The Case for Latin: Why Worship Benefits From a Sacred Language

Does it matter what language is used to worship God? Shouldn’t the congregation understand what is being said at Mass? Isn’t Latin outdated and no longer have a place in our modern world? Even in the midst of such questions the Catholic Church unequivocally states that the “Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36). This displays that while the modern world may defend the vernacular in worship, the Church has her reasons why a dead language is to be safeguarded.  

I believe that the revival of Latin is not only what the Church desires, it also adds to the sacred character of the celebration of the liturgy and fosters a greater sense of prayer. Worshipping in an ancient language should not be a hindrance to authentic prayer, but instead open our hearts to a profound sense of the presence of God. 

To start off, there is a common philosophy regarding worship in today’s world: it must be intelligibleAll a person has to do is interview a handful of parishioners at a local parish to discover the frustration that occurs when a priest says a few prayers in Latin during Mass. The main argument over and over again is, “We don’t know what he is saying,” or “We don’t know what the choir is singing,” or “I don’t know Latin.” We tend to have an innate belief that the words said or sung at Mass must be immediately intelligible.

Interestingly enough, this idea is rather new in the Church and developed around the time of the Reformation. The Protestant reformers believed that “divine worship [was] essentially a proclamation of the Word of God [and] made them conclude that using a language that was not intelligible to the assembly was contrary to the Gospel” (The Voice of the Church at Prayer: Reflections on Liturgy and Language, 155). From this point of view, it makes sense why the vernacular would be chosen over a foreign language like Latin.

So then what is the Mass? A simple proclamation of the Gospel? Is the church simply a “lecture hall,” where we go to sit and listen?

While it is true that part of the Mass is meant to be instructive and intelligible, the overall character of the liturgy is meant to be much more. Instead, what is meant to be the focus is that, in the “liturgy, heaven joins earth, the invisible becomes visible, and the symbolic is the real (sign and reality)” (Mystical Body, Mystical Voice: Encountering Christ in the Words of the Mass, 27). This hidden reality should then be expressed in the language that is used at Mass, for “the language that we use during the liturgy is the Mystical Voice of the Mystical Body, a ‘hymn of praise that is sung through all the ages in the heavenly places’” (Ibid, 29).

Rather than being a mere proclamation of scripture, the liturgy is meant to bring others into a mysterious realm where one can peer through a window into Heaven. The use of the Latin language accomplishes this mystical goal of the liturgy just like the iconostasis veils the Divine Mysteries in the Eastern Church. Parish priest, Father Christopher Smith, explains what many have discovered in this way, “In the West, the function of icons and veils is taken in part by [the Latin] language. It emphasizes the mystery and the transcendence of a God who, despite His closeness to us, is still always beyond our reach” (New Liturgical Movement). 

We don’t have to understand or know any Latin to benefit from its use. Actually, it may even beneficial if we don’t know any Latin. For most of Salvation History the worship of God was veiled and few if any people ever saw what was going on in the liturgy. This was the case in the Jewish Temple and remained the case for centuries in the Catholic Church. Even today the use of an iconostasis is still an essential part of the Divine Liturgy. It frustrates our desire to know what is going on and places a barrier to our curiosity.

It reminds us that we can not fully grasp God here on earth. He is a mystery and mysteries are not always meant to be fully understood. Mysteries create in us a sense of humility, but also a sense of awe and wonder. The Latin language is very beautiful if we allow it to penetrate our modern hearts. We need to stop looking at the liturgy as a lecture and start appreciating its mystical character.

Latin reminds us that the liturgy is a meeting of Heaven and earth and that there is much more to this world than meets the eye. We have to take off our scientific glasses for a while and simply appreciate the mystery that unfolds before us.

To draw an analogy, there are two approaches to star-gazing. We can either step outside our door, look up at the sky and say, “Look at all of those luminous spheres of plasma,” or we can appreciate their beauty and proclaim, “How wonderful and beautiful are the stars!” We don’t necessarily need to know what the stars are and how far they are from earth to appreciate them. We can simply gaze at them and stand in awe of God’s creation.

