Viewpoint: Liturgical Vernacular

by Msgr. M Francis Mannion

Those who are attached to Latin in the liturgy (mostly in the context of the Tridentine Mass) would do well to attend to what is happening in the Greek Orthodox Church in America. A recent study by George Demacoupoulos of Fordham University proposed that the Greek Church should consider dropping the ancient Greek currently used in the liturgy and move toward English or modern Greek.

The principal impetus for this is the fact that congregations are dwindling at an alarming rate due in great part to their incomprehension of the current language of the liturgy. This is especially true of young people, who are unable to connect with the liturgy because of the language problem.

I bring this up because of the attachment of some Catholics to the Latin Mass. If they do not know what is going on in the liturgy (even with the use of a Latin/English missal), their attachment is apt to be merely aesthetic. Despite the myth of youthful attachment to Latin I think the attachment will fade.

14 comments

  1. “The principal impetus for this is the fact that congregations are dwindling at an alarming rate due in great part to their incomprehension of the current language of the liturgy. This is especially true of young people, who are unable to connect with the liturgy because of the language problem.”

    Is this really the only explanation? It’s all about verbal, rational comprehension? This assumption, popular among liturgists in the 1950s and 60s, has been subjected to severe critique. The Roman Catholic world is also experiencing the loss of worshipers, but no one can maintain that our simplified vernacular liturgy is beyond the reach of most individuals who speak the vernacular. But on the hypothesis of rationalism under which so many liturgists labor, they will never be convinced that the liturgy is sufficiently comprehensible. Instead, they will simplify again and again, and make the language simpler and simpler, until… what? Until there is nothing left to understand. This is what generates tremendous boredom and disengagement: that there is nothing really worth understanding in that which is easily accessible.

    It is annoying to see a love of reverence, beauty, and ceremony written off as “aesthetics.” You might as well write off most of Western cultural and religious history. A peasant who knows only that the Lord God is being adored and who joined himself to this movement would be sanctified, regardless of whether he knows the details of “what is going on.” Are we so sure that Catholics who hear all the prayers in the vernacular know what is going on?

    As for your prediction that youthful attachment to Latin liturgy is ephemeral, it seems you haven’t visited many Latin Mass parishes lately, and seen the pews packed not with silver heads but with black and brown-haired people, with more babies than ten or twelve Novus Ordo parishes put together. Time will indeed tell what is going to fade and what is going to flourish, but if I were a betting man, I know where I’d put my money.

    1. I know of no respectable mainline liturgist who could be accused of rationalism, Peter, and I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. There is a rich literature from the last 50-60 years on the nature of symbol.
      awr

    2. If you are speaking of actual sociological study, University of Chicago research in the mid-70s attributed Humanae Vitae as the most common reason cited for church attendance decline in the very late 60s into the early 70s. When the liturgical reform factor was added, a significant portion of active Catholics said that kept them in the Church. Sociologists found that without liturgical reform the exodus would have been 1/3 larger.

      Young people today, even those attracted to traditional liturgy, find themselves concerned about church attitudes toward women and LGBTQ persons. There’s no question that some pastors, ranging from the pope to the local parochial vicar, have implemented teachings new or old in an occasionally ham-fisted way. Including liturgy. And sex.

      If the institutional church from Rome to the parish staff were concerned about pew population, they’d spare the moral majority agenda and address other pressing needs like the desire for commitment, community, and service to others.

  2. I also don’t believe the canard that old rite parishes are mostly filled with young families, while parishes that celebrate the normative rite are “packed with silver heads”. There are plenty of older folks at the Tridentine Masses I attend, both in Europe and the USA; and many young people, babies included, at Novus Ordo Masses on four continents. I’m open to actual data on this, but find it tough to give much credence to Peter’s rhodomontade.

  3. My wife recently sent me a very encouraging you tube video produced by a Princeton Latin class. It seems that their department is offering a class entirely in Latin. Grammatical explanations, class discussion and exercises are in Latin. So many of the students said they just loved Latin and their challenging class.

    As for the Greek churches in America I’ve found Greek and English used side by side. One petition in Greek, the next in English; the lections in both, the words of institution in both, etc. etc. Plus the American Church has made enormous efforts to teach Greek to their youth.

