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Cumann an Aifrinn Laidinigh
Latin Mass Society of Ireland
Dochum Glóire Dé agus Onóra na hÉireann!


The timeless resonance of Latin has been part of the life of the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years. But the language itself is much older than that.

History of Latin

Latin is a member of the Italic sub-family of the Indo-European family of languages, which spread across Europe and as far as India about 15,000 years ago. Its major linguistic groups included Indic, Iranian, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavonic. Other branches of Indo-European - such as Armenian - stem from the original parent speech, which is now lost. Of all today's European languages, only Basque, Hungarian and Finnish are not of Indo-European origin.

The Latin language was brought into the Italian peninsula by the Italic peoples, who had migrated from the north about 1200 years before the birth of Christ. At that time, Rome was an insignificant settlement on the banks of the River Tiber in Latium, central Italy. But by 250 BC, Latin had become the dominant tongue in Italy and, as the military, political and cultural power of Rome spread, its soldiers and citizens took their Latin language with them. By the time of Christ, Latin was the common tongue of Western Europe. By the second century after Christ, the Romans dominated all of Europe, western Asia and North Africa, and Latin was spoken in almost every part of the known ancient world. Only Greece, southern Italy and the Near East retained Greek as their primary language until the Arab conquest of 700 AD. Greek survived as the official language of the Byzantine Empire until the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, but in the rest of the empire, Latin prevailed.

Like most languages, Latin was both written and spoken. The colloquial speech of cultured Romans was characterised by a freedom of syntax, by numerous interjections and by the regular use of Greek words. The language of the uneducated classes showed a greater disregard for syntax, a love of new words and a striving for simplicity. This popular language, known as Vulgar Latin, fostered the Romance languages, spoken today in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and Romania.

Latin literature began with the early plays of Roman Comedy in rustic style, dating from about 240BC. The Golden Age of written Latin, from 70 BC until about AD 14, is famous for the prose works of Julius Caesar, Livy and Cicero, as well as for the poetry of Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace and Ovid. The Silver Age - from about 14 to 130AD - is noteworthy for the works of the philosopher and dramatist Seneca and for the writings of the historian Tacitus. During the Late Latin Period, from the second to the sixth century, many Church Fathers set down their teachings in Latin. By this time, the Roman Empire was weakening in the face of barbarian assaults, and the Latin language was being affected by foreign forms and idioms.

But even when the Roman Empire eventually fell, Latin survived and remained an important means of written and spoken communication for another thousand years. As the centuries passed, Latin continued as the international means of communication for educated men and women. Latin remained the official language of the Catholic Church and, at the end of the Middle Ages, interest started to grow in classical Latin as a means of artistic and literary expression. This period (from about 1200 to 1400 AD) was known as the Renaissance, the rebirth of the ancient world and at the same time a transition to the modern world.

New Latin (also called modern Latin) came into existence in the 15th and 16th centuries. Almost all books of scientific, philosophical and religious importance were written in Latin at this time, and Latin remained the common language for European diplomats. For example, the marriage negotiations between the ambassadors of Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I were conducted in Latin in 1559. Philip's ambassadors reported that Elizabeth's Latin was excellent. In 1687, the great scientist Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in Latin. At that time, English was an obscure and little-known language, with about four and a half million native speakers in the entire world - only a small fraction of whom were literate.

Even during the 18th and 19th centuries, Latin remained the language of classical scholarship. The writers Pope,
T. S. Eliot and Milton are examples of authors who were influenced by Latin literature or even wrote in Latin. And, although the use of Latin is much more limited in the 21st century, the Catholic Church still uses Latin as the language of its official documents. There's even a radio station in Finland which broadcasts news in Latin and a CD has been released of Elvis songs in Latin!

Liturgical development

Throughout the ages, one of the most common uses of Latin has been to unite people of different races, cultures and languages. Even at the time of Christ, the variety of tongues spoken by citizens of the Roman Empire caused problems for those attempting to spread the new faith. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that, at the time of the first Pentecost, the Apostles preached to crowds of Parthians, Medes and Elamites, and to pilgrims from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia.

