QUAERITUR: More than one language during Mass. Fr. Z rants.

It fascinates me how often questions on a similar idea come in at the same time.

From a priest and from a student (edited):

Here in Ireland, it sometimes happens that, when Mass is being
celebrated in English, some parts are prayed in Irish, such as the Our
Father. In most places, people would not understand enough Irish to
want the full Mass in Irish, but most people know basic prayers like
the Our Father in Irish. So, is it OK to mix languages in this way or
ought a priest stick to one Missal language translation at a time?


I go to the University of ___. We had a visiting a priest who
usually serves as a missionary in Pakistan celebrate Mass. He informed
us beforehand that as a way of praying for those in Pakistan, he was
going to sing the words of consecration in Urdu (language of
Pakistan). This made me a little uncomfortable. Is it licit? Or, I
hope, valid? Am I just being paranoid or was that uncomfortable
feeling an appropriate response?

We are obviously talking here about the Novus Ordo, or Ordinary Form wherein seemingly anything goes when it comes to languages.

Commonsense isn’t always applied in liturgical decisions, of course. That said, it seems to me that, if a text in language X has been approved for liturgical use, then it can be used in liturgical worship. We see all the time the Babel Tower principle in effect in some large international gatherings wherein many languages are used in the context of one rite, usually Mass.

It seems to me that if one is in a country with a modern official language and an old regional language, there is greater justification to have a mix of languages in certain parts of the Mass. A Gaelic Our Father in the Gaeltacht in Ireland makes certain amount of sense. However, a consecration in Urdu (are there approved texts in Urdu?) for students just because, as a kind of “show and tell”, seems to me a strange liturgical decision unless many of the students in the congregation were of Pakistani descent.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you clever-boots shout as you leap around with arms waving, “You think you are so smart! Don’t you realize that you just argued against the use of Latin?!? After all, none of us are ancient Romans and no one speaks it! Therefore, it shouldn’t be used!”


First, Latin is the language of our liturgy in the Latin Church. It is part of our identity even if is has fallen into desuetude in many places. It was mandated for use by the Second Vatican Council in a way far more authoritatively than any modern language. If we have forgotten our Latin liturgical roots, that is a bad thing. It isn’t a bad thing if people who have no connection with Pakistan don’t pray in Urdu. The purposeful undermining of Latin is an abuse of the members of the Latin Church which calls for correction.

The Ordinary Form allows for some flexibility, it seems to me. I am not aware of any restrictions in liturgical on the use of more than one language in the celebration of Mass, so long as the texts are approved. That said, a lack of restrictions doesn’t mean that mixing many languages into Mass is a good idea.

Something of this problem arises, if I understand things rightly, in some places in Africa. In some African nations there are hundreds of languages, each rooted in a culture. I have been told by African prelates and priests that Latin is often appreciated by people because Latin doesn’t favor one tribe’s language over another. When Latin is used there is less of a possibility of causing offense by exclusion or by appearing to favor one group or another. Latin offers a possibility of unity.

I have been in a parish where Mass was celebrated on Sundays in English, Spanish, Korean and Latin. Which language offered the greatest possibility of unity in common worship?

Everywhere I have been where Masses are offered in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form, I have seen that the Extraordinary Form is the most ethnically diverse.

This isn’t rocket science. We need more Latin. We need Latin because it is the liturgical language of the Latin Church and is therefore an important dimension of our Catholic identity, and we need more Latin because we have an ever more diverse global village to tend. Latin unites us with fellow Catholics diachronically, across the ages, and globally, across the planet.

And, just as baseball is the game that pleases God the most, Latin is the language that pleases God the most. The back of my hand to your football and rugby, your Hebrew and your Greek. Since the liturgy of heaven is obviously in Latin, Latin unites us with the saints and angels before the throne of God.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Baseball is capable of pleasing God only because He can see it all happening at once.

  2. Incaelo says:

    In the parish where I attend Mass, there is a weekly Mass in English, for foreign students of the local university and workers at big international companies in the area (I live in the Netherlands). Recently, Father suggested that the bidding prayers be in various languages, so as to reflect the ethnic diversity of the congregation. Luckily, he is smart enough not to mess with the language of the rubrics, but the bidding prayers offer of course more flexibility, since they specifically include the intentions of the local congregation.

