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.
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
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
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
peoples, who had migrated from the north about 1200 years before the
of Christ. At that time, Rome was an insignificant settlement on the
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
cultural power of Rome spread, its soldiers and citizens took their
language with them. By the time of Christ, Latin was the common tongue
Western Europe. By the second century after Christ, the Romans
all of Europe, western Asia and North Africa, and Latin was spoken in
almost every part of the known ancient world. Only Greece, southern
and the Near East retained Greek as their primary language until the
conquest of 700 AD. Greek survived as the official language of the
Byzantine Empire until the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, but
the rest of the empire, Latin prevailed.
Like most languages, Latin was both written and spoken. The
speech of cultured Romans was characterised by a freedom of syntax, by
numerous interjections and by the regular use of Greek words. The
of the uneducated classes showed a greater disregard for syntax, a
new words and a striving for simplicity. This popular language, known
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
style, dating from about 240BC. The Golden Age of written Latin, from
BC until about AD 14, is famous for the prose works of Julius Caesar,
and Cicero, as well as for the poetry of Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil,
Horace and Ovid. The Silver Age - from about 14 to 130AD - is
for the works of the philosopher and dramatist Seneca and for the
writings of the historian Tacitus. During the Late Latin Period, from
second to the sixth century, many Church Fathers set down their
in Latin. By this time, the Roman Empire was weakening in the face of
barbarian assaults, and the Latin language was being affected by
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
international means of communication for educated men and women. Latin
remained the official language of the Catholic Church and, at the end
the Middle Ages, interest started to grow in classical Latin as a
artistic and literary expression. This period (from about 1200 to 1400
was known as the Renaissance, the rebirth of the ancient world and at
same time a transition to the modern world.
New Latin (also called modern Latin) came into existence in the
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
Queen Elizabeth I were conducted in Latin in 1559. Philip's
reported that Elizabeth's Latin was excellent. In 1687, the great
scientist Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in
that time, English was an obscure and little-known language, with
four and a half million native speakers in the entire world - only a
fraction of whom were literate.
Even during the 18th and 19th centuries, Latin remained the
classical scholarship. The writers Pope,
T. S. Eliot and Milton
examples of authors who were influenced by Latin literature or even
in Latin. And, although the use of Latin is much more limited in the
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
the ages, one of the most common uses of Latin has been to unite
different races, cultures and languages. Even at the time of Christ,
variety of tongues spoken by citizens of the Roman Empire caused
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
crowds of Parthians, Medes and Elamites, and to pilgrims from
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
the gift of tongues. But, after the death of the Apostles, when the
of tongues had all but disappeared, it was still necessary to ensure
the doctrines and liturgy of the new religion could be clearly
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
Mass, the most important outward manifestation of the new faith and
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,
liturgical language. The Jews of the Holy Land used Hebrew in the
synagogue, even though their daily language was Aramaic. The
used ancient Sumerian as their sacred language, while Hindus used
Sanskrit. Later, other religions also came to see the value of a
religious language. Islam, for example, uses Arabic, whatever the
nationality of the worshippers, and the Orthodox Church uses old
in its liturgy.
The difficulty about using local, living languages is that
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
after a period of time. The use of liturgies in a variety of languages
also detract from that unity of the Church and its members for which
Historically, the first liturgies were in the local languages of
Church's Founder and early leaders: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. (Even
today, there are echoes of those ancient languages in the Mass - in
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
in Greek until the death of St Hippolytus in 235 AD. But in Africa,
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
in Africa was also the first to use Latin in the liturgy in the middle
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
words such as baptisma, charisma, prophetia and martyr. St
around 350 new words to the growing vocabulary of Church Latin. The
liturgical precision of Latin allowed the development of such
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
Antioch provided the nucleus for the rites used in the eastern
today. The Roman rite, with Gallican additions, is the basis for the
used today in the Catholic Church in the west.
In the fifth century, when Christianity eventually became the
religion of the Roman Empire, the use of Latin in the liturgy became
more widespread in the West. From the seventh century onwards,
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
the sixth century onwards. At the start of the ninth century,
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,
as Toledo in Spain and Milan in Italy, did the Eucharist continue to
celebrated in a form of the old Gallican rite.
Minor local differences continued to exist in the liturgy
Europe, in places such as Sarum and York in England, Paris and Lyons
France and Cologne in Germany - but the modifications didn't relate to
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
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
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
way everywhere. At the same time, the Council condemned the view that
should be celebrated only in the vernacular or local language.
In 1570, Pope St Pius V ordered that the Missal - which contains
prayers of the Mass - should be restored to its pure, ancient form and
thereafter the same liturgy should be used throughout the Western
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
to be known as the Tridentine Mass. In a Papal Bull entitled Quo
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
Pope St Pius V allowed the continued use of the rites of religious
as well as any other liturgical rite more than 200 years old. Even at
opening of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, other rites were
being celebrated in the Western Church: the Ambrosian rite of Milan,
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
new Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1970, permission was still given for the
of the old rites.
