ASK FATHER: Can a priest with little Latin say Mass validly?

missale-romanum-altar-missalFrom a reader…


My Latin is not great will an ordinary form mass I celebrate in Latin be valid?

Sure, Father, it would be valid.

Language is a tricky thing.  There are almost always gaps in our comprehension of texts, even in our own, native language.  Moreover, with Holy Mass we are dealing with mysteries, which by definition are hard.

One of ways that narrow-minded bishops hostile to tradition attempted to block the implementation of Summorum Pontificum issued 10 years ago tomorrow! – was to try to impose a Latin language test on priests or they wouldn’t be permitted to use the 1962 Missale Romanum.  Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio said that priests have to be idoneus which means “suitable” for celebration of Mass.  Tradition-hostile bishops took that to mean “expert in Latin” or such-like.  Of course those bishops, who probably couldn’t have passed the test themselves, didn’t impose tests on priests who said Mass in Spanish.

As an aside, let’s start testing to see if priests really understand what they are saying in the Novus Ordo.  Let’s see if they really know the few clear rubrics there are, according to the 2000 GIRM.  Let’s quiz priests about the content of the prayers and the underlying concepts.  Let’s see if every priest from overseas really understands the English or can if he pronounce it clearly before he is allowed to say Mass in public.  Let’s ask these bishops if they insist with the rectors of seminaries that their seminarians are properly trained in Latin according to can. 249.

Additionally, as it was clarified, idoneus or “suitable” doesn’t require expertise.  Rather, it establishes a minimum rather than a maximum requirement.  The late Card. Egan, a canonist who was not particularly friendly to tradition, clarified that idoneus meant that he had faculties, wasn’t impeded for some reason, and was able to pronounce the words properly.  As far as the Latin language is concerned, idoneus doesn’t mean that you have to be able to compose odes in the style of Horace.

In short, Father, yes, you can celebrate the Novus Ordo, Ordinary Form Mass in Latin and celebrate validly, even if your Latin isn’t very good.

Your patron saint in working on the Latin will be St. John Vianney, whose Latin was so bad that he almost wasn’t ordained.

Keep working on it!  There are good resources available.  Do not give up.  This is the language of your Rite.

We are our rites.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Reminds me of the priest who had a stroke and was perfectly able to do the red but had an extremely difficult time saying the black. He just asked the congregation to pray for him and read the missalette in the pew.

  2. iPadre says:

    When I began celebrating the TLM 8 years ago, my Latin was pretty poor. I hacked my way through, but Our Lord sent me a Latinist who took the time to teach me. We had weekly classes for about 1 years and my Latin vastly improved. I also prayed the traditional Breviary for a few years and they also help tremendously. Bishop Gelineau who ordained me gave me a very high compliment following my 25th Anniversary Solemn High Mass. Brick by brick Father. Don’t get discouraged, but give it effort.

    [Well said!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. Someone please be the Garrigue says:

    My Latin never has never been what it used to be… But wouldn’t idoneus be an easier requirement to fulfill than bene calleant?

    Reason n+1 for Summorum Pontificum.

    [Apples and oranges, in a way. Canon Law requires that seminarians receive training before they are ordained and it sets a standard – a vague one, I know, but not really. The other, a mininum qualification for a priest to be able to say Mass is also vague, but not really. We have to use common sense. That’s why Card. Egan mentioned that a priest must be able to say the words properly. Understanding them is on a wider spectrum.]

  4. I would like to second Fr. Z’s observation to the young priest that comprehension is great and a laudable goal, but for public celebration is probably second to pronunciation. If you can figure out the “red,” you probably have sufficient understanding of the “black.”

    What is often forgotten is how important (and not that hard) correct pronunciation is. Decades ago, before I entered religious life when I as a grad student at Berkeley, I had a pretty darn good understand of Latin–I could sight read Virgil. BUT on one occasion a couple of use were reading some prayers in Latin. There was other grad student and she read beautifully—as if it were her native tongue. I, instead, stammered and stuttered. Yikes. Humiliating. So I set myself to reading Latin out loud for about 15 minutes every day (from the Liturgia Horarum). Within a couple of months I could read smoothly and well. [It is VERY important to practice ALOUD, even full voice.]

    The trick is 1. Use a liturgical text like the Missal or Office because it has accent marks. 2. Make sure you know all the ecclesiastical pronunciation rules and get to use them without thinking about it. 3. be super careful to put the accent on the marked syllable. 4. Read the Ordinary of Mass as part of this everyday until you can read it off, at a good speed, without even thinking about how to pronounce the individual words.

    There is little so painful, even to those who do not know the meaning of a word of Latin, as to hear the words produced hesitantly, awkwardly, or just plain wrong.

    [Good post. If a priest regularly says Mass in Latin, soon it’ll be second nature. For the Propers, review an English translation beforehand, if needed. This isn’t as hard as some people want to make it. It’s scary because it is unknown. But priests reap great fruits from knowing and using their Latin!]

  5. I recently got my own copy of Fr Foster’s Ossa Latinitas Sola (what a very big book), and I already have Wheelock’s book (6th edition) with supplimentary books, as well as Collins’ A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, an Oxford Latin-English dictionary, and Jones’ Reading Latin. To top all that off I listen to Evan Milner’s Latinum podcats and watch his videos. I also have many PDF’s of Latin textbooks largely due to Mr Milner’s efforts. Yet it is slow going. I think I will take up praying to St Jean Vianney of whom I am very fond anyway. He was also a member of the Third Order (he did try to join the Capuchins about three times but they sent him back to his parish where he belonged) so he might have a soft spot for me too.

