Why is the Mass said in Latin?
by Rev. George Bampfield
|This photo is the celebration of a Latin High Mass right after the end of WWII in Germany.|
[Protestant] Latin better than English for the Mass! You are getting on. You said at first there was no harm done by its being in Latin or any other language not known to the people - now you say "better".
[Catholic] Better, most certainly; mark you for the Mass firstly, and for all the devotions of the Church, the devotions which She would have used by all nations alike everywhere. Each nation, or part of a nation for that matter, can have and has its own prayer books, its own hymns and the rest, in its own tongue: - English prayer books, Welsh prayer books, prayers books in the native Irish, and so on the world through, prayer books in county dialects if you like - but the Church's devotions are for all nations alike everywhere, and for them the one tongue.
[Protestant] But Latin is a dead language!
[Catholic] Exactly; that's just why it is better. Mostly living things are better than the dead. But a dead language is not as other dead things. If it rotted and fell to pieces like other dead, then indeed would it be worse than living tongues. But when its meaning, which is its life, its soul, is fully known, when it has within it authors who cannot die, when anyone studies it, whatever be his nation, can make it live again, using it for speech and writing, then it is a dead language indeed in one sense, since no whole nation speaks it, but a living language in another sense, most living of all languages, because the best-taught in every nation, making a sort of nation among themselves, can use it, and do use it, a world-wide speech to make their thoughts known to each other. To speak or write in French is to speak and write for France, to write in English is to write for English-speaking races, to write in Latin is to speak for the world.
[Protestant] And this is why Latin is best?
[Catholic] Part of my reason only. The Church is Catholic, world-wide, and it is clearly good for a world-wide Church to have a world-wide language. So men, gathered as on the day of Pentecost from all nations under Heaven, in one Monastery, or in one Church, can not only be present at the same Sacrifice because it is an Act in which they all join, but can join in the same Psalms and the same Prayers, in the very same tongue to which they were used each in his own land...
[Protestant] Then this is your chief reason?
[Catholic] No. A dead language can be made, without waking the jealousy of any living nation, a language for all men: but its deadness give us - in religious matters - a greater good still.
[Catholic] Far greater: you will grant me, I think, that the first duty of the Society which our Lord founded must be to keep the Truth which our Lord taught: exactly the same Truth. Christianity changed is not Christianity; Christianity added to, or Christianity taken from, is not the Christianity of Christ. The care of the Truth is the great and first duty of the Society of Christ. She would be a false bride to Him if she taught what He did not teach...
[Protestant] ...Granted: but what has that to do with Latin?
[Catholic] This to do with it: - a dead language is better for this end than a living one.
[Protestant] Why so?
[Catholic] ...The meaning of the words cannot change. What Cicero meant when first he spoke the words in the parliament of Rome - what SS. Jerome and Augustine meant, and the writers who went before, and came after, that same is meant today and will be meant when the world ends. And what an Englishman means by the Latin word, that the Frenchman means, and that same the Italian and the Austrian and the Hindu student in our colleges and the Japanese who is studying Latin...
...By the use of Latin these Doctrines and Devotions are embalmed in one unchanging Tongue - as unchangeable as the Doctrine. And hence no wrong ideas can be brought by the growth of the language into the first Christianity: and in this we have another reason why Latin is best.
[Catholic] A dead tongue, then, is better than a living one - vastly better than a variety of living ones - for a world-wide Church meant equally for all nations: -
Because in all nations equally it helps to guard holy things and holy truths from careless using:-
Because it gives a world-language - an universal language - a language such as Commerce has tried to make for itself in "Volapuk" - for all teachers, in every nation, of the truths most important to man, and for all worshippers in the one grand Act of worship: -
Because if any living tongue were so used to join man, the Church would seem to favor one race above the rest, and jealously spring up: -
Because, above all, truths are preserved unchanging in an unchanging tongue: - you have seen flies in amber?
