Gavin - The Sacrifice of the Mass - The Language of the Mass

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THE Church's services may be classed under two heads: liturgical and extra-liturgical. By liturgical services I mean here pre-eminently the Holy Mass, and next the Office recited by priests and monks, also all services in the Roman Missal, Breviary, Pontifical, and Ritual. Such services are official. By extra-liturgical services are meant the additional hymns, prayers, and devotions found in popular manuals and approved by the Bishop of the diocese. Liturgical services are prescribed and regulated by the Holy See alone; they are the same everywhere, at least in the Western Church, and continue through the centuries substantially unchanged. Extra-liturgical services are subject to the revision, direction, and approval of the Ordinary: they differ much at different times and in different countries.


The extra-liturgical services are wont to be in the vernacular of the country where they are in use, but the liturgical services are always in Latin in the Churches of the Western rite. We say of the Western rite, for, strictly speaking, the Church has no language distinctively her own. If at this moment she obliges all her priests in the Western Church to celebrate Mass in Latin, she likewise requires those clergy of her communion who follow the Oriental rite, to use Greek and Syriac, Coptic and Slavonic. In p. 52 of the Catholic Directory for 1903 for Great Britain, under the general heading of the Oriental rite, we have some twelve rites with six different languages prescribed for the Holy Sacrifice. The Church, then, cannot be said to use any one language to the exclusion of all the rest.


But the fact remains, that Latin is the most widely diffused of all ritual languages, and it is of obligation in the liturgical services of the Western Church. Non-Catholics occasionally, and also some ill-instructed Catholics, clamour for the vernacular in Mass. Can the Pope allow Mass to be said in the vernacular of any country? Most unquestionably he can. He cannot change a single point of doctrine, or any essential point of the discipline which our Lord Himself established. But the choice of a liturgical language falls under neither of these categories. It is a matter of mere ecclesiastical law, and he can make or unmake laws which help or impede the Church's work on earth. With regard to the use of the Latin language, the Council of Trent declares (Sess. xxii. ch. 8, on the Sacrifice of the Mass, Denzinger, 823), that the Fathers thought it inexpedient to have Mass said everywhere in the vernacular; and in the ninth canon the Council condemns those who maintain that Mass ought only to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue. (Denzinger, 833.) The Church's authoritative teaching then, as declared by the Fathers of Trent, was com prised in these two points: (1) that it was inexpedient to say Mass everywhere in the vernacular, (2) that it was not lawful for a Catholic to hold that Mass should be said only in the vulgar tongue. It is hardly possible for the voice of authority to speak with more studied moderation.


For well-nigh two thousand years the Church has been using Latin in that rite which counts far more members than all others together. It remains for us to give the reasons which justify her in adopting and retaining that language. It is not denied that the Apostles not only preached but celebrated the sacred rites in the vernacular. It is not maintained that St. Peter used Latin in the Church services. He may have done so; but that is all we can say, for at that time in Rome there was a Greek-speaking community. The New Testament (except perhaps St. Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews) was written in Greek, and this fact seems to show that the educated and influential members of the Church were more familiar with Greek than Latin. It is also probable that in the West the first missionaries spoke mainly Greek, which was the language of the educated class throughout Europe. The Greek inscriptions on the tombs of Popes Fabian (251), Lucius (252), and Eutychianus (275), prove that Greek was the official language of the Holy See at that time, as De Rossi, a great authority on the subject, points out. We may perhaps take the conversion of Constantine (325), as about the date when Greek ceased to be the language of the Church in Rome. Survivals of the days when Greek was used in the Liturgy of the Roman Church, may be seen in the Kyrie Eleison said at all Masses, in the Trisagion on Good Friday, Agios o Theos, Agios ischyros, Agios athanatos, eleison imas; and in the singing of the Epistle and Gospel in Latin and Greek during the Pope’s Solemn High Mass at St. Peter s. (See Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, by Cheetham and Smith, p. 1,016, London, 1875.)


