There was a good article about Latin some time ago in L’Osservatore Romano by Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, an Oratorian working in Rome.
This deserves some attention. Another translation was offered elsewhere, but there are ways in which it could have been improved. Here is a version by an Italian friend whose English is very good. Since I am leaving for Rome in a couple hours, I haven’t been able to double-check it thoroughly. However, the fellow who did it is pretty reliable.
(Translation by F.)
Uwe Michael Lang traces the historical evolution
of the liturgical language in the Roman rite
tie of unity between peoples and cultures
Uwe Michael Lang
The cultural and political unity of the Mediterranean world was a providential factor in the diffusion of the Christian faith. In particular, the diffusion of the Greek language in the urban centers of the Roman Empire favored the proclamation of the Gospel. The Greek spoken in the East and West was not the classic idiom, but rather the simplified Koiné, the common language of the various nations of the eastern part of the Mediterranean word: Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt.
Greek Koiné was also the language of the urban proletariat of the West that had immigrated from the eastern territories of the Empire. Rome had become a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city. There also lived a sizable Hebrew population, that seems to have spoken mainly Greek. The language of the first Christian community in Rome was Greek. This is made evident by Paul’s Letter to the Romans and by the first Christian literary works that saw the light in Rome, for example the First Letter of Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas and the writings of Justin.
In the first two centuries several popes with Greek names followed one another and the Christian burial inscriptions were composed in Greek. During this period, Greek was also the common language of the Roman liturgy. The shift to Latin did not begin in Rome, but in North Africa, where the majority of converts to Christianity were natives of Latin mother language rather than Greek speaking immigrants. Around the middle of the third century this transition was much advanced: members of the Roman clergy wrote to Cyprian of Carthage in Latin; Latin was also the language in which Novatian compose his De Trinitate and other works, citing an existing Latin version of the Bible. No reference is made here to the so-called Traditio Apostolica, attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, because of the uncertainty about its date, its origin, and its true author.
It would seem that in the second half of the third century the flow of immigration from the East to Rome had diminished. Such demographic change brought about an increasing importance of Latin speaking natives in the life of the Church of Rome. Nevertheless, Greek continued to be used in the Roman liturgy, at least at a certain level, up to the second half of the 4th century; this is inferred from by a Greek citation of the Eucharistic Prayer by the Latin author Marius Victorinus, dating back to 360.
Around this period, however, the transition to Latin was in a very advanced phase; this is made most evident by an otherwise unknown author who wrote between 374 and 382, who maintains that the Eucharistic prayer at Rome referred to Melchizedek as summus sacerdos – a title that sounds familiar to us from the latter Canon of the Mass.
The most important resource for the history of the first Latin liturgy is Ambrose of Milan. In his De sacramentis, a series of catechesis for the newly baptized held around 390, he quotes the Eucharistic prayer used at that time in Milan extensively. The passages he quotes are the most ancient form of the prayers Quam oblationem, Qui pridie, Unde et memores, Supra quae, and Supplices te rogamus of the Roman Canon. Elsewhere in De sacramentis, Ambrose underlines his desire to follow the use of the Roman church in everything; for this reason, we can assume with certainty that this Eucharistic prayer was of Roman origin. There are traces that attest to the geographic diffusion of this original form of the Roman Canon also in the sermon of Zeno, bishop of Verona from 362 to 372.
The literal formulation of the prayers cited by Ambrose is not always identical to the Canon that Gregory the Great promulgated at the end of the 6th century and came to us with few modifications of little importance with respect to the most ancient liturgical books, especially the old Gelasian Sacramentary, dating back to the middle of the 8th century, but considered an echo of a more ancient liturgical use. At any rate, the differences between the two texts are by far less than their similarities, given that the almost three hundred years between them were a period of intense liturgical development.
The passage from Greek to Latin in the Roman liturgy took place gradually and was completed under the pontificate of Damasus I (366-384). From that point the liturgy in Rome was celebrated in Latin, with the exception of a few reminiscences of the more ancient use, as the Kyrie eleison in the Ordo and the readings in Greek in the papal Masses. According to Octavus of Milevi, who wrote around 360, there were more than forty churches in Rome prior to the edict of Constantine. If this information is correct, it would be reasonable to surmise that there were Latin-speaking communites in the 3rd century, if not earlier, that celebrated the liturgy in Latin, in particular the reading of Sacred Scripture.
The Psalms were sung in Latin since the origins and the ancient version used in the liturgy had acquired such an aura of sacredness that Jerome corrected it only with great caution. Then he translated the Psalter from Hebrew not for liturgical use, as he said, but to provide a text for scholars and debate. Christine Mohrmann suggests that the baptismal liturgy had been translated into Latin since the 2nd century. There can be no certainty on this point, but it is clear that there was a period of transition and that it was long.