[Catholic] You can see them quite clearly, and the most delicate little bit of them is there quite perfect, and quite perfect it will remain - no change, no corruption. In a living stream, a stream that was still flowing on, larger things than flies would be in danger of destruction or of change; but the amber has ceased to flow, and the smallest atom of the fly's wing shall be as now till the world's end: and so it is with Truth, and with a worship, which is embalmed in an unchanging tongue. Its meaning can in no way alter nor be corrupted. The very same words, with the very same sense, were used in Rome and all the Roman Empire over for the very same truths well nigh 2,000 years ago, and shall be used until the death of the great world at the last day...
...There are many dead tongues for aught I know, tongues of races which themselves are dead or nearly so, of races that never were in any way world-wide: but there are three world-wide dead tongues, three living-dead tongues, three amber tongues perserving truths.
[Protestant] They are?
[Catholic] The Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin; the three in which the inscription was written above the thorn-crowned Head, "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews." Those were the languages chosen to tell the great truth to the whole world; if anything could make tongues sacred it would be this: Apostolic languages, witnessing to the Truth, and - you will think me fanciful, but if fancy can make Truth plain, it is well to use it - dying there upon the Cross with a death like the death of the Lord to Whom they witnessed: a death that yet was to live on, proclaiming truth for ever...
...It is God's Own Hand which has slain those tongues and left His Divine Truths guarded within them. And now at last I can give full answer to your question, "Why in Latin?" Because Latin is the tongue given to the Church by God Himself. Of all hte great Empires that conquered nations, joined many in a natural Oneness, Rome, as you know, was by very far the widest: and the tongue of the Roman was Latin. There were no Nations then, as there are today: there was one world - Rome: and the Nations as we know them now, were split up into tribes, and had to take their rude imperfect tongues and fashion each into a language. And so, when the Roman Empire died leaving many peoples its living world-wide language died also, leaving many children, so that today every tongue of every European Nation is formed largely out of Latin. Of the three dead tongues therefore Latin is the easiest and nearest to us - our mother tongue, out of which have sprung hosts of our own living words.
Thus, then, each Nation learned to speak its own Latin-born tongue: but the Church, which is for all Nations and for all times, kept, as the Jews kept their dead Hebrew, so She her dead Latin, the safest to preserve unchanged the truth already preached and written in it, and yet the while easiest for her many people to understand. How could She cast away the One Tongue through which She had converted Her peoples; the Tongue in which their laws were written; the Tongue in which their learning was preserved; the Tongue above all in which undying Truth had been taught by Her Saints, and a never-ceasing Worship had for centuries gone up to God.
And this is "why in Latin". Because Latin was the language of Europe, and because Europe has spread itself the world over, and while, as we have said, a dead language is for many reasons the best tongue to use for world-wide and time-long truths, Latin is the best of the world-wide speeches that have died...
...Recall what we said at the beginning. The Mass is an act, and an act of worship, and worship is a showing forth by word or by sign united, of the glory of God and the honour due to Him. The Ceremonies which, when we first spoke together, you confessed puzzled you, all have that for their meaning, the grandeur of the God whom we are honouring. Are candles lighted, they are in honour of the great King; is incense waved, it expresses worship and prayer, curling up before God's throne; are grand dresses worn, it shows the brightness of holiness with which they should come arrayed who approach God's throne; and expresses also the awfulness of the act which those are doing who stand before Him. Now Latin is a dead tongue, signs are never a dead tongue and mean the same whatever speech is spoken and is heard by the worshippers...
...You will notice that in this I have included the chanting among the Ceremonies, and S. Augustine would approve of this for he speaks of the emotion which he felt at hearing the chants of the Church; and the grandeur of the Church's singing is part of the effect which the Catholic Service has upon most men who hear it. It is, then, by the providence of God that the words of the most solemn act of worship are sung in the most musical of languages, and in the most musical pronunciation of that language to the grandest music whether we think of the old or newer music of the Church. And so, even in a matter so small, have the interests of the Church been provided for...