Latin as Language of the Liturgy: The Discussion before the Second Vatican Council

Moderator’s note: This is the second 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.

Already long before the announcement of the Council (on January 25, 1959 by Pope John XXIII), the Sacred Congregation of Rites made a series of concessions for use of the vernacular in 1947. For German-speaking regions, one should name above all the Collectio Rituum, a first common ritual book for all German-speaking dioceses, which was gradually adopted in all dioceses in Austria and Germany. In this book, vernacular is foreseen for most verbal elements of celebrations.

In the same time period, on April 14, 1949, the Sacred Congregation of Rites gave an essentially more significant permission: for the creation of a missal in Mandarin Chinese. It was to provide for the use of vernacular from the beginning of the Mass until the beginning of the canon, and from the prayer after communion until the end of the Mass. The canon was to remain in Latin (it was prayed entirely silently at that time), but the parts spoken out loud (Our Father, The peace of the Lord…, Lamb of God) were also to be in Chinese:

“[…] a principio missae usque ad initium canonis et a postcommunione usque in finem missae; dum Canon manet in lingua latina, tamen partes quae alta voce recitantur (Pater noster, Pax Domini et Agnus Dei) iterum sunt in lingua sinensi” (Documenta ad instaurationem liturgicam spectatia, [1903 – 1963], ed. C. Braga – A. Bugnini, Roma 2000, 663).

Above and beyond this, it is generally known that Pope John VIII (d. 882) granted permission to St. Methodius to celebrate the liturgy in the Slavic language rather than Latin, for “God created all languages for his praise and honor.”

In 1957 C. Vagaggini (d. 1999) commented on the action of the Holy See:

“If the Holy See holds fast as a rule to Latin as the language of the Roman liturgy, it is yet not rigidly so.” The Holy See recognized “[…] on the one hand the participation-promoting element of the vernacular, on the other hand the unity-promoting aspect of Latin” (C. Vagaggini, Il senso teologico della liturgia, Roma 1957).

Against the main arguments opposed to the introduction of the vernacular language in the liturgy, Vagaggini stated the following:

“The argument that a stereotyped, time-honored, not generally understood language underlines the mystery character of the sacred action has, to be sure, something for it, but it is not the deciding factor. What is time-honored and mysterious in the liturgy rests upon a more solid and deeper foundation, namely, the mystery of Christ which is actuated here and now under the veil of perceptible signs. It is essential that the believer be touched by this mystery, which is much more the case when he or she understands its liturgical expression. Did the first Christians see no mystery in the liturgy? Do priests and classically educated people today not see any? (On this see also A. Lameri, “Un ‘perito’ a servizio del concilio e della riforma liturgica promossa dal Vaticano II,” Rivista Liturgica 96 (2009) 348-361, here 355-357.)

Participatio actuosa, active participation of all, means participation, mediated through the liturgy, in the great mystery of our faith and our redemption: Christ’s passing over from death to resurrection. It is not about a “mysterious rite,” but rather a mystery of faith which is to be grasped at ever deeper levels, to be lived and proclaimed.

Translated and reprinted with permission. Original: Latein als Liturgiesprache: Zur Diskussion vor dem 2. Vatikanischen Konzil


  1. Fifty years later, has the sacrifice of the Latin-fluent clergy and laity, no matter how small their number in the modern age, proved wise?

    Two Polish deacons visited with my family for Christmas dinner last year. Neither could read Latin, even in their diaconal year! Their illiteracy demonstrates that an exclusive, even oppressive demand for vernacularization has greatly wounded our seminarians and deacons, many of whom could not recite the first declension if asked. Seminarians and the clergy do not merely deserve a textbook knowledge of the sacral language of the Roman-rite Church, but also must know how to preach on the missal through its typical language.

    Latin knowledge has been the prerogative of Roman-rite priests, and indeed the clergy of Reformation traditions, for centuries. So then, what good is this theft? How will the Latin illiteracy of the clergy assist the laity in their comprehension of often overwrought vernacular translations? My fear is that a great trove of oral and demonstrated knowledge has evaporated, and will evaporate, so long as seminarian education and formation in Latin is not revived.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      I should have requested deletion of the last post. This is what I should have written.