    A video made the rounds of the you tube world a few years back in which a bishop in Greece tried to read the gospel in modern Greek. The congregation would have none of this and made their own unique form of protest.

    I doubt very much that the Grecian tongue will ever disappear from the Liturgy as Latin has from the mass because the Greeks are more independent minded and more appreciative of their heritage than the Romans.

    1. “So many of the students said they just loved Latin and their challenging class.”

      How many is ‘so many’? How many pews of a church will they fill?

      1. The Modern Language Association surveys give these results: “Their periodic surveys of language enrollments first included Latin and Greek in 1968; surveys of the twenty-first century, in 2002, 2006, 2009, 2013, show that Latin enrollments reached a high of 32,444, reported in 2009, and fell to a low of 27,000 in 2013. The latter number is comparable to the numbers for each survey in the 1990s.”
        Source: https://classicalstudies.org/scs-news/trends-teaching-classics-undergraduates

  4. Msgr. Mannion’s piece strikes me as a gratuitous jibe at those who wish to celebrate the liturgy in Latin.

    We’re told often that so very few want such a liturgy. Yet judging from the number of articles posted attacking the preference, you’d think it was a major crisis. If so very few want it, why write so much condemning it?

  5. Latin masses are welcoming to all…who have Latin. I wonder how many Latin speakers would regularly attend Mass in Aramaic?

    Latin is no ones mother tongue. I wonder if Latin-only masses are inherently cliquish. Not intentionally but the effect is the same. And asking someone with a family who works full time to ‘merely’ spend cash and several years taking classes to learn a dead language for the sake of a few who for some reason feel that their own native language is second class in God’s eyes…

    1. Though that same concept would likewise contemn the learning of any current vernacular mother tongue of a people one is unlikely to deal with in day to day life, as it’s not particularly less dead at a personal experiential level.

      1. I guess that I’m thinking more of the community level. In California and elsewhere in the U.S. it makes sense in some places to hold Mass in Spanish because that’s the native language of a living community of believers. Spanish communicates better for this group; it brings the Mass closer to those in the pews. But there is no community of native Latin speakers. The mother tongue of all Latinists is in fact another language; it’s the language of those around them. Latin is beautiful and has great historical relevance; its texts can’t be fully adapted in other languages. But it is exclusionary to the community of believers around who all share a common language with the Latinists themselves.

        That said, I also understand that Latin brings the Mass closer to a certain group of Catholics than any other language. So there’s that.

        I love Latin chant. And I love the great Christian writers of Latin that I must read in translation. I know that I’m missing a lot of elegance and wit and depth. I may be wrong, but to put a hurdle in the way of those in the community who might wish to explore our faith seems too large a price to pay.

        In the end all languages have possibilities of beauty and elegance and profundity.

      2. Here’s the thing with Latin, yes it’s no one’s language, but in a way it’s also everyone’s language. Take World Youth Day, where millions of Catholic youth come from around the world representing dozens or even hundreds of languages. It would be impossible to incorporate even a fraction of all the languages spoken there that week. Yet I bet almost everyone there recognized the words of the Latin Ordinary.

        Even as a technically “dead” language, Latin still has a level of universality in the Church that literally no other language has, or will ever have. It reminds people that there’s a larger Church out there beyond their local parish (full disclosure, I haven’t been to a Latin mass in almost three years). IMHO there’s a purpose to language, especially ecclesial language, other than simply it’s ability to sustain casual conversation around one’s dinner table.

      3. “But it is exclusionary to the community of believers around who all share a common language with the Latinists themselves.”

        So you say, but I am not fully persuaded of the breadth and depth of that sentiment.

        One wonderful thing about the vernacular liturgy is that the congregation (if it’s paying attention…) reasonably knows the meaning of the Latin Ordo. It may not be fluent in Latin, but the meaning of the Greek Kyrie, Latin Gloria et cet., is reasonably captured in the vernacular they are familiar with. Then again, I am someone who places more value on congregational participation over time, not in each individual instance: more about the movie, not the still shot, as it were. So, from that perspective, the exclusionary argument is an overshot. In any event, Latin is part of the birthright heritage of Roman Catholics, and excluding it from liturgical use would be to deprive them of that without their asking.

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