Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fr. Dwight Longenecker's Latin Questions

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a few Latin Questions. We should recall that Fr. Longenecker has come from a tradition of beautiful English language liturgical prose. That must be remembered for context. He had the following questions about Latin in liturgical worship, which he obviously has some struggles with, and really about certain traditional liturgical ethos generally. I will respond to them in turn in bold.

He notes that he asks these questions in earnest, and I think everyone should take them in that light. We must keep in mind that such answers, particularly in our current liturgical atmosphere are most certainly not evident. In fact, it requires a considerable amount of 'counter-ecclesial-cultural' thought and research. I say "ecclesial" but of course, I do not mean officially, but rather practically on the parish to parish level.

Unfortunately, because of people's frustrations in the face of the 'liturgical establishment' they can be tempted to react flippantly or emotionally to such questions, as though all who question such things do so ideologically. What must be remembered is that such is not the case. Many have been formed to think in such a way, and they have known nothing else. Others come from different traditions and so they look for explanations so they might at least understand.

With that prologue accomplished, here is the series of questions Fr. Longenecker has to ask:

Fr. L: If the Latin language is so wonderful, why is it inaudible on purpose?

Response: We should of course immediately make a distinction in the approach to the prayers of the liturgy in a sung Mass (whether solemn or not) and a low Mass. In the sung Mass, which we should recall is the "normative" model for the classical liturgy (even though the Low Mass became far too predominant in many parishes) the focus is upon the (sung) propers of the day, the sung ordinary texts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), and then of course the readings and Canon of the Mass. This tradition of certain parts being sung, while others being spoken at the altar spans various liturgical traditions. In the Byzantine liturgy, the Priest (and deacon if one is present) speaks many prayers that go unheard while the congregation sings other parts.

When you translate this model over to the Low Mass, it can lead to a style of celebration whereby the priest speaks his parts relatively quietly (to the server effectively) as the people follow along in their missals or quietly pray. It's particular approach that some more contemplative souls find quite edifying -- and it can be, as for example, in an early morning weekday Mass. This 'mode' might be seen as a carryover from the normative mode -- the sung Mass -- whereby the strong vocalization of the prayers would not be necessary, and the servers would alone tend to make those responses as the rest focus upon the sung parts of the Mass.

But of course, this is not the only way. Perhaps it was with the increase of the Low Mass on Sundays (which as Ratzinger and many adherents of the rite will say, is not ideal and is an impoverishment) that the "dialogue Mass" was encouraged. In such a method, the priest should speak out the appropriate parts of the liturgy clearly as it is in dialogic form. If he doesn't (excepting for the Canon of the Mass) then that isn't the fault of the rite, but rather the fault of the celebrant.

There is another distinction we must make here, which I've just skirted, that of the silent Canon. The Roman Canon is a truly beautiful prayer. Some would argue that it is so theologically rich, it should be spoken. Well, there is an argument in that. However, there is also an argument that can be made for the great worth of this tradition. On the one hand, there is the argument from tradition, but of course, this could develop. Still, the tradition has a merit and value that we should always heed very closely. But aside from that aspect of the question, there is the issue of the lesson that such speaks. It is within our cultural religious vocabulary to understand the idea of that which is most sacred as being "veiled".

For example, we veil the tabernacle yet still in many of our churches, even though underneath it is often of beautiful craftsmanship. It was more common as well that altars would be veiled with frontals, and moreover, covered with canopies. Chalices and ciboria as well of course. In the Old Testament there was the Ark and the Holy of Holies. Gospels books where covered with precious covers. This all spoke of something sacred and holy, and so too with the Canon of the Mass, which was rather the "Holy of Holies" of the sacred liturgy. The veiling here occurs by the silence, and the silence in turn brings about an added solemnity, prayerfulness and poignancy to that moment, particularly in contrast to the other moments of the liturgy characterized by vocal elements, be it chant or be it the spoken word.

It was in the 2003 CIEL Proceedings (if memory serves) that there was a very excellent essay offered precisely on this topic. If you desire, I'd be happy to confirm the volume, title and author of the essay, but it makes for a wonderful meditation on this aspect of the liturgy, including in how we might understand the silent Canon as at least "making sense" from a Christian perspective. (And as for the argument from theological richness and worth, which is undeniable of course, let's remember that it's not necessary on either-or situation. People will have access to this great prayer as they pray along in their missal -- while still retaining these other symbolic and prayerful benefits.)

With that, let's return to the question. You asked (to paraphrase), if Latin is so wonderful, why is it done purposefully inaudible.

