Liturgical Language: The Council’s Timely Wisdom

This time last year I was “gearing up” for a trip to Italy with my wife and our two daughters, excitedly counting the days until our departure.

This year I find myself in much the same situation; with a growing sense of excitement and anticipation as I prepare for travel, but this time I will be visiting the Archdiocese of Denver.

On June 28-30, I will have the great privilege of speaking at the Archdiocese’s annual Director of Religious Education Retreat to discuss the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in light of the long-awaited English translation of the Roman Missal.

As I gather my thoughts in preparation, it occurs to me how tangibly the hand of God manages to guide all things sometimes as the lessons of my trip to Italy are so applicable to the presentations that I’ll be making in just a few weeks.

While in Italy, I attended Holy Mass on two separate occasions, the first was in Venice. Now, my Italian is just barely good enough to get by, and so hearing the Mass in Italian forced me to enter more deeply into the sacred Mysteries apart from vocal participation.

The interesting thing was that even with my limited ability to converse in Italian, since I know the parts of Holy Mass rather well, and I knew what was taking place, my experience of Mass that day was incredible! In fact, rather than leaving the church feeling like something was missing or lost, I can honestly say that my sense of the sacred was actually enhanced by the language as the Italian words served as a true sacred sign; pointing to the much greater reality.

Later in the trip we traveled to Rome, and if any of you have been to the Eternal City you’ll understand why I say that I will never forget Holy Mass at St Peter’s Basilica. It was simply amazing! Throngs of people crossing St. Peter’s Square; lines snaking back and forth as we shuffled closer to the Basilica’s entrance; passing through security check points and then finally once inside entering another world.

For me, looking around, I could almost imagine what that space looked like when it was outfitted for the Council sessions; the event that occupies so much of my thought, time and energy – all glory to God. This is where it happened!

Still, another world though it seemed, there was still a lot of hustle and bustle inside of St. Peter’s. Not everyone was there for Holy Mass as I was. In fact, the vast majority were not. The place is huge! Once inside I had to make my way to what is called the Altar of the Chair in the apse of the Basilica where Mass would be celebrated.

Well, the Mass that Sunday was in the Ordinary Form – the Novus Ordo Missae that we’re used to here – but instead of being celebrated in Italian, the Mass was celebrated in Latin. Thanks perhaps to the guiding hand of God, I have been participating in the Ordinary Form of Holy Mass in Latin back in Baltimore pretty much every Sunday for the past couple of years, and so I truly felt like I was “at home” as they say.

The transformative nature of a liturgical language – one other than the one I ordinarily use in conversation and even in silent thought – and how it can help us transition from this world to another truly sacred one; boy was that evident in Rome for me that day.

Once Holy Mass began, In nomine Patris,  et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti…  Whatever noisiness still lingered in my head from the crowds and the lines and the hustle and bustle just disappeared. The sign of the cross can do that, of course, but the fact that it was in Latin – a language so totally different than the commentary running in my head – made it that much more effective in elevating my heart and my mind to heaven where it belonged.

And so there we were in the heart of the Church – thousands of miles from home; all around us there were pilgrims from places all over the world, people of many different nationalities and cultures and of course languages. And yet, for those of us who could pray and sing in Latin, we were able to express our spiritual unity in Christ in an outward way through this common language. It was an incredible testimony to the universality of the Church and an experience that I will never forget.

Now, while all of this for me served as a concrete example of the benefits of Latin in the liturgy, at the same time, this very same experience also offered an excellent example of the benefit of the vernacular.

Being as I was in Italy – the Scripture readings were in Italian, and so was the homily. As I said, my Italian isn’t very good, and so I was only able to grasp a small portion of what was being said.

So right there in this very same Holy Mass was another valuable lesson – in this case as it concerns the benefit of the vernacular in Holy Mass and how it enhances what the Council calls its “didactic nature” – or that through which Christ continues to teach and to form us in His image.

While a Missal would have allowed me to read along, I didn’t have one, and the homily would have remained mostly lost on me either way. For as wonderful as Holy Mass was that day, the vernacular – in my case English – would have drawn me into the Mass and allowed me to participate more actively still. This is why a young Father Joseph Ratzinger once said, “The wall of Latinity had to be breached” if the liturgy were to fully function as it ought.

After Mass, not long after we got back out into St. Peter’s Square, the Holy Father came to his window to pray the Angelus along with people; once again, people from every corner of the world. What a great gift it was to be able to pray aloud in Latin with the Holy Father along with my brothers and sister in Christ, assembled in the Heart of the Church, gathered from places all over the globe that day.

In the space of just a few hours, the wisdom of the Council Fathers as it concerns language in the liturgy had been made crystal clear to me. Now let’s look at what they had to say:

In SC 36 they say:

Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters.

Now let’s jump ahead to article 54:

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.

In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue.

In SC 63 they say:

The vernacular language may be used in administering the sacraments and sacramentals.

It is very clear even from these few references alone that the Council Fathers in no way intended for Latin to be stripped from our Liturgies. Their expectation, and even more precisely – their very clear directive – was for Latin to remain!

As for the vernacular; the Council Fathers are simply suggesting that it “may” be useful to extend its employment on a limited basis.

Much has been made of liturgical language since the close of the Council, and the topic is resurfacing with greater urgency today in light of the new Missal translation that we await.

It only takes a few minutes of poking around on the internet to find articles and blogs in which liturgical music directors are lamenting the complex cadence of the newly translated text of Holy Mass – as in the Gloria, for example – and wringing their hands while wondering aloud, “What on earth will we do?”

My hope is that the answer will be, at long last, “We will listen to the Council.”

If we simply follow the Council Fathers’ advice to teach the faithful how to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them, it’s “problem solved” with regard to the Gloria; i.e., there is no need to compose new musical settings to fit the English.

When we set aside the multitude of opinions floating around on the matter and allow the Council Fathers to speak for themselves, we find that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is very clear. It is also very wise and ever timely.

In the present case, the Council Fathers seemed to know what my experienced in Italy – one that I will share the DRE’s in Denver in a few short weeks – told me in a concrete way; Latin is beneficial, but so too is the vernacular, and their answer to this linguistic dilemma is at once simple and brilliant – let’s make good use of both.

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