beauty and demands so profoundly. It’s why they can’t stop talking about it or sharing it. They’re in love! And hearing words in their common tongue has nothing to do with it. Being able to speak words familiar and routine, ordinary and everyday, might make one feel more at ease but it unintentionally cheapens their meaning at the same time.

The resistance to Latin and the Latin Mass seems to me to stem from a need for comfort and a rejection of mystery. Familiar – comfortable.

Mysterious – uncomfortable.

Why does the familiar make one comfortable? Because it’s ours. It belongs to us. We are in control of it. The familiar answers to us. In contrast the mysterious can be scary. When placed into mystery We must ask it “what do you want from me?” We answer to it and its demands.

Sounds a lot closer to the kingdom Jesus described to Pilate: “my Kingdom is not of this world”

For most people of common sense, it stands to reason that when moving to a foreign country, we need to learn the language. To expect them to master our own tongue and communicate with us directly is, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty narcissistic.

Latin is and for many centuries has been the Church’s living, universal language. I’ve covered some of this history here. I’ve also talked about the ease with which even a person who lacks a facility with Latin can get up to speed and follow a Latin Mass.

Why do we reject ecclesiastical Latin? Why do we, at a time when most people are more literate and thus more educated than they’ve ever been, when we have access to the sum total of human knowledge on devices we can fit in our pockets, do we balk at Latin in the liturgy? Is it really so hard?

Questions like those being raised in Homiletic & Pastoral Review should have long-since been put to rest.

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