      There’s a great bumper sticker I’ve seen around and would like to put on my ancient car. “It’s a balloon. Let it go.” Don’t actually let balloons go, because birds can eat the balloons, bloat, and die. So, it’s best to hold this metaphor in the mind.

      “Let it go”. Latin is my balloon. In it, from my vantage point, is the Church’s great panorama of liturgy, history (both oral and written), and hourly prayer. To refuse to teach it, better, to hear someone say that they “hate Latin” (how can one hate what he or she does not know? Is this fear instead?) has been, in my view, but a few inches short of ingratitude. I often think of those who wish to sideline Latin, “is this the bowl of lentils you wish to slurp? Choose wisely.” I have not chosen wisely, however.

      “Let it go.” I do not understand the emphasis on the laity which has grown out of the modern Catholic reformation. I mock it as emotionalism, solipsism, and the “therapeutic creep” from an often self-indulgent secular society disinterested in the life of the mind but interested in the sensual and emotional. So, is this new? Plotinus, a neo-platonist, lodged the same complaints. Certainly the solution is not to hold the self hostage in Charlemagne’s throne room, as if this tectum will shield from extroversion. The Church’s response in the modern age is to the mind, body, and soul of sisters and brothers, and not only the mind, as if it can be parsed. Did not Port-Royal attempt this parse? The fruits of that intellectual labor were feeble in number and rather dessicated.

      “Let it go.” I have no more to say on PTB. Certainly it would be better to finish my work and, in some way, enlighten even a few with the Latin language.

  2. The Second Vatican Council was quite clear regarding Latin:

    “The use of Latin, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin Rites” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 36, §1).

    “Care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 54, §1).

    And the Code of Canon Law says:

    “The program for priestly formation is to make provision that the students are not only carefully taught their native language but also that they are well skilled in the Latin language; they are also to have a suitable familiarity with those foreign languages which seem necessary or useful for their own formation or for the exercise of their pastoral ministry” (can. 249).

    1. @Geoffrey Lopes da Silva:
      Yeah, we all know about these quotations -they’re cited a lot!

      Of course they require a context to be interpreted. Once has to look at everything the Council said, including the permission it gave to bishops’ conferences to decide questions of language. That doesn’t negate these important statements, but it prevents them from being used as proof-texts.


  3. The arguments in favour of a Latin liturgy are, put simply, bad. They are bad historically, and they are bad linguistically.

    They are bad linguistically, because defending the notion of the use of Latin, unintelligible to the majority of those attending, relies upon the notion that it was unintelligible in the 4th century, which requires a conflation of difference-of-language and difference-of-register.

    They are bad historically, because the early Church clearly did not believe in having a sacred language, hence the translation of liturgies and scriptures not just into Latin, but also Ge’ez, Coptic, Syriac, Gothic, and even Old Nubian and Anglo-Saxon. The idea that Latin and Greek were specially set apart is simply unhistorical nonsense.

    (N.B.: The translation of the Mass into Mandarin had been bandied about at least as far back as Matteo Ricci, so the idea was not new, but the mills of the Vatican grind slow.)

    What is at issue in all this is a matter of aesthetics, but the sense that aesthetics is a nebulous, debatable area drives both sides of this argument to try and come up with dubious groundings for their arguments in realities which are often little more than ludicrous generalisations (e.g., the supposed ‘precision’ of Latin).

    In the interests of full disclosure, I like the use of Latin in the liturgy, and would consider the use of Latin for the Ordinary of the Mass a sensible compromise position. But I am under no illusions about this purely aesthetic preference.

    1. @David Hughes:
      The arguments in favour of a Latin liturgy are, put simply, bad. They are bad historically, and they are bad linguistically.

      Not at all. We have to be honest here: there is a tension between two very reasonable approaches. One is to cast the liturgy in a language “understanded of the people.” There’s a lot to be said for that. This excerpt, although focused on pronouncements of the hierarchy, hits on one thing that ordinary lay people actually were interested in before the council: increased use of the vernacular. And if any “traditionalists” dispute that, let them trawl the archives of the many vernacularist societies.

      But the other approach acknowledges that the use of a sacred, hieratic language is fundamental to the human psyche. Ge’ez is actually (today) a purely liturgical language, as is Church Slavonic, or, moving beyond Christianity, Hebrew (its recent resurrection notwithstanding) and Koranic Arabic, or, moving even further, Vedic/Sanskrit and Avestan.