Mohrmann introduces an useful distinction between 1) "prayer texts", where language was above all a means of expression, 2) texts, "destined to be read, the Epistle and the Gospel", and 3) "confessional texts", as the Creed. In the “prayer texts” we find forms of expression; in the others, primarily, forms of communication. Recent research on language and rite, such as the work of Catherine Bell, confirms Mohrmann’s intuition that the language has different functions in different parts of the liturgy, that go beyond mere communication or information. These theoretical reflections help us understand the development of the first Roman liturgy: those parts in which the elements of communication were prevalent, as the reading of Scripture, were translated first, while the Eucharistic prayer continued to be recited in Greek for a much longer period.
"Sociolinguistics" – a relatively new academic discipline – warns us of the fact that the choice of one language over another is never a neutral or transparent question. As a consequence it is important to consider the change from Greek to Latin in Roman liturgy in its historical, social and cultural contexts. The historians of antiquity have indicated that the formation of the liturgical Latin language was part of a wide-ranging effort of Christianization of Roman culture and civilization.
In the second half of the 4th century the most influential bishops in Italy, above all Damasus in Rome and Ambrose in Milan, were committed to Christianizing the dominant culture of their time. In the city of Rome there was a strong pagan presence and especially the aristocracy continued to adhere to the old customs, even though nominally they had become Christians. Rome was no longer the center of political power, but its culture continued to have roots in the mentality of its elites.
The 4th century is now considered a period of literary reinassance, with a renewed interest in the "classics" of Roman poetry and prose. The emperors of the 4th century cultivated this Latinitas, and there was a rediscovery of Latin also in the East. With typical tenacity, Rome maintained its ancient traditions.
In relation to that, the popes of the late 4th century promoted a conscious and comprehensive project of appropriation of the symbols of the Roman civilization on behalf of the Christian faith. Part of this attempt was the appropriation of public space by means of demanding building projects. After the emperors of the dynasty of Constantine had opened the way with the monumental basilicas of the Lateran and Saint Peter, as well as with the basilicas of the cemeteries outside the city walls, the popes continued this building plan that transformed Rome into a city dominated by churches.
The most prestigious project was the construction of a new basilica dedicated to Saint Paul on the Via Ostiense, by replacing the small Constantinian building with a new church similar in dimensions to Saint Peter. Another important aspect was the appropriation of the public time with a cycle of Christian feasts along the course of the year in place of the pagan celebrations (see the Philocalian calendar of the year 354). The formation of the Latin liturgy was part of this comprehensive effort to evangelize the classical culture.
Christine Mohrmann recognizes in this the fortuitous blending of a renewal of language, inspired by the novelty of revelation, and of a stylistic traditionalism strongly rooted in the Roman world. Liturgical Latin has the Roman gravitas and avoids the exuberance of the style of prayer of the Christians East, which is found also in the Gallican tradition. This was not an adoption of the "vernacular" language in liturgy, since the Latin of the Roman Canon, of the collects and of prefaces of the Mass, were removed from the idiom of the common people. It was a heavily stylized language that the average Christian of late antiquity in Rome would have understood with difficulty, especially considering that the level of education was very low compared to our times. Moreover, the development of the Christian Latinitas could have rendered liturgy more accessible to the people of Milan or Rome, but not necessarily to those whose mother tongue was Gothic, Celtic, Iberian or Punic.
It is possible to imagine a western Church with local languages in its liturgy, as in the East where, beside Greek, also Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian and Ethiopian were used. At any rate, the situation in the West was fundamentally different; the unifying force of papacy was such that Latin became the only liturgical language. This was an important factor favoring ecclesiastic, cultural and political cohesion.
Liturgical Latin was a sacred language separated from the language of the people from the beginning; yet the distance became greater with the development of the national cultures and languages in Europe, not to mention mission territories. "The first opposition to the Latin language," Christine Mohrmann wrote, "coincided with the end of Medieval Latin as a ‘second living language’, that was replaced by a truly ‘dead’ language, the Latin of the humanists. And the opposition to liturgical Latin in our days has something to do with weakening of the study of Latin – and with the tendency toward ‘secularism’ ("The Ever-Recurring Problem of Language in the Church", in Études sur le latin des chrétiens, IV, Rome, 1977).
The Second Vatican Council wished to resolve the question by extending the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, especially in the readings (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, art. 36, n. 2). At the same time, it stressed that "the use of the Latin language … is to be preserved in the Latin rite" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, art. 36, n. 1; cfr also art. 54). The Fathers of the Council did not imagine that the sacred language of the western Church would be replaced by the vernacular.
The linguistic fragmentation of Catholic worship in the post-conciliar period has been pushed so far that the majority of the faithful today can hardly recite a Pater noster together with others, as can be noted in the international gatherings in Rome or Lourdes. In an age marked by great mobility and globalization, a common liturgical language could serve as a tie of unity between peoples and cultures, beside the fact that liturgical Latin is an unique spiritual treasure that has nourished the life of the Church for many centuries. Finally, it is necessary to preserve the sacred character of the liturgical language in the vernacular translation, as stressed by the instruction of the Holy See Liturgiam authenticam of 2001 .