Tuesday, 29 June 2010


During Sunday Mass (in green rather than white vestments - you can blame wonderful Pius X for that - see Abhinc duos annos) I was looking around the congregation as the choir sang Credo III and thought: ''None of you have any idea what you're singing,'' and the thought came to me that while the term ''vernacular'' is almost entirely meaningless, why do people who can't even read Latin prefer Latin as a liturgical language? Liturgy is a profound mystery of the Faith, and yet does ''mystery'' necessarily entail collective ignorance of the Ritus? I am thinking of the Orthodox church - where they have achieved a most perfect balance, something inconceivable in the West - the Liturgy there is at once mysterious (and beautiful) and comprehensible, because they have always been careful to utilise the vernacular of the local area (even if, in the case of the Russians and the Greeks, this is a more ancient and courteous form of language, rather like Cranmerian English today), there is real ''active participation'' with the litanies (only two Masses in the Roman Rite now begin with a Litany, those of the Vigils of Easter and Pentecost, whereas anciently all penitential Masses began with a Litany, which replaced the hymn).

In the West there really is no such thing as ''active participation'' of the Faithful. The congregation are sat in their pews (pews themselves being antiliturgical and cluttering up a liturgical space), counting beads or trying to follow the variable parts of the Liturgy with layman's missals etc, and then upon the great Dominus Vobiscum answering Et cum spiritu tuo - this just about sums up how much real ''participation'' there is in the Roman Rite. There have been various attempts to alleviate this over the centuries, and Vatican II was an attempt to make the Liturgy more traditional (even if it got just about everything wrong), but these have all been haphazard and ill-thought out (such as having the sacred pericopes of the Epistle and Gospel read before the Sermon - why bother when the proclamation of these are as much for the instruction of the circumstantibus (notice that this means ''those standing by'') as an act of worship? You might as well translate the whole Liturgy for the congregation before the Sermon if ''understanding'' at an intellectual level is what you're attempting by doing this). Similarly the idea of a layman's missal, with the variable parts of the Liturgy laid out plainly in Latin and English, negates the idea of having Latin in the first place.

What am I saying then? Latin Liturgy for the Latinists? English Liturgy for those who have not the hard tongue of the Romans? As a Latinist myself I am biased, and I would never abandon Latin (I like Latin as much for its ancientry as for its inherent beauty), moreover my own experience of vernacular Liturgy in a Western context has been incomparably bad. I don't know - maybe one day I shall undertake the hard task of translating the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom into Latin and abandoning the old Roman Rite altogether. In the days of the Fathers, the Roman Rite and the various Eastern liturgies may have shared a common ethos, an expression of the same Faith, but now they are almost entirely at variance, the one expressing scholastic ideas and ''merits'', and the other more expressive of the ancestral faith.

I don't think that the Roman Rite is irretrievably lost (I would have nothing to do with it if I did) but it will take a lot to ''sort it out'' as it were. What do my readers think?


  1. I think you participate by praying not by understanding, which is a much-overrated concept in liturgy.

    That's what catechism classes are meant to be for.

  2. Monsignor Bartolucci, the much sinned-against Master of the Sistine Chapel choir, said something in an online interview on the latinity of some obscure rural congregation of the roman region at the begining of the last century.

    Maybe, as there is a liturgical/ecclesial latin v/s classical latin- there is some liturgical latinity that had become through the ages truly the langauge of the people at Corporate prayer? Something like Old Church Slavonic v.s Russian? Or am i just missing the point?

  3. Athanasius, thanks for your input. I agree to an extent, however I think also that ''catechism'' ought to be subordinate to the Liturgy - Liturgy should be the fount of understanding, the source and summit of the Church's life as Vatican II says. Parroting responses in a foreign tongue (there is no other way to think about it) is hardly conducive to prayer.

    F.G.S.A, I hadn't heard of the obscure rural congregation nigh Rome. Naturally liturgical Latin is very eclectic (you have the Psalms, for instance, which are repetitive, and the pericopes of the Gospels which are not in a particularly elegant style - but then you turn to the lessons of Mattins and you find the writings of Sts Leo, Augustine and Gregory etc).

