The Latin of the Latin Mass: Conclusion

The Holy Mass, as I have been trying to make clear,  is one of the greatest and most carefully composed artistic constructions in the history of human civilization. However, the object of this great art is not entertainment or even instruction, but the praise of God and the salvation of the participants.  And as we pray the Mass, we can gain many insights, if we once assume that every single Latin word is there for a reason.

Some thoughtful and intelligent Catholic scholars have written about these problems, though not always in a sufficiently respectful spirit.  There is, however, too little attention paid to the full significance to the Latin text of the Old Mass.  This lack of interest in Latin is a shame, I think, because the so-called liturgical reformers, or, to give them their proper name, the liturgical vandals, constantly used the argument that the Tridentine Mass was inaccessible to a Catholic laity that, for the most part, knew little or no Latin.  The complaint was to some extent valid, though the answer--a vernacular mass-was not.  Antonio Rosmini, a 19th century Catholic moralist, who has much to teach us today, gave the true response: In The Five Wounds of Holy Church, he replied that the correct solution to the lack of liturgical participation of the laity was not to get rid of Latin but to instruct the people in their faith and in the language of faith. 

Fr. Rosmini is a very important witness precisely because was not at all a blind conservative but a brilliant and original defender of the Faith who bravely faced the challenges of modernity and stoutly defended the importance of Latin. In the early days of the Church, observes Rosmini, Christians used whatever language they had, but providentially the Roman Empire provided Western Christians with a universal and highly effective language, namely Latin.  Taken to the ends of the earth, Latin eventually became a foreign language to uneducated people, and the lack of comprehension caused grave difficulties.  

Nonetheless, he concluded, “Putting the sacred rites into the vernacular would induce problems greater than the remedies imposed,” because Latin is unchanging, precise, universal, and solemn, while modern languages are not only politically divisive but also “variable and unstable, and would bring constant changes to the essentially stable character of what is sacred.” 

All these objections have proved to be true.  We are constantly reminded that the world is shrinking under the impact of air travel and global media, but when Catholics of different nations find themselves worshipping together, what language can they use?  Ironically, as I have discovered in my own travels, the nearest thing to a universal language of Christianity is now Italian.  Ambitious Catholic priests, if they want to gain any experience or influence in the headquarters of the Church, must learn Italian, and I have found a fair number of Orthodox priests and bishops who spent some time studying in Rome.  When I used to visit Metropolitan Amfilohije in Montenegro, I struggled hard to understand his Montenegrin Serbian (delivered in something like a whisper) and answer simple questions in my primitive version of the language, but when we brought a Norbertine monk to see the Metropolitan, I was astonished to hear them converse in Italian.

Not too far from Montenegro lies the predominantly Catholic country of Croatia.  Years ago, I participated in an international Chesterton conference held in Zagreb, and fortuitously our conference was held the same week as a conference sponsored by a European organization headed by Otto von Hapsburg.  Attending a special mass for the two groups, which included speakers of English, German, French, Croatian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Hungarian—to name only the languages I can recall—I was not surprised by the multi-lingual prayers and hymns that preceded the Mass, but, if they only included the principle languages of the group—Croats, Anglophones, and Germans—we would, I fear, be there for many hours.  Imagine the relief I felt when I heard the familiar words of the Asperges me! International understanding among Catholics is perhaps among the least important advantages of the Latin Mass, but it is not insignificant.  

Since modern languages simply will not work, Fr. Rosmini sensibly advises that “First, the study of Latin amongst the faithful should be encouraged as much as possible....” and, second, that “the Christian people should be given a thorough grounding in the meaning of the sacred functions, while the literate faithful (and all should be able to read) need to be introduced habitually to divine services with the help of books containing a translation of the Latin used in church.”

This was wise advice, and if heeded, much of the wind would have been taken out of the sails out the liturgical reformers who have done so much damage to the visible Church in our time.  It is not too late to start today.  The Church has weathered many terrible storms in the past, and She will weather this hurricane.  Catholic Christians are not Muslims or Christian fatalists  who can blame every problem on the direct will of God.  Catholics know they have a job to do, and one of their primary tasks is the recovery of the fullness of the Latin tradition.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Roger McGrath says:

    This reminds me of similar degradation of traditions and standards elsewhere in our society. Instead of raising people up to higher levels, we lower the levels or abandon them altogether. The examples in academe are many. I was stunned when a student who had earned a Master’s degree working under me revealed that her doctoral program at the university she was now attending didn’t require written exams for the PhD. Moreover, the program also required passing a language proficiency exam in only one foreign language instead of the traditional two. At UCLA in the 1970s 50% of those who took the history doctoral written exams failed them. As the years went by and more “minorities” were accepted into the doctoral program they failed the written exams at a highly disproportionate rate. I suspect this was the case at other universities because the exams began to be dropped. Just like in the Church–no longer elevate a person to greater heights, which takes time, work, and dedication, simply abandon a tradition or lower the standard.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Professor McGrath,
    Always good to read your sturdy observations. Your comment reminded me of my old Milton teacher who made similar observations in the late 60’s early 70’s. They were considered radical and mean spirited at the time by many in my generation but were also true.
    “On all sides there are indications that the decay of the discipline worsens. Deans, chairmen, federal bureaucrats and the lesser lights of eager committees fear, after “agonizing scrutiny”, that the Humanities are in for hard times in the years ahead. Humane studies are indeed in total disarray; in the past twenty years or so, the faithful shepherds have become naughty Boy Blues who, either on the intellectual or chemical nod, not only failed to guard their heritage but even aided in its abandonment. For a number of reasons baby booms, Sputniks and the space race, college as an evasion of Viet Nam faculties have become gaggles of chic and feckless trendy liberals who have not only landed in their little magazines but have established a very firm beachhead; there are no pockets of resistance perceptible. The integrity of the profession is lost, for the very notion of integration as a force which lies outside the profession has evanesced in one or another of the modern disjunctions of the good and the beautiful, the body and the soul, the means and the end. There is nothing new in the malady: Linnaeus gave evidence of the disease when he claimed that when names were lost the things themselves were lost. Our schoolboy assumptions that the poem is a linguistic cosmos is pallid and flabby by comparison with the Enlightenment passion for classification. In our times, words like University, Doctor, Philosophy and Professor are virtually meaningless, describing what once-upon-a-time must have been but are now lost in the vagaries of hellish mindless winds of change….. Things that are self-evident, simple, plain, received, orthodox, and ordinary have no place in studies. All students are advanced and all faculties are distinguished.”