Thank Imperial Rome for Mass in Latin
Why was the Mass said in Latin? Wasn't Jesus Jewish?
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
When Pope Benedict XVI issued his apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, effective on Sept. 14, he relaxed restrictions on use of the 1962 Latin Mass. However, he also raised some questions for Catholics not familiar with the Latin Mass, which has been uncommon in most parishes since the early 1970s.
To answer those questions requires two steps: exploring the early Mass and answering why it was offered in Latin for so many centuries. First, did Jesus speak Latin?
He may have, but not in everyday speech.
Jesus was Jewish, so he and his disciples spoke Aramaic, the language of ancient Palestine. Yes, the Romans who occupied the region spoke Latin. However, the language of commerce - the language of trade and travelers - was Greek.
Rome had control of much of the known world, including the Jewish homeland, which they had taken from the Greeks. And, as often happens with a conquering and younger nation, Rome retained much of the culture of the earlier Hellenist society. Why?
They liked it.
The Romans admired Greece. Greek was the language of the educated; and Greece had a long and glorious history, both in art and education, as well as conquest. Since Rome wanted to emulate Greece; educated Romans spoke Greek.
However, the Jews did not admire Greece, or Rome, both of which had conquered them. So they retained their own, distinct language and religious traditions. This meant that they used Hebrew for worship and Aramaic in daily use.
Jesus' followers spoke Aramaic. At the Last Supper, this is probably the language they spoke. In reenacting that sacramental institution of the Eucharist after the resurrection, Jesus' followers gathered on the Lord's Day - Sunday, the day of resurrection - and shared bread and wine.
Since those first liturgies of Christians were celebrated in house gatherings, they no doubt used everyday Aramaic. However, as Christianity spread, it adapted to the language of the people of that time - and many spoke Greek. Koine (the everyday person's Greek) became the first official language of the Mass, again because the Hellenistic culture was so predominant in ancient Palestine.
Evidence shows that early Masses were also celebrated in Coptic (the last development of the now-dead ancient Egyptian language), Syriac and Ethiopic. Some of these languages are still retained in various Eastern churches. Only in the Western church did Latin become the main liturgical language.
When the Gospels were first written down, an average of 70 years after Jesus' resurrection, they were written in Greek. Some of that Greek still remains with us today, most especially in the word "Eucharist," which comes from the word Eucharistia, meaning "thanksgiving." "Eucharist" was used to describe both the sacrament of bread and wine, and the gathering of the community.
Liturgical prayer remained an oral tradition for the first three centuries of the church. The first written liturgical texts, from the third century, were in Greek. However, Greek dominance was giving way to the lure of Rome.
Interestingly, Latin as a preferred language did not start in Rome. Rather, the conquered lands west of Rome - such as Gaul and Britain - started the use of Latin as the official language of government, because they admired Roman imperial culture and wanted to emulate it - just as the Romans had admired and emulated Greek culture.
In the fourth century, liturgical texts began to be written in Latin. Pope Damasus I had St. Jerome translate the Gospels in 382, and Jerome did so in Latin. When that translation was added to his earlier Old Testament work, the two became known as the Latin Vulgate. (Vulgate comes from the same root as "vulgar,"meaning the language of common people or, as we could say today, vernacular.)
As Latin became the dominant language of the Roman Empire, it also became the standard language of the Mass. This happened after Christianity became the preferred religion of the Empire under Constantine in the fourth century.
Yet, even as Latin supplanted Greek in the Mass, some of that Greek survived. For example, the Kyrie of the "Latin Mass" of pre-Vatican II days is actually Greek, not Latin.
When Germanic tribes overran Rome, starting in the fifth century, the Latin language was retained.
Why? It was just what the Romans had done with Greek culture: Latin was the language of the cultured and educated, so it was copied. Also, these Germanic tribes had no written literary traditions of their own, so they adopted Latin ones.
Sadly, as the Latin Mass developed, certain elements of the Mass of the first Christians were lost. For instance, the Prayers of the Faithful were an early part of the liturgy and were said before the Offertory. However, it vanished after the first few centuries of the church. Only the phrase Oremus ("Let us pray") remained. Prayers of the faithful - now a familiar part of each Mass - were returned to their ancient, rightful place by Pope Paul VI's New Order of the Mass of 1969.
How the Latin Mass known before the Second Vatican Council - the one we may now hear a little more often - developed is a story that involves people such as Martin Luther. In fact, if it hadn't been for the Protestant Reformers, we might have had Mass in the vernacular centuries earlier than we did.
NEXT: Thank the Protestants
(Sources: Summorum Pontificum, Modern Catholic Dictionary; The New Question Box, Catholic Life in a New Century; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary; The Liturgy Documents; New Dictionary of the Liturgy; From Age to Age; and The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship)