We all know that Latin is the language of the Church. But in the post-Vatican II era, it may seem that Latin is not as relevant as it once was.
While you may not need to know Latin to understand the Mass anymore, it is impossible to imagine the Christian faith as we know it without Latin—including where the word “Mass” comes from. Below are twelve words that have shaped the faith in Western Christendom.
gratia: Grace—it’s what we all need and what none of us can earn through our own efforts apart from God. This most simple and fundamental words in our vocabulary of faith has its origins in the Latin word gratia. Those readers who have ever said the Hail Mary in Latin may be familiar with the phrase plena gratia—full of grace. In Latin, gratia has the primary meaning of favor, goodwill, kindness, and friendship.
prex: This is one of the means through which we receive grace. And, like grace, it’s a word most of us would not suspect of being Latinate: prayer. But dictionaries tell us that our verb to pray originates with the Latin verb precari, meaning, beg, implore, entreat, supplicate. That Latin word in turn comes from the Latin noun prex, simply translated as prayer or request.
trinitatem: Latin has also given us one the chief words we use to describe to Whom we pray: the Trinity. The Latin source for this word is trinitatem, the term for the number three. Largely for its first two centuries, Trinity as a term describing God was unknown to the Christian world. It was first coined by the Latin Father Tertullian, writing in the early part of the third century.
persona: Person is a crucial word not just in our theological vocabulary, but also in Western culture. Again, without Latin, we would not have this word. It’s lifted straight out of the ancient language, from persona. This originally referred to the masks characters would wear in a dramatic performance on stage. Then it came to refer to the characters themselves. It later came to have a much more substantial meaning and was used by the early Church Fathers to describe God as three persons, one in being.
incarnare: And the Word was made flesh… so reads the beginning of John 1:14. In the Greek text of the New Testament this reads Kai ho Logos sarx egeneto, but the word we mostly commonly use to describe what happened to the second person of the Trinity—Incarnation—is not taken from these Greek words. Instead it’s from the Latin incarnare, to make flesh. This verb is built off the noun caro, meat, flesh. We can see this root word in several other English words today including carnivore, carnage, and even carnation.
credo: Our profession of belief in the Trinity—three persons in one God—is expressed in our creeds. The word creed itself is right from the Latin credo, to trust in, believe, rely on. This word also appears in one of the key Latin phrases of Catholicism, lex orandi, lex credenda—the law of praying is the law of believing, meaning how we pray (and worship in the liturgy) reflects, or should reflect our belief.
missa: The Mass is at the center of our prayer and faith as Catholic Christians. Many of us know this is a word from Latin, though probably fewer know exactly where it came from. It originates in the Latin words of dismissal, Ite missa est, often interpreted as “Go, the Mass is ended.” Ite means go and est means it is. But what does missa really mean? It is a participle from the verb mitto, to send, throw, hurl, cast, let out, release, dismiss. So a better translation of Ite missa est would Go it is sent. What does that mean? This blogger offers a detailed historical and theological investigation. Some of the answers he finds are quite interesting: For St. Thomas Aquinas, what is sent is the offering of the Mass to God while Bishop Fulton Sheen links the phrase with Christ’s second-to-last words on the Cross—“It is finished,” according to the blogger.
substantia: Transubstantiation is a word we Catholics have historically used to refer to how the substance of the bread and wine is wholly changed over into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, while retaining the appearance of bread and wine. An important related word is consubstantial, which we now use in the revised text of the creed to affirm that Christ was of the same substance as the Father. All three words—transubstantiation, consubstantial, and substance—are Latinate. The original word is substantia, meaning quite simply nature, substance. This word, in turn, is the result of combining sub, under (also meaning within) with the verb stare, to stand, stand firm, remain, rest. We can see in this second part of the word how it assumed its meaning. A substance is what really is—it stands firm on its own.
sacramentum: We know what a sacrament is: a sign that achieves what it signifies. In other words, sacraments are both symbols of God’s grace and they are also channels through which we actually receive that grace. But where did this word come from? Sacramentum is the Latin translation of the Greek mysterion, meaning mystery. In this sense a sacrament is “the sign of something sacred and hidden,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. We can see in sacrament the root that led to words like sacred. In this sense, sacramentum means a consecrating—certainly a fitting way to describe the sacraments. Sacramentum also had two other meanings: a sum deposited in a civil process or a guaranty and an oath of allegiance. We can think of the grace we receive from sacraments as a deposit of God’s grace in us. This is what is meant by the Church’s description of the Eucharist as the “pledge of future glory.” The second definition is also applicable. For example, in the sacrament of confirmation, we renounce Satan and pledge our allegiance to God.
redimere: This is what we believe Christ did on the cross—redeemed not only all of humanity, but all of created life. (This is not the same thing as saying all mankind is saved, see this explanation here and the next word below.) The Latin root word sheds light on what is meant by redemption. It is redimere, meaning to buy back, recover, replace by purchase, ransom. This is what Christ did: pay the price for our sins and ransom us back from Satan.
salvare: This word refers to what we are all, with the gratia of God, hoping to achieve. Our English word salvation comes from the Latin salvare, to save. This word in turn is related to the adjective salvus—well, unharmed, sound, alive; safe, saved.
sanctus: Saint—it’s what we’re all hoping to become and it’s also the word we use to describe our friends in the faith who now reside in heaven. Saint has its origins in the Latin sanctus, meaning consecrated, sacred, holy. Sanctus is also a version (technically, the perfect passive participle) of the verb sancire, which has a range of meanings of which the most relevant here are to confirm, sanction, fulfill, ordain, or dedicate. We can think of many ways in which each one of these applies to saints. Saints are confirmed in their faith, becoming a saint fulfills our lifelong journey, and saints are those who have dedicated themselves to God.
Sources included: The Latin dictionary compiled by William Whitaker and available from the University of Notre Dame, Latdict, the Dictionarium latino-anglicum, the Online Etymology Dictionary, and the Catholic Encyclopedia.