Monday, April 28, 2008

Liturgical Vernacular: Still a Language Set Apart?

A few weeks back I had mentioned a new book that will be published soon, one which studies the Roman liturgy in the context of the French Jesuit Missions to some of the Native American nations: The Roman Rite in the Algonquian and Iroquoian Missions.

At the request of the author of that book, Mr. Claudio Salvucci, I had been given the opportunity to read the book prior to its final draft and formal release, something I completed Saturday.

I found the book quite interesting, but I won't go into the details right now. That said, there was a short chapter on liturgical language that was of particular interest which I wished to share with the permission of the author. Here is the most pertinent excerpt:

...the extent of the use of vernacular in the Algonquian and Iroquoian missions [was] a distinguishing mark over against the Roman Rite in general, which during the period before Vatican II was quite resistant to any attempts at vernacularization.

However, the term “vernacular” needs to be qualified to a certain extent. Although generally, the language used at each mission was the language of the major ethnic group that inhabited it, certain idioms tended to become standardized languages of prayer which were often different languages than were natively spoken.

Essentially what Salvucci is speaking of are three things; one, which isn't present in the particular quote I have given but which comes up elsewhere in this chapter, is that in some cases different Native dialects were used for liturgical worship than were their own. A second aspect is that the vernacular form of liturgical language remained fixed even while common vernacular speech shifted around them, thereby taking on a kind of parallel to "hieratic English" today, which retains older modes of English speech; the thee's, thou's and thy's if you will. The third and final aspect is that Natives were known to prize rhetoric very highly and used an exalted style of speech in formal situations -- something, Mr. Salvucci tells me, that the French complimented them upon -- which seems to have likely been manifest in their liturgical form of vernacular.

While different in some respects, this situation finds some parallels in the matter of the adoption of Christian liturgical Latin. This is a subject that Fr. Uwe Michael Lang has been doing much research on. In his research he has noted that while Latin was the common vernacular of the times, liturgical Latin was not strictly speaking the Latin of the common man in the Roman street. Instead, it was of a different idiom, being more highly stylized.

Fr. Lang notes:

"...[liturgical Latin] was not an adoption of the "vernacular" language in the liturgy, given that the Latin of the Roman Canon, of the collects and of prefaces of the Mass, were remote from the idiom of the common people. It was a strongly stylized language... (More)

While these are not exact parallels, there is a common thread here which is of interest as it possibly provides another example, like Old Church Slavonic, of the use of a more stylized form of liturgical language.

This becomes important in the context of our day not only with regard to the core concept of a sacred or liturgical language generally and how that relates to the retention of Latin, but also with regard to the question of how "vernacular" might appear in a Catholic liturgical context. This can not only relate to the type of vocabulary or formularies used, but also to question of stylistic qualities -- one is put to mind of the discussion over hieratic forms of English such as are found in the Book of Divine Worship, the liturgical book of the Catholics of the Anglican use pastoral provision, and whether that would constitute a more properly liturgical form of English.

As well, the recent project of re-translating the English of the modern Roman missal has brought to the fore people who speak against the use of a more stylized, formal form of the vernacular in the sacred liturgy. Particularly vocal in this regard has been Bishop Donald Trautman. In 2006 he suggested that the form of vernacular being proposed in the re-translation of the Roman Missal was 'not intelligible to the vast majority of those in the assembly'. What we see expressed is a principle that the vernacular ought to be the common speech of the day. Often this principle is justified by an appeal to the adoption of Latin into the liturgy or history generally. However, the research of both Fr. Lang or Claudio Salvucci are helping tell a different story and elucidate a different principle of liturgical language as a language somehow set apart.

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