ASK FATHER: Do priests who celebrate only in the vernacular really know what they are saying?

From a reader….


I recently discovered the SCDF declaration Instauratio liturgica (Jan. 25, 1974), which says that the meaning of a translated sacramental formula is that of the original Latin, understood according to the mind of the Church.

Especially in the case of not-so-literal translations, this means that, ironically, priests who celebrate sacraments in the vernacular might not actually know what they’re saying. Of course, they understand the vernacular words, but unless they understand them in the same sense as the Latin, which they may have never seen, they don’t fully understand what they’re saying.

To take a concrete example that comes to mind, Bishops’ Conferences have fought to keep from translating “pro multis” literally—successfully in the case of the new Italian Missal. But the Italian priest who says, “per tutti,” is actually saying, “pro multis,” and probably doesn’t know it. I find this terribly ironic given the criticism of priests who say Mass in Latin without understanding well what they’re saying.

The irony flows like a waterfall in spring.

While there is not a manifest question here, there are several implicit questions.

Firstly, can Latin Rite priests really know what the prayer really says if they don’t know Latin?  “What does the prayer really say?”, is an important aspect of prayer, you would think.  It is important for sacred liturgical worship.

Over the many years that I wrote my weekly columns on liturgical translation of the collects, etc., in both the Novus Ordo and the Vetus Ordo, I discovered layers of meaning in the vocabulary and structure that simply can’t be brought into a smooth English version.

If sacramental forms are to be understood according to how the Church understands the LATIN, then that is also the case for the other prayers, such as collects, the Prefaces, the Canon, etc. etc.

I ask often, what does it mean for a community when their priest doesn’t know the language of his own Rite?

Imagine for a moment that a university’s French Department would hire a professor who couldn’t read French.  Imagine for a moment that a medical school would pass through someone who couldn’t pass gross anatomy.    Although I did hear something as deeply stupid as it was troubling the other day.  The Classics Department of a major university has dropped the requirement to learn Greek and Latin.   That means that the dupes who go through the program, at great expense, will get a half-assed degree and, worse, be at the mercy of other people’s translations.

Which sounds exactly like the present state of affairs in Catholic seminaries.

A priest of the Latin Church who doesn’t know enough Latin to celebrate his own Rite is… what?

Another implicit question is, why is this the case? Why is there no Latin when can. 249 explicitly says that seminarians are to be “very well formed” in Latin?

I’m not making that up.

Can. 249 — Institutionis sacerdotalis Ratione provideatur ut alumni non tantum accurate linguam patriam edoceantur, sed etiam linguam latinam bene calleant necnon congruam habeant cognitionem alienarum linguarum, quarum scientia ad eorum formationem aut ad ministerium pastorale exercendum necessaria vel utilis videatur.

How is this translated on the Vatican website?

Can. 249 The program of priestly formation is to provide that students not only are carefully taught their native language but also understand Latin well [FAIL!] and have a suitable understanding of those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their formation or for the exercise of pastoral ministry.

Calleo is “to be practiced, to be wise by experience, to be skillful, versed in” or “to know by experience or practice, to know, have the knowledge of, understand”.  Sure, “understand” can translate calleant, but in this context that is the weakest of our choices.  We get the word “callused” from calleo.  We develop calluses when we do something repeatedly.

So, calleo is already “well versed/skilled”. Then bene calleant is “let them be very well versed/skilled”.

Review also Sacrosanctum Concilium 36 and Optatam totius 13, just to point to documents of Vatican II. … unless you “HATE VATICAN II!”, as the libs throw about.

Oh… and by the way… when rectors or others stand up during ordinations to attest before God that the men to be ordained for the Latin Church have been properly trained…. is that true if they have no Latin?

So what are they stating before God and the Church?  Are they telling the truth?  Not objectively, they aren’t.

Latin is necessary.  Its benefits are so numerous that they shouldn’t have to be enumerated.

And yet we are faced today with a clergy of the LATIN Church who are nearly totally ignorant of Latin!

Pope John XXIII in 1962 famously issued an Apostolic Constitution – not some mere encyclical – an Apostolic Constitution called Veterum sapientia in which he mandated the preservation of and teaching and use of Latin.   I am not sure there was another document as blatantly ignored as Veterum sapientia, unless perhaps Ex corde Ecclesiae.

This disastrous situation didn’t happen by mistake.  It was engineered.

The Modernists who had taken the reins with the Council and beyond knew full well that to change the Church’s trajectory into becoming a sort of NGO for globalist unity, they had to unhitch the Church from her moorings. They had to destroy the culture, the ethos of the priesthood.  They had to slam shut the treasury of sacred music, the beauty of which connects people to the Truth.  They had to dumb-down everything so that people would be more susceptible to the “wisdom of this world” that Paul warns against.

The key was the suppression of Latin.

Latin militates against the Modernist project precisely for the reasons John XXIII laid down, as Pius XI had before him.