  6. ChesterFrank says:

    Again, I should keep quiet on this one. I recall Benedict state that Priests should keep certain elements of Latin in the Mass such as a familiar prayer, or a hymn, or response. I also remember some parishes did just that for about a month, and then everything reverted as if the request was never made. I also remember when much of the English missal was rewritten a few years back and us parishioner’s had to learn the new wording. With guidance we practiced and now the words are second nature. I am certain we could do the same in Latin with many of the prayers (our Father, Gloria…) Not everyone is an expert in languages or the classics, but with a little practice we can handle some of the basics.

  7. jschicago says:

    LOL The Latin tests sound something like the literacy tests given to Blacks before Civil Rights.

    [Indeed! There are many reasons why I call Summorum Pontificum the Emancipation Proclamation.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  8. Rob83 says:

    Just before SP was issued, one of my courses when looking over medieval theological writings had touched on the question of how ignorant in Latin a priest had to be before validity was impacted (the general point was that the Latin had to be pretty butchered).

    One of the rotating priests saying the TLM locally is from Africa and has an accent, but nobody is complaining over the fact that his fiat rhymes with “tea” instead of sounding like an Italian auto. The only part where I have a little trouble is with the sermon (which is more my bad ears than the accent).

  9. Yes, Fr. Z’s addition, to read LOUD when practicing by yourself is absolutely correct. Only then do you start to get the beautiful cadences and rhythm of the language.

    The old Dominican rubrics instructed the priest, deacon, and subdeacon to review and practice their parts. This meant, of course, so that they would get the tones of the singing right. I not only do that for sung Masses, but I read the propers at last once before I celebrate to make such there are no surprises in the vocabulary or cursus.

    And, with the new awkward syntax of the English translations (and YES they are more “accurate”), I do that for vernacular Masses too . . .

  10. I am a second language teacher with a master’s in tesol and 15 years teaching experience. I usually teach English but I have taught Latin to students who request it. If the priest mentioned or any other priest or semenarian is seeking tutoring or instruction (with Latin) I would be happy to help free of charge as I feel it helps everyone in the church. As this is Fr. Z’s site I’ll leave it to him as to how contacting me should be handled but the offer is out there.

  11. Geoffrey says:

    Speaking as a layman who loves Latin, learning it was a progressive process. I started many years ago with the Lord’s Prayer. I listened to a recording and followed the printed text. Once that was committed to memory, I moved on to the Angelic Salutation. I then studied the Apostles’ Creed (text only), and then moved on to the Minor Doxology and Fatima Prayer. Then I could recite the Rosary in Latin, and have done so for many years now. In fact, when I pray the Rosary in English, I find myself stumbling over the words, even though I learned the Rosary in English as a child!

    I decided to pray in Latin whatever I knew by heart in English, so next came the Ordinary of the Liturgy of the Hours. I try to pray Lauds and Vespers in Latin from time to time, but that is more of a challenge.

    I am ready to assist at Mass in the Ordinary Form in Latin if they weren’t as rare as a snow cone in Phoenix!

    While I can’t translate Aquinas or Augustine, I think my ecclesiastical Latin is pretty functional, and my pronunciation is pretty good because of watching Benedict XVI’s Masses on EWTN over the years. Such liturgies can now be found on YouTube. Immersion is key. Listen to get the pronunciation down.

  12. jaykay says:

    In Ireland, as Bro. Tom Forde will attest, we’re taught the Irish language from a very young age (it’s difficult, with cases, declensions etc. just like Latin) right up until school-leaving – yet relatively few can speak it well, or at all. Mine is just about ok, but not particularly great. And still, usually on St. Patrick’s day, we’ll get parts, or all, of the Mass in pretty awful Irish by an English-speaking priest and congregation because “it’s part of our heritage”. Well yes, it is part of our heritage, but please don’t mangle it! And in any event, my part of the country hasn’t been Irish-speaking for hundreds of years. Needless to remark, there’s no guff about having any sort of a test.

    And yet, if one were to suggest that we’d have an occasional Mass in Latin because it is, after all, “part of our heritage”, and it is, after all, the official language of the Church, and it is, after all, what St. John XIII and the Council Fathers really wished… well, you can picture the scenario.

    The fainting-couch would really be needed if one were to suggest that it be (whisper it) an EF Mass!

  13. mo7 says:

    Seems to me that any priest who can say ‘Hoc est enim Corpus meum’, is forgiven of any other Latin garbling.

    [We are not minimalists who reduce sacred worship to the minimum for validity.]

  14. jaykay says:

    mo7: how silly. The Mass shouldn’t be “garbled” in any language, whatever “garbling” means. Does that extend to the hesitant, mis-pronounced English of, say, an African priest who perhaps speaks a couple of local languages but who doesn’t have English as a first language? Lord knows, many of us hear that these days. But if he does his best nobody worries. Same with Latin. It’s the intention that matters. And we’ve all nowadays heard priests who, even with the NO, “rush” it as much as the old Low Mass was, in some cases, “rushed” back in the day. But you can bet that back then they did understand it, because of their seminary training (and school before that) and daily reading of the Office.

  15. Sword40 says:

    Many years ago, (1955-57) I took Latin in High school. We were reading “Caesar’s Gallic Wars” written in Latin on one side of the page and English on the other. The teacher would call on one of us to read in Latin from the English side and then another student to read in English from the Latin side. she watched like a hawk to make sure we were not jumping across the page to cheat. It was in Classical Latin.

    Then when I turned 30, I became a Catholic. Boy, was I shocked to find the difference in pronunciation. But that was a long time ago. Those recitation exercises helps me today while at Mass.

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