The first principle of the Ordinariate is then about Christian unity. St. Basil the Great, the Church’s greatest ecumenist, literally expended his life on the work of building bridges between orthodox brethren who shared a common faith, but who had become separated from one another in a Church badly fragmented by heresy and controversy. He taught that the work of Christian unity requires deliberate and ceaseless effort...St. Basil often talked with yearning about the archaia agape, the ancient love of the apostolic community, so rarely seen in the Church of his day. This love, he taught, is a visible sign that the Holy Spirit is indeed present and active, and it is absolutely essential for the health of the Church.

- Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, Homily on the Occasion of his Formal Institution as Ordinary

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Use of Latin in the Ordinariates

Over on the Ordinariate Expats blog there's a post about the superiority of vernacular in the liturgy. A first comment disagrees, stating that "the idea that the liturgy must be intelligible is a protestant idea." I tried to comment, but something interfered with that, so I share my thoughts on this topic below.


I do not agree that the idea that liturgy should be intelligible is a Protestant idea. If that's the case then all of those compilers and translators of the Roman Missal and Divine Office who produced hand missals and primers over the years must have been cyrpto-Protestants. But I don't think that is the case. Once can simultaneously hold that worship should be intellgible and also that liturgy needn't always be in the vernacular. Father Angelus DeMarco, OFM writes in an article from The American Ecclesiastical Review reposted on
In liturgical matters the Protestants challenged the use of Latin as a cult-language—which was rooted in theories of a dogmatic nature, which rejected the nature of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Catholic priesthood. In taking action on this linguistic question it was not so much the Protestant innovation of prescribing a vernacular Liturgy, which interested Trent, as the motive, which led them to this line of action. It is only in the light of the errors, which were then being refuted that the deliberations and decrees can be interpreted. The relevant canon and chapter are: "…If anybody says that the Mass ought not be celebrated except in the common language . . . A.S." (Sess. XXII, c. 9); "Though the Mass contains a great instruction for the faithful people, yet it did not seem expedient to the Fathers that it should be celebrated everywhere in the vulgar tongue..." (Sess. XXII, c. 8). There is neither a dogmatic justification of Latin nor a dogmatic rejection of the use of the vernacular. As far as the vernacular is concerned the Council condemns the mentality, which demands the vernacular as if the nature of the Liturgy made it necessary. The simple use of, or defense of the vernacular or any other language than Latin is not condemned. In establishing reasons why the Church has carefully preserved the Latin language as her liturgical language in the West, Trent did not say that the vernacular is intrinsically evil in itself, nor that its use in the Mass and Sacraments is an impossibility. On the contrary, in clarifying the issue, the Council has left to the Church a criterion for future action, should it ever be necessary to change existing rites and language.

Vernacular liturgy then is not a “protestant idea”; that is something that is frequently said, but the witness of the Eastern Catholic Church, which should be well known, shows it to be false. In the Eastern Church liturgy is celebrated in a variety of vernacular languages such as Greek, Arabic, and Syriac, as well as in “sacred languages” such as Old Church Slavonic and Coptic.

But even in the Latin Church, vernacular liturgy was not unknown, both before the Council of Trent and after. Father DeMarco's article cited above notes several instances where permission for use of vernacular liturgy was given by Rome, including the following:

History records in the fourteenth century that the first Franciscan missionary to China, John of Monte Corvino, used the vernacular in the Liturgy.26 Pope Paul V, in a brief of June 27, 1615, granted the same privilege to Jesuit missionaries.27 As recently as 1949, the privilege to use the Chinese literary language in the Liturgy was granted by the Holy Office.28

An equally interesting use of vernacular can be read in Claudio Salvucci’s account of “the Tsiatak Nihonon8entsiake, or Book of Seven Nations, published in Montreal in 1865 for the American Indian mission of Lake of Two Mountains, which contained both Mohawk-speaking and Algonquin-speaking Catholics. This mission, like others in the area, was permitted to use the vernacular for the sung propers and ordinaries of the Roman Mass,” on The New Liturgical Movement, which includes images of chants from some of the Requiem Masses in the Mohawk language.

However, even though there is a legitimate place for vernacular languages in liturgical worship, there is also a legitimate place for Latin in the liturgies of Latin Church communities, including the Ordinariates. Even in pre-Ordinariate days, it was (and is) not unusual to find Latin used in the liturgy, especially in the Ordinary chants (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, and Agnus Dei); see (and hear) for example, this page from St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

Pope Paul VI, who presided over the vast extension of vernacular in the liturgy of the Latin Church, recognized the need to preserve and promote the use of Latin as well. In issuing his booklet Jubilate Deo he wrote that his purpose in sending this to all the bishops of the Latin Church was:
to make it easier for Christians to achieve unity and spiritual harmony with their brothers and with the living tradition of the past. Hence it is that those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse Gregorian chant the place which is due to it.