The short answer then is this:

a) Sometimes it is not intended to be inaudible, and certainly never "mumbled" and if it is in those instances, that is the fault of the celebrant, who is not doing the language or the rite justice. Poor "ars celebrandi".

b) More often than not, the Latin chants and music are the focus, which are still done in Latin, in which case, it isn't inaudible.

c) The Canon was indeed meant to be inaudible, or "sotto voce", which can be understood as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition of 'veiling' and accentuating that which is most sacred.


Fr. L: How does the priest reading the Scripture in Latin with his back to the people inaudibly in a language they don't understand help the people of God to hear and understand the Word of God?

Response: First of all, the scriptures are never intended to be read inaudibly. If that was what you witnessed, then witness point (a) above.

As regards comprehension, a few thoughts. On the one hand, we should always remember that hearing the scriptures proclaimed in the vernacular doesn't guarantee comprehension. One can hear a particular reading over and over, like one prays the Our Father over and over, without really comprehending the message. This doesn't specifically address the direct point you are raising about Latin readings, I realize, but I think that should be laid out there. Whatever the language, this is where the homily can come into play -- provided the homily is good -- and comprehension ultimately something that requires some effort.

As it stands, Catholics who do not speak Latin must avail themselves of a translation provided in a Missal, or the Sunday Bulletin or so forth. Now, there is benefit to this. Even if the readings are proclaimed in the vernacular, I know of many Catholics who find that by reading the passage themselves, they are able to focus more upon the reading. From that angle, having to so do could very well help in terms of their understanding of the Word of God.

All that being said (which is just to say there can indeed be profit from that practice), while some attached to the classical liturgy would not say so, there are many others who are attached to the classical liturgy who would say that allowing the option to directly read or chant the epistle and Gospel in the vernacular (rather than proclaiming them again in the vernacular prior to the Homily) would seem to be one of the clearest examples of a good and reasonable 'organic development'. However, such cannot happen until the Holy See allows such. I for one do think this would be a most sensible development, but at the same time, I am also keenly aware that not having such an option does not bar understanding or comprehension of the Sacred Scriptures given other considerations like reading along in the Missal as well as listening to a homily which expounds upon it.


Fr. L: How does no hymns and a choir singing in Gregorian chant help the people to particpate in the Mass, or have I got this wrong and the people are not intended to participate in the Mass at all? If so, is this better?

Response: Most such masses do at least have hymns, even the Low Mass (usually the Processional, Communion and Recessional).

A bigger issue here though is your issue about "participation". As Pope John Paul II reminded the U.S. Bishops in their ad limina visit (see here), participation is not to be solely understood as external participation. That would be to reduce participation to one dimension, and not necessarily its most important dimension.

Here is what John Paul II noted: "...active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy."

In other words, silence, listening, hearing the chants all constitute a form of participation. In the excellent series of essays on the topic of "active participation" by Cardinals Arinze, Medina-Estevez, Pell and George (Cardinal Reflections published by Hillenbrand Books) they note the same as well, and also point to this aspect of participation (interior participation) as being more important than mere external participation.

None of this is to denigrate external forms of participation.


Fr. L: How does it help the people to understand what is going on at the Mass when they can't see what is happening at the altar, can't understand the language, and can't hear what the priest is saying?

Response: Let's start to answer this in the reverse order in which bring up the questions. On the latter point, I think we've addressed the issue about audibility extensively. On the matter of understanding the language, an important point to note, aside from the fact of a Missal in which to pray along the Mass (which can be very focusing, and thus, engaging) it must be stated that one does not have to fluently speak Latin in order to have a significant understanding of what is being said.

There are two forms of the liturgical "understanding". One is the awareness of what is supernaturally going on around you: that the priest is acting in the person of Christ, offering up the one sacrifice of Christ to God the Father; that Christ comes down onto the altar, that one is mystically at calvary. We shouldn't underestimate the importance of this sort of understanding, which, when brought to Mass, has an inherent value at any and all times.

As regards the prayers and ceremonies, we do not always understand all aspects of the ceremonies. Why for example, does the priest wear particular vestments? Why do we make certain actions in the liturgy? Why does he pour a drop of water into the wine? Why does he break the host? There are answers to all these questions, but all do not know them, and yet this does that make the Mass incomprehensible or without understanding. In fact, where we don't understand at times, it can draw us in by virtue of our asking questions and pondering these things.

Likewise, we mustn't see all the actions at the altar to appreciate the liturgy. In fact, as Dr. Alcuin Reid has pointed out, this can lead to a kind of "ritual exhaustion" which is not helpful. (At this point as well, we must refer back to the previous points about the different kinds of participation.)

