‘Why celebrate the Mass in Latin?’
Today beginning at 12:30 pm here in Washington at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a Solemn High Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form will be celebrated in the Great Upper Church. For those unfamiliar with all the Church jargon of the previous sentence let me decode. The “extraordinary Form” of the Mass is the form of the Mass as it was celebrated prior to 1965 when Liturgical changes brought about the Mass as we have it today. Prior to these changes the Mass was celebrated exclusively in Latin with only the homily (and sometimes the readings) in English or whatever the local language was. The celebrant also faced in the same direction as the people which some have wrongfully described as the priest “having his back to the people.” To say this is a “Solemn High” Mass means that all the ceremonial options are observed. There is incense, extra candle bearers, and many of the prayers and readings of the liturgy are sung. The celebrant is also assisted by a deacon and subdeacon. To say this is a pontifical Mass means that it will be celebrated by a bishop and will include two extra deacons and an assisting priest. Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa is today’s celebrant.
For those who are unfamiliar or unappreciative with the splendor of the Latin Liturgy in this form some questions often arise.
1. Why pray in Latin or any language unfamiliar to the language of the people who attend?
Simply put, praying in Latin is to pray in what has been a sacred language for the Church. It is a common feature of cultures down through human history that they often prayed in a language other than the language of the home and streets. To pray liturgically is to enter heaven, a world apart from the every day world. To use another and more ancient language is a common way many cultures have underscored this.
At the time of Jesus, the synagogue services and the Temple liturgy used ancient Hebrew. Jesus and his contemporaries did not speak Hebrew at home or in the streets any longer. They spoke Aramaic. But when they prayed they instinctively used the ancient prayers which were Hebrew.
In the early Church it appears that the earliest years saw the use of the Greek language for the Liturgy. It seems to have been used even though many people spoke Latin throughout the empire. But many did not think Latin was suited for the Liturgy which required a more elevated language than what most people spoke. By the 5th Century however Latin came to be introduced in the Western Empire as it became an older and more venerable language to them.
Eventually Latin wholly replaced Greek in the liturgy of the Church in the Western empire (except a few remnants such as the Kyrie). It remained the language of worship until about 1965 when the local languages were allowed. However, it was not the intent of the Church that Latin should wholly disappear as it has largely done. Latin remains for the Church the official language of her worship.
So, why pray in Latin? Why not? It is for us a sacred language of worship and there is an instinct in human culture that liturgy is world apart where we enter heaven. It is not wrong to pray in the local language but, truth be told, it is not the usual practice in human history…
To read the rest of Msgr. Pope’s essay, Click Here.