When, however, Roman Christianity was first preached, Latin was rapidly becoming the common tongue of a large portion of Western Europe. St. Augustine (353 430) in his City of God, tells us that Rome imposed her language on the subject-races. Latin was commonly spoken in the Roman colony of Africa, and St. Augustine says he learnt Latin in the nursery. Gaul and Spain after their subjugation by Rome adopted Latin, and the upper classes knew something of it even in distant Britain. The Roman officials are said to have spoken Latin throughout the Western Empire. There is no evidence of vernacular services in Britain or in Ireland, where St. Patrick (373 4^3) and his followers preached the Gospel. It is most natural to suppose that the missionaries would have employed the language familiar to them in the Liturgy of Rome. In a service so sacred as the Mass, where every word is of importance, the missionaries would naturally use the language in which its prayers were learnt by heart. For Mass in those early times was probably said from memory. The Canon was probably not written before the fifth century, and it is admitted that the Liturgies which bore the names of SS. Peter, James, and Mark, were not written by them. (Le Brun, Explication de la Messe, vol. ii.p. 14, Paris, 1726.) That the Latin of the Church's Liturgy was not understanded of the people," seems scarcely doubtful. If at this day in Italy the peasantry speak several dialects mutually unintelligible, is it likely that the Latin of Pope Leo I. (440-460), or Gregory the Great (590-604), was understood by the uneducated classes? What was true of Italy was more likely to be true of Africa, Gaul, and Spain; of England and of Ireland. There was nothing to prevent the issionaries from teaching the people in their own tongue the great truths of the faith, or from instructing them in the august mysteries of the Adorable Sacrifice, while they reserved for the Mass and other Offices the Latin idiom, which with Hebrew and Greek, the three languages used in the inscription upon the Cross of Calvary, must have possessed a sacred character in their eyes.


A further question may be asked, Why has Latin been retained all these centuries as the official language of the Church? Various reasons may be adduced. Latin amongst other tongues is distinguished by its dignity, gravity, clearness, and precision. The ear is naturally struck by the majesty of its sentences and the harmony of its cadences. Latin has, moreover, the great advantage of being readily pronounced even by those who never studied it. Music is of obligation in many Church services, and Latin lends itself easily to the solemn chants of the Church's liturgy. Even the poor people, as we call them, not merely in Catholic countries but in England, sing many of the Latin hymns by heart.


A much higher reason is found in the mission of the Church on earth. She is not limited to country or race. She is not the English Church nor the Russian. She is Catholic or universal. She is for "all nations and every creature." One language in her liturgy is a distinct help to unity of worship. Wherever Catholics go, they kneel before the same altar, and hear the same prayers in a common language.


But the strongest reason of all in retaining Latin in a liturgical service, is the Church's zeal for teaching and preserving the faith. According to a theological maxim her prayer is the rule of her belief. Like her Divine Master of old, she opens her mouth to pray, and in her prayer she teaches the multitude. The Gloria Patri teaches and enforces the mystery of the Trinity; the Church's exorcisms over catechumens before Baptism imply the doctrine of original sin; the necessity of grace to make an action supernatural and worthy of eternal reward is inculcated constantly in her public supplications; her prayers for the dead from earliest ages set forth her teaching on Purgatory. Apart from the Creed, an epitome of Catholic belief said at Mass on Sundays, holidays, and all great festivals, the Church during the Holy Sacrifice proclaims the following doctrines the Unity and Trinity of God; the Incarnation and Redemption of Christ; His blessed Passion, Resurrection, and glorious Ascension; the perpetual virginity of our Lady; the intercession of angels and saints; the veneration due to relics; the Sacrament of Holy Orders; the reality and necessity of sacrifice; the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist under both kinds; the efficacy of prayer and Mass for the dead, and the existence of Purgatory. The truths of faith are necessarily expressed in words, and it is important that the language in which they are expressed should always remain the same, both as regards the words, and even more as regards their meaning. A vernacular being essentially a living language fluctuates, while an ancient tongue like the Latin is fixed and stable in its character. The latter is much better adapted to the exact expression of the Church's doctrine and rites in these liturgical forms which play so large a part in handing down to successive generations the revelation of God.


Let us now consider the views of those who assert that the Mass should be conducted in a language "understanded of the people." The objection wherever found, implies an unconscious ignorance of the true nature of the Holy Sacrifice. Mass is not merely a prayer, in which the faithful join, as they take part in a litany. Mass is the public official act of service which is said in the name of the Church for the living and the dead. Mass is offered, not by any one, but by a man on whom a great Sacrament has been conferred to enable him to convert bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord. This official act is always public, because offered in the name of the Church. A private Mass, strictly speaking, does not exist. Mass in a hermit's cell without a server is a magnificent act of public worship offered by the Church to God " for all faithful Christians, living and dead." The people do join in the Mass, but they cannot offer sacrifice in the same manner as the priest. They are bound to be present at Mass on Sundays and holidays. There is, however, no obligation to follow the Mass prayers. The poor man, saying his beads, most certainly fulfils his obligation of hearing Mass. Is it not strange, too, that there should be this cry in favour of the vernacular, when half the Mass, and that the more important, is said in secret, and is inaudible to the congregation?


But an interesting historical incident shows the Church's mind as to the kind of language appropriate for the solemn services of the Mass. Early in the sixteenth century, Father Couplet, the Procurator General of the Jesuit Missions in China, on behalf of the missionaries, petitioned for leave from Paul V to say Mass and Office in Chinese, and to use the same language in administering the Sacraments. Here is the answer of the Hoi) 7 Inquisition on March 26th, 1611, as given in Le Brim. (Vol. ii. p. 241, with addition xiv. Paris, 1726.) 


