The Liturgical Language is not Made Only of Words

07-25-2021Weekly Reflection

Up to Vatican Council II, the Latin-German missal of the Benedictine Anselm Schott ran to a good 67 (!) editions. Through that book, generations of Catholics have learned to know, live, and love the liturgy of the Church. Nonetheless, those who today oppose Latin as the language of the liturgy continue tirelessly to object that, apart from the few who know Latin, no one understands it.

This argument has a history, at least since the Enlightenment. Almost contemporaneously, however, one who was coming to grips with that same argument was Johann Michael Sailer, considered one of the most important figures for overcoming the excesses of the Enlightenment in Catholic Germany.

Certainly Sailer too hopes for a liturgy in German. At the same time, however, he considers it evident that the question of the liturgical language is not ultimately decisive, since “the Mass has a fundamental language, a mother tongue, that is neither Latin nor German, neither Hebrew nor Greek; in short: it is not a language made of words."

Sailer identifies this fundamental language of the Mass in the total expression of religion. He states this in 1819, but even now his point of view is very modern; today one speaks of comprehensive understanding, which is much more than simple rational understanding and in comparison with it penetrates into the deeper layers of man. If in life and in the whole outer aspect of man the liturgical celebration is experienced as an authentic total expression of religion, then - Sailer maintains - language is no longer so important. Rather, it is much more important that “anyone who may wish to reform the public religious service should begin by forming enlightened, holy priests.” (emphasis added)

True comprehensive understanding of the liturgy - and this also applies to reality in absolute terms - is not just an intellectual process. After all, the person is not made up of only reason and will, but also of body and senses. Therefore, if every single text of a liturgy celebrated in a sacred language is not understood - naturally excluding the biblical readings and the homily - in any case the whole event, the singing, the furnishings, the vestments, and the sacred place, whenever they give adequate expression to the celebration, touch the profound dimension of man in a much more direct way than comprehensible words can. (emphasis added) Unlike in Sailer's time, today this is much simpler, since those who attend Mass already know the structure of the rite and the texts that recur in the liturgy, so when they participate in a Latin Mass they know enough about what is going on.

That Latin should be rejected as a liturgical language because it is not understood is therefore not a convincing argument, all the more so in that, despite all the difficulties relative to translation, the liturgy in the vernacular need not be abolished. Except that, as Vatican Council II says, Latin should not be abolished either. On the other hand, what is the situation of “participatio actuosa,” meaning the active participation of the faithful in the liturgical celebration? The Council prescribes that the faithful must be able to sing or recite their parts in Latin as well. Is this an excessive request?

If one thinks about how familiar the words of the texts of the ordinary of the Mass are, it should not be difficult to recognize them behind the Latin words. And how many English or American songs are sung and understood willingly in spite of their being in a foreign language? At bottom, “participatio actuosa” means much more than merely talking and singing together: it is rather making one’s own, on the part of the Christian who participates in the function, the same intimate disposition of the sacrifice to the Father in which Christ accomplishes his giving of himself to the Father. And this is why the foremost need is for what Johann Michael Sailer has defined as the fundamental language of the Mass.

Under this aspect the Latin missal is also necessary from a practical point of view: the priest who goes to countries whose language he does not know should have the possibility of celebrating Holy Mass there too, without being forced to perform linguistic acrobatics unworthy of a liturgy. It is also good to remember the ever more numerous cases in which priests from India, Africa, and so on carry out their service in German parishes. Instead of an imperfect pronunciation of the German language, a correctly pronounced Latin would be preferable, as the form most suited to the liturgy. In short: the Roman missal in Latin must be wished present in every church.