Editor’s Note: On Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent, the new English translation of the Roman Missal will be implemented in all Catholic parishes in the United States. Here we present part 2 of a five-part series about the new translation–and the reasons behind it. You can read part 1 here. Part 3 will appear next Thursday.
The Language of Catholic Worship
But how did Latin come to be the official language of Catholic worship in the Roman Rite, and why does the Church give it so much importance? To answer these questions, let’s take a brief look at the development of this lingua franca within the Church.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the dominant formative cultural influence on the Church was the Roman Empire, whose official language was Latin. Rome became both the center of the universal Church and the capital of the Western Church. Latin was the universal language of the known world at that time; this, combined with its stable and unchanging nature, led to its adoption as the common language of the Western Church by the fourth century and eventually to its official adoption as the language of the Roman Rite about the year 1030. Saint Jerome translated the ancient Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into Latin near the end of the fourth century, and the resulting “Latin Vulgate” edition became the official Bible of the Western Church for the next 1500 years. Latin became a common bond uniting Catholics across the European continent and a vital element in the development of Western Catholic learning and culture. As the Roman Empire fell apart and barbarians ravaged Europe during the Dark Ages, Saint Benedict founded a chain of monasteries where monks painstakingly hand copied the Latin Bible; preserved Gregorian Chant for the singing of the Mass; and translated great literary works from Latin into the various European languages. These monasteries were little oases of civilization where literature, art, architecture, music, gardening and scientific knowledge were quietly preserved during a hostile time.
When conditions improved, these seeds of culture sprouted, bursting into full flower during the Middle Ages. The Latin Mass was then the focal point of European society and the wellspring of its culture; the best art, architecture, and music were produced for the glory of God to enhance Catholic worship. Latin Rite Catholicism was the driving force behind the towering cultural achievements of this era including magnificent Gothic cathedrals, polyphonic chant, Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, the medieval universities, the poetry of Dante, the invention of the printing press, and the discovery of America. Knowledge of Latin remained widespread even as the cultural influence of the Church gradually decreased during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The ancient language of the Roman Catholic liturgy has profoundly shaped our modern Western culture; from science and medicine to law and politics and even to our English language, not a single area of life remains untouched by it.
The Latin Mass is our religious inheritance as Latin Rite Catholics and our cultural inheritance as members of Western civilization. Unfortunately, this heritage has been forgotten in the last forty years, to the point where many Catholics are not even familiar with Latin. Moreover, the relationship between liturgy and culture has been reversed: whereas liturgy used to shape culture, now popular culture influences the liturgy. Modern Catholic worship is often adapted to “fit in” with the surrounding pop culture, a culture that has completely broken off from the Church and is often hostile to it. These developments are part of a serious liturgical and cultural crisis that has gripped the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
Vatican II and Modern Liturgical Reform
Ever since Vatican II, a popular misperception has spread among Catholics as to what the Council intended concerning the sacred liturgy and, in a broader sense, concerning the Church herself. The sweeping liturgical and other reforms of the Council were widely misinterpreted as implying a radical change in the nature of the Mass and of the Church. Celebration of the liturgy in Latin, strict adherence to the prescribed rubrics, the concept of the Mass as sacrifice, and the dignity of the priesthood (in the case of the liturgy)—the Church as the Bride of Christ with infallible teaching authority, preserving and handing on the deposit of faith (in the case of the Church)—all of these suddenly became old-fashioned, “pre-Vatican II” ideas and were replaced with an “anything goes” mentality in “the spirit of Vatican II.” The Mass was no longer seen as the Church’s worship offered to God but as a celebration of human togetherness subject to the whims of the local community. Similarly, it was now up to the individual Catholic to believe and live as he pleased regardless of official Church doctrine and laws. Vatican II transformed the Church from a monarchy into a democracy. This unfortunate heresy known as “the spirit of Vatican II” has done catastrophic damage to the faith of millions of Catholics. It has even spawned an opposite myth adhered to by some traditionalist Catholics that the entire Second Vatican Council was heretical and its reforms null and void.
Yet despite these grave misperceptions and their accompanying fallout, there was nothing wrong with the Second Vatican Council. It simply applied traditional Church doctrine to the modern world, introduced reforms into the Church’s liturgy and calendar, and changed certain Church laws, all to help Catholics better live their faith and to enable the Church to effectively evangelize the modern world. The chief problems for the Council’s liturgical reforms have been misinterpretation and incorrect application of its directives by the clergy, and a lack of proper education with resulting misunderstandings by the laity. After the Council, many bishops and priests rushed into the liturgical changes and did a poor job of explaining to the faithful the reasons for those changes. This left lay Catholics unsettled and confused and even led some to abandon the Church altogether because the Mass appeared no longer recognizable. Very few Catholics bothered to read the actual documents of Vatican II, including the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), although good English translations of these documents were widely available. Moreover, in addition to problems from within the Church, the prevailing spirit of rebellion against authority in 1960s society influenced many Catholics to interpret and embrace Vatican II as a rebellion against traditional Catholicism. Even today many lack a proper understanding of what the Second Vatican Council had in mind for the Church in general and the Eucharistic liturgy in particular.
What did the Second Vatican Council intend—and not intend—with regard to the Church’s liturgy, specifically in the Latin Rite? To answer these questions, we can do nothing better than refer to the Council’s charter document for liturgical reform, Sacrosanctum concilium (in the Vatican’s official English translation). Glancing at the text, we notice immediately that one of the most frequently recurring words in this document is “tradition.” It’s obvious from the opening paragraphs that Vatican II never intended to radically change the Church or do away with liturgical tradition. Paragraph 23 of Sacrosanctum concilium, which sums up the Council’s guidelines for reform of the liturgy, dispels the myth that Vatican II fundamentally redefined the nature of the Mass:
“That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress, careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. Also the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults conceded to various places. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.”
