Monday, 18 October 2010

"But no-one understands Latin!"

Yesterday I was enjoying dinner with four Catholic friends (Chicken and ham pie - awesome). I can't remember how we got onto this topic, but one of the girls mentioned that at her parents' parish, they have a Polish Mass, a Spanish Mass (for the Phillipinos), and an Italian Mass on a Sunday, not to mention the English Masses.

Before I go further, let me say I love Mass in the vernacular, and the Novus Ordo. I think in time the NO in the vernacular will prove itself as having tremendous missionary value, thinking especially of Pope Benedict's concern for re-evangelising Europe. I do recognise the distortions which have plagued (yes, plagued) the Ordinary Form, and hope to see in my lifetime a fuller realisation of what the Vatican Council Fathers wanted for the New Mass, in continuity with the great Catholic tradition of liturgy.

Ergo, upon hearing that one parish felt obliged to have four different Masses for four different communities, I was troubled. Is this one parish, or four? Is this Catholic, or even catholic, keeping the different nationalities separate by having separate Masses? Would it not be more Catholic (and catholic) for them to worship together? One solution to this is obviously for them to go to an English Mass; they are all living in England. Having had a glass of wine, though, I was feeling bold, and so what I said was...

"Well, they could have one Latin Mass, and everyone can have a Latin-to-whatever Missal, and then they can pray together. After all, Latin is the first language of the western Church." To this, the girl sitting next to me hit me on the head (which really annoyed me) and said in a patronising tone, as if I was stupid for having missed such an elementary problem, "Which no-one understands."

Have you ever encountered this before? It's an attitude which is wide spread, and crosses the generations; this girl is 20. My Mum said something similar when the family came to visit and went to Mass with me - "All that singing in Latin will put people off." Given that she said this about a congregation which has been singing the 'Holy, Holy' (the 'Sanctus') and the 'Lamb of God' (the 'Agnus Dei') for two years, I can only assume she meant, "It puts me off". Which leads us to my first observation about the rejection of Latin.

The first thing to understand is that the objection isn't about the fact that it's a different language. It's not that the people who object don't understand Latin; they just don't like it. How do we know that? First, I literally got hit in the head for suggesting its use at *gasp* Mass. Secondly, countless adults take language courses or buy phrase books, so that when they go on holiday to France, or Brazil, or Austria, they can speak the lingo. They don't instantly object to the difference in language, and then refuse to learn it as if it was unlearnable and will hear no more about it. Neither do children in secondary school react this way when they do foreign languages. Yet this is exactly what people do with Latin in the liturgy - they throw up their hands and say that people won't understand it, as if it was impossible to teach people a language they didn't already know, and refuse to listen to reasoned explanation. And it's not as if we're proposing testing them on the grammar.

Further, I'm sure those who object to the Latin Mass (I'm specifically talking about the Novus Ordo here), have a strange image in their head, of a Mass which is, from start to finish, incomprehensible because it's in Latin, or Greek for the 'Lord Have Mercy' (the 'Kyrie'). So, ask them how well they know the Mass in English. Do they know the I Confess? The Gloria? The Creed? Do they know the Our Father and the Hail Mary? And do they know when these occur in the Mass? If so, what difference does it to make to their active (i.e. interior) participation in the Mass if it's in Latin? None - they can still pray them. They might not know the words, but these can be learned easily, just like you learn a song - by listening to it and looking up the lyrics. This really only leaves the short opening prayer (the Collect), one of four Eucharistic prayers (the Canon), the short Post-communion prayer, and the readings which change week-on-week. And that's what Latin-to-whatever Missals are for. The people at my parish spend enough time looking at the weekly Mass sheet, so reading along during Mass can't be a problem either.

It is not entirely clear why Latin Rite Catholics would object to Latin in their Catholic rites, though I imagine there are complex reasons for it, ranging from the societal background radiation of 'dislike of old things' to the simple fact that multiple generations of Catholics have now reached adulthood without experiencing it, let alone being familiar with it. What is clear, however, is that the Second Vatican Council did not intend for Latin to become the exception. Indeed, the conciliar document about the sacred liturgy explains that the "Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites." [SC, 36.3]* For now, though, with patience and charity, we can help people get over their Latin hang-ups and recover some our lost Catholic heritage. Here, I think, building up familiarity is key. I've yet to hear anyone who protests the use of Latin similarly argue against the use of words like "Amen", "Alleluia", and "Hosanna" which have remained in the English translation of Mass. They don't reject these because they're used to them, and have come to understand them simply through that continued use.

*As an aside, I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunity to write more about Vatican II, the malady of 'the spirit of Vatican II' and the remedy of actually reading what Vatican II wrote.

1 comment:

  1. PS, a Catholic friend just told me, after reading this post, that they'd used exactly this "no-one understands Latin" argument the other week, and now they're rethinking it. It brought to mind a good real life example of such reasoning being turned on its head.

    I'm the MC at my parish, and was teaching the servers (boys and girls between 7 and 10) the words to the Sanctus. I began by saying, "Now of course, this is Latin." At which point the littlest girl screwed up her face and asked, "Is it?" Baffled, I replied, "Of course, what language did you think it was?" "English," she answered. English! Then it occurred to me - she is now old enough to know that she's learning the English language i.e. that there are words in it she doesn't know the meaning of yet. When she encounters a word she doesn't understand, it's no extraordinary thing for her - she just waits to be told what the word means, then she understands it. Simple. If only us 'grown-ups' could be like that when we encounter Latin in the Latin Rite. What was that Jesus said about making ourselves like little children...?