Why was the Mass once in Latin?
FR. JOHN TRIGILIO writes that Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church . . .
The Mass once was (and can still be) said in Latin, as it is the official language of the Catholic Church. In many oratories, shrines, chapels, cathedrals and even local parishes, Masses continue to be celebrated in Latin.
In fact, the Second Vatican Council encouraged the use of Latin. “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” states the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), #36, promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1963. Latin hymns and prayers were to be retained even in Masses during which the vernacular language is used.
While the Church permits Mass in the vernacular, Sacrosanctum Concilium went on to say that, “nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (#54). Many parishes today continue to use Latin for particular songs and prayers, such as “Ave Maria” or the “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God).
Mass was first celebrated in the language of our Lord, ancient Aramaic. When Peter, the first pope, went to Rome — the center of the Empire — Greek was the language used by scholars, and it then became the language of choice for many centuries in the liturgy. Theology and philosophy were all taught in this language. Latin was considered the common language of the people. The theological opinion of the time said that Divine Liturgy, the Mass, should use the language of scholars, which was a sign of dignity.
After the Peace of Constantine, the Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 AD, the Church became legitimate and expanded tremendously. Roughly, this coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the development of the vernacular languages. Latin then became the language of scholars, theologians, and philosophers, and so the Mass was then translated into it. In the Eastern Empire, which was centered in Constantinople, Greek was retained.
For centuries, Latin was commonly used in Church documents, canon law, the reading of scripture, and the celebration of the seven sacraments and prayers. Latin was, and still is, the Church’s official language. It was only in recent times that the Holy See allowed the vernacular to be used in celebrating the sacraments.
The Second Vatican Council permitted an expanded use of the vernacular in Mass, the administration of the sacraments and the liturgy as an advantage to the people. “This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives and to some of the prayers and chants” (Sancrosanctum Concilium, #36). This usage of the vernacular, however, in no way diminishes the importance of Latin in the liturgy.
FATHER JOHN TRIGILIO JR. is an author, theologian and president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. This article is reprinted with permission from The Catholicism Answer Book: The 300 Most Frequently Asked Questions, which he authored with Fr. Kenneth D. Brighenti.
The liturgical traditions or rites presently in use in the Church are the Latin (principally the Roman rite, but also the rites of certain local churches) and the Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean rites.
The rich variety of ecclesiastical disciplines, liturgical rites, and theological and spiritual heritages proper to the local churches “unified in a common effort, shows all the more resplendently the catholicity of the undivided Church.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1203, 835