In other words, Vatican II did not erect a massive wall of separation between the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Mass. Even after the Council, liturgical tradition was to be given preference to innovation; only necessary changes were to be made in the rubrics; and these innovations must have some connection to preexisting liturgical forms. The paragraph above encapsulates the true spirit of Vatican II: careful, measured reform within the context of sound tradition.
Furthermore, the Council fathers never intended that Latin Rite Catholics lose all touch with their splendid liturgical heritage. Supposedly, Vatican II put the Latin Mass in the Church’s closet and gave official preference to Mass said in the vernacular. Not so. While acknowledging that increased use of the “mother tongue” (the vernacular) in the liturgy “frequently may be of great advantage to the people,” Sacrosanctum concilium stipulated that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (SC, § 36, 1) The document also directed that “steps should be taken so that the faithful may be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (SC, § 54) Whether any parts of the Mass at all were to be said in the vernacular, and if so which parts, was to be determined by “the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2,” that is, by the local bishops’ conference. However, it’s important to clarify that Vatican II did not intend to impose on the Church through the bishops a stiff rigidity in this matter. During an interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN in 2003, Cardinal Francis Arinze, who was then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said that “there should be flexibility” in the use of the Latin and the vernacular in the liturgy.
Supposedly, Vatican II did away with Gregorian chant in favor of new, privately composed arrangements of liturgical music in the vernacular. Here again, the Council did no such thing; in fact, it intended that Gregorian chant be retained in the Roman Rite liturgy and that Catholics remain familiar with it. Sacrosanctum concilium states: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (SC, § 116) In April 1974, Pope Paul VI issued a booklet for Latin Rite Catholics called Jubilate Deo. This prayer book, which is still in print and includes simple and easy-to-sing chants for the Ordinary parts of the Mass (such as the Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus), was issued with the stated purpose of promoting “a minimum repertoire of plain chant” among the Catholic faithful.
The intention of Vatican II regarding the liturgy was to encourage “fully conscious and active participation” (SC, § 14) in the Mass for the greater spiritual benefit of the faithful worldwide. To this end, a revised Order of Mass (Novus Ordo) was compiled in Latin that simplified the text and rubrics of the Latin Rite Mass. Moreover, permission was given for the celebration of the sacred liturgy in the vernacular languages of the world; for the use of various musical instruments in addition to the traditional pipe organ; for priests to celebrate Mass facing the people if they wished; and for the reception of Holy Communion in the hand. Such extensive advantage has been taken of these permissions that Catholics have come to think of each as being the norm. However, all of these permissions are actually temporary indults, or special privileges granted in exception to permanent Church laws governing the Roman Rite. None of them are mandated or required by Vatican II, and the Church has the authority to extend these indults indefinitely or to revoke any of them at any time.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy clearly indicates that the purpose of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms was not to jettison liturgical tradition or destroy the sacred character of the Mass but to preserve and hand on the Church’s greatest treasure to the Catholics of the modern world.
The aim of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms was to promote a period of careful and strictly regulated liturgical experimentation to determine what would best help Catholics in the pews participate with their whole being in the Sacred Liturgy. The goal of the Novus Ordo and of the indults was not to diminish the sacred character of the Mass, to eliminate the use of Latin from it, or to make it plainer and more acceptable to contemporary social tastes. Unfortunately, these unintended consequences of Vatican II have become commonplace in the decades since the Council. As a result, millions of Catholics are now accustomed to an informal, casual style of worship exclusively in the vernacular that diminishes the sacredness of the Mass and makes them feel more comfortable. Some don’t like the upcoming changes in the Roman Missal, which they see as amounting to a repudiation of Vatican II and as discouraging active lay participation in the liturgy. Such misperceptions arise from a lack of proper education and understanding of what the new Roman Missal is all about, and more fundamentally, of what Vatican II was all about. Unfortunately, the somewhat inferior English Mass translation that has been in use for the last forty years has only reinforced these misperceptions.
Prior to Vatican II, the average Catholic never thought of complaining about the way Mass was celebrated; he simply accepted it the way it was in obedience to the Church. Now, however, many Catholics claim the right to have a say in how Mass is said. This stems from one of the biggest myths about Vatican II: that the Council authorized lay Catholic liturgists to manipulate the liturgy according to their own private whims and fancies. But Vatican II never gave laypeople authority to decide how the Mass is celebrated. It’s up to the Church—specifically, to the Pope and the bishops united with him—to set the rules for Catholic worship: “…no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” (SC, § 22, 3)
The only significant liturgical change mandated by Vatican II was the replacement of the 1962 Order of Mass (commonly known as the “Tridentine” Mass) with the Novus Ordo as the Ordinary Form of the liturgy in the Roman Rite. However, this was not a radical liturgical revolution as it is often perceived. The traditional Latin Mass and the Latin Novus Ordo are much closer akin than many people realize. Much of the Latin text of the Tridentine Mass was retained verbatim in the Novus Ordo. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, Vatican II did not scrap the traditional Latin Mass altogether. Acknowledging its important place in the Latin Rite liturgical tradition, the Council retained the Latin Mass of 1962 as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite liturgy, giving bishops the authority to allow its occasional celebration in their dioceses. Unfortunately, very few bishops have granted permission for this since the Council.