Why Latin?

To those of us who appreciate the richness of liturgical Latin, it is a precious treasure, the language of saints and angels. Its flowing phrases have, for us, an elevated quality which we find beautiful, reverent, and fitting for the worship of the Most High. It is a gift which we render to our Creator, a special language we use only for addressing His Majesty.

For others, liturgical Latin seems merely foreign, unsettling, or boring. To its opponents it is an accident of history, a vestige of the Dark Ages, a reminder of a bygone clericalism.

Liturgy in the vernacular has an obvious advantage: the people can understand the words which the priest recites. What advantages could a dead language possibly have? Wasn't Latin chosen because it was then the vernacular of the Western World?

As a matter of fact, recent scholarship has shown that the liturgical Latin of the early centuries was not a common dialect:

[T]he Latin of the Roman Canon, of the collects and of prefaces of the Mass, were removed from the idiom of the common people. It was a heavily stylized language that the average Christian of late antiquity in Rome would have understood with difficulty, especially considering that the level of education was very low compared to our times.[1]

Why would the Church, from the earliest times, use a language for public worship which is inaccessible to the average person?

St. John XXIII, the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, wrote in 1962:

Not without Divine Providence has it come about that the same language that held together for many centuries such a wide group of nations under the authority of the Roman Empire, would become the language of the Apostolic See and preserved for posterity it would hold together the Christian nations of Europe under a firm bond of unity.

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every culture among diverse peoples, for it gives no rise to jealousies, it does not favor any one group, but presents itself with equal impartiality, gracious and friendly to all. Nor must we overlook the characteristic expression of Latin, its "concise, rich, varied, majestic and dignified features which make for singular clarity and significance."

For these reasons the Apostolic See has always seen to it that Latin should be carefully preserved deeming it worthy of usage in its administrative exercise as a magnificent vestment of heavenly doctrine and of holy legislation, and of usage by the ministers of sacred rites.[2]

Pope Pius XII, who was open to the limited use of the vernacular, wrote in 1947:

The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth.[3]

It is an antidote for corruption of doctrinal truth because in a spoken language the meanings of words change over time. In a so-called dead language, the meanings are preserved, in this case precise doctrinal and theological truths and concepts.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), while making allowances for the limited use of local languages, decreed:

[T]he use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. ... [S]teps 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.[4]

Even Pope Paul VI, who advocated the vernacular as the primary language of the Mass,[5] wrote to the heads of religious orders:

The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended with great care instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the most abundant source of Christian civilization and the richest treasury of piety... we must not hold in low esteem these traditions of your fathers which were your glory for centuries."[6]

Latin is, then, a bond of unity and a treasury of piety. It is rich and dignified, making it most suitable for divine worship. Its use was not abrogated by the Second Vatican Council, but was anticipated and decreed by the same. And although the Roman Church has made the local vernacular the primary language of her rites, liturgical Latin lives on in the traditional Roman liturgy, and it remains a valid option for celebrations of the Mass of Vatican II.

1. Fr. Uwe Michael Lang. <Latin: Tie of Unity Between Peoples and Cultures>

2. Veterum Sapientia, para. 3 ff

3. Mediator Dei, no. 60

4. Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos. 36, 54

5. General Audience of 26 November 1969

6. Sacrificium Laudis, para. 6


Todd Aylard