Despite the fact that the Apostles would have preached in Aramaic, their words were understood by everyone because the Holy Ghost gave them the gift of tongues. But, after the death of the Apostles, when the gift of tongues had all but disappeared, it was still necessary to ensure that the doctrines and liturgy of the new religion could be clearly transmitted to everyone, no matter what language they spoke.

It was particularly important that catechumens and the baptised faithful should understand and appreciate the teachings and prayers of the Mass, the most important outward manifestation of the new faith and the Church's central act of worship.

The liturgy - from the Greek word leitourgia, meaning public service to the gods - might have developed in two ways. It could have been translated into local languages, or it could be celebrated in the same language everywhere. There is plenty of historical precedent for a single, special liturgical language. The Jews of the Holy Land used Hebrew in the synagogue, even though their daily language was Aramaic. The Babylonians used ancient Sumerian as their sacred language, while Hindus used Sanskrit. Later, other religions also came to see the value of a universal religious language. Islam, for example, uses Arabic, whatever the nationality of the worshippers, and the Orthodox Church uses old Slavonic in its liturgy.

The difficulty about using local, living languages is that linguistic development and imprecision can cause misunderstanding or incorrect transmission of complicated and precise doctrines. Language, being a living thing, can change, so that words come to have a different meaning after a period of time. The use of liturgies in a variety of languages can also detract from that unity of the Church and its members for which its Founder prayed.

Historically, the first liturgies were in the local languages of the Church's Founder and early leaders: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. (Even today, there are echoes of those ancient languages in the Mass - in the Greek of the Kyrie, for example, and the Hebrew of the Amen, the Hosanna and the Good Friday reproaches.)

Until the middle of the third century, most Christians in Rome were Greek-speaking. The liturgy was celebrated in Greek and theologians wrote in Greek until the death of St Hippolytus in 235 AD. But in Africa, most of the faithful spoke Latin, and it was there that the Scriptures were first translated into Latin within 200 years of Christ's death. The Church in Africa was also the first to use Latin in the liturgy in the middle of the third century, while the Church in Rome continued to use Greek for another hundred years.

Scholars such as Tertullian introduced into the Latin language Greek words such as baptisma, charisma, prophetia and martyr. St Jerome added around 350 new words to the growing vocabulary of Church Latin. The liturgical precision of Latin allowed the development of such theological terms as transsubstantiatio, forma, materia and accidens, which couldn't be as precisely represented in the vernacular.

By the fourth century, four parent rites had developed from the earliest Christian liturgy. These rites were based on the three patriarchal cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome and on the liturgy celebrated in Gaul in north-western Europe. The rites of Alexandria and Antioch provided the nucleus for the rites used in the eastern Churches today. The Roman rite, with Gallican additions, is the basis for the rite used today in the Catholic Church in the west.

In the fifth century, when Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the use of Latin in the liturgy became even more widespread in the West. From the seventh century onwards, although local languages were used for popular preaching, Latin had become the exclusive language of liturgy and theology in the west.

Most of the western Catholic Churches used the Roman rite from about the sixth century onwards. At the start of the ninth century, Charlemagne insisted that all clergy in the Holy Roman Empire should use only the Roman Sacramentary, as used by Pope Adrian I. Only in a few places, such as Toledo in Spain and Milan in Italy, did the Eucharist continue to be celebrated in a form of the old Gallican rite.

Minor local differences continued to exist in the liturgy throughout Europe, in places such as Sarum and York in England, Paris and Lyons in France and Cologne in Germany - but the modifications didn't relate to any fundamental liturgical or doctrinal matters. Essentially, all the liturgies and the order of Mass in the West were identical.

But with the growth of Protestantism and other heresies in the Middle Ages, Rome became concerned that local variations in the liturgy could mislead or confuse Catholics. Bishops had started to allow local liturgical modifications. Major cities had developed their own variations and many religious orders adopted distinct liturgical customs.

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Council of Trent confronted this growing confusion and ordered that Mass should be celebrated in the same way everywhere. At the same time, the Council condemned the view that Mass should be celebrated only in the vernacular or local language.

In 1570, Pope St Pius V ordered that the Missal - which contains the prayers of the Mass - should be restored to its pure, ancient form and thereafter the same liturgy should be used throughout the Western Church. That liturgy, which is still celebrated today, dates back essentially unchanged to the time of St Gregory in the sixth century.