    The idea of a liturgical language is very interesting. Some might argue that you ought to use the common tongue of the People of God in the diocesan region, but in a more ancient or courteous style - but as the generations go on, this is bound to change and become less intelligible (there's no use using Anglo-Saxon as a liturgical language for this Isle is there? Or Gothic for Germany, although Gothic was once a liturgical and scriptural language), and while Cranmerian English is intelligible to most of us today, who knows how well known it will be 200 years down the line?

    I would argue that since Rome is the only Western Patriarchate, naturally we ought to use the liturgical language of that city, even if we don't follow the minutest customs and traditions of that city to the letter. This seems more expressive of catholicity and the unity of the Church than using every conceivable language in the West - although this is a Trad argument for the retention of Latin. But since the Church has to look after everyone, even those who don't know Latin, then this is where the difficulty surfaces...

    In all honesty, I don't know what I would do, although it does annoy me to see people parroting responses and sometimes even pronouncing words wrong (the word ''invocaverimus'' comes to mind)...

  4. "None of you have any idea what you're singing"

    I think that is a little harsh. The reason that most of the congregation join in with Credo III is that it is a familiar setting, and they want to affirm their faith... the faith which is expressed in the Creed as the one professed by the Church since the Council of Nicea (hence "Nicene" Creed)

    The people singing might not know the finer points of the Latin translation, but they know they believe what the Church teaches (or at least many of them do!)

    Perhaps you didn't intend to sound so judgemental, but it was rather unfair on those of us who are only doing our best to worship God...

  5. "... the faith which is expressed in the Creed as the one professed by the Church since the Council of Nicea (hence "Nicene" Creed)"

    Well, not quite. The Nicean Creed 'developed' we might say and is usually referred to as the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople. Then of course came along the insertion of 'Filioque'...

    This article from Wikipedia explains some of the history:


  6. As someone who attends English Missal celebrations, I have to say that I believe that in that text is to be found the authentic heir of Cranmer's vivid liturgical idiom.

    During the Easter Vigil this year I realised how beneficial it was to be able to hear the prayers of this long and for many people unfamiliar service and to understand them. If the language is neither banal nor arcane, it can be a real bonus to have "vernacular liturgy".

    It's interesting tho, that almost everyone calls the prayers of the Mass by their Latin names, unless they have an established English name too. For instance, I remember telling the MC on Sunday to nod to me during the Domine, non sum dignus and to remind our priestly visitor to use the vox secreta. I suppose using Latin names for these things signals that they are THE prayers of the Mass, whether in Latin or English.

    Oh, and we have the Pax, not the "sign of God's peace".

  7. You are idealizing too much the “participation” of the Orthodox. In most Orthodox church services that I have been in, participation was minimal to non-existent. At the most optimistic, one could say that this is in accordance to the ancient philosophical principle: quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur. The clergy have their “role”, and the laity theirs. By the way, Old Church Slavonic would be more like Chaucer to us than Cranmer. According to a Russian priest I know, the average Russian would understand about 40% of the liturgy.

    You would be surprised to find out that in the Orthodox liturgical “revival” of last century, many of the things that you complain about seem to be present in the Orthodox church as well. People had/have private prayers before communion. Laymen were encouraged to allegorize the liturgy in order to “participate” in it better. (Here I would cite the commentaries on the Divine Liturgy of Gogol and Maximus Confessor that often ignore the texts and logic of the liturgy itself to bring out its “spiritual” and pietistic significance. Schmemann and Meyendorf fumed against these types of “distortion” of the liturgy). And the kicker is that “participation” in the Western sense (showing up at a certain time and having to stay until the service is finished) is very much a construct taken from a legalistic sense of fulfilling our Sunday obligation. In the Orthodox world, as in much of Latin America, a person might come in the middle of liturgy, light a few candles, stay a few minutes, and then walk out. I think the Moscow Patriarchate would consider someone “practicing Orthodox” if he comes to church but once or twice a year, whereas in the Catholic Church such “cultural Catholicism” is frowned upon.

