Palm Beach Post: “Latin creates and preserves mystery. English dilutes it.”

The Palm Beach Post has a very sensible editorial today on the issue of Latin as the language for Holy Mass.  Here it is (my emphasis and comments):

Latin Mass would restore mystery

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Mass in the vernacular was a noble experiment that didn’t quite work. The Latin Mass might soon be back, and that could be a good thing for the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI plans to make it much easier for churches to use the 16th-century Latin Mass. That could help deepen faith and unite an American church whose members speak a veritable babel of languages. 

The Catholic faith is, at its heart, a mystery. The Christian religion is best known in community. The Latin Mass enhanced mystery and created community for more than a thousand years and might again. The Mass in English has done neither.

The Roman Catholic Church only began to use English in worship in the mid-1960s following the Second Vatican Council.

English might have helped the English-speaking faithful understand what worship was about, but explaining a mystery in any language is an oxymoron. The use of English in the church’s central act of worship turned a profoundly moving and, yes, mysterious experience into a dull, pedestrian meeting with little power to stir the spirit or motivate the faithful.

St. Paul argued that the people should be taught in a language they understood. Sermons, instructions and teaching should be in such a language, but worship is another matter.

The faithful offer worship to God who is not bound by any language. The soaring majesty of the Latin Mass served the church well long after few if any of the faithful understood the words. They knew the liturgy, the rhythm and the power of the service.  [People who are blind or deaf or cannot speak or carry stuff around can participate far more actively, in the best sense, then those who can hear everything or say everything.]

Latin words accompanied the action of worship but were essentially unnecessary. Everyone knew what was happening. With English, however, the words demand attention. [Yes!  Years ago I did an interview with Augustine Card. Mayer, who made this same point, adding that the use of the vernacular tends to turn Mass into a "didactic moment" rather than an encounter with the God who is veiled in mystery.  Vernacular underscores the human rather than the divine.] The faithful attend the language rather than the mystery of redemption unfolding before them. Latin creates and preserves mystery. English dilutes it.

Latin also creates and preserves community. Any unfamiliar language will tend to bind together those who use is as a kind of tribal glue.

One of the most important tools Charlemagne used to unite his dispirited empire in the early ninth century was the Latin Mass. Alcuin, the emperor’s liturgical genius, enforced the same worship everywhere in Charlemagne’s vast realm, imposing a religious conformity that served to hold the empire together.

Catholics in America today speak countless different languages, including English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Polish, Portuguese and many more. The Mass in Latin might once again serve to create community even as it hallows mystery.

A good friend, FA, alerted me to this article, and I tip my biretta to him  o{]:¬) He added some great comments of his own:

Why the heck do they get these things … at the Palm Beach Post and NOT at the Corriere della Sera (or the Osservatore for that matter)??

Good question!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Philip Sandstrom says:

    This article for all its ‘common sense’ and your praise confuses “mystery” and
    “mystification”. There is here, with all due deference, a greater repect for the
    ‘forms’ than for the ‘content’ — a very Anglo-Catholic concern.
    But the great problem for the Roman Catholic Church, because of the weakness (and/or
    strength)of the “catechetical complex’s malign influence” since the Second
    Vatican Council is the absence of a practical and classical mystagogy. So we
    have many practical Arians and Docetists among the laity and the clergy too!
    Latinisation will not solve that great and serious problem — decent ‘authentic’
    translations might — or at very least begin the process.
    Alcuin and Charlemagne’s efforts to produce a ‘standardized and easily readable’
    version of the Roman Liturgy in Latin, while a monumental effort with considerable
    success, is nothing be comparison to what the Western Church faces (also in the
    Eastern Catholic and Ordodox Churches) in our days. Alcuin had to invent a
    form of handwriting (the Carolingian minuscle) to do his work, we have to invent
    a language that helps to enter into the mystery of God’s Presence which will work
    and bear for the whole Church the weight of Revelation. We have to figure out how
    to ‘stand under’ (not explain) the Holy Trinity’s Presence among us with beauty and
    truth and goodness.

    Othodox and Catholic Churches) in our days
    text were a monumental reform ‘resourcement’ and reform movement

  2. Philip Sandstrom says:

    I ask your pardon and understanding for the faults of orthography in the submission
    above. There seems to be no way to easily proof read and correct the text before
    submission. And also I did not realize the phrases at the very bottom of the
    text were still there before my submission. The ‘resourcement’ and reform
    movement refered to was that of Charlemagne and Alcuin — one which was of
    course on a smaller scale, but also at least as profound as the Church is
    undergoing at the present time. (We have the advantage and the burden of a
    better historical knowledge at least than Charlemagne and Alcuin and their
    associates — but that knowledge should be used, of course under the authority
    of the Bishops).

