Fr. Lang’s article on Latin – another translation

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 .


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  1. malta says:

    “The Fathers of the Council did not imagine that the sacred language of the western Church would be replaced by the vernacular.”

    This is dead-on, and needs to be emphasized. I hear again and again the New Mass being called the Mass of “Vatican,” when in fact it is the Mass of Paul VI or, more appropriately, the Bugnini Mass. The New Mass was created in a liturgical think-tank with the aid of six protestant “observers”; the Old Mass organically evolved from the Fourth Century A.D. (with many of the prayers dating much earlier)

  2. Bill says:

    I’ve always wondered why the Fathers who called for retention of Latin, and for Gregorian chant for that matter, were so silent in the face of the radical reforms of the Bugnini mass and the subsequent changes by the national bishops conferences. Can anyone enlighten me on that subject?

  3. Andrew says:

    Overall, articles such as these make me nervous. I wonder what conclusions might be drawn from these statements in the long run. Take as an example the following:

    Liturgical Latin was a sacred language separated from the language of the people from the beginning.

    How was it “separated”? It’s statements such as these that threaten to confirm as “academic dogma” the idea that Latin is obsolete. If it is not commonly understood, if it is not spoken by the people, if its hidden treasures were available from the beginning only to a few initiated “experts” then why bother with it at all, right? If it was not the language of the people 1500 years ago then what chance do you and I have to comprehend it, right? Then all of us have to rely on expert opinions of select academics: Latin is like an ancient oil press: its has value only as a historical prototype; no one would dream of actually using it.

    What in the world is “liturgical Latin” anyway? How is it different from any other kind of Latin? Is the “Pater noster” liturgical Latin or not? Was it not written in the language “of the people”? It doesn’t strike me as some particularly sophisticated form of Latin, for sure. In comparison to Horatius it is outright pitiful, linguistically. And again, if there is such a thing as “liturgical Latin” is there also some sort of a “liturgical English” separated from English otherwise? There are different “levels” in every language, from the most common to the most poetic: so what? That doesn’t mean however that some forms are “separated” from others. And what does any of this have to do with the “common people” whoever they might be? Was Shakespeare a common man? Would he have written anything if he had not spoken English at home with other “common” people of his time? The bottom: Latin is a language, like any other language, not some artificial construct, not anything “separated”: anything in the Latin liturgy can be comprehended by anyone who knows Latin. The form changes from poetic to instructional to common, to uncommon: but such variety is found in all languages: there is nothing here that pertains specifically to Latin only.

  4. mike conlon says:

    Liturgical language is a stylized form of Latin that was painstakingly translated ,without the use of idiomatic terms.Think of Jeeves the Butler serving a mob of Brooklyn longshoremen. How was it separated? I don’t mean to be cruel, but you must be joking. Different strata in society are dilineated by their diction and speech. To put it in crude terms, litugical Latin would be hi-falutin’ to a dock worker in Ostia in the third century. What do you mean there’s no liturgical English? Art thou a dolt, then? Obviously, you have not studied classical languages, and therefore,are deserving of pity. As one progresses from the Gallic Wars to Virgil, Horace, Catullus,Tacitus to medieval Latin, there is a certain unity that obtains. However, medieval Latin is oft times written as one would speak it, with elisions, etc. and while it looks like Latin, it sure as heck ain’t Julius Caesar. The last phrase is demonstrative of the spoken form, while this phrase hopefully, is demonstrative of an educated style. If you don’t get it, go sit in a corner and pray the Rosary for enlightenment.

  5. Malta says:

    Andrew wrote: ” Is the “Pater noster” liturgical Latin or not? Was it not written in the language “of the people”? It doesn’t strike me as some particularly sophisticated form of Latin, for sure. In comparison to Horatius it is outright pitiful, linguistically.”

    I’m not a Latin scholar, but “outright pitiful” seems a bit strong. But your overall premise is interesting. Although I’m also not a Greek scholar, I’ve heard that the Gospels, excepting Luke, are not written in the best Greek, either.

    Unlike Horatius, however, the TLM has inspired countless Saints. The TLM has also inspired countless artists, and some of the most beautiful works of art the world has ever seen, because it is inspired not just from aesthetics, but also from a sense of the profound depths of meaning contained in the words.