  1. Dear host,

    I was the one who posted the original comment. I fear you have thoroughly misunderstood me. I said "the idea that the liturgy MUST be intelligible is a protestant idea", and I stand by this. It is the Protestant reformers who opined that a liturgy whose words were not understood was fruitless, whereas I, as a Catholic, believe in the efficacity of the liturgy as an "opus Dei". Of course there may be liturgies in the vernacular, and have always been.
    BTW be careful when comparing with the Eastern rites. Until the 20th century, the Eastern Orthodox churches and their Catholic counterparts celebrated mostly in languages like Church Slavonic and Medieval Greek which were most decidedly NOT intelligible by the majority of those attending.

  2. The first endeavour at vernacular in the liturgy in the Eastern Churches is not so old: it happened in the Hungarian Byzantine Church in the early 20th C. after a considerable number Lutheran parishes joined corporately this ritual church (so as to get their married pastors ordained) from the 17th century onward. As this ritual Church was so small, and divided between congregations using Ancient Greek and congregations using Slavonic, former protestants rapidly became an important part of it and were able to press for the use of Hungarian in the Divine Liturgy. Pope Pius XII tried to force them to return to the use of Ancient Greek, but with the war and then the communist oppression, it was not possible, and now the use of Hungarian is of course not acted against.

    + PAX et BONUM

    1. The Syriac used by Maronites and other Christians in the Mideast has been a vernacular all along (although rapidly disappearing as a spoken language). Arabic is used by Melkites and that is not a recent development.

    2. Well, so much for me. At least my point stands for Europe. I'm not knowledgeable about what's going in the Middle-Eastern ritual Churches.
      Also, we learn from the Hungarian precedent that Protestants joining the Church en masse is not new! ;)

      + PAX et BONUM

  3. Dear Victor,

    Perhaps I've misunderstood your post. But to me intelligible goes beyond understanding the individual words. The Protestant reformers didn't say that the liturgy must be "intelligible", they said it must be in the vernacular. And that is the proposition that was condemned in Trent. The two concepts, liturgy in the vernacular and liturgy as intelligible are related but not the same. Even when the individual words are not understood, the action and purpose of the liturgy should be understood. The same Council of Trent which decreed that the liturgy need not be in the vernacular, also wrote in Session 22:

    "That the sheep of Christ may not suffer hunger, nor the little ones ask for bread, and there be none to break it unto them, the holy Synod charges pastors, and all who have the cure of souls, that they frequently, during the celebration of mass, expound either by themselves, or others, some portion of those things which are read at mass, and that, amongst the rest, they explain some mystery of this most holy sacrifice, especially on the Lord's days and festivals."

    Which seems to mean that it is quite important that the faithful find what goes on at Mass (and the other sacraments) to be intelligible.

  4. I am not a native English speaker and thus might have confused "intelligible" and "understandable". I agree with you completely. To have the people understand the words does not at all guarantee they understand their meaning. But this is exactly what the Reformers believed: they thougt they just needed to translate the words and people would immediately "get it". Might it not be that the Reformers of Vatican Two fell for the same misapprehension?
    The old women that once prayed the rosary during Holy Mass may very well have understood much better what was going on than the modern man, sitting in his cozy pew and hearing but not listening to the words of the liturgy handed to him in his vernacular.

  5. Hi Victor,

    Perhaps the example you give of the old women vs the modern man is correct, but in neither case are the people praying the liturgy which is the earnest desire of Holy Church. Numerous spiritual writers and saints wrote "How to Assist at Mass" books, which, while not teaching people to pray the liturgy, at least sought to have the laity praying in synch with the liturgy and meditating on the mysteries of salvation that are shown forth in the Mass. Meditating on the mysteries of the rosary (to harken back to your example) is a good and pious thing, but it shouldn't be done during Mass; during Mass one should be meditating on the Sacrifice of the Savior and ideally on the words of the liturgy itself; hence the Council of Trent's urging of pastors and other ministers to expound and explain the liturgy to the people. Pope St. Pius X urged people to pray the liturgy, which was re-echoed in the teachings of Pope Pius XII.

    For most people, having the words of the liturgy in a language they understand will be an aid to that understanding, so that in the words of St. Paul (1 Cor 14:14-17), which I think applicable:

    For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.

    This is why it is important that children, in particular, be instructed in Latin among their other studies, so that at least in the parts that pertain to them, they will be able to take part in liturgy in Latin, as well as in the vernacular. Fr. Phillip's parish of Our Lady of the Atonement is a wonderful example of this, where the students are equally at home in the liturgy of the Book of Divine Worship and in the Latin liturgy of the 2002 Roman Missal.