Why Mass in Latin?

By Raymond Taouk

You know, a time will come when a man will no longer be able to say, ‘I speak Latin and am a Christian’ and go his way in peace. There will come frontiers, frontiers of all kinds—between men—and there will be no end to them.” - John Osborne, Luther, 2:4, spoken by Tommaso Cardinal Cajetan to Martin Luther

Such was Cardinal Cajetan’s prophetic statement to Martin Luther predicting the end of European Christendom after the dawning of the Era of Protestantism.

What is even more prophetic are the words of Dom Prosper Gueranger, founder of the Benedictine Congregation of France and first abbot of Solesmes after the French revolution, who wrote in 1840 his Liturgical Institutions in order to restore among the clergy the knowledge and the love for the Roman Liturgy. In his work the anti-liturgical heresy he wrote the following concerning the Latin language and the liturgy and the enemies of the Church:

“Hatred for the Latin language is inborn in the hearts of all the enemies of Rome. They recognize it as the bond among Catholics throughout the universe, as the arsenal of orthodoxy against all the subtleties of the sectarian spirit. . . . The spirit of rebellion which drives them to confide the universal prayer to the idiom of each people, of each province, of each century, has for the rest produced its fruits, and the reformed themselves constantly perceive that the Catholic people, in spite of their Latin prayers, relish better and accomplish with more zeal the duties of the cult than most do the Protestant people. At every hour of the day, divine worship takes place in Catholic churches. The faithful Catholic, who assists, leaves his mother tongue at the door. Apart form the sermons, he hears nothing but mysterious words which, even so, are not heard in the most solemn moment of the Canon of the Mass. Nevertheless, this mystery charms him in such a way that he is not jealous of the lot of the Protestant, even though the ear of the latter doesn’t hear a single sound without perceiving its meaning .… . . . We must admit it is a master blow of Protestantism to have declared war on the sacred language. If it should ever succeed in ever destroying it, it would be well on the way to victory. Exposed to profane gaze, like a virgin who has been violated, from that moment on the Liturgy has lost much of its sacred character, and very soon people find that it is not worthwhile putting aside one’s work or pleasure in order to go and listen to what is being said in the way one speaks on the marketplace. . . .

Since the introduction of a new missal in the 1960’s Masses have been celebrated most often in living languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, etc... One of the reasons given for this liturgical change was to make the Mass comprehensible to the faithful who no longer knew Latin. However, attendance at these Masses has diminished in many places and a minority of Catholics continue to ask that the Latin Mass continue to be celebrated. Why such an attachment to Latin? Is it only for aesthetic or sentimental reasons?

What is the historical origin of the introduction of Latin into the Catholic Liturgy?

Even though Our Lord Jesus Christ could speak all languages, he habitually used only Aramaic, the language of the Jews of Palestine of his period. When the apostles dispersed after the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, in the year 70 A.D., they had to adopt the local languages in order to be able to preach. In the Roman empire, the Greek language was the universal vehicle for literature, for worldly correspondence, and for commercial affairs. For that reason, the early Church spoke Greek and read the sacred books in that language as well. That is why Greek was predominant as a liturgical language at the origin of the Church; the Kyrie Eleison remains extant. That, however, did not stop the first Christians from praying in Coptic, Syriac, or Armenian. Then, as time passed, Greek lost its influence in the West and Latin progressively took its place. The Roman liturgy followed this movement, adopting Latin as its language and keeping it until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, there remain to this day liturgies in Greek, Chaldian, Syriac, Arabic, Georgian and Slavonic.

The traditional Roman Mass in all its essentials was passed on by St. Peter, the first pope, to the Church, was according to St. Ambrose elaborated by the Apostles themselves, and reached its complete perfection with Popes St. Damasus (fourth century) and St. Gregory the Great (sixth century). As the great liturgical scholar Fr. Adrian Fortescue wrote, this Mass is “the most venerable in all Christendom, with a history of unbroken use far longer than that of any Eastern rite, there being no doubt that the essential parts of the Mass are of Apostolic origin.” - A Study of the Roman Liturgy.

What are the principle reasons in favor of Latin as a liturgical language?

First reason: The concern for dogmatic unity.