Feria quinta die 26 Martii, 1611. In generali Congregatione Sanctse Romance, et universalis Inquisitionis habita in Palatio Apostolico apud Sanctum Petrum coram Sanctissimo Domino nostro Paulo V. ... Item permisit Sanctitas sua iisdem Patribus, ut possint transferre sacra Biblia in Linguam Sinarum, non tamen vulgarem, sed eruditam et litteratorum propriam, illisque sic translates uti, et simul mandat ut in translatione Bibliorum, adhibeant summam et exquisitam diligentiam, et translatio fidelissima sit, ac in eadem lingua Sinarum possint a Sinis celebrari divina officia Missarum et Horarum Canonicarum. Denique permisit ut in eadem lingua erudita Sinarum, possint a Sinis Sacramenta ministrari, et aliae Ecclesiae functiones peragi.


In a General Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition held in the Apostolic Palace at St. Peter's in the presence of our most holy Lord Paul V. ... His Holiness like wise gave leave to the Fathers to translate the holy books of the Bible into the Chinese language, not into the language of the people, but into the learned language distinctive of educated men, and to make use of these books thus translated; at the same time (Paul V.) commands that in the translation of the Bible the Fathers show every conceivable care and that the translation be most faithful, and he gives leave for the Divine service of the Mass and of the Canonical Hours to be said by the Chinese missionaries in the same Chinese language. Finally, he gave leave for the Sacraments and other Ecclesiastical rites to be administered by Chinese missionaries in the same classical Chinese language.


The Holy Office in reply drew a distinction between the popular Chinese (lingua vulgaris) as now spoken by that people and the Chinese spoken by the learned and literary class. Leave was given to the Jesuit missionaries to translate Bible and liturgy into the latter (eruditam et littevatovum propriam), not into the former (noti tamen vulgarem). A Chinese scholar explains to me the point of this distinction. The Chinese of the people is a fluctuating language, comparable in this respect with the vernacular tongues of European nations. The learned Chinese, or if we may be allowed the expression, the classical Chinese, is a language of ancient origin, going back to the time of Confucius (B.C. 500), stable in its forms and in the meanings attached to them, and bearing the same relation to modern Chinese, as ancient Latin to modern Italian.


It has been stated in an earlier part of this article that six different languages are at the present moment in the East sanctioned by the Holy See in the celebra tion of Mass. Not one of these languages, so I am assured by an Oriental scholar, is the vernacular of the country. To take two familiar instances. In the Russian liturgy the language is not modern Russian but Slavonic of the time of St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the ninth century. Mass in Coptic is less understood than Mass in Latin; not only has Coptic no affinity with the Arabic spoken by the people, but many of the Coptic priests can hardly read the Coptic Missal. Here is the case of a language unintelligible not only to the people but even to the priests, still kept in the liturgy with the sanction of authority. It can hardly be asserted that the Church favours the vernacular in her liturgy.


Lastly: if the Church's liturgy is to be said in the vernacular, where shall we end? The people may then fairly claim Mass in their local dialects which may be described as their vernacular. We must have at least two liturgies in Italy and France. For the Piedmontese peasant cannot understand the language of an educated Italian, and the rustics in the South of France cannot follow the polished French of Paris. High German and Low German are widely apart, Belgium will ask for Mass in French and in Flemish, Ireland will insist on Mass in English and Irish. No thoughtful man can suppose that a multiplication of liturgies can do else than diminish the reverence of the faithful for the adorable Sacrifice of the Altar.




  • CHAPTER THE FIRST. The Doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass 
  • CHAPTER THE SECOND. The Essence of the Mass 
  • CHAPTER THE THIRD. The Consecration of the Altar 
  • CHAPTER THE FOURTH. The Vestments 
  • CHAPTER THE FIFTH. The Asperges
  • CHAPTER THE SIXTH. The Ordinary of the Mass. Part the First: From the Beginning to the Offertory                                    
  • CHAPTER THE SEVENTH. The Introit, Kyrie, and Gloria in excelsis
  • CHAPTER THE EIGHTH. The Dominus vobiscum, Collect, Epistle                                   
  • CHAPTER THE NINTH. The Gradual, Alleluia, Tract, and Sequence   
  • CHAPTER THE TENTH. The Gospel and the Creed                               
  • CHAPTER THE ELEVENTH. Part the Second: The Offertory to the Canon                                   
  • CHAPTER THE TWELFTH. Part the Third: The Canon of the Mass                                   
  • CHAPTER THE THIRTEENTH. Part the Fourth: From the Pater Noster to the end of Mass                                    
  • CHAPTER THE FOURTEENTH. The Ceremonies of High Mass                                   
  • CHAPTER THE FIFTEENTH. Mass for the Dead                                    
  • APPENDIX: The Language of the Mass