The restored liturgy took its name from the Council of Trent and came to be known as the Tridentine Mass. In a Papal Bull entitled Quo Primum, the Pope granted priests the right to use the Tridentine rite forever, "without scruple of conscience or fear of penalty".

But the Mass was not arbitrarily imposed on all Catholics in the West. Pope St Pius V allowed the continued use of the rites of religious orders, as well as any other liturgical rite more than 200 years old. Even at the opening of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, other rites were still being celebrated in the Western Church: the Ambrosian rite of Milan, the Mozarabic rite of Toledo, the rite of Braga and the liturgies of the religious orders - the Carthusians, the Carmelites and, probably best known of all, the Dominican rite. And even after the introduction of the new Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1970, permission was still given for the use of the old rites.

The Second Vatican Council itself proclaimed its desire to preserve the use of Latin and to foster all lawfully acknowledged rites. But the Council was doing no more than recognising the unwavering support of the Popes for the continued use of Latin in the liturgy.

The Popes and Latin

In 1922, for example, Pius XI - in his document Officiorum Omnium - said: "The Church - precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure until the end of time - of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular."

Quarter of a century later, his successor Pope Pius XII said in Mediator Dei: "The use of the Latin language affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of true doctrine."

In 1962, the father of Vatican Two, Pope John XXIII, issued his encyclical Veterum Sapientia. The Pope spoke of the special value of Latin which had proved so admirable a means for the spreading of Christianity and which had proved to be a bond of unity for the Christian peoples of Europe.

He continued: "Of its very nature, Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favour any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.

"Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin's formal structure. Its concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression.

"For these reasons the Apostolic See has always been at pains to preserve Latin, deeming it worthy of being used in the exercise of her teaching authority as the splendid vesture of her heavenly doctrine and sacred laws. She further requires her sacred ministers to use it, for by so doing they are the better able, wherever they may be, to acquaint themselves with the mind of the Holy See on any matter, and communicate the more easily with Rome and with one another.

"The Church - because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time - of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.

"Modern languages are liable to change, and no single language is superior to the others in authority. Thus, if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would also be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.

"But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. It has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use.

"Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.

"In addition, the Latin language can be called truly catholic. It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church's teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.

"There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value of the language and great literature of the Romans. It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech.

"The use of Latin has recently been queried in many quarters, and many people are asking about the mind of the Apostolic See in this matter. We have therefore decided to issue this document, so as to ensure that the ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where necessary, restored.

"So many people, unaccountably dazzled by the marvellous progress of science, are taking it upon themselves to oust or restrict the study of Latin and other kindred subjects. Yet, the greatest impression is made on the mind by those things which correspond more closely to man's nature and dignity. And therefore the greatest zeal should be shown in the acquisition of whatever educates and ennobles the mind. Otherwise poor mortal creatures may well become like the machines they build - cold, hard, and devoid of love."

"Bishops and superiors-general of religious orders shall be on their guard lest anyone under their jurisdiction, eager for revolutionary changes, writes against the use of Latin in the teaching of the higher sacred studies or in the liturgy, or through prejudice makes light of the Holy See's will in this regard or interprets it falsely.

"Professors of the sacred sciences in universities or seminaries are required to speak Latin and to make use of textbooks written in Latin. If ignorance of Latin makes it difficult for some to obey these instructions, they shall gradually be replaced by professors who are suited to this task.

"Since Latin is the Church's living language, it must be furnished with new words that are apt and suitable for expressing modern things, words that will be uniform and universal in their application and constructed in conformity with the genius of the ancient Latin tongue."

In 1966, a mere four years after publication of Pope John's encyclical, Pope Paul VI, who presided over much of the Second Vatican Council, issued his own encyclical Sacrificium Laudis, echoing the views of Pope John. He said: "The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended with great care instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the most abundant source of Christian civilization and the richest treasury of piety. We must not hold in low esteem these traditions of our fathers which were our glory for centuries."

Even Pope John Paul II, in his 1980 letter on the mystery and worship of the Eucharist, praised Latin as an expression of the unity of the Church which, through its dignified character, elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic mystery. He said it was necessary to show understanding and full respect towards those Catholics who missed the use of the old Latin liturgy, and to accommodate their desires as far as possible. He said the Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself.