  3. Philip Sandstrom: Your comments are most welcome. They should provoke some thought. Perhaps it can be said that the use of Latin is one of the principal tools, if not the touchstone, for a reclamation of what we are lacking today. The is no need to see this as an either/or situation viz solutions. It is, as I see it, more a both/and.

  4. Huw Raphael says:

    Even as Eastern Orthodox, I love the ancient Roman rite: Holy Mass, Daily Offices and private devotions, and Latin as well! Is the problem the language, or the Rite? Would the ancient Rites in the vernacular have been a better choice? Coming to Orthodoxy from an Episcopalian background, we used Latin from time to time: the Gloria, the Sanctus, etc. Sometimes in polyphony, sometimes in Gregorian chant. But we used English mostly – facing east and using “tridentine” ceremonial. It seemed to make no never mind, what language we used.

    “The Catholic faith is, at its heart, a mystery. The Christian religion is best known in community. The Latin Mass enhanced mystery and created community for more than a thousand years and might again. The Mass in English has done neither.”

    I well agree with the first two sentences. In fact, one never expects to see such a clear statement of Catholic truth in the press. I can generally agree with the last line… but the one in the middle… the Community comes from the Holy Spirit, no? And the mystery, too. It’s the faith of the people – content, not process – that is of first importance, no?

    True, I write from the perspective of an Eastern Rite Orthodox. I’m not sure our liturgy in English has hurt at all and a good few converts imply that it has helped a lot. I’m certain that our American Orthodox are no more nor less prone to cultural modernisation than Roman Catholics.

    I’m only clear that *simply* using another language isn’t the full solution.

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  6. Paul Haley says:

    There is hope as long as articles like this are published in the secular world. It seems the sense of the sacred is not lost after all among those familiar with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. God-willing the movement to restore the Mass to its rightful place of prominence will continue and flourish.

  7. Jacob says:

    \”[People who are blind or deaf or cannot speak or carry stuff around can participate far more actively, in the best sense, than those who can hear everything or say everything.]\”

    Amen to that. As someone who is in fact deaf, that rings quite true.

  8. fr.franklyn mcafee says:

    The Ortodox and the Eastern rite Churches in communion with Rome still have and use to varying degrees their own sacred or liturgical languages,but the main obstacle to a demystification of their liturgy ,I believe,is the iconostasis.I understand that there is some pressure to lessen or abolish altogether the iconostasis in some rites.That would be catatstrophic for them.

  9. Andrew says:

    I agree, generally, with the comments in this article, but I have a problem with the following: “The soaring majesty of the Latin Mass served the church well long after few if any of the faithful understood the words.”

    Wrong! Latin is there to be known, not to be shrouded in ignorance. In order to harvest the greatest benefit that Latin has to offer, the Church’s language should be known, by the clergy, first of all, and by the faithful as well. It should be part of our education to be familiar with Latin. It should not even be a big deal that we know Latin. It should be the minimum required. As John Paul II stated on one occasion, repeating the words of Cicero: “Non tam praeclarum est scire latine quam turpe nescire!” (It’s not so fabulous to know Latin as it is pitiful not to know it).

  10. Séamas says:


    Although I agree with you that we should know Latin, I also agree with the author that the mass in Latin served the faithful well long after the faithful no longer understood Latin.

    The power of the Latin Liturgy is such that it remains powerful even in less than ideal situations. In some ways, unfamiliarity with Latin, while not ideal, nevertheless enhances the sense of “mystery.” While I hope that the faithful will become familiar with Latin, I hope that it never becomes as mundane as our native languages. I hope it always retains a sense of “otherness,” which is all the more effective in connecting us with the “other.”

  11. Nana says:

    My parish does not offer the Latin Mass, so I few months ago, I traveled the distance to another parish that does. The Latin Mass moved me in ways that the New Mass has never been able to. There was not only a profound sense of worship, unlike anything I have felt in the New Mass, but also a sense of community as well. Language was not an issue as Catholics worshiped together in Latin.

    My parish is very large and has become a mess, with everyone demanding a mass in whatever language they speak. We have an English mass, an Italian mass, a Polish mass and now a request has been made for a Spanish mass. I am Italian and speak the language, but the Mass in vernacular has divided the parish, not only on Sundays, but in parish community work as well.

    Although I am still attending mass in my parish, I find myself traveling the distance again and again to the Latin Mass.

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