    From the Tournai Mass in the 1200’s to Mozart, the TLM has inspired great works of art. Horatius has nothing on the TLM in this regards. For instance, just listen to an example from a Palestrina Mass and tell me that Horatius won’t someday become nothing while the TLM has and will continue to inspire the world:

  6. mike conlon says:

    It is my opinion, that since the NOM or Montini Mess(e) is a legislated liturgy, that there was a break in tradition when it was made normative. Obviously, the formulary prayers, the rubrics, the music and the theology expressed are so diametrically opposite, that the NOM is a new RITE, not merely a new order of Mass. TrueMass should be defined as the Roman Rite (it was for 1600 years ) until a bunch of Modernists got what they wanted, a council so they could reform the liturgy to conform to the zeitgeist. Therefore,I firmly believe that TrueMass is anot an extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. It is the Roman Rite! The NOM should bedefines as the Vatican Rite. Therefore, please give us our own univeral juridical jurisdiction with a prelate, please.

    The introduction of vernacular was only to be allowed in mission territories. In the late 50s, there was a recording making the rounds – the Missa Luba, TrueMass set to the rhythmns of Congolese drums. How cute, all the old biddies thought. Little wooly headed black boys in something new and exciting. Yowza! That was the extent of inculturation. Then there was the Joe SixPack mentality – “I can’t get my tongue around Latin. Anyway, who
    speaks it anymore? The bishops seeing a chance to be regular guys jumped at the chance to get rid of an old fossil. I have a cusin who is a friar and he could not understand my attachement to TrueMass. That’s old hat he said on may occasions.

    Give Montini some credit, for it was he who said, “…from somewhere, the smoke of Satan has entered the sanctuary of the Church.” But his pal, Anibale, had already done his dirty work.

  7. Malta says:

    Mike Conon: “But his [paul vi’s] pal, Anibale, had already done his dirty work.”

    Frankly, Mike, you are correct. I know the political correctness around the Vatican circumvents this frank truth at all costs, but it is a frank truth. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s not even deniable presenting the facts most favorable to Paul VI: Paul VI set up a committee to create a new liturgy, this committee was headed by Archbishop Bugnini (a suspected Mason, who was later shipped off to the middle east when this suspicion hit the ears of Paul VI), and was attended by six protestant “observers,” who, as it turns out, were not mere “observers.” This manufactured liturgy was foisted on the Catholic world by the arrogance of Paul VI, who thought he could circumvent 2,000 years of history and create a new, manufactured mass. This isn’t theory, this is plain truth.

    I think Benedict XVI has seen this, but he would never judge the person who conferred upon him his cardinalate: Paul VI. Remember, Benedict XVI was present and very active at Vatican II, and was made a Cardinal by one of the greatest proponents of Vatican II: Paul VI.

    So, getting our current Pope to admit there were problems with Vatican II is going to be an uphill battle, but Benedict XVI has done a great, historical, and courageous thing with Summorum Pontificum. We just need to remember how caustic and “poisinous” the old mass was to almost the entire Catholic world and milieu to see how couragerous this document was, and is, and moreover, and especially, those Priests who prayed this mass during those dark years during JPII’s pontificate when adhering to the old mass was seen as being “disloyal” to the “conciliar” Church! …

  8. Jeff says:

    I always like to mention to that Latin has the great dignity of being one of the Three Languages of the Cross.

    Nothing in sacred history is insignificant and the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans were each in their own special ways the midwives of Christianity.

  9. Andrew says:


    I’m not a Latin scholar, but “outright pitiful” seems a bit strong.

    You’re right. It is a bit strong since I am referring to a sacred prayer taught by Our Blessed Lord. I should have used another example. But regarding the argument that Church Latin was too fancy for the common man: some of the early Latin Fathers (both Augustine and Jerome independently of each other) testify how Church Latin was too crude for them to the point of being an obstacle they had to overcome: they struggled to become Christians on account of it: “after long prayers and fasting” writes Jerome “I would try to read the Prophets and SERMO HORREBAT INCULTUS” (i.e. I was horrified by the crudeness of the language).

    But notice the arguments woven into the text posted by Fr. Z: Latin was not the language of Roman Christians at first: Greek was. Latin was re-introduced from outside later. And it was an artificial form different from the language commonly spoken. And the difference increased until Renaissance “scholars” re-introduced pure Latin, but spoken Latin by then was so different that vernacular started to emerge. We jump to Vat. II: It finds a solution in allowing the vernacular in liturgy. Jump to the present: we now have good translation guidelines to create good vernacular liturgy: – what’s next? Where is this leading us?

  10. Malta says:

    Andrew writes: ” some of the early Latin Fathers (both Augustine and Jerome independently of each other) testify how Church Latin was too crude for them to the point of being an obstacle they had to overcome…We jump to Vat. II: It finds a solution in allowing the vernacular in liturgy. Jump to the present: we now have good translation guidelines to create good vernacular liturgy: – what’s next? Where is this leading us?”