In 1998, Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressing three thousand traditional Catholics in Rome, said some people accused traditionalists of lack of obedience to the Second Vatican Council. He pointed out that the Council did not prohibit the former liturgical books but only ordered their revision. He recalled the observation of Cardinal Newman that the Church, throughout her history, had never abolished nor forbidden orthodox liturgical forms.

The Cardinal said several forms of the Latin rite had always existed, and were only slowly withdrawn, as a result of the coming together of the different parts of Europe. He recalled that Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy did not speak at all about celebration facing the altar or facing the people. It said that Latin should be retained, although a greater place should be given to the vernacular.

The Cardinal criticised modern liturgists who developed the ideas of the Council only in one direction. He said they ended up reversing the intentions of the Council and reducing the role of the priest to that of a mere functionary. He said there was also a dangerous tendency by some liturgists to minimise the sacrificial character of the Mass, causing the mystery and the sacred to disappear, on the pretext that they could thus make things better understood.

But the Cardinal said there was now a certain disenchantment with this banal rationalism, and he could discern a return to mystery, adoration and the sacred.

Pope John Paul II, in February 2002, expressed his desire that "the love of [Latin] would grow ever strong among candidates for the priesthood." In a message written in Latin to a conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of Veterum Sapientia, Pope John Paul said the use of Latin was łan indispensable condition for a proper relationship between modernity and antiquity, for dialogue among different cultures, and for reaffirming the identity of the Catholic priesthood."

But the views of the Popes have been ignored. Even the Bishops have largely abandoned the use of Latin - to the point where Pope John Paul, at the Bishops' synod in Rome, joked that the "sin of the synod" was that they no longer spoke Latin.

Since Vatican II

Much of the change has been blamed on the Second Vatican Council but, despite claims to the contrary, the Council did not ban the use of Latin. In fact, quite the opposite. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy specifically ordered that the use of the Latin language was to be preserved in the Latin rites. The document says that the vernacular or mother tongue may be used in a suitable place in public Masses, but steps should be taken so that the faithful can also say or sing in Latin those parts of the Mass which relate to them.

Despite the wishes and intentions of the Council Fathers, however, the introduction of the new liturgy in 1969 saw the virtual worldwide disappearance of Latin from the liturgy. The introduction of local languages to the Mass - from as early as 1964 - became increasingly widespread and erratic.

The New Order of the Mass officially came into use on the first Sunday of Advent of 1969. Since then, side by side with the abolition of Latin and the introduction of the vernacular, other abuses have become commonplace. Communion in the hand, lay ministers of the Eucharist, altar girls, the use of non-Biblical texts - all formerly banned by the Church - were introduced by dissident priests and Bishops. Eventually, the Vatican despaired of trying to stem the tide and began to give approval for what had formerly been forbidden.

But not everyone was prepared to accept such liturgical abuses. Many Catholics, hungry for doctrinal certainty and liturgical order amid the chaos of the new Mass, turned towards that ancient liturgy codified four centuries earlier, and resumed celebration of the Tridentine Mass.

Following the introduction of Pope Paul's Mass, elderly priests had been given permission to continue celebrating Mass in the old rite. Men like the founder of Opus Dei, Blessed Jose-Maria Escriva, used the old rite until their deaths. The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Heenan of Westminster, obtained special permission for his priests to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass.

But more and more Catholics around the world wanted a return to the old rite. In 1984, in response to that pressure, the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship granted a wider permission for the public celebration of the Tridentine Mass.

In 1988, Pope John Paul II, in a binding pronouncement, decreed that respect must be shown everywhere for the feelings of all those attached to the old Latin tradition by wide and generous permission for celebration of the old rite.

By the close of the twentieth century, the Tridentine Mass was once again being widely celebrated throughout the world with the permission and encouragement of many Catholic Bishops. In the United States, for example, the old Mass was being celebrated with episcopal permission every Sunday in 89 dioceses. Twenty dioceses had daily Mass in the old rite. In France, it's estimated that half those who attend Mass every Sunday go to a Tridentine Mass.

Today, more than a billion members of the Catholic Church in every country of the world speak hundreds of languages and dialects. Yet Latin unites them all.

© Kieron Wood