    But I wonder if there isn’t a fragile balance between diversity, reflected by different languages, and common worship, reflected by a single language of prayer (in this case, English), and what way that balance tips…

  3. Paul says:

    Something that I have never understood is that the same people who have a near pathological fear of making the Mass “too long” by reducing or eliminating EMHC’s, think nothing of extending the length by repeating various parts and readings in multiple languages. If a Mass is well ordered, following it in a language other than your own is trivial. Of course, if it is a free form, “creative” Mass, you may very well find yourself kneeling when the rest of the congregation stands to give jazz hands to the clown deacon.

  4. Jack Regan says:

    During the Days in the Diocese before World Youth Day we were in a small community in the Diocese of Salamanca. Our last day there was the Feast of the Assumption and one of our priests – who is bilingual – offered to celebrate Mass for the community. We started off by taking part in the Assumption procession and then had Mass together: WYD pilgrims from England together with locals. The priest – Fr. Kevin – celebrated the most beautiful Mass in a combination of English and Spanish and I have to say that it was one of the most moving parts of WYD for me. Bring the culture of Catholic youth together with the culture of that village in a way that just worked perfectly.

  5. mjsanta83 says:

    I live in south Texas and the weekday masses at my parish are in Spanish. Occasionally when the priest sees me he will say parts English. I speak some Spanish and can keep track during the prayers and parts of mass, but I dont do so well listening to the readings and gospel. Spanish wording is very different from English. The new translation is closer to the Spanish one. Latin would be nice, but there isn’t a single parish in the diocese here that has it.

  6. anilwang says:

    “The back of my hand to your football and rugby, your Hebrew and your Greek. Since the liturgy of heaven is obviously in Latin, Latin unites us with the saints and angels before the throne of God. ”

    Kýrie, eléison. Amen. Alleluia.

  7. Heh, that was a pretty funny set of comments about macaronism. (When you mix languages in a poem or anything else, it’s “macaronic”. No, seriously.)

    “The back of my hand to you” is an Irish and Scottish expression, straight from Gaelic in both cases. (And it may be a literary or movie reference I’m not getting.)

    Of course, this is even funnier because the Irish were always mixing languages for their own amusement and profit. Irish folksongs fairly often presented dual messages for those who understood both Irish and English, as you could have the first lines of a stanza saying something harmless and the alternating lines in Irish saying nasty side comments about the English people in the song. Irish hedge schoolmasters (the schoolmasters in secret, when Irish Catholics were forbidden to go to school) very often knew and taught Greek as well as Latin to their Irish-speaking elementary school pupils. Young poets in training at medieval poet schools memorized the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets as well as various forms of archaic Ogham. And there’s the scary Irish-Latin overflows of poetic rhetoric in the Hisperica Famina.

    But yeah, there are other ways to promote togetherness and linguistic exploration other than throwing it into Mass. There’s an awful lot of Catholics out there who seem to think that anything with a good motive must be promoted in Mass, as part of Mass. But that way lies madness and trivialization of the sacred. Outside Mass, in devotional practices and lectures and workshops and flyers and such, fine.

  8. jeffc says:

    I am a member at a small, semi-rural, parish near Houston. Our parish membership is majority Hispanic. During the Triduum, our Pastor made every Mass bi-lingual to try to accommodate everyone. This bothered some of our older Caucasian parishioners, so I suggested we just do everything in Latin with a short homily in English and a short homily in Spanish. Not surprisingly, that idea was met with more scorn than the idea of the bilingual Mass. Sigh.

  9. Supertradmum says:

    Hate the different language thing. And, this can sometimes turn a bit “nasty”. This past summer, there was a pilgrimage and procession on the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham. It was so painful, that I did not take part in it. The long procession consisted of people singing hymns, very loudly, in various African dialects, Indian languages, Polish, English, and others. The people were not even trying to be unified, and at one point, one group was literally over-singing the others on purpose to make a national point. It was hideous and a definite sign that we need Latin for our Liturgical language in all countries, for the sake of peace and unity, as well as aesthetics.