At the same time, moving back to the issue of language, one need not be fluent in the Latin language and its grammatical constructs to understand the core prayers being prayed. Words, phrases or prayers that are used over and over, and read in their English translation over and over, come to be known. Within a very short time, let alone a lifetime, these are certainly very known. One does not have to be Italian to know what "ciao" means or fluent in French to understand "c'est la vie". Likewise, not only would most Catholics who begin to worship in Latin know what "Dominus vobiscum" means, as well as its response, but who could deny that they wouldn't also know what they are praying when they hear the Our Father/Pater Noster in Latin, or the Kyrie in Greek, the Sanctus, Credo and so forth?

A little familiarity goes a very long way in this regard. Even the modern Roman rite, with its series of responses can seem, to one new to it, highly complex and difficult to follow; a little "incomprehensible." This is because it is new to them and as yet, they haven't been able to integrate those actions and responses into themselves. The ordinary Latin parts of the Mass are no different.


Fr. L: I've heard it said that the Latin language is 'ancient and mystical' and that having the Mass in a dead language assists the worship by making it more mysterious. But the Mass was first translated into Latin from Greek because Latin was the vernacular at the time. In other words, it was put into Latin so people could understand it. Isn't the veneration of Latin therefore artificial?

Response: To be honest, the aspect of mystery in this regard isn't really something personally I'd hang my hat on. However, on the issue of Latin as the ancient vernacular, while I've responded to this on Fr. Longenecker's site in the comments, I'd like to touch upon it again here for the sake of anyone else reading this.

Fr. Uwe Michael Lang has addressed this very topic both in Oxford in the Fall at last year's CIEL conference as well as in his recent piece in the May/June 2007 issue of the Saint Austin Review, "Reflections on Latin as a Liturgical Language."

To quickly summarize. The Latin employed in the early Church cannot be simply thought of as the vernacular. It's not quite so simple as that. As he has brought forward, it was of a highly stylized idiom and thus would not be immediately recognizable, even comprehensible, to the average Roman in the street -- let alone, for that matter, converted but non-Latin speaking cultures which we should remember were also around at this time. Both in the type of Latin employed, as well as the highly stylized vocabularly and way of speaking, it was divorced from the "common vernacular".

By analogy (and this is my analogy, not Fr. Lang's) one might think of how a Shakespearian play reads to us today perhaps. It is in English, in the 'vernacular', and we recognize various words, but it is also very difficult because some words we don't really hear so often (if at all) in our day to day English, and also the way sentences are phrased is not our normal way of speaking. So it is "vernacular" in one sense, but not so in another.

If we understand that the liturgical Latin used at that time was very much similar in the way it would be experienced, we can then understand that the employment of Latin was not necessarily on the principle of the vernacular as we understand it. Fr. Lang goes further into this matter to give further considerations of why the switch might have been made from Greek to Latin, which ties into the matter of the Roman aristocracy and empire. But certainly, the idea of a "sacred language" in that sense is not foreign to us. Jewish peoples use Hebrew as such, and within certain protestant traditions, the older, stylized forms of English, such as found in the King James Version or Cramner's BCP find themselves distinguished from everyday speech -- though less so in the case of the latter than what we are discussing.

At any rate, that point aside, there are various reasons for maintaing Latin in the liturgy. For one, it is our tradition. There is the matter of organic development. As well, there are some pragmatic reasons as regards to the shifts that can happen in the vernacular, and the need for liturgical stability. There is also the fact that this is what the Church continues to decree as proper and desireable. Finally, there is also the fact that this continues to tie us to our own spiritual ancestry, our "roots" if you will, in the same way as people do with their ethnic culture through dance, dress, food and the like; from our perspective, it also continues to preserve the treasury of sacred music, such as chant and polyphony, that has been handed on down the ages. There is certainly great value in all this.

This doesn't mean that a liturgy must be entirely in Latin of course, but nor does it mean that a liturgy predominantly in Latin is a problem either.


Fr. L: If one really wants an ancient, dead language that is mysterious, why don't we have the Mass in Aramaic or Syriac, which are the dead ancient languages closest to what our Lord himself would have spoken? Why is Latin so special?

Response: It's part of our particular tradition just as other languages and traditions are in other rites. This in turn has informed much of Western culture, and so it forms a part of our spiritual, cultural and artistic heritage generally. This has value.

I should note in this matter of language that I am not a Latin-absolutist. I do not think it is an "all or nothing" as regards to the question of Latin and the vernacular. As such, I do think there is a place for a decent, accurate, beautiful and hieratic vernacular in the liturgy; yes, even the classical Roman liturgy. But our tradition of liturgical Latin continues to have a prominent place and definite value, as certainly seems proper.


[A caveat: this is by no means a comprehensive response to these questions. There are so many issues that can be touched upon and it is quite easy to lose one's train of thought.]