Pope Pius XII  points out that "the use of the Latin language affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of true doctrine." (Mediator Dei)

The Catholic Church is a depository of the truths of faith without which “It is impossible to please God.” (Heb. 11:6) The use of Latin in the liturgy is a most efficacious way of avoiding heresy; translations of the liturgical texts, which are being constantly updated, increase the risk of error in the transmission of divine teaching. That is why the Church has held to Latin for such a long time as a protective rampart for the integrity of her dogmas. This is because an unchangeable dogmas require an unchangeable language. On this point Alfons Cardinal Stickler pointed out that:

The vernacular has often vulgarized the Mass itself, and the translation of the original Latin has resulted in serious doctrinal misunderstanding and errors....  The theological correctness of the Tridentine Mass corresponds with the theological incorrectness of the Vatican II Mass.—In an address given May 11, 1996, in New York

Second reason: The concern for stability.

Living, spoken languages, English or Spanish for example, are always changing, perpetually and profoundly; it is certain that if our great-grandparents came back to life today, they would have difficulty in understanding the speech of their great-grandchildren. Now to celebrate the Mass in a living language is to condemn the liturgical text to these continual alterations and variations without end. That is what is established undeniably in the multiple editions of the New Mass edited in 1969. That is why it is preferable to preserve the Latin language which is dead i.e. no longer changing. In Fact it well known that the meaning of words is changed in the course of time by every -day usage. Words, which once had a good meaning, are now used in a vulgar or ludicrous sense. The Church, enlightened by the Holy Ghost, has chosen a language that is not liable to such changes.

Third reason: The concern for Tradition.

The Catholic Church venerates Tradition. Utilizing a dead language in the liturgy brings us something of the eternal and immutable God. That is why Pope Pius X said that “the true friends of the people (Catholics) are neither revolutionaries nor innovators, but traditionalists” (Letter on the Sillon; 25 VIII 1910).

Fourth reason: The concern for universality.

Pope Pius XI on this issue expressly states that: “The Church - precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure until the end of time - of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.” (Officiorum Omnium, 1922)

Since Latin was spoken in numerous countries for many centuries, it is impartial and does not arouse jealousies between nations. It is the prerogative of no one and therefore can be accepted by all. That is why it has been maintained by the Catholic Church as a universal language, uniting the faithful in the practice of religion for all times and in all places. This is because a universal Church requires a universal language. In speaking on this question Alfons Cardinal Stickler stated that:

“The vulgar tongue has often vulgarized the Mass itself, and the translation of the original Latin has resulted in serious doctrinal  misunderstanding and error....  This Babel of common worship results in a
loss of external unity in the worldwide Catholic Church, which was once  unified in a common voice....  We must admit that only a few decades after  the reform of the liturgical language, we have lost that former possibility of praying and singing together even in the great international gatherings such as Eucharistic Congresses, or even during meetings with the Pope as the external center of unity of the church.  We can no longer sing and pray together”.  --  The Theological Attractiveness of the  Tridentine Mass,” a speech given on May 20, 1995 in Fort Lee, New Jersey apud
Catholic Family News, (II:7, July 1995), p. 10

Fifth reason: Latin has many linguistic qualities.

Noble and harmonious, Latin protects the sacred mystery from the profane and the vulgar; clear and precise, it makes it possible to avoid haziness and vagueness; concise and diversified, it stops the introduction of garrulity and monotony. That is why it incites, in an inimitable manner, toward solemnity and contemplation of prayer.

Sixth reason - Variety of Languages is the result of Sin

The Variety of Languages is a punishment (Genesis 11:7) a consequence of sin; it was inflicted by God that the human race might be dispersed over the face of the earth. The Holy Church, the immaculate Spouse of Jesus Christ, has been established for the express purpose of destroying sin and uniting all mankind; consequently she must everywhere speak the same language.

Seventh Reason: The Example of Christ Himself

It is often neglected or plainly forgotten that Christ Himself worship with the Jewish people in the Hebrew. This Hebrew language was not the contemporary language of the time as Aramaic was the language of the Jews at the time and yet they worshiped God in this dead language to which Christ Himself conformed and approved.

Fr. James L. Meager in his well know work “How Christ said the First Mass” (Tan Books) affirms that “The sermons of these ancient preachers come down to us under the name of The Targuns and Midrashes. But they made no change in the ancient Hebrew of Moses and Temple, and synagogue services to our day (circa 1906) remains in the pure Hebrew, which only the learned Jews now understand. People who find fault because Mass is said in Latin, Greek , and tongues the people do not understand, do not realize that Christ worshipped in the synagogues where the services were in a dead language.”