      The problem of post-V2 liturgy isn’t one of language—I’d be happy with a Tridentine Rite in English (and have attended this at Anglo-Papalist churches). The problem is the clericalist, top-down imposition on the laity of a rite they didn’t ask for and didn’t want by a hierarchy who followed a pope who believed he had the right to do anything he felt like.

      (And before awr asks—no, I don’t “accept” Vatican II, or Vatican I either. They’re both ultramontane organs and, as Catholics, we need to repudiate them both before we can achieve the reunion of Christians.)

  4. I see two distinct but related issues.

    1) Clergy knowledge of Latin.

    Granted, I am a Classicist by training and taught the language for several years, and so I am a bit biased here. It still appalls me that people trained in the Latin Church frequently know little or no Latin, nearly as much as I am vexed by seminaries that don’t insist on Biblical languages. We owe it to ourselves to be fluent in our own traditions, and we suffer cultural amnesia of the worst sort when we don’t.

    2) Liturgy in Latin

    Here again, I will confess bias. I like liturgy in Latin — not least because of the rich musical tradition there. I understand the parties who argue against Latin-only. What I don’t understand, however, is the advocates of vernacular-only. Again, that insistence leads to a sort of cultural amnesia that I fear. Why deny yourselves the riches of your tradition, especially if it feeds people who want it?

    1. @Shaughn Casey:
      One of the virtues of permitting the vernacular in the liturgy is that congregations already know the vernacular translation of Latin settings of the Ordinary…. A good example of where the vernacular and Latin can be understood as complementary, rather than conflicting.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Fluency in both is, of course, my preference. The closest thing in my background to that would be solemn mass with incense on fifth Sundays and particularly important feasts, say, but a missa cantata the other days. It’s worth having enough of the more formal liturgy that people are used to it and value it, even if they don’t see it every Sunday. An equivalent might be every so often celebrating the Novus Ordo in Latin, for example. As you say, nobody should be lost, as they know it in the vernacular.

  5. Unrelated enough to not event qualify as tangential but seeing as today is a First Friday AND the Solemnity of The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (one of two guaranteed non-penitential Fridays of the year, along with Easter Friday) – AND National Doughnut Day – I recall my (92 year-old) father’s memory of First Friday devotions before Vatican II. He attended the small parochial school of the German national parish in Bridgeport Connecticut (St Joseph’s, very visible from CT Routes 8/25; shuttered about 20 years ago and now housing a Catholic Worker soup kitchen). When the students had performed their First Friday devotions, the nuns (Sisters of Notre Dame, who were *very* strict and rigorous) would allow them to leave school and go around the corner to the bakery to get what we’d now call a jelly doughnut (a Bismark or Berliner…). It was memorable to him as a rare time when the nuns would be lenient. I told my father: what a … sweet … image of the Sacred Heart! He’d never seen it that way, but once I mentioned it, he grasped it immediately! Those nuns knew what they were doing.

    He just told me, if he finds a doughnut on offer at his dining room cafe this evening, he will savor it and say a prayer for those nuns.

  6. If we lose the use of Latin in the liturgy, we have lost an incredibly important part of our Christian cultural tradition. This tradition produced a wonderful artistic, poetic, and musical repertoire. I continue to say the Divine Office in Latin and, until recently, sang the Ordo Novus Mass in Latin with plainchant and polyphony. I am not especially fond of the Tridentine Mass with which I grew up but love the Latin language. I agree there is much that is beautiful, both poetically and musically, in English but we must conserve that older tradition.

  7. Can I be saved if I don’t know Latin? Can I be enlightened, grasp the fundamental concepts of Christianity in English? Or will my mind remain dark because I don’t speak a dead language?

    I suppose the millions of poor people who are Christians can’t stop everything and learn Latin instead of, oh I don’t know, nursing or auto mechanics. I don’ think that they’re “a few inches short of ingratitude” either. For many–most!–learning Latin requires the kind of leisure and money that just aren’t available because of the need to feed families, for example.

    Did Christ teach in the temple in a language that only the Scribes could understand?

    Heaven probably doesn’t look like the Classics department at Harvard, despite the wishes of many.

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