    Andrew, once again, you bring up interesting points. I have heard how some early Church Fathers were put-off by not just Church Latin but also by the Greek in the Gospels. A little over ten years ago I started a class at the University of Michigan which was solely dedicated to discussing the “inconsistencies” in the Gospels. As a lawyer, I now realize these “inconsistencies” actually speak to the truth of what the gospels are saying. When I have a trial, I might have four completely truthful witnesses who give four similar but divergent accounts. Each is telling the truth, but each gives a different account, order, or sees things in a different light.

    So, too, with the language in the Bible. It is Truth, spoken in perhaps not the most flowery language. Christ was born in a manger, not in a castle. I don’t think Christ was so concerned with picking the best writers when He picked His disciples, but those who could convey truth the best, who had open hearts to the Gospel, and receive Truth the best, since they had free will. The Gospels are unadorned Truth.

    Andrew, I sure hope you’re wrong about the creating a “good vernacular” Mass. I think the TLM should remain, as it is, in Latin. And the NOM will, hopefully, be cast into obscurity (although those attached to it should not be cast into outer darkness as Paul VI cast some adherents to the TLM.)

    You’ve heard of the pendulum theory? The pendulum reached its apex in liberality with Paul VI and his new mass. I think the pendulum is beginning its downward swing. The pendulum became stuck in the right place with Pope St. Pius X, but it is not anywhere near that good place it was. It will take many years for it to make its way back, but, thanks be to God, with Summorum Pontificum, the downward swing has at least begun.

    I know Vatican II called for the vernacularization of the TLM. But, clearly, God had other intentions for this venerable rite. I think it could have been disassembled after VII given the nature of sacrosanctum concillium. But, thankfully, we have the TLM, pure and as it was, without this call: “40. In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties.”

    Whatever that means! (remember, VII did not call for a new liturgy, but for a revision of the TLM.) Somehow God preserved the TLM from the radical and potentially destructive “revisions” called for by VII. In an ironic way, Paul VI saved the TLM, since instead of watering-down the TLM, as called for by VII, he instead created a new liturgy, which saved the TLM in amber (with groups such as SSPX ultimately saving it) from the watering-down called for by VII.

    God works in mysterious ways. Perhaps SSPX, when they become regularized, will be a catalyst to a great renewal in the Church (but I hope Bishop Williamson quits speaking of conspiracy theories, which I think hurt the cause of SSPX.)

  11. mike c says:

    Malta: From another list, a response to Williamson: I am a dunderhead. The World Trade Center was brought down by missiles in the shape of jumbo jets fired from a flying saucer. Thru advanced technology the aliens were able to use actual planes to disguise their purpose. The passengers on those planes were taken by the aliens. Using Williamson’s logic, this is the only possible answer because remains of the passengers have never been found. After shanghai-ing the passengers to Mongo, the saucer returned to earth where it became the nouveau fatima shrine.

    If Williamson believes such stuff he is truly delusional.

    As for Andrew, he apparently refuses to recognize that there might be something as “high culture” or that educated people speak differently than do the ignorant. Therefore, he must bring everything down to his own low level, just as the NEA has done in the field of education. Language is very important in life because it is how we express ourselves in worship, culture, etc. The Modern Language Association has succeeded wildly with in their aim to bring society down to the lowest common denominator, so that “education and culture are available to all.” We are all created in God’s image and likeness. He does not give us all the same talents. I am sure the reason is that He expects more from those who were given more, on the path to Salvation.

  12. Mike c says:

    Let me apologize to Andrew. There was an anti-spam “word” the other day, “think before you post” and I should have taken that to heart. That having been said, “I am appalled at this lock step march toward the homogeniety of culture. We all ain’t the same, TG. It is this sinister program that has been spreading in the last 40 years that has me angry and fearful for the future. Glibly, I suppose we could all dump it on the “debble,” but that’s too easy. It is incumbent on the educated to fight this “dumbing-down” process.

  13. Malta says:


    Remember that Williamson is one of four Bishops in SSPX. Certainly 1/4 bishops in the conciliar Church speak about nonsense (look, for instance, at Archbishop Weakland). Bishops are fallible human beings like us all.

    It might be easy to throw the baby out with the bath water with respect to SSPX since Summorum Pontificum, but remember that SSPX preserved tradition through the “hard” years of Paul VI’s and JPII’s pontificates, when tradition was subjugated. Those poor souls worked through a true dark night of the soul of the Church, while JPII travelled all over the globe, hobnobbed with heretics, and clapped the backs of heretics at Assisi I and II.

    Williamson’s theories about 9-11 are his own, not he view of SSPX. Fellay, thankfully, is the main spokesman of SSPX. SSPX is, and will remain, the compass in the post-conciliar milieu. They have huge credibility after Summorum Pontificum, I hope they don’t blow it at this point. I think they should regularize with the Church ASAP.

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