    Nevertheless, I too see problems with the vernacular in general. Modern languages only emerged with emergent nationalism in the early modern period. Even in the Spanish speaking world until the early 20th century, there really were no popular translations of Scripture as in the case of the English Douay-Rheims. It was presumed that if you were educated enough to read, you could read Latin, and if you were really on the ball, Greek. Even a mildly educated gaucho caudillo on the Argentine pampas could read the Vulgate like we read the morning newspaper. The fact that we no longer have that sense of a hieratic or universal language speaks much to the fracturing of discourse in modernity. The only great living “dead languages” now are Old Slavonic, liturgical Greek, Sanskrit, and Koranic Arabic.

  8. Rubricarius, does anyone recite the original Nicene Creed, with its famous anathema at the end, in a liturgical context? Was it ever so-recited I wonder? Certainly the old Apostle's Creed (not, as some romantically believe, with a verse composed by each of the Twelve Apostles!) was the old Baptismal formula, familiar in Rome by the 2nd century (perhaps earlier).

    Joseph, thanks for your comment. I am not averse to vernacular Liturgy per se, but my own experience of English liturgy has been very bad, as I have said (except when I was 15 and I did my work experience at St Paul's Cathedral, and I was wont to stay on afterwards for choral Evensong!) It is certainly interesting that we all refer to the Te Deum, the Gloria and the Kyrie.

    If it were down to me personally, though, I would stick with the Latin language (although I would, if I could get away with it, change the Epistle, Gospel and other lessons to Greek).

    Arturo, very interesting - especially about the rise of nationalism. I agree entirely that up to the 20th century, if you were educated, you could read Latin (and Greek if fully so). Tolkien would certainly not have been the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature had he no Latin and Greek!

    It is easy to view the Orthodox church through rose-tinted glasses, and having attended many Orthodox liturgies in my life the ''participation'' in some has been minimal, but what is there is strictly liturgical (many Signs of the Cross etc, joining in with the choir). Moreover the Nave (equivalent to a Western medieval quire) is utilised much more in an Orthodox church, because it is a liturgical space. In the West (probably largely because of pews) the Nave is used for a few processions here and there.

    As for ''living'' dead languages, I'd have thought Latin was still alive (if somewhat dormant) in the few places where it is used as the liturgical language of the Roman Rite? Unfortunately nobody speaks it anymore, and when I learned Latin, I was taught to read it. If you asked me ''how do you say such and such in Latin'' I'd probably look at you with a blank expression. I don't ''speak'' Latin - I can read Latin with the help of dictionaries and grammars, other books and translations of old texts.

  9. Patricius,
    the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has already been translated into Latin, by a certain Erasmus of Rotterdam: http://www.allmercifulsavior.com/Liturgy/Liturgia%20Sci.%20Joannis%20Chrysostomi.pdf

  10. Theodoricus Chartrensis, I didn't know that, though I am not surprised. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Father Taft called those who want the traditional Roman Rite "right-wing conservative wackos" and I have no doubt we are. Else, why would we want this ancient liturgy which rivals any of the east's in antiquity. I think you romanticize the first millennium too much. I don't speak Latin nor do I read it but I attend the local SSPX church because it's the only one available where I can get edified though I'm a theological agnostic. Perhaps the Lord's admonition not to scandalize the little ones also apply to would be liturgiarchs both the modernist and the archaeologist. I hope the Lord forgives my ignorance that I have so little idea of what his Roman Rite was in the first millennium. But I doubt he'd be too much concerned. He's too occupied with the Novus Ordo, I believe.

  12. want to add, if you want a truely anceint mass, go to the liturgy of the armenians - they still celebrate christmas, theophany(epihpany) et al on the same feast day, as was (very ancient custim, them leaving the Church during the monophysite schism has preserved these ancient practices, as well as the west syriacs (we have them here in michigan) they truly show what the liturgy was like in antiquity Levant