The Latin Mass

I grew up reciting Latin responses as an altar server (starting age 11) and the learning to conjugate and decline Latin at the age of 14. Latin was something like a litmus test: if one could navigate the intricacies of Latin grammar, one passed a crucial point and entered a fairly exclusive club.

As a member of the club, I heard he liturgy in Latin on two levels. One was the overall thrust of what was being said; the other was the process of parsing the Latin--which parts of speech, which word modified which other word, what was the emphasis of the chosen sequence of Latin words (because they could be variously sequenced, unlike English). There was a certain pride as a member of this rarefied club; we could explain to the rest what an Introit meant or why we heard bells at one point rather than another.

When the Mass transitioned to the "vernacular" (=the language popularly spoken by the people), over a period of time after 1965, a whole mental exercise could be skipped. We heard words directly, without the intermediary of Latin grammar, and we heard the words universally--that is, virtually anyone in the congregation had access to what was being spoken and prayed. Whereas in the late 1950s I could do a rather elaborate meditation on the frequently used Latin Introit ("cogito cogitationes pacis") in the final weeks of the year before Advent, translating Latin into my idiom allowed me to think of whole paragraphs and sequences of meaning.

After I was ordained I had the idea to pray the breviary in Latin. This was mostly to keep me from running through psalms as I might a newspaper article. The Latin would force me to stop and think. (Later, Spanish did the same thing for me.) But after ten years of reciting the breviary this way, it suddenly dawned on me that Latin, for all its beauty and grammatical intricacy, was a rather imperial language. Everything sounded like a formal decree. Everything had the heavy spondaic sequence of Latin words recited in succession. I could hear Roman legions marching behind so many of the expressions, particularly the psalms which frequently include some angry sentences. Gerunds were like a call to action: dicendum est!

I came to the conclusion that Latin did not really capture Gospel nuances very well, that is, Latin revolved around an emperor giving commands, one to whom we came crawling, one for whom we had to say "quaesimus" (we pray) many times as if God were hard of hearing. Of course, I know we need humility to be present to God, but not at the cost of obscuring the ultimate revelation of God Jesus gave us: as a Father whose first impulse is generosity, acceptance, mercy, welcome, and unrestricted love. Of course I could squeeze some of these ideas from Thomas' Latin in the Summa, but not with the directness of Jesus' "Not a bird falls from the sky without your Father knowing it."

Pope Francis rightly worries that the permission to celebrate the Extraordinary Form could easily migrate into something other than a celebration of diversity. It could become a position on which others' worship was judged, a weapon to implicitly question all those who were not celebrating in Latin, "the real Mass." Pope Francis judged that this was not Pope Benedict's intentions when he gave wider permission. The issue wasn't Latin, but what the Latin was used to mean.

Survey after survey after Vatican II showed Catholics overwhelmingly preferred the vernacular. This post-Vatican II period, quite independently of Church action at the Vatican Council, also produced enormous social changes as a result of people having more options and the "Catholic enclave" slowly shifting from ethnic neighborhoods to rather generic suburbs. It's easy to try to attribute all these subsequent changes to "because we changed the Mass," but that's a logical fallacy, equivalent to blaming children's behavior in High School "because they left grade school."

We may have different ways of thinking about how the Church navigates our modern world; but the relatively small clusters of people holding missals to keep up with Latin during worship probably are not the answer.