  10. ghp95134 says:

    Supertradmum’s comment, “… one group was literally over-singing the others on purpose to make a national point….” reminds me of this classic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yt1vQ81jNWw

    P.S. The German song is “Die Wacht am Rhein”

  11. MarylandBill says:

    About 3 years ago I was in Rome with my family for the ordination of my brother as a deacon (he was ordained as a priest in England the following year). Anyway, the following Sunday we went to Mass at St. Peter’s. As we expected, the mass was in Latin, but the readings and the petitions were in what must have been 10-15 different languages. A different language for each reading, sermon and petition. It was a little distracting with the petitions since if I remember correctly, each petition had a different person reading the petition.

  12. Ben Trovato says:

    I will try to remember to pray for you , Fr Z, between every over of God’s own game, which is (of course) cricket – that you may see the light and repent of your rash comments about baseball (which I understand to be a form of the children’s game we know as rounders?)

  13. Supertradmum says:

    Couldn’t agree more about the cricket. After all, isn’t the center of cricket at Lord’s.

  14. Father, this post made my month! And I often wondered about the Gaelic liturgical thing, it seems like it would be more appropriate than most languages in the sense that many times it’s not the vulgar.

  15. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    I have to laufgh at Anilwang’s quote when he ends his own in Greek!

  16. MarkJ says:

    Le langage de la Liturgie au Ciel est surement latin, mais les Anges chantent en francais…

  17. Michael_Thoma says:

    I don’t think having multiple languages is “inherently” wrong. But, the most important concern should be, does it dignify the Liturgy and give worship to God?

    In the Malankara Syriac Catholic Church, we use Malayalam – the local native langugage, Syriac – our Liturgical Language, and English, German, Spanish or whatever language is used in the diaspora. Whether they are used uniformly throughout one Liturgy or interspersed doesn’t really matter – as long as the goal is to give God worship and not detract by drawing attention to the “performer”.

  18. Traductora says:

    I’m very much in favor of doing large parts of the Mass (the Novus Ordo) in Latin. For one thing, this means that we can still use some older musical texts. I was in Hungary a couple of days ago and went to a very reverent Novus Ordo where a great early music group sang parts of different polyphonic Latin masses for the ordinary and the rest of it was in Hungarian, a language that I do not know at all. But as long as I had the Latin to orient me, I was okay.

    As for what someone described as the “macaronic mass,” this can actually be a good thing. I go to Spain a lot, and one of the big successes of the Basque and Catalan nationalists, aided by the left-wing clergy and bishops of these areas (now in the process of replacement, Deo gratias), was to have eliminated Spanish from the mass.

    There would have been no problems if they had had masses where the readings, for example, were in Catalan or Basque AND Spanish, and the propers alternatively in one or the other, but the whole purpose of making them all Catalan or all Basque was to make a political statement. Of course, it’s also the reason that mass attendance in Spain is the lowest of all in Catalonia and in the Basque areas, because the Church is nothing but a leftist political project there. I suspect this may be true in some parts of Ireland, too.

    This is one of the problems with the vernacular, but with good will and keeping the ordinary in Latin, I think it could be avoided. So I’m not sure the macaronic mass is a bad idea, depending on the location of the parish.

  19. Supertradmum says:

    National languages make the Mass “national” and “political” and not “universal”. As the One, True, Holy Catholic Church is also Universal, I have never understood the push for local languages. Obviously, as one of Czech descent, I am grateful for the indulgence given to SS. Cyril and Methodius to use the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Slavonic language. However, to break up the Mass into such groups does impede unity and creates, I think, division. Is not our Church one of Unity, rather than division? I am not against national pride, but the Catholic Faith, the Catholic Church transcends any nation, any ethnic group and should not be used by such for “national pride”.

  20. PatrickJude says:

    I can’t stress often enough on the importance of Latin in The Roman Catholic Church. It is the Language of the Church, furthermore, are we not known as the Latin Rite.

