ASK FATHER: Priests praying in Latin when someone is dying and people are upset. Is this really the right thing to do?

From a priest…


I thought this might be a question you would be interested in answering. The Prayers for the Dying in the modern ritual are brief, and rather weak. The alternative of course is the prayers from the 1962 Rituale. I know you are stickler on using the Latin for all blessings in the Rituale. I have followed your advice. However, I do not see how what you say relates to prayers for those who are dying, since these are intercessory prayers as I understand them. And, I find reciting all the beautiful Latin prayers to be pastorally impossible in some situations. When people are weeping over their departed mother, it is hard to insist that they listen to a language for five minutes that they unfortunately cannot even identify.

These prayers were not authorized in English in 1962. However, there are three (slightly different!) English translations provided by Weller, by the 1964 Priest Ritual, and by the English provided in the footnotes of the recently printed Parish Ritual. I have also been tempted to use the Ordinariate version (Divine Worship: Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying); the instruction for that book say that they are only for Ordinariate members, but they also say that even lay people can say the prayers for the dying.

Do you have any advice?

Father, if we can with your question and this post change the trajectory of a single soul and bring about a serious conversion through consideration of this solemn topic, then we have done our job today.

There are layers to this.

Firstly, as in can. 1752 of the Code of Canon Law, “The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.”  The greatest thing that a priest can accomplish by his ministry to souls is to help them make a good death and go to Heaven, hopefully and by the grace of God, straight away.  Aiding the soul of the dying with the last sacraments and the Apostolic Pardon is a moving experience.

Let’s make a few distinctions.

To begin, you wrote: ” I know you are stickler on using the Latin for all blessings in the Rituale.”   Nooooo.   It’s in the Rituale.  Explicitly.  I’m not the stickler.  Blame the one who promulgated the Rituale.  

Next, does this apply to the “Commendation of the Dying/Soul”?  That’s what I think you are talking about.    I see that in the Collectio and the recently reproduced 1962 Benzinger Parish Manual the Commendation and subsequent prayers are in Latin.  The introduction of the later confirms that the format of the printing indicates when English can be used.  In the PM it is confirmed that Latin is to be used, not English, for the Commendation.

My heart urges me to write: “This is a special moment, so just go ahead and use the English.  After all… can. 1752!”

My head tells me, and my experience as a priest tells me, that this maybe isn’t a very good idea.


Neither my heart nor my head can come up with something that the Church (in sane times, at least) doesn’t know and hasn’t worked out.  The Church understands full well that the moment of death of a person is “special”, which is such a weak word that it almost demeans the gravity of the moment.

Where am I going with this?

We have to beware of sentimentality.   That doesn’t mean that ice must run in the veins of all priests, just because that’s what runs in mine.   What we are dealing with here is the commendation of a soul to God at the time when that soul is separating from the body and going to Particular Judgment.   I’m reminded of the fearsome description that St John Henry Newman was able to attain in his Dream of Geronitius.  And let’s not kid ourselves about the role of the Holy Angels in their protection of the souls of the dying as the Enemy strives for a last destructive temptation to despair or uncharity or impenitence.   The medieval manuscript depictions of demons trying to drag souls away from God as they separate from the body are genuine if naïve expressions of a real struggle that we cannot perceive with our senses.

I write this out of the conviction that our ministry to the dying must focus on the dying, not the feelings of the living.  That might sound a little callous, though it isn’t meant to be.  That doesn’t mean treating others present with disregard but, really: this moment isn’t much about them.  It’s about the person who is about to go before God for judgment.

Our part in this awesome “vita mutatur” event – if we have the honor to be there – is crucial.  We have to play the role that only we can play with the grace of Orders and the priestly character, the authority of Christ as alter Christus, who told the thief that he would be with Him in paradise.

Beware sentimentality that can creep in with thoughts like, “reciting all the beautiful Latin prayers to be pastorally impossible…”.   Sure they are beautiful.   But they are beautiful because they say something.  An advantage to having Latin in your bones for years is that a flip takes place: comfort with the prayers makes the content of the prayers to have logical priority without losing the aesthetic of the prayer.  It is a matter of decus, what is decorous.  Just as a beginner or learner or even veteran participant at the TLM can be still be giving logical priority to how cool it is to move the book from one side to the other, but knowing there is a reason for it, at a certain point there is a shift in the logical priority.  It is hard to describe, briefly.  But being focused on the shift of the book, the signs of the cross and additional genuflections, the sound of the Latin and its poetry is like being stuck in the abc’s without reading, being mesmerized by the apparent rise of a fast ball without learning to hit it, fiddling with the strings of a piano without learning to play.