Thus the “knowledge and use of this language,” so intimately bound up with the Church’s life, “is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons.” These are the words of Our Predecessor Pius XI, who conducted a scientific inquiry into this whole subject, and indicated three qualities of the Latin language which harmonize to a remarkable degree with the Church’s nature. “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time … of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”

Note that reference to the Church’s nature.

They had to get rid of Latin.

We have to reclaim our Catholic identity.  This is why Latin liturgical worship is important in the face of the cataclysmic demographic sinkhole that is opening up under the Church.

And for those who mewl about Latin being “toooo haaard” or that there are “more impoooortant things to doooo”….



Multitask.  Do the important things remembering that Latin is one of them.

If you can’t learn Latin, then… what are you doing?  Who are you?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Great article, Fr Z. Thank you.

    To widen the idea of the benefit of knowing the Catholic liturgy etc in its original language, I’d like to extend this to the Holy Scriptures. I hope one day to be able to find the time to learn to read the New Testament in the original Greek. I fear that many translators have some sort of agenda they are trying to push and either consciously or unconsciously distort their translations to suit that agenda. I think this is what the ICEL translators who paraphrase-translated the 1970 Missale Romanum were doing when they presented their 1973 Latin to English “translation” to the Anglophone Catholic world.

  2. Lurker 59 says:


    To be fair, in order to translate, one has to have “an agenda”. Languages are not 1:1 so that any translation work requires some sort of hermeneutical lens by which one chooses which, as an example, English words are to convey the meaning of Latin phrases and idioms. The translator needs to be well versed in the historical culture of both languages as well as having a suitable hermeneutic.

    Which brings to my mind another university, Catholic, that recently dropped from all undergraduate majors History as a core requirement.

    Which is my springboard to talk about “living memory”. One of the things that is going on is the systematic detachment of the current generation from history — both cultural history as well as narrative mono-myth of humanity (not just the Judeo-Christian). If you can dissociate individuals and whole peoples from history — which is their anchor to understanding who they are and where they have come from — they lose their identity and you can then remold them. Basic Marxism, basic occult underneath it all. It doesn’t take long to do this — you can have major impact within — I think it is 35 years — and if you can detach successfully beyond living memory, there isn’t anything left to “restore” or “conserve” as the foundations are gone at that point.

    The jettisoning of Latin is really rather insidious because it is not just the ecclesial language of the Church, but it was also the language of higher education. Not just Catholic, but Protestant as well (which most people don’t know). Not knowing Latin means that society, especially the educated, have lost access to a massive store of knowledge that isn’t translated and remains locked away. This is how you burn libraries without actually burning them. It is how you cut people off from their history and their culture.


    Because the devil doesn’t want us to know where we came from so he can lie to us about where we are going.

  3. Longinus says:

    The same holds true for the NO Liturgy of the Hours. I pray the Hours with the Latin on one side of the page and the English on the other. It is amazing how different the two editions are. I was in a college seminary when St John XXIII issued Veterum Sapientia and because of it many of our classes were taught in Latin. Although we already had four years of Latin these additional years of daily emersion in the language gave each of us an amazing “fluency”. So, as I read the Office in English I am able to double check the Latin and am constantly amazed at what the English version doesn’t say.

  4. benedetta says:

    Many interesting points here.

    Calls to my mind my own experience that when I started reading my missal upon first attending the Latin Mass, and having had a little Latin in a college classics program, suddenly the prayers of the all my life attended NO Mass made incredible, new sense, and also seemed a bit truncated. The Latin provides a breadth of context.

  5. aviva meriam says:

    Due to my background as a convert, I am a huge fan of staying within the original language. AS Orthodox Jews have a better grasp of Jewish Law and Theology than Reform or Conservative Jews (who abandoned Hebrew then returned to it in a partial manner) so to with Latin.

    Made an internal decision to start learning basic prayers in Latin. Yes I had three years of remedial Latin in High school (a long time ago) and yes it’s not easy to focus on it line by line. However, it’s a mental discipline and it requires that I focus on the prayer…. not let my attention drift or say it with rapidity. doing the prayers in another language while learning it is a mental discipline that I hope will make me more intentional and respectful.

  6. ex seaxe says:

    @Lurker 59 – Indeed.
    My wife taught Latin at a seminary in England for a time around the turn of the millennium, but it was only to those who wanted a pontifical degree (if that is the right term) and even that was, in her opinion, pretty elementary stuff. The dioceses using the seminary seemed unable to find a suitably qualified priest. The degrees were examined and awarded in Belgium.
    I always feel uneasy when I find official documents on the Vatican website in several languages but NOT in Latin. Despite the fact I barely scraped a pass 70 years ago in basic school Latin, and it has been rusting since.

  7. Kerry says:

    Aviva meriam, yes, prayers in Latin. At a traditional Mass, at the second confiteor, as the Priest gave the absolution to kneeling servers, and all of us, I didn’t see the prayer in my Missal. However, upon hearing, “Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus, et…ad vitam aetenam”. To hear and then realize I knew what was being said…quite electric. And the Last Gospel…oh my.
    Christine Mohrmann’s Liturgical Latin, (again):

  8. Gaetano says:

    I’ve been studying Latin through the Duolingo app on my phone. Just 20-30 minutes a day makes a difference.