Latin is a great gift and once we begin to understand that and appreciate its ability to veil the mysteries of God, our hearts will be open to a much more profound way of prayer.

Click here for the next article in this series: How Should Latin be Restored to the Liturgy?




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  • wva88

    If liturgy benefits from a “sacred language”, why did the early Church make the decision to move from Greek, which after a short time had basically reached the status of rarely used “sacred language”, toward the vernacular, vulgar, Latin? If it is a “sacred language” why did the Church not chose the highest form of Latin in place of a pretty vulgar Latin? Ecclesiastical Latin makes a classical Latin scholar weep, and would cause Cicero to commit suicide.

    If “sacred language” was desirable, we would expect the liturgy in the early Church to have been exclusively in Hebrew, or perhaps Greek, not the common language of the time – pretty bad Latin.

    • John Stevens

      I understand your point. I would agree with both the author, and you . . . parts of the Mass should be in an intelligible language, but that language should direct us towards the goods the Church is trying to give us, and not all of the Mass needs to be intelligible to every person.

      The reason for Latin was, quite simply, it was the closest thing we had to a universal language during the time the Church was growing. At one point, all the world known to the West had Latin speakers, and Latin was so powerful an influence that it reformed many of the existing languages. Well into the 19th century, a liberal arts education was incomplete if it did not give the student at least a basic grounding in Latin.

      The use of the vulgar form of Latin was done so as to commit to a kind of “Esperanto”, as we are supposed to be one people, one faith, and the vulgar form was more likely to be understood by everybody than the “high” Latin.

      The use of Latin today gives us further goods: a language that, being essentially “dead”, will not change over time. This reflects and safeguards the eternal truths of the Church, reminds us of our heritage, and over thousands of years has become integrated into some of our most beautiful practices, and by this beauty, turns our eyes towards the transcendental.

      Why not Hebrew, or Greek instead? Neither ever came close to being a “universal language.” If we were choosing a language today, it most likely would be gutter English, not gutter Latin, but the point is that in choosing Latin, the Church was choosing “a single language, to unite a single assembly; the assembly of God.”

      Fortunately, we can learn enough Latin to understand the entirety of the TLM that is meant to be understood by all the celebrants. None of this detracts from one of the author’s points: the Mass is not entirely and completely a communication between human beings. It is a communion with God. There are things that a priest says that are not meant to be heard by the laity, for example, and there is good reason for this, so the use of Latin in some prayers during what is otherwise a NO mass is both beneficial, and correct, even if the laity do not have the grasp of Latin they should have.

      • wva88

        The point I would make is that there was a universal language in the Patristic era – Greek. Few people realize that the official language of the Roman Empire for much of its history was not Latin, it was Greek. A sacred language was in fact used in the Jewish world – Hebrew. I think more people are probably aware that Hebrew at the time of Christ was essentially not spoken in everyday life.

        So the Church Fathers had very strong options for selecting a “sacred language” in the liturgy. They certainly could have used Hebrew, or they could have stuck with what was becoming a non-vernacular language in Greek. Instead they made the very deliberate decision to move to the language of the people, the vernacular – a very low grade Latin.

        There is value to having a universal language for the Church. However, if we were to follow the example of the Church Fathers, that language today would be English. To repeat myself, in the choice between a more obscure “sacred language” and “the language of the people”, they chose the vernacular. Now, that choice is not at any level dogma, so we are not necessarily bound to do the same thing and make English the universal language of the liturgy.

        However, to argue that the Church Fathers deliberately chose Latin in order to ensure a “sacred language” for the liturgy is not only incorrect, it directly contradicts the truth.

        • teo

          Have you addressed the docs of vat.2???as stated in the article above?

        • Eques13

          > The point I would make is that there was a universal language in the Patristic era – Greek
          How does this statement square with your statement in your earlier post:
          >Greek, which after a short time had basically reached the status of rarely used “sacred language”,

          If it’s a rarely used sacred language, how is it a universal language?