And… pastoral?  Okay.  Whatever that is.  It seems to me that there is a dying person in front of me and I want that soul for God.  I’m not just some guy off the street with a pleasant manner and kind regard for the whole room.  THAT person, there, is about to be judged by God.  Let me do what I alone in this place can do even while my heart is breaking for the pain of the people around me.

Again, it is not that we don’t care about those others.  Concern for the dying doesn’t mean ignore everyone else.  But… priorities.   And I don’t think “pastoral” means what a lot of people have come to think it means.  For example, true “charity” isn’t coterminous with “being nice”.  True charity looks to the true good of another.  That discernment of the true good is an antidote to sentimentality.  Rather, it tears through sentiment to a deeper respect for others.

Back to the Latin.

I think that at the root of the Church’s insistence on Latin in this moment – and why Latin has been attacked constantly by modernists – is because there is a spiritual realm that we cannot see.   Modernists don’t want that world.  They want to drag everything supernatural down to the natural.   Hence, they fear Latin because it reminds them that they, too, one day are going to die and encounter that supernatural realm.  They know that Latin reminds people of the transcendent, while they want people mired in the immanent.

The soul, separating from the body, is entering into a state rather like that of an angel, without the physical senses and without the appetites that drive and permit humans to change their minds.  Just as angels cannot change their minds about anything, so too the newly separated soul is at last in a state where it cannot repent of sins, etc.  They are “baked”, just as a clay form goes from malleable to unchangeable through the effect of the kiln.

In the prayers of Commendation during the “final suffering”, we speak to the soul of the dying person not to the person.  A distinction without a difference?  Remember: this soul is separating from the body now but isn’t separated yet.  There is a spiritual battle engaged.  And so the priest says,

Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo,…   Go forth, O Christian soul, from this world…

This is a command form of the deponent proficiscor.

And here is the foundation of my thinking.

Not a few times it has happened when I have been with a dying person that, at the very words “Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo…” he or she died.  It was as if, at the command of the alter Christus, all was complete and that last bond was loosed.  The soul, mysteriously, received the command and slipped the bonds of Adam’s dust.

Of course, some take longer to die.   The prayer goes on to bring the entire court of Heaven to that that soul by naming them… “in the name of… in the name of…. in the name of….” the Persons of the Trinity, Mary, Joseph, all the different types of saints and angels.   “GO FORTH… in the name of… ” all these.

Then the prayer switches gears and no long addresses the soul.   The priest addresses God directly on behalf of the dying person, again bringing all of heaven to bear.

After this, it is “Libera ANIMAM…” in a litany.   Etc.

What the understanding of the moribund and the onlookers may not grasp, the detaching soul seems to grasp.

It could be that an interjected comment about the flow of the prayer could help…. BUT… this is not a DIDACTIC moment, it is a SACRAL moment, as holy a moment and decisive as there can be in one’s life.

Save the liturgy, save the world is, by the way, an extension of this topic.

Mind you… I am trying to untangle the inner logic, the foundation of why the Church would so insist on Latin in such a moment.  Of COURSE the Church knew that people didn’t know Latin.  But they knew that something really important was being done and said in Latin.  The soul perhaps preternaturally grasps the meaning.  The angels and demons at war over the person sure get it.

And the Devil really hates Latin.  Even bad Latin.  As a matter of fact, even dreadful Latin makes them suffer enormously.

About the use of the Ordinariate Prayers, I really get that.  However, let us be who we are: Latin Rite priests of the Roman Catholic Church with our own heritage.  Sometimes I see priests decorating or building new LATIN RITE churches with all sorts of Eastern elements.  That bothers me.  We have our own patrimony which is NOT second to theirs.  It’s just that since Vatican II it has been systematically so dumbed down, ornamentation of buildings music and prayer texts… the rites themselves… that it is understandable that some people turn to the East for elements that hark to the transcendent.  They’ve been obscured or eradicated in the Latin Church to the point that the very identity of Catholic is shaky.    So, I get the desire to use the beautiful Ordinariate texts.  And I am pretty sure you won’t be put into Ordinariate prison by the “jailers of (their) tradition”.

BUT… pace Leo, “Agnosce, O sacerdos Romane, dignitatem tuam!”

I’ll stop here having given these poor points for your consideration.

This was a great question because it also prompts those reading to think about serious things.

  • Yes, I am going to die one day.
  • Am I going to be ready?
  • Will I have the sacraments?
  • Will a priest who is a real believer be there?
  • What will happen in the dying?
  • Can I accept whatever death God has ordained for me?
  • If I were to die in the next minutes, am I hopeful or confident about my judgement?
  • Do I presume or deceive myself?
  • Will my life long bad habits or habitual neglect of spiritual matters interfere with dying well?

So, Father, if we can with your question and this post change the trajectory of a single soul and bring about a serious conversion through consideration of this solemn topic, then we have done our job today.   If by this we can help a single person to a good death, we’ve done something today.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    This post was quite inspiring, Father, thank you.