The Second Vatican Council itself proclaimed its desire to preserve
use of Latin and to foster all lawfully acknowledged rites. But the
Council was doing no more than recognising the unwavering support of
Popes for the continued use of Latin in the liturgy.
Popes and Latin
for example, Pius XI - in his document Officiorum Omnium -
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
sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of
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
and which had proved to be a bond of unity for the Christian peoples
He continued: "Of its very nature, Latin is most suitable for
every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies.
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
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
sacred laws. She further requires her sacred ministers to use it, for
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
the more easily with Rome and with one another.
"The Church - because it embraces all nations and is destined to
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
Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of
these truths would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient
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
"But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. It
long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning
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
altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be
majestic, and non-vernacular.
"In addition, the Latin language can be called truly catholic. It
general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers
antiquity and the documents of the Church's teaching. It is also a
effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and
the future in wonderful continuity.
"There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value of
language and great literature of the Romans. It is a most effective
training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and
the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and
keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things
and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching
intelligent thought and speech.
"The use of Latin has recently been queried in many quarters, and
people are asking about the mind of the Apostolic See in this matter.
have therefore decided to issue this document, so as to ensure that
ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where
"So many people, unaccountably dazzled by the marvellous progress
science, are taking it upon themselves to oust or restrict the study
Latin and other kindred subjects. Yet, the greatest impression is made
the mind by those things which correspond more closely to man's nature
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
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
Holy See's will in this regard or interprets it falsely.
"Professors of the sacred sciences in universities or seminaries
required to speak Latin and to make use of textbooks written in Latin.
ignorance of Latin makes it difficult for some to obey these
they shall gradually be replaced by professors who are suited to this
"Since Latin is the Church's living language, it must be furnished
new words that are apt and suitable for expressing modern things,
that will be uniform and universal in their application and
conformity with the genius of the ancient Latin tongue."
In 1966, a mere four years after publication of Pope John's
Pope Paul VI, who presided over much of the Second Vatican Council,
his own encyclical Sacrificium Laudis, echoing the views of
He said: "The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended
great care instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the
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
of the Eucharist, praised Latin as an expression of the unity of the
Church which, through its dignified character, elicited a profound
of the Eucharistic mystery. He said it was necessary to show
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
manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself.
In 1998, Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for
Doctrine of the Faith, addressing three thousand traditional Catholics
Rome, said some people accused traditionalists of lack of obedience to
Second Vatican Council. He pointed out that the Council did not
the former liturgical books but only ordered
their revision. He recalled the observation of Cardinal Newman that
throughout her history, had never abolished nor forbidden orthodox
The Cardinal said several forms of the Latin rite had
always existed, and were only slowly withdrawn, as a result of the
together of the different parts of Europe. He recalled that Vatican
Constitution on the Liturgy did not speak at all about celebration
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
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
mere functionary. He said there was also a dangerous tendency by some
liturgists to minimise the sacrificial character of the Mass, causing
mystery and the sacred to disappear, on the pretext that they could
make things better understood.
But the Cardinal said there was now a certain disenchantment with
banal rationalism, and he could discern a return to mystery, adoration
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
at the Bishops' synod in Rome, joked that the "sin of the synod" was
they no longer spoke Latin.
change has been blamed on the Second Vatican Council but, despite
to the contrary, the Council did not ban the use of Latin. In fact,
the opposite. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy specifically
that the use of the Latin language was to be preserved in the Latin
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,
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
of Advent of 1969. Since then, side by side with the abolition of
and the introduction of the vernacular, other abuses have become
commonplace. Communion in the hand, lay ministers of the Eucharist,
girls, the use of non-Biblical texts - all formerly banned by the
were introduced by dissident priests and Bishops. Eventually, the
despaired of trying to stem the tide and began to give approval for
had formerly been forbidden.
But not everyone was prepared to accept such liturgical abuses.
Catholics, hungry for doctrinal certainty and liturgical order amid
chaos of the new Mass, turned towards that ancient liturgy codified
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.
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
Wales, Cardinal Heenan of Westminster, obtained special permission for
priests to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass.
But more and more Catholics around the world wanted a return to the
rite. In 1984, in response to that pressure, the Vatican's
for Divine Worship granted a wider permission for the public
of the Tridentine Mass.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II, in a binding pronouncement, decreed
respect must be shown everywhere for the feelings of all those
the old Latin tradition by wide and generous permission for
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
encouragement of many Catholic Bishops. In the United States, for
the old Mass was being celebrated with episcopal permission every
in 89 dioceses. Twenty dioceses had daily Mass in the old rite. In
it's estimated that half those who attend Mass every Sunday go to a
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