          Greek was used extensively in the Eastern Empire, but not so much in the West. The Western Church Fathers wrote in Latin for example and if it were a universal language in the West, wouldn’t we see descendants of Greek spoken in the West instead of descendants of Latin?

          > They certainly could have used Hebrew, or they could have stuck with what was becoming a non-vernacular language in Greek. Instead they made the very deliberate decision to move to the language of the people, the vernacular – a very low grade Latin.

          Greek though still is a vernacular language (after changing over time). Except for they actually used the formal Latin as used in the Western Empire; the same language Ambrose and Augustine wrote in (Ambrose was a gov’t official before becoming a Christian and Bishop and thus well educated). There is evidence of Vulgar Latin at the same time as Classical Latin; in fact the term “Vulgar Latin” derives from Cicero.

          > Now, that choice is not at any level dogma, so we are not necessarily
          bound to do the same thing and make English the universal language of
          the liturgy.

          It is not dogma true enough, but it is tradition. There is quite a long history which has quite a weight. English may be the lingua franca in a certain sense today, but since Christianity isn’t new and Latin, Greek, etc have been used for centuries, changing the sacred language would not be wise.

          > However, to argue that the Church Fathers deliberately chose Latin in
          order to ensure a “sacred language” for the liturgy is not only
          incorrect, it directly contradicts the truth.

          The role of Latin as a sacred language does not rest on whether it was a deliberate choice. It also does not contradict the truth. The Liturgy is written in formal Latin not vulgar Latin

    • Gitanjali Sudhir

      Gita – Chennai – India
      I write this from a country and a region where “LATIN” is quite an unknown entity.
      WWA88 – Thanks for your views

    • Eques13

      Ecclesiastical Latin is far closer to Classical Latin than to Vulgar Latin. Ecclesiastical Latin contains all the grammatical cases, tenses, etc of Classical; the vocabulary does shift at least in part due to translating texts from Greek or Hebrew and thus needing new terms. It wasn’t until the early 9th century that the Council of Tours ordered preaching to be done in Vulgar Latin or Germanic languages since the people could no longer understand formal Latin. Vulgar Latin gave rise to the Romance Languages whereas Patristic Ecclesiastical Latin gave rise to Medieval Latin and then to Late Latin/Modern Latin.

      Thus, in the first centuries, the Latin used in the Liturgy was a higher, more formalized form of the language than would be spoken on the streets; this difference would be similar to the distinction between the language used in the English translation of the Mass (Especially the Anglican Use) versus the way Americans might speak on the street to friends.

      >If “sacred language” was desirable, we would expect the liturgy in the
      early Church to have been exclusively in Hebrew, or perhaps Greek,

      Not entirely. There were parts of the Church to use Greek or Hebrew, just as there are today (well, not Hebrew, but we do have Syriac which is a closely related language). The Liturgy was influenced heavily by the various cultures it came in contact with. Thus, in Egypt, the Liturgy ended up being in Coptic, in the Middle East in Syriac, Greek in the Eastern Empire, Latin in the Western Empire. Over time, the concept of a sacred language as opposed to merely an elevated form of the standard language solidified.

      • wva88

        This is the key phrase:

        “Over time, the concept of a sacred language as opposed to merely an elevated form of the standard language solidified.”

        I do not argue that the concept of “sacred language” developed much later in the Church, or that it is not desirable. However, it is not a Patristic idea.

        • Eques13

          To say it’s not a Patristic idea may be a stretch since the Liturgy was solidly in the languages we consider sacred/liturgical languages and not altered by contemporary changes in vernacular languages before the end of the Patristic age.

          • wva88

            That is the problem. WE consider them “sacred languages” today, but at the time, they specifically moved AWAY from “sacred languages” (Greek, Hebrew) to use the vernacular Latin.

