IV reasons and I proposal for returning Latin to the Mass. It’s more important than you think.
The Mass is the same everywhere in the world, but it can be hard to be fully present when you don’t know the language.
What’s the answer? Latin. Here are four good reasons why we should get some Latin back into the Mass, and one proposal about how it can be done.
1. Visitors can participate more fully in the liturgy. We live in an increasingly small world. International travel is easier than ever before. Tragically, migrants and refugees are scattered far and wide. Prayers in Latin would promote an authentic community of worship, and would make active participation easier for those who find themselves far from home.
The Church has this to say about active participation, by the way:
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.
During my recent travels, I had the opportunity to attend Mass three times: once in French and twice in Spanish. One of those times was at the cathedral in Barcelona, which was packed full of tourists from all over the globe. Yes, the Mass is always great, whether we know the words or not. But imagine how beautiful it would be to visit as a tourist — Barcelona, Beijing, or Boise — and be able to pray in unity with our brothers and sisters in faith?
2. It connects us to the rest of the Church throughout time and space. My home parish is a pretty average one, in a far-out neighborhood in a small Midwestern city. We’re not likely to get tons of tourists. Even so, praying in Latin can connect our hearts and minds to the rest of the Catholic Church around the world. Whether you’re in a new country or you’ve never left your county, adopting this common tongue reminds us that we’re in this together with the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, the underground church in China, or the parish down the road.
Plus, Latin has been the language of the Church for 2,000 years. When we pray in Latin, we say exactly the same words as the apostles, the saints, and our ancestors. By forgetting Latin, we are losing an integral part of our unique heritage and the amazing patrimony of our faith.
The human heart yearns to be part of something bigger than itself. Praying in Latin would be a concrete reminder that we are each a “living stone” of the Universal Church.
3. The Church herself says so. The typical narrative is that everything happened in Latin until Vatican II, when “the old way” was finally abolished and we could start praying in our own languages. Not so fast! Here are some key quotes from Sacrosanctum Concilium, or the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which came out after Vatican II, in 1963.
• …The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. (i.e., in the Roman Catholic church)
•…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.
This is a binding, doctrinal document from the teaching authority of the Holy Roman Church. Seems like a good enough reason to me.
4. It’s good for humans to learn things. A common response to this suggestion is, “Okay, but I don’t know any Latin.” Despite having to learn a ton of new stuff (lots of it in Latin!), being a doctor is still wildly popular. Oddly, nobody seems to storm out of college basketball games because “I don’t know the cheers!” (In fact, once they’ve listened and learned, many people are very proud to be part of the club.)
Anyway, the Church will teach you. There’ll be little cards in the pews. The words will be printed in the book. Your parish can work through the pronunciation together, at Mass or a pancake breakfast or something. And then it just becomes second nature, like the phrase “And with your spirit.”
Sure, it’ll be awkward and mumbly for a few months until we get the hang of it. But. I mean, let’s face it – it’s not like our parishes are really bringing down the house during the Creed anyway.
And it’s good for us to keep learning stuff. We don’t get to graduate high school and then let our brains atrophy until we die. On a human level, it expands our horizons. On a spiritual level, it refreshes the prayers for us and causes us to think more deeply about what we’re saying.
So here’s my proposal.
The first Sunday of Advent is “New Year’s Day” in the Church’s liturgical year. Frequently, changes to the Mass are scheduled to take effect on this date.
On that date in 2017, all churches around the world could begin saying the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) in Latin. Being the first year, it would encounter resistance, but this prayer is 24 words long. And 14 of them repeat. Not that hard, people.
The next year, every parish could start saying the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) in Latin. Still not too bad. Only 25 words.
In this manner, we could add a Latin prayer every year, saving the longest and hardest ones for last. This would be so easy. I mean, it’s not like a brand new addition to the liturgy – we know what the prayers are already. You could even prepare in advance if you’re a nerd overachiever.
After a couple years, we’d all be used to learning prayers in a new language. Meanwhile, kids in Catholic schools and CCD could be learning them all in Latin from the beginning.
To be clear: the propers (prayers unique to each day), the readings, the homily, the Eucharistic Prayer, and the prayers of the faithful could remain in the vernacular.
This would have an immeasurable effect on the Church. Just imagine going to Rome or Jerusalem or World Youth Day, and being able to say the Lord’s Prayer in perfect unity with people from Japan and Kenya and Norway.
Because Latin is nobody’s first language, it makes perfect sense to reclaim it as the sacred language of the universal church.