  2. Kent Wendler says:

    In the past year I started including in my bedtime prayers a petition to my patron saint (Anthony of Padua, in my case) to intercede for me as my death imminently approaches no matter what the circumstance may be that I will have the benefit of the last rites – especially the Apostolic Pardon.

  3. kat says:

    This was really beautiful. Thank you. One thing I appreciate is when the priests who use the Latin words for the various ceremonies, Baptisms, etc. take the time before or after to reread the prayer in English, or at least explain its meaning or what is going on and why (e.g. in a traditional Baptism with exorcism etc.)
    Perhaps the priest after praying the prayers and the soul has departed, can then take time to explain some of the prayers and what was going on for the soul, to help comfort those witnessing their loved one’s death.
    Or if it were permitted, have some copies of those prayers in Latin and English so the bystanders can follow along as the priest prays in Latin.

    [Both of those are certainly permitted and could be good ideas, depending on the circumstances.]

  4. APX says:

    What’s stopping the priest from creating some Latin-English worship aids for the family to follow along with so that they can also be edified by the prayers?

    [Nothing, I suppose. However, as well meaning as this is, it just seems a tad bit … “off”, to me. I guess it would depend on the format, etc.]

  5. Fr Jackson says:

    Beautiful post, Father!
    Definitely made me stop to think. The heart of the argument seems to be that Latin is more efficacious at achieving a supernatural effect than a vernacular. The historian in me wants to ask about the point in time when Latin was the vernacular. Would the argument still hold? Whereas the efficacity of the Sacraments is rooted in the signs chosen by Christ, Latin seems at best a Church-chosen sacramental. Is the choice of Latin more than a historical coincidence or does this language have an inherent supernatural efficacity?

  6. Fr. Jackson: when Latin was the vernacular

    You raise an interesting point.

    We have to make a distinction, however, about “vernacular”. The Latin used in the Church for worship and for preaching was not the “vernacular”, which is the language spoke “commonly”, in the streets. The Latin used in church was deliberately stylized and hieratic. Hence, we are talking about a sacral language when we are talking about the Church’s liturgical language Latin.

    Next, the Second Person timed His incarnate entrance into this world necessarily in a time and place. The time, when as Augustus relates in his Res Gestae, when the doors of the Temple of Janus were close and the world was a peace, and in the place the line of David was, but was under Roman domination: which means Latin along with the Greek that flooded that part of the world after Alexander. Peter didn’t stay in Antioch, he went to Rome. Even though it was obvious that he had to go there, I can’t help but think that the Lord Himself put it into Peter’s head during those days of instruction before the Ascension. And, if the “Quo vadis?” story is true, He really wanted Peter in Rome for good. That means Latin. Greek would fade except in East and Latin would rise.

    Language and culture are deeply intertwined and Christ chose the Judeo-Greco-Roman milieu of that time. Subsequent centuries were shaped thereby. Latin was shaped (as per above) and became part of the warp and weft of the Roman Rite, the Latin Church. They are not to be separated. No more Latin, no more Latin Church. It would be something else. That seems to run contrary to the roots of and organic development of the Church as the instrument of salvation Christ intended it to be. Say what you will about various vernacular languages today for instruction and devotional prayer, when it comes to the deeper stuff, Latin is the key.

    The persistence of Latin and the effect of Latin on demons is demonstrative. It is NOW a sacral language imbued with a mysterious “sacramental” effect (along the lines of sacramentals, not sacraments). As all sacramentals, Latin must be used properly and with respectful reverence. Also as sacramentals, if we don’t know about them, we can’t use them. Thus we are deprived of their aid, to our great detriment. If there really is a spiritual battle going on around us amongst the angels, and if Latin plays a role, I’d want to know more about it and I’d treat it with respect, just as I would the M230 chain gun on my Apache attack helicopter.

    There is the historical angle for sure, but I think the history points the way to some deeper dynamic. God wanted Latin. God wants Latin. That doesn’t automatically exclude other languages. Perhaps decorum theory would help to untangle the whens and wherefores.

  7. JoelL says:

    If it were such that the readership handed out the “Gold Stars”, I would put one on this post. Thank you for your work Father!

  8. The Vicar says:

    Ego facultáte mihi ab Apostólica Sede tribúta, indulgéntiam plenáriam et remissiónem ómnium peccatórum tibi concédo, in nómine Patris, et Fílii, + et Spíritus Sancti. Amen

  9. matt from az says:

    The only “pastoral” concern I want from a priest is to save my soul

    Ironically, nearly everything the average priest considers “pastoral” does precisely the opposite.

    Is it too much to ask for priests to take it seriously and not dumb it down for the sake of being “pastoral”?
    Have some respect for my soul.

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