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Veil, Vernacular, and Culture: Death and All of Its Friends

You will often hear from people who lived through the “great” post-Vatican II reform of the Mass that, despite the loss of reverence and sharp drop in attendance, it was good to have the Mass in the vernacular. Surely, understanding what goes on in the Mass is important. Yet, surprisingly to some, understanding every prayer uttered is not the actual purpose of the Mass. Sacrificial worship is directed to God, not man. Why has the vernacular been seen as monumentally important to the Mass, even when the Church undergoes a veritable dumpster fire? The answer can, in large part, be explained by the loss of culture in our society.

We do not have a true culture. We have worship of sports and celebrities, horrendous “music,” scandalous movies, illiteracy in all things classic, smartphones for porn and games, and overall insanity. The loss of culture was gradual. In the United States, John Dewey’s educational theory, one greatly pushed in my teacher’s college experience, was perhaps the beginning of the end of education. Communism was a destroyer of the polis. Patriarchal “do what I say, not what I do” parenting was perhaps a key igniter of the sexual revolution. And vague Vatican II and post-conciliar documents induced the beginning of the end of worship. That Latin was replaced with vernacular speech, speech that was further reduced to a grade four level, was a perversion in the actual purpose of the Mass.

Culture was not always this way. Once upon a time, William Shakespeare wrote plays on Julius Caesar and the philosopher Timon because his culture reveled in his wit and depth in these stories. Truth be told, I went to a production of The Tempest in my undergraduate years, without pre-reading the play, and subsequently left the drama house with great frustration. I had no idea what was going on. The language was too difficult. The references to ancient themes were far beyond my comprehension. Surely, I could justly expect Shakespeare’s works to be simplified to fit my needs and abilities!

It took many years for me to rediscover that the problem was not with Shakespeare, but rather with me. Undergraduate that I was, I could not keep up with those seventeenth-century viewers deemed illiterate by today’s standards. Shakespeare, Sophocles, Jonson, Marlowe, and many others produced great works because they worked within a true culture. The masses of “illiterates” they created for were steeped in centuries of human achievements. The cultus, or tending of the garden, was alive and well. The dramas, paintings, music, buildings, and thoughts of the day were recognized as profound and worthy of immersing oneself in. It was not simple, but it was worth it. It still is worth it.

Fast-forwarding to today, there is perhaps less knowledge and wisdom now than at any other age of modern human history. Ease and instant understanding are the current crowning achievement of life. Evidently, depth and beauty are their casualties. What is missing is the veil – the veil of mystery. The curtain separating instant results and laborious enlightenments. The sacred mystically withheld from the profane. If what we undertake must be instantly understood, then by definition, this undertaking will be utterly void of depth and profundity. The grade four vernacular Mass translation is what we are left with. I suppose it fits well with our “liturgical” “Sing a Church into Being” ditties, which in turn provide great opportunities to daydream at Mass on how much money to place on the Bears for the Monday-Nighter. And the non-cultural wheel of misfortune repeats itself.

What is a veil? A veil is a covering. Its use is a rich occurrence seen throughout Scripture. The Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant are hidden. A veiling essentially is a revealing. To veil something is to reveal it as altogether important, sacred, and worthy. Consider some veils that still exist in the Tridentine Latin Mass and Divine Liturgy, or to a far lesser degree in the Novus Ordo – the chalice veil, tabernacle veil, actual tabernacle, incense, holy week veiling, altar server’s velum for episcopal insignia, humeral veil, iconostasis, narthex doors, and ad orientem worship. These postures and components reveal a sacred mystery. They demonstrate that the Mass touches the Divine. It is not human and earthly. It leads us to heaven. If there is no veil, there is nothing to say. There is nothing to be revealed. To retranslate Shakespeare into grade four speech for the sake of a lazy undergraduate student, and remove all references to antiquity or virtue, is to make Shakespeare inconsequential. The same danger applies to the Mass.

Latin is a veil. Yes, it is much more than this, such as a foretaste of heavenly praise, but it still is a veil. Latin is not our mater lingua. You will not understand Latin at first listen. Nor fiftieth listen. It takes great effort to understand Latin fluently. One can follow along with a pocket missal, but even that is too much work for some. No, what is lost on today’s Church is the truth that Latin is a veil, too – a veil that reveals heavenly mysteries. The profound German writer Martin Mosebach explains one such instance:

“How amazed I was the first time I heard a Latin Te Deum. It was a lengthy piece, hovering to and fro, with its feather-light questioning and answering, a mixture of psalm, litany, and profession of faith[.] … The Latin Te Deum takes both listener and singer gently by the hand and leads them to a high mountain, where an unlimited vista opens out before them.” (Heresy of Formlessness, p. 24)

An unlimited vista. Grade-four speech where every amplified breath of the priest cannot be missed does not evoke an unlimited vista. Indeed, Latin is a veil. It is a language for worship. We do not speak the common tongue to worship the heavenly God. We rather sing with the cherubim and seraphim. Did it matter to the Irish that St. Patrick said the Mass in Latin? Was this a barrier? Or maybe, just maybe, they recognized that Patrick was performing a ritual sacrifice, that he was communicating with the Divine. Did they understand this? Not fully. There is a veil – a paradoxical veil that is necessary to reveal.

As instant gratification and factual demands weaned out the great depth of Western culture, the Mass was not spared. Indeed, because of the need to understand everything, we understand less than ever. The veil of Latin revealed the sacred purpose of the Mass. Removing Latin from Mass did not make the Mass more understandable; it simply lowered Mass to the level of uncultured banality. Ratzinger says, “Whenever people talk about inculturation, they almost always think only of the liturgy, which then has to undergo often quite dismal distortions. The worshippers usually groan at this, though it is happening for their sake” (Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 200-201). The groaning is due to an absence of culture by which to inculturate.

I question the proud stance taken against Latin in the Mass, or further the desire to hear every amplified breath the priest utters. I question the advantage of newly created Eucharistic prayers, arising mysteriously like the dewfall, in simplified vernacular language for the ostensible purpose of convenience and brevity. And I question the forfeiture of a chanted Gospel, done in an act and language of worship, in exchange for storytelling-like Gospel readings proclaimed at a podium from a priest who is always facing you, always telling you exactly what he thinks is going on, usually with affirmations and accompaniment. We can sing a new Church into being yet not understand a sacred thing. How utterly easy. How utterly insipid.

Remove the veil. Reveal a dead culture.

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