    Anyway, a common universal language is the key to unite us all in the Catholic Church together and, I repeat myself, that is and should be Latin. Take for example Islam, one of the reason why it is so widespread with dire consequences is the simple fact that they worship in only one single language.. Arabic… then we look at Christianity’s glorious past.. Latin was the language of unity till Luther came along ;-)

  21. smad0142 says:

    In a similiar vein, what happens when two languages are used in the same sacramental formula. I went to Confession to a Spanish Priest, not knowing it was time set aside for Spanish Confessions. I went through my sins and then Father started the Prayer of Absolution in Spanish, but said the Trinitarian part in English. If I had known this was going to happen I simply would have confessed in Spanish, but I didn’t and I didn’t. And from the look and feel of the Parish it is an orthodox place, so I think the Priest was just trying to be pastoral. But in any case was I correct in thinking it was an invalid Confession, or was it valid?

  22. BobP says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I say all my prayers now in Latin as my English prayers don’t work.

  23. Aegidius says:

    It may well be that God Almighty loves baseball, football or cricket- I don’t know. There are several mysteries about Him, that are too remote for my little apprehension. What I do know, however, is that He, playing himself, engages in a different game, interpreting the rules in a truly divine and sovereign way:

    Concerning the language spoken in heaven, I may humbly add that His vicar on earth speaks German (or, to be precise, Bavarian). That makes me hope that someone in heaven will understand me.

  24. Ralph says:

    Our little rural southern Arizona parish has sunday mass in english and spanish. All of the readings, homily and majority of the responses will be in the respective language (I say majority as our fine pastor will slip in an Agnus Dei or a Kyrai in latin now and agin.)

    However, on Holy Days, things get a bit crazy. Our pastor will alternate between english and spanish. I agree with you Father, the entire mass in Latin would be better.

  25. mike cliffson says:

    I heard, probably not true, way back when when the hard choice in many parts of Ireland was whether the vernacular was English or not, that the then more forthright Bishops had said that the vernacular in any Parish was the language in which appeals for money had been habitually made…….

    PS Fr. Even were you right, pace Ben Trovato, becoming again like little children would give us christians rounders, and anyway, no Spaniard, especially those who darken the church door at every birth, marriage , and funeral in the family, but does not know that the language of Christians in this world is Castillian.

  26. TopSully says:

    Father – you are so right about baseball, which makes this the best of times. Unfortunately it also means a huge drought after next week.

  27. benedetta says:

    I just don’t anymore buy into the myth that it is unreasonable or impossible, that someone who can read and write in one language with just a little introduction could be able to learn and even appreciate, enjoy, actively participate in the prayers of the Mass in Latin. Parents and children can learn together and enjoyably, it does not take a degree or a college course, an overwrought textbook or as Fr. Z says rocket science. I totally agree that Latin prayers already are and will be unifying. And, if the prayers of the other rites in our Church can be held up as exemplary, as reverent, and with appreciation for the continuity with the faith it affords, there is no reason why Latin prayers should not similarly be treasured and appreciated by all.

  28. Michael J. says:

    I have been to a few Novus Ordo Masses where the priest, prior to praying the Our Father, encouraged the congregation to pray the Our Father in whatever language they felt most comfortable with. So, who knows how many languages it was prayed in. It seems, the more options, the more opportunity for abuse. I am fortunate to be able to attend the Mass in the Extraordinary Form under Summorum Pontificum for my Sunday and Holyday of Obligation Masses. I try not to think back on the things that I have experienced in the past.

  29. mezzodiva54 says:

    We spent several weeks in France a few years back, and I made it a point before going of tracking down EF Masses near where we would be on the Sundays (or, more accurately, I made sure that where we were on Sundays was near where EF Masses would be available). That way, I only had the homily to worry about, and I had a breviary and a copy of St. John Vianney to get me over that smallest of bumps. The one time I got the time wrong and showed up at a vernacular Mass, I was simply lost, and a bit depressed; shortly after it ended, however, a bell rang and the priest and servers entered, and I was right as rain again — I slid into the Mass like a glove. How anyone could call the vernacular anything but divisive is beyond me. P.S. The EF Mass was the only one where there were children and young families present — the vernacular was peopled by older couples, 60 and up.

  30. simpsonhouse says:

    @Legisperitus – Excellent comment! And funny to boot.
    “Baseball is capable of pleasing God only because He can see it all happening at once.”

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