          • Eques13

            Except for Hebrew was sacred only to Jews and otherwise not known yet most of the early Church were Gentiles. Greek became sacred in the East, but likewise wasn’t already a sacred language in a Christian context. No language explicitly is sacred ipso facto, but only through extended continued use in that context. Hence, by the end of the Patristic Age, Latin and Greek and Aramaic were sacred languages (in the Latin/Western, Byzantine and Syriac rites). By the modern age, those same languages were still seen as sacred with the addition of Church Slavonic (used in the Slavic countries for the Byzantine Rite).

  • teomatteo

    Philip, I am with ‘ya on latin at Holy Mass. I find the language to lifts me from my weekly grind into the other worldly as Holy Mass is. So thanks for the post.

  • Sue Korlan

    If we are to use an unknown language to pray to God, might I suggest the one used in the early Church, tongues.

    • Eques13

      No. “Tongues” is not any specific language and hence not useful for liturgy.

      • Sue Korlan

        Tongues is whatever language the Holy Spirit chooses at the moment, and doing as the Holy Spirit would have us do is always useful for liturgy.

        • Eques13

          This is a Catholic forum, not a Pentecostalist forum.

          The ability to speak in tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit primarily is the ability to be heard by others as speaking in their tongue while having no conscious understanding of that language. This is apparent from Pentecost where the Apostles spoke about Christ and the various groups (Medes, Parthians, Romans, etc) could all understand them in their own language.

          The Holy Spirit didn’t will that we speak in random tongues in formal liturgy in the past 2000 years, so it’s nonsense to suggest we do now.

          • Sue Korlan

            One can be both Catholic and Pentecostal. And 1 Corinthians certainly implies that early Church liturgy included tongues, and that they were often unintelligible to those present. And the use of Latin in the liturgy was probably introduced when the people began to use Latin instead of Greek.

          • Eques13

            One cannot both belong to Catholicism (the One True religion) and to Pentacostalism (a heresy and false religion)

            “Bear not the yoke with unbelievers. For what participation hath justice with injustice? Or what fellowship hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath the faithful with the unbeliever? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” 2 Corinthians 6:14-16

            “. And 1 Corinthians certainly implies that early Church liturgy included tongues’

            You’ll have to be more specific than one entire Letter of St. Paul.

            “And there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all. And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit. To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; To another, faith in the same spirit; to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit; To another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, the discerning of spirits; to another, diverse kinds of tongues; to another, interpretation of speeches.” 1 Corinthians 12:6-10

            “Now you are the body of Christ, and members of member. And God indeed hath set some in the church; first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors; after that miracles; then the graces of healing, helps, governments, kinds of tongues, interpretations of speeches. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all doctors? Are all workers of miracles? Have all the grace of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” 1 Corinthians 12:27-30

            These two quotes from that same letter specifically mentions that not all have the gift of speaking with tongues or interpreting, for “there are many gifts but the same Spirit that worketh in all”.

            Nothing mentioning tongues in 1 Corinthians ties it back to Liturgy.

            ” But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either in revelation, or in knowledge, or in prophecy, or in doctrine?” 1 Corinthians 14:6

            ” In the law it is written: In other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and neither so will they hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to believers, but to unbelievers; but prophecies not to unbelievers, but to believers. If therefore the whole church come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in unlearned persons or infidels, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or an unlearned person, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all. The secrets of his heart are made manifest; and so, falling down on his face, he will adore God, affirming that God is among you indeed.

            How is it then, brethren? When you come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation: let all things be done to edification. If any speak with a tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and in course, and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him hold his peace in the church, and speak to himself and to God. And let the prophets speak, two or three; and let the rest judge. But if any thing be revealed to another sitting, let the first hold his peace.” 1 Corinthians 21-30

            Note:
            -tongues are for a sign
            – an infidel or unbeliever will think you all mad
            – prophesy is higher than tongues for the infidel will be convinced of all and adore God.
            – 2 or at most 3 speakers of tongues with an interpreter (hence “babbling” in various tongues without any means of translations is discouraged by St. Paul).
            – No interpreter then “let him hold his peace in Church” (hence not in liturgy)

            Also, nowhere in Catholic history will you find a practice approved of during Mass or other Liturgical actions people (clerics or otherwise) speaking in tongues with interpreters for the edification of the people. The liturgy might not be in the language spoken by the people on the streets, but it wasn’t a language spoken in Liturgy due to a Spiritual charism.

