Last week we talked a little bit about the tension that exists in the liturgy between that which is the most theologically significant and the simple need for a certain amount of practicality. We looked at the particular example of directionality, weather a priest offers prayers on behalf of and facing with the people toward God (emphasizing the primary purpose of the Mass) or faces against them in order to make communication easier. We noted how the current practice in most of the western church is to opt for practicality on this particular point.
Today we see something that is likely to be surprising to many. Far from eliminating the use of Latin in the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council requires that Latin be used normatively in the liturgy: “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.? However, it does extend the extent to which one’s native language can be used in the liturgy. It basically calls for English (our mother tongue) to always be used for the readings and for some, not all, of the prayers and sung parts of the Mass. Why does the Second Vatican council and all teaching documents of the church insist on the use of Latin in the liturgy, especially when none of the many and various language groups, cultures, and traditions in the world, speak Latin as their mother tongue?
But that is exactly the point, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church exists in so many different places with such diversity that Latin is a source of unity. Some of the greatest congregations of humans in history, and certainly the greatest congregations of Catholics, have been at the various World Youth Days with the pope (in Manila 5 million people came together). The youth, children, and adults participating in these events came from all over the world, from different cultures and traditions, and spoke many different languages. But when it came to celebrating the Mass, they were united in more than just heart and thought, they were united in voice as they were able to join together and sing parts of the Mass in the universal language of the church, Latin.
Latin is a source of unity in a very diverse church and it is not only a unity between current countries and peoples, it is one that extends throughout time. For well over a thousand years, the vast spiritual riches of the church have been celebrated and recorded in Latin. If we desire to encounter music and poetry, theology and mysticism, saints and martyrs, and the contributions of the greatest lights of Western civilization, we will find that the vast majority of it is written in Latin. For this reason Vatican II insists on the use of Latin as the normative language of the liturgy. No subsequent document changes the demands of Vatican II; future documents only confirm this point. If that is the case, why are we not following it?
Here we return to the same tensions that we looked at last week – the tension between that which is theologically and liturgically ideal, and that which is practical. It is harder for most people to learn and pray in Latin.* And this is not the case just for those gathered in the pews; it is true for the priest too. Even the most gifted priest in Latin (and the reality is that few priests were very gifted at it), is still more comfortable in his mother tongue. And so, the ease of doing Mass in the language in which we are the most comfortable has quickly pushed aside Latin as the norm for the Liturgy. As we progress through the guiding documents of the liturgy, we will have to grapple with these lofty and, perhaps, idealistic expectations expressed in the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council in light of the practical context in which we find ourselves today.
*I do want to note that though it is more difficult for all of us to learn and use Latin, it is far from impossible. In fact, we all understand and speak Latin to various degrees in our daily life. For example, we hear on the news about an ad hoc subcommittee, how those who eat healthily also tend to be more active and vice versa, that a particular university is my alma mater, that most people struggle with change and therefore prefer the status quo, that no one wants to receive a subpoena, but that everyone should follow the maxim carpe diem and seize the day, etcetera.