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Foundations
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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinOctober 5, 2007 Issue 

Thank Protestants for the lingering of Latin in Mass

Why the Mass was said in Latin for so long


By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

When Pope Benedict XVI issued his July letter on the Latin Mass, Summorum Pontificum, he relaxed restrictions on using the 1962 Latin Mass. Last week, we explored how the Mass developed from the spoken Aramaic of Jesus' day to Latin under Imperial Rome. Now we look at why the Mass was said in Latin until the mid-20th century.

After Rome fell to Germanic tribes in the 5th century, much of Rome's governmental structure survived. The new leaders of the West admired ancient Rome and sought to "Romanize" their emerging kingdoms. This included using Latin for documents - and, as Christianity spread, in liturgical texts.

However, variations in the Mass developed over the ensuing centuries, adapted from local customs and missionary activity. Also, even though the Frankish kings (especially Pepin and Charlemagne) of the late 8th century sought to regain a "pure Roman Mass," they could not. The liturgical documents they rescued from a decayed Rome were incomplete. Thus, what came to be called the Gallicized Mass was a hybrid of Roman and other traditions, including Celtic and Anglo-Saxon.

Latin eventually died as a spoken language, replaced by Romance languages such as French, Spanish, and Germanic tribal languages. The fact that Latin survived at all over the next 800 years is in large page due to clergy and monasteries.

Most people were illiterate during this time. In fact, Masses in everyday language - what we call the vernacular - might have developed in the church centuries ago, just so that people would be involved in the Mass more fully - except for one thing.

The Protestant Reformation.

There were many causes for the Reformation, which swept Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. These included rising nationalism and weakened authority of the Holy See. And flaws had crept into the rites of the Mass, some because of loss of earlier records and others based on superstition. While unrest had been building for a while, Martin Luther set the Reformation rolling in 1517.

The fallout forced the church to launch the Counter-Reformation and convene the Council of Trent (1545-63). That council reformed the Mass and the subsequent 1570 decree of Pope Pius V gave us the Latin rites that were common until 1962. Some bishops attending Trent did call for the Mass in the vernacular. However, their stance was unpopular and even seen as traitorous to the church and a concession to Protestant views. So Latin was set as the official liturgical language.

We should remember that, at Trent's time, the church was under attack. Church buildings were confiscated by governments, and priests and nuns were attacked. The growing variety of Protestant sects threatened the unity of faith. Therefore, Pope Pius V (1566-1572) made clear in his instructions on the Mass that one rite was to be preserved. This rite became what is now called the Tridentine Mass.

Over the following centuries, people grew even less familiar with Latin. It was no longer the common language of any people, or even of high culture. Masses became almost private affairs, with the people praying from missals while the priest quietly said Mass at the altar.

Devotions, said in English and other languages grew in popularity, and became the most intense liturgical experiences for many people - instead of Mass. Church leaders and theologians realized this, and talk of liturgical change was in the air long before Vatican II.

In 1903, Pope Pius X called for more "active participation in the most sacred mysteries (the Mass) and in the public and solemn prayers of the church" (Tra Le Solicitudine).

Even though the Tridentine Mass remained in use, it was not unchanging. Popes Clement VIII, Urban VIII, and Leo XII each made adaptations to it. In 1955, Pope Pius XII made a major alteration in the liturgical rites for the Holy Week Masses. Pope John XXIII made the last revisions to the Latin Mass in 1962, and this is the Mass which Pope Benedict has now authorized for "extraordinary use."

Before Pope Benedict's letter, the most commonly used Latin Mass has been the 1970 Novus Ordo approved by Paul VI in the 1970. This "New Order of the Mass" is identical to the Mass we celebrate in English each Sunday - except that it is said in Latin.

The Novus Ordo came out of the reforms of Vatican II. In fact, the first document approved by the Fathers of the Council was the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," promulgated on Dec. 4, 1963. It called for major revisions in the Mass and, while addressing the preservation of Latin, opened the way for a return to the ancient practice of Mass in many languages. The document read: "since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or others parts of the liturgy, frequently may be a great advantage to the people, the limits of its use may be extended. (SC 36:3).

The Council decreed further revisions of the Mass so that, as much as possible, it would reflect the earliest traditions of the church. These included things such as the handshake of peace, the prayers of the faithful and Communion under both species.

Documents that followed Vatican II built on this and led to widespread use of the vernacular. But, as we review the Mass in English and Latin, we should recall that the language at Mass should remind us that "from age to age, (God) gathers a people to (himself), so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of (God's) name."

The language used to convey that is less important than the shared understanding and communion of those gathered in worship.


(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)

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