            “And the use of Latin in the liturgy was probably introduced when the people began to use Latin instead of Greek” began to use Latin instead of Greek for what?

          • Sue Korlan

            The Catholic Church accepts Catholic Pentecostals. We call ourselves Catholic Charismatics. We were hosted by a pope for the first time by Paul VI and by every pope since. So you had best tell the Magisterium we’re heretics because they seem to disagree with you.

            I gave you all of 1 Corinthians because I didn’t know if you had read it and wanted you to do so. When you come together certainly sounds like liturgy to me.

            And all of the New Testament was written in Greek because that was the common language during the time of the early Church, the way English generally is today. Early liturgies were generally Greek, too.

          • Eques13

            First of all, regardless the particulars of Catholic Charismatics, they are not

            Pentecostals. That would be a contradiction in terms. The fullness of Truth already exists inside the Church; hence you cannot add to it by mixing in heresy.

            > I gave you all of 1 Corinthians because I didn’t know if you had read it
            and wanted you to do so.

            I have actually read the entire Bible, including Corinthians. I note that you have said nothing about why the many quotes I pulled from the same letter don’t actually mean what I assert them to or don’t contradict your assertion that 1 Corinthians is speaking about tongues in the Liturgy. It is also useless to cite an entire letter of evidence of your theological position; it’s about as meaningful as saying “it’s in the Bible”.

            > We were hosted by a pope for the first time by Paul VI and by every pope
            since. So you had best tell the Magisterium we’re heretics because they
            seem to disagree with you.

            Being hosted by the Pope is not the same thing as being approved by the Pope. Pope John Paul II met with Islamic and Jewish leaders (for example); that doesn’t mean he approved their religious practices. We also must consider history and tradition. Why is there no evidence between Pentecost and the 20th century of people practicing in the Catholic Church as you think they ought?

            > When you come together certainly sounds like liturgy to me.

            See my previous quotes from Corinthians about why your assertion is flawed. If you think 1 Corinthians is talking about Liturgy when it talks about tongues, you do not have a full Catholic understanding of what Liturgy is.

            > And all of the New Testament was written in Greek because that was the
            common language during the time of the early Church, the way English
            generally is today. Early liturgies were generally Greek, too.

            Sorta, but still not in dispute. If the early liturgies were Greek, then they weren’t “in tongues”

  • Jaceczko

    Bravo, sir.

  • Charles Ludwick

    Another great benefit of the Latin language is its cross-cultural character. I have found that inclusion of the Latin language helps to bridge cultural differences, such as various vernacular languages. Latin is, in a sense, *every Latin Rite Catholic’s* native language. Yet another benefit of Latin are the texts of Latin hymns, prayers, and psalms, etc. Being based on almost solely Sacred Scripture, such texts avoid sometimes conundrums such as an over-emphasis on social-justice themes which, while possibly having their place in relation to daily scripture readings or a liturgical theme, also have the potential to reduce the transendence of the Holy Mass.

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  • Philip Kosloski
  • Ann Alphonso

    The Mass is the language of the Heart – God giving us His Sacred Heart that we receive in our mortal hearts in the Holy Eucharist. The language that one is most fluent in is the language that one can best express love for the beloved in! A person’s ability to worship God in deep intimacy in this sacred union – the giving of God Himself to His beloved – the church – the individual – in the language one expresses himself/herself best in – is the best language of worship! Latin is not a language we communicate with God in personally or with each other in either! Besides, the Holy Spirit who is the Giver of all that is good and Inspirer of all good is the giver of language! So to put one language above another is to evaluate His gift of language! Not something we should do, right?