  9. Bernard Brandt says:

    Yes, I’ve read Veterum Sapientia, Optatam Totius, Pastores Dabo Vobis, and even the current Canon Law on requirements for the RC priesthood. Yes, I know that all of them require candidates for the priesthood be well-formed in Latin, and highly recommend a knowledge of the Biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

    And I also observe that it appears most unlikely that most dioceses and seminaries will ever fulfill, or even approach, those requirements. All of them, Rome included, seem either to have lost the Faith, or are well on their way to losing it.

    I quite agree with you, Fr. Z, that a clergy which does not know Latin cannot truly understand the essence of the prayers that they are supposed to be saying. I will go you one further, and say that without a knowledge of the languages of Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Magisterium, the clergy can have no clear knowledge of those three fonts of the Holy Spirit. In short, without those languages, they cannot truly know the Faith.

    Thus, I will have to follow your advice in the sidebar next to this comment box: ‘Don’t rely on popes, bishops, and priests’. Thus, I am currently working my way through Years One through Four of the Latin texts by the late Fr. Henle, presently available through Loyola Press. After that, I will do the same with appropriate treatises to get a knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. And after that, I will read through the Massoretic text, the LXX, Jerome’s Vulgate, Migne’s PL and PG, and Denzinger’s Enchiridion.

    But I will have no hope that more than a very few of my alleged Church’s clergy will have done the same, or that they will do so in my lifetime.

  10. Grant M says:

    So let us say that one Sunday I attend the NO in English and hear the celebrant say “for many”.

    The next Sunday I attend the NO in Italian or Indonesian and hear the celebrant say “for all.”

    To resolve this apparent contradiction at the very heart of the Mass, I need to have recourse to the Latin text. No other option.

  11. Philliesgirl says:

    Thank you Gaetano. I’ve been trying to find a way of learning Latin (following dismal failure at school) in my own time at home, for some time without any success. I have now downloaded duolingo and will definitely work at it!

  12. Cheesesteak Expert says:

    Fr. Z, I understand why the enemies of the Church would want to do and have happen all that the did and has happened. My question to you is, why did the vast, vast majority of bishops, clerics and lay go along with it, or let it happen (assuming they were not outright Modernists as you have defined the enemies of the Church)? I’ve asked my father and others of his generation this question, and his answer was that he was taught that all things liturgical and Church-related were for the “professional” class to deal with(bishops, priests and theologians), as they had been trained to do so, much like he had been trained as a professional and would not consider as valuable the opinions of anyone but his peers with like training. Now mind you, my father was that generation who went through k-12 Catholic school and then 4 years in a well-respected Jesuit college where everyone had 4 years of theology, mostly scholastic training. And yet, for all that, he was more than comfortable outsourcing to the “specialists” and taking all their recommendations without question, as he had also been taught that his role was to “pray, pay and obey.” If this was a typical attitude and formation, I can see how easy it would be for the “specialists and professional class” to role anything out, and the laity would accept it no problem whatsoever. So what got the Church to the point that everyone accepted so willingly all these changes?

    [“pray, pay and obey”… therein lies a great deal of the explanation.]

  13. This is especially for readers who want to learn Latin.

    Fr. Z. has kindly made publicity for this before, but I want to mention that I have published at Dominican Liturgy answer keys for both volumes of Scanlon and Scanlon’s excellent Latin textbooks:

    The textbooks are intended for those who need to learn Latin for the liturgy and theological manuals.

  14. Lurker 59 says:

    @Cheesesteak Expert
    Briefly to your question:
    Coming out of the enlightenment, and especially during the industrial revolution, there began to develop an intellectual/expert cast that increasingly were turned to for “the answers” and became the power behind the institutional powers.  (As an aside, this is part of the reason why there was such animosity against the Jesuits leading to their suppression.)  WWI can be seen as the failure of the geo-political authority of the old world (the last real remaining power center).  It is the intellectuals (the experts) that fill the power vacuum.  (Sort of like if Wormtongue in LOTRs got the throne of Rohan.)  What they promise is progress, liberty, and volk power.  It is anything but that, whether you are looking at the intellectuals in German, Russia, China, Europe, USA (and even the Church).  Why do people go along with it?  Psychologically, people give huge deference to those that they perceive to have authority.  2.) They were gaining control of levers of power (universities, politics, culture, religion) 3.) They had answers that provided functioning solutions to problems of the human condition.  4.)  They had plans to remove the most destabilizing contributor to society and progress — plebeians.  Now see, that is the real trick — how do you get the plebian cast to go along with your agenda to take away their power, for their own good?
    How do you “build back better” where you “will own nothing and be happy”, etc.?
    As an aside, we can view the “Canceled Priests” in the above post through this lens — a common denominator is that they are not on the side of the experts, but on the side of the people — the plebians.  

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