Mass in Vernacular at the Council

Moderator’s note: This is the first in a series of occasional posts translated from the blog Populo Congregato of Fr. Markus Tymister, faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.

November 12, 1962 began with a big surprise for the vast majority of Council fathers: Holy Mass at the beginning of the assembly was celebrated not in Latin, but rather in church Slavonic, which was in use at that time in seven Croatian dioceses.

Most of the Council fathers experienced for the first time on this day a celebration of Mass in the Roman rite in a language other than Latin.

The Melkite archbishop Neophytos Edelby noted in his diary about it: “This made an enormous impression on the Council fathers.” In contrast to the anxieties which had been expressed by the “fanatics for liturgy in Latin” in the council aula, “the unity of the church was not endangered by this celebration, nor did dogmas undergo any danger, the Host was consecrated as always, and the singing was very beautiful.” (N. Edelby, Il Vaticano II nel Diario di un Vescovo Arabo, ed. R. Cannelli, Milan, 1996, p. 100).

In his opinion, the same would have been true if Mass in the Roman rite were celebrated in one of the many other vernacular languages.


Translated and reprinted with permission. Original: “Hl. Messe in der Volkssprache auf dem Konzil.”




  1. I wonder if, in the enthusiasm at the time for the vernacular – or perhaps simply to make the point that Latin did not constitute a special category by itself – the point was perhaps overlooked that practically all the languages in which a greater part of the Latin Church’s liturgy was to be prayed (i.e. not simply Scripture readings), and especially before the 20th century, were not languages in common use, or even commonly understood by people. In fact, the initial allowance for Chinese in the 16th century by Paul V specifically mentioned this aspect.

    It is perhaps analogous to the way that many liturgical languages – liturgical Greek, Church Slavonic, Syriac, Coptic, Ge’ez, classical Armenian, etc. – are often not commonly spoken, although the level of intelligibility might be quite high depending on other factors (relationship to a modern spoken language, frequency of church attendance, etc.)

  2. John O’Malley in his book about the Council of Trent refutes your statement – “……were not languages in common use, or even commonly understood by people. In fact, the initial allowance for Chinese in the 16th century by Paul V specifically mentioned this aspect.”
    His research indicated that Trent never condemned the use of vernacular languages at that time but only condemned any attempts at eliminating latin use. In fact, O’Malley goes on to show how many German dioceses and regions used the vernacular but, given the violent reaction to Protestantism, the use of the German language within Catholic churches eventually died out. Vernacular usage was (unfairly) tainted with anti-catholicism, etc.

    1. @Bill deHaas:
      Bill, I never wrote anything about Trent condemning the vernacular. What I wrote was:

      (a) Where a particular language was used for the majority of the Mass (i.e. outside of readings and popular aspects like the “bidding prayers” or Gallican “prone”)
      (b) especially for official permissions granted prior to the 20th century
      (c) this language was usually a classical language not in common use.

      And this is in fact borne out by the 1615 decree which explicitly says that the Bible and liturgical texts are not to be in the vulgar tongue but in more archaic literary Chinese This also turned out to be the case for other recorded instances of the vernacular upto the 20th century, where the record is mixed. I imagine O’Malley wasn’t addressing this exactly particular point, but if he was…well then, perhaps a look at some of the sources will lead him to nuance that conclusion.

      My only point was *not* that the vernacular is bad, wrong, shouldn’t be there, etc., etc. – simply that sometimes strict accuracy is sacrificed to further a particular purpose (where have I encountered that recently on PTB? Oh wait…. 🙂 ). With regard to the report, I for one have no clue where in the middle of the 20th century, Church Slavonic was a vernacular language.

      1. @Joshua Vas:
        Hi Joshua,

        You raise a good point, and let me clarify: the post (in German as well as in my English translation) does not claim that Church Slavonic is vernacular! Only that it is not Latin, but was used for a Latin-rite liturgy. The title of the post refers to the issue of vernacular in the liturgy at Vatican II, making the point that the use of a non-Latin language in the Latin rite made an impression on the Council fathers. The Melkite archbishop also stated – accurately – that no dogma was touched by celebration in Church Slavonic. I’m sure he knew it isn’t vernacular. But he went on to say that, based on the opening of a non-Latin language, he favored vernacular languages in the liturgy.


  3. Thank you, Fr. Fr. Anthony….sorry, Joshua, O’Malley knows exactly what he is talking about.

    You again repeat: “….especially for official permissions granted prior to the 20th century
    (c) this language was usually a classical language not in common use.”

    Fact – permission and usage in vernacular was a constant and part of the custom in many German speaking regions (German was a classical language but in common use). Thus, even at the time of Trent, vernacular was in use (despite the usual misunderstanding that all liturgies in Europe were always in latin).

    What we know from researched quotes, letters, records of the VII council fathers, is that this non-latin mass made an impact on them and, at least for some, a realization that the church had used vernaculars before (even if that was not the common understanding). The study groups of certain languages led by theologians/liturgists were able to educate them on our shared history.

  4. The fact was that Church Slavonic was specifically hieratic and not in the common language of the people.

    “4. Here is the similar case of the so-called Glagolitic Slavs of Dalmatia and Croatia, who celebrate the Roman Liturgy in old or Church-Slavonic. but again, church Slavonic is a dead language, not a vernacular; and just as is the case with all the nations who have Byzantine liturgy in the same language, the common people without education do not understand it.”

    National Liturgical Week, 1944
    “The Liturgy and the Word of God”, Dom Damasus Winzen, O.S.B., of. 135.

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