Diocesan News

Ask the Register: why Latin?

Q. Latin seems to be coming back during Mass. Why? I feel like this discourages a large number of people from participating. 

Editor's Note: The Register posed this question to Father Justin Wylie, assistant pastor at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln. A native of South Africa, Father Wylie has worked and studied in several countries throughout the world, giving him a unique perspective on the universality of the Church.

A. Three are the languages Church Fathers considered hallowed by inscription on our Lord’s holy Cross: Hebrew and Greek, the languages of both Testaments, and Latin, the sacred language of the Church.

Some, thinking to insult Latin, pay it its highest compliment when they style it a “dead language.” Lexicons of living languages continually are in flux. If comprehension seems strained by shifts in English between the generations, imagine across centuries!

Only a language that’s fixed remains accessible through many Christian centuries: allowing Aquinas to engage Augustine, to engage me, with singular clarity of meaning. Only a language owned by no-one in particular belongs to everyone, universally. Truly, Latin has rendered our Faith Catholic (which is to say, universal) in time and space.

Babel’s curse of linguistic segmentation was remedied by the Pentecost miracle of a Church that evangelizes all nations in a single tongue, with parity of understanding. The pagans of ancient Greece and Rome, Europe’s barbarian tribes and the New World’s disparate peoples were, by the common denominator of our Latin liturgy, evangelized. Apartheid did less to divide Catholics of many races in South Africa than the introduction of the vernacular in the liturgy, for whereas before, these worshipped together easily in Latin, since its loss, now find themselves deeply divided at diocesan celebrations.

Since faith is formed in the Faithful principally in the liturgy, Latin is especially important in the context of worship, on account of the principle that we believe according to how we pray: lex orandi, lex credendi. Some would add lex vivendi, since we also live according to how we believe. It is a dogmatic fact that the true Church of Christ is to be recognized by the mark of unity. Latin provides for our creed, code and cult the bedrock of our unity.

Related item: Lex orandi, lex credendi by Bishop James Conley

Those who complain Latin impedes comprehension stand perhaps too haughtily before the mystery of the faith (mysterium fidei). Where Oriental rites employ iconostases to veil the Mystery, Latin, in our rite, serves to set apart the sacred. Neither years of study nor position in the sanctuary lends any advantage in comprehending the Mystery: we may turn the altar around, sit in the round, install louder microphones and brighter spotlights, but believe one who holds It in his own unworthy hands: there is nothing there to see nor hear.

Faith—not language—must supply what our senses prove defective in perceiving; or, as we sing in the Tantum Ergo at Benediction: praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui (“Faith for all defects supplying,Where the feeble senses fail”).

The Second Vatican Council reaffirms Latin’s status as our official language of worship (SC 36.1), requires from the Faithful familiarity with the Mass in Latin (SC 54) and directs choirs to lead the Faithful in Latin (SC 112; 114-5), prioritizing in this the privileged place of Gregorian chant (SC 120). Where this has been lacking in the last generation, it represents the deviation or exception (however widespread), rather than the norm, and its reappearance is a welcome return to fidelity to the Council, rather than developmental anomaly. Those who would deny to the heirs the patrimony that is their due can hardly feign surprise at their dismay.

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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