Pope Benedict XIV  (1740-1758) laid down a rule on the use of the vernacular in the liturgy:  “The Church must steadily and firmly heed that although the language of the people may change, the language of liturgy should not be altered.  Thus, the Mass must be said in the language in which it was said from the beginning, even if such a language be already, antiquated and strange to the people, for it is wholly enough, if the learned men understand it.” -  De Missae Sacrificio, 2, II

The Council of Trent summed up well the Church’s mind on Latin being the Language of Roman rite in the following words “ If anyone says that the Mass should be celebrated in the vernacular only, let him be Anathema . “ - Council of Trent (Session XXII, Canon 9)

Again Pope Pius VI, condemned the  notion that the mass should said “in the vernacular” as “rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, and favorable to the charges of heretics against it” (Dz 1533).

It is true that Latin is no longer spoken ordinarily, but in order to follow this Mass without difficulty, bilingual missals are available which have on one side the text of the Latin prayers which the priest says and on the other side the translation in the every day language of the people. With a bit of practice, it is within the reach of everyone to unite himself with the prayers that are said. In addition, to want to understand everything of the Divine Mystery, which is the Sacred Mass, is impossible, mystery by definition is a truth that one cannot fully comprehend.

As Fr. Michael Muller well wrote in 1885 in his well know work “God the Teacher of Mankind” namely that “If the Mass or the sacraments were nothing but a common prayer, read for the people, then perhaps the common language of each country would be the most proper to use; but then, also, would religion lose its chief character of Divinity, and the priesthood be stripped of the only character which distinguishes its members from the laity. We do not, therefore, blame the Protestants for using the common language of the people in their public prayers, for as they have neither sacrifice nor priest, they were only consistent n laying aside the language when they rejected the sacrifice and the Priesthood” - Pg. 502-3

St. Alphonus Liguori, in writing on this issue states: “The innovators contended that mass should be celebrated only in the vulgar tongue: Luther left this matter to the choice of the celebrant (lib. De form. Missae.) but the Catholic Church has, for several reasons, ordained the contrary: for, (St. Robert) Bellarmine justly observes (de missa c. 11) that the oblation of the mass consists more in the act which is performed, than in the words: since, without offering him in words, the very action by which the victim, Jesus Christ, is presented on the altar, is a true oblation. For the consecration, the words are, indeed, necessary: but these are said, not to instruct the people, but to offer the sacrifice. And even the words of oblation are not directed to the people, but to God, who understands every language. Even the Jews, in their public functions, used the Hebrew language, although it had ceased to be their vulgar tongue after the Babylonian captivity. Besides, it has been always the custom in the east to celebrate in the Greek or Chaldaic, and in the west, in the Latin Language: this custom existed after these languages ceased to be commonly understood in the western nations.

The use of the Latin tongue was necessary in the west, in order to preserve the communication among the churches: had not this custom existed, a German could not celebrate in France. Besides, it frequently happens that the words of one language cannot express the full force of certain phrases in another tongue: hence, if in different countries, mass were celebrated in different languages, it would be difficult to preserve the identity of sense. The use of the common language was also necessary for the constant uniformity in the rite prescribed by the Church in the administration of the sacraments, and as a preventive of schisms in the Church: great confusion would arise from the translation of the Roman missal into the language of various countries. Hence, the Bishops of Grance unanimously supplicated Alexander VII., in 1661, to suppress a translation of the Roman missal (to be used by the celebrant) into the French language, which was published by Doctor Voisin, in 1660. On the 12th of January, in the same year, the Pope condemned it.  

…. Besides, if the priest of every country were to celebrate in the vernacular language, they would not be able to communicate with each other in different nations. Moreover, it is not right that the people should hear, every day, the mysteries of our faith in the vulgar tongue, without an explanation from the minister of religion, accommodated to their capacity.” – Exposition and Defense of all the points of Faith discussed and defined by the Sacred Council of Trent, Dublin 1846, Pg. 302-303


“The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism in respect of the Sacred Liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances, provided only that the integrity of her doctrine be safeguarded. This notwithstanding, the temerity and daring of those who introduce novel liturgical practices, or call for the revival of obsolete rites out of harmony with laws and rubrics, deserve reproof. It has pained Us grievously to note, (...) that such innovations are actually being introduced, not merely in minor details but in matters of major importance as well. They are, in point of fact, those who make use of the vernacular in the celebration of the august Eucharistic Sacrifice; those who transfer certain feast days - which have been appointed and established after mature deliberation - to other dates; those finally who delete from the prayer books approved for public use the sacred texts of the Old Testament, deeming them little suited and inopportune for modern times.

The use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth.” (Pius XII: Encyclical Mediator Dei, November 20, 1947)