The Latin Mass

Deacon Scott Maentz Vatican II, Year of Faith

Certainly one of the biggest changes that Catholics around the world saw as a result of the Second Vatican Council, was the rapid disappearance of Latin in the liturgy as it was replaced by the vernacular. Today there is still a debate within the Church as to whether this was a legitimate development of the council. There are a large group of the faithful today who prefer attending the Tridentine Rite which is celebrated in Latin. My own observation is that those who attend these liturgies do so for reasons that extend beyond simply a desire to celebrate the Liturgy in Latin. It is not simply out of a nostalgia for the past, but because they find a much greater sense of reverence present in the more ancient rite. I must say that while I have never been attracted to the Tridentine mass (perhaps because I grew up with the novus ordo) I do find the ancient liturgies of the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics to be very appealing for the same reasons.

One of the things that might surprise Catholics who have not read the documents of Vatican II, is that they do not call for a complete abolishing of Latin in the mass. Two paragraphs which I find very instructive on this topic are as follows:

The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings, directives and in some prayers and chants. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36)


A suitable place may be allotted to the vernacular in Masses which are celebrated with the people, especially in the readings and “the common prayer,” and also, as local conditions may warrant, in those parts which pertain to the people…Nevertheless care must be taken to ensure the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 54)

While I am almost certain that the council fathers did have the intention that in certain instances there would be a shift to allow a large portion of the prayers at mass being prayed in the vernacular, I don’t believe any of them would have anticipated the almost complete shift around the world from a Church who prayed exclusively in Latin to one where it became close to non-existent. Since I have no experience of the Mass celebrated before the council, the only thing that I can possibly compare it to is when I have participated in the liturgy in another language of which I am not familiar. In these cases I am aware of what we are doing, but it is much more difficult to understand what is being conveyed in the prayers and it is certainly harder to stay connected to what is going on. Having grown up experiencing the Mass in English allowed me to more easily enter into it. I can also recall as a child having a complete understanding of the reverence necessary during the Eucharist. The building itself, with stained glass, statues of holy men and women, the altar and sanctuary, the priest and altar servers with their distinctive clothing, the smell of incense, all of those things communicated whether in Latin or English that something holy was happening here.

This being said, I do believe that many of our Roman Catholic clergy did the Church as disservice following the council, not by what they did in establishing vernacular in the liturgy, but rather by what they did not do through omission. It is clear to me in the Constitution on the Liturgy that there was never the intent by the Church of abandoning our heritage of the Latin language. I am looking at this in retrospect, but it seems that perhaps the easiest way to have preserved the faithful’s knowledge of Latin would be to continue to use it from time to time in our celebration of the Eucharist. I arrived at the seminary 16 years ago with no knowledge of the Latin parts of the mass and learned them quickly simply through our occasional use at our Sunday and daily mass.

One of the things I have learned in my time of understanding how to pray the Mass in Spanish is how the prayers change when prayed in a different language. Many Saturday nights at St. Thomas I have back to back celebrations of the Eucharist. The first is in English, the second in Spanish. The change in language many times brings subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes in meaning and tone which is due to language alone. One of the things we have lost in our infrequent use of the common language of the Church is the meaning that comes about due to the Latin language itself. This is significant, as it is a loss of one of the largest unifying cultural tools at the disposal of the Church. I am certainly not an advocate for a return to how we celebrated the Eucharist before Vatican II, but I am very much in favor of a greater use of our “mother tongue”, as many would refer to it, in addition to our continued use of the vernacular.

There is something else that I think we sometimes miss in our pursuit of all things modern that relates to our continuing debate about language in the Church and that is the fact that in many ways language is not all that important for our worship. I came across a beautiful description of what I mean by this in Anne Rice’s book, Called Out of Darkness:

The hymns we sang before the Blessed Sacrament every Tuesday night have left perhaps the most indelible impression on me of any music I ever heard before or since. It’s this way with many Catholics of my generation. There is a particular love of those two hymns.

Both were in Latin. The first was the most solemn in tone:

O Salutaris Hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium,
Bella premunt hostilia,
Da robur, fer auxilium.

This was sung out with a tender tone of appeal, and again a sense of gratitude, a sense of trust. This was Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, this was a special moment of adoration, and one gave oneself to it with one’s entire heart.

I don’t recall caring much about the English meaning of this hymn. The meaning was in the tone and the sound….Let me stress again: a translation of the hymn wasn’t necessary. In fact, we had the translation handy on cards that were given out in the church.  What mattered was that through the singing itself we were connecting with the divine.

True worship can transcend language. When our actions as a community in prayer bring us into communion with God, we are brought into communion necessarily with one another. Though Anne Rice has recently left the Church, I know she has this one right. When entered into with the proper understanding of where we are standing, whom we are singing to, and in whose presence we are, it is not so much the language that matters or even the words. It is the communion itself that matters and it must be incarnate in the same way that our Savior was when he became flesh and made His home with us.