Today we shift gears slightly as we move into Chapter II of Sacrosanctum Concilium which focuses more completely on the Eucharist. However, here we see, yet again, previous concepts put forward by he council which are held together with a certain tension. In paragraphs 48 and 50 we hear the repeated emphasis that the Mass be accessible to the people of God: “through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they [the people of God] should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing.” And yet, in paragraph 54, we see the presumption that the majority of the liturgy would be celebrated in Latin: “In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue.” It goes further to insist that, though the mother tongue may be used with greater regularity, “steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” How can full, active, and conscious participation the Liturgy be reconciled with this dogged insistence on using Latin pervasively?
The only way to reconcile these two concepts is to understand more clearly what Vatican II means when it calls for the participation of the faithful. Participation does not consist in understanding every word perfectly, but rather in understanding the mystery of what is taking place. By understanding what is occurring, God’s people are able to form an interior disposition by which they offer, in conjunction with the Eucharist, their very lives.
We might understand this participation by analogy. Consider the rosary for example. Though one may be saying prayers with his lips, i.e. the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s, the words are not the focus, and may even be forgotten. All of one’s attention and focus is on the mysteries of Jesus’ life. Another example would be that of the opera. Often people will listen to opera in languages with which they are not familiar. They are able to enjoy the music, not because they understand every word, but because they are familiar with the meaning of the opera beforehand.
Or again, we might consider something like ballet, which uses no words at all, but in which people can still enter in and understand that which is being communicated – form, beauty, and even a story. I myself experienced this recently out our local ballet performance of Snow White.
Conversely, it is worthwhile to note the reverse. Many things that are in our mother tongue are not necessarily fully understandable. The academic discipline of literary criticism points to that truth. Experts will devote their lives to fully understanding things that have been written in the common language of people. Consider a concrete example from the Mass: “Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them, for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.” Try to sit down with a small group and figure out exactly what we are saying here. Though the language is familiar to us, the layers of meaning may still be difficult to grasp.
Finally, even granting the situation in which words are fully understandable and accessible to everyone who heard them, therein lies another danger. It gives people the false impression that they fully understand, not only the words, but the mystery which the words describe. And that can never be possible. For the mystery we celebrate at Mass is God himself and his activity in our lives. It will always be mysterious and never fully grasped. Therefore, the use of a language with which we are familiar can have the unintended consequence of leading people to a faulty understanding of the Mass itself.
And so we find, in the explicit teaching of Vatican II, a tension: a recognition that the mother tongue can be helpful, but also, that it should not obscure the mysterious nature of the Mass—that English can help with individuals’ participation, but that Latin does not hurt participation, if participation is correctly understood—that the unique language of every people should find expression in the liturgy, but that the universal tongue of the Church ought to be used as a source of unity both across nations, and throughout time.
In this tension we find a more fundamental principle at work – the Church’s universality. The Church does not approach things with an either/or mentality, but with a both/and approach. And so we find a variety of religious expressions, languages, customs and practices embraced within the Liturgy – within our celebration of Mass.