Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The “Solomon of Naples” - A Jesuit Founder on the Sacred Liturgy: Guest Article by Fr Sam Conedera, SJ (Part 3)

This is the third part of an article by Fr Sam Conedera, a priest of the Society of Jesus and professor at St Louis University, on the liturgical theology of one of the founders of his order, Fr Alfonso Salmerón (1515-85). Click there links to the first part and the second; our thanks once again to Fr Conedera for sharing this with us.

“Father Alphonse Salmerón of the Society of Jesus, a Spaniard, one of the first companions of St Ignatius, having accomplished the greatest labors for the salvation of souls through nearly all of Europe, died at Naples on February 13th, 1595, at the age of 69.” Book engraving of the 17th century.
The third and final installment of this series on Alfonso Salmerón’s Commentaries deals with his defense of the Latin language. For the Jesuit theologian, this was no minor issue, but rather went to the heart of the Church’s unity and respect for tradition. Although he mentions the issue in passing many times, the primary locus is his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14 and the gift of tongues, where he discusses the controversial proposal of his age: replacing the Latin liturgy with vernacular translations. Although this idea was considered at the Council of Trent, it had little appeal for the Spaniards and Italians who made up the majority of the conciliar fathers; in the end, the proposition that the Mass ought only to be celebrated in the vernacular was anathematized. (Session 22, Chapter IX, Canon IX.) Although Salmerón cites Trent’s decision, he goes beyond appeals to authority to a historical and theological examination of the issue.
Salmerón’s defense of Latin takes its point of departure from a respect for tradition as well as a historical consciousness:
The Church has observed, and still observes, the things that her ancestors handed down for observance. For indeed the holy mystery of the Mass and the Divine Office were celebrated only in Hebrew among the Hebrews, in Greek among the Greeks, and in Latin among the Latins, but never in the vernacular or the mother tongue at all.
He then traces the origin of using these “three universal languages” for the Scriptures, worship, and intellectual disciplines. After the Babylonian captivity, he says, the Jews stopped speaking Hebrew, but retained it for worship. Although the Apostles used many languages, they never wrote Scripture in anything other than Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Paul wrote to the Romans in Greek, which Salmerón says was not their mother tongue, and in fact always used a literary register of this language. When Spain was invaded by Goths and Vandals, their languages were not adopted for worship, nor did the English, French, or Germans ever use anything besides Latin. Salmerón cites copiously from late antique and early medieval sources, including commentaries on the liturgy, to demonstrate that Latin was not the vernacular tongue of the regions that adopted it for worship.
This historical argument goes hand-in-hand with the appeal to the usage and custom of the whole Church. “For saying anything against what the universal Church thinks and observes is most insolent madness, as Augustine amply testifies in his Letter to Januarius. And the whole Church for a thousand years has used those languages that were sanctified on the Cross.” The custom of the Church finds an echo even among the Gentiles, who sometimes used a non-vernacular language for sacrificing: the Romans used Etruscan, and according to Julius Caesar, the Druids who lived in Gaul used the tongue of their native Britain.
In his defense of Latin, Salmerón also appeals to the need for mystery in divine worship, citing the works of Basil the Great, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Gregory Nazianzen, who all say that holy things are not to be divulged to all. In a like manner, the Council of Trent defended the whispered Canon, “which we call the secret within the secret” (secreta in secretis). This need for mystery is why the catechumens were sent away prior to the consecration, as Dionysius and Chrysostom testify. Salmerón observes that when divine mysteries are divulged everywhere, they cease to be mysteries, and since there is nothing more sacrosanct than the mystery of the Eucharist, it should never be celebrated in the vernacular.
Examples from both the Old and New Testaments are brought forth to support this notion of mystery. The Jews did not allow people to read certain passages of Scripture, like the Canticle of Canticles, before they had reached the age of thirty. The Passover lamb was eaten at night in silence within the walls of each household; Moses ascended the mountain alone, and the people were forbidden to approach it on punishment of death; the Bread of the Presence was placed within the tabernacle, and only the priests were allowed to eat of it. “Also the unutterable name Jehovah was spoken only by the high priest within the Holy of Holies.” Jesus closes the book of Isaiah after reading it and returns it to the minister (Luke 4, 20) to show that few of the divine things should be divulged to the people. The Incarnation took place only in the presence of the angel and the Virgin, and the Nativity was shown only to the shepherds and the Magi. The Lord remained hidden at home from age twelve to thirty; he celebrated the Eucharist only in the presence of the Twelve; he appeared to the disciples after the resurrection behind closed doors, and not to all of them, but only to those chosen by God.
Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law, 1560-62, by Tintoretto; in the church of the Madonna dell’Orto in Venice.
The emphasis on mystery, however, does not mean that the faithful are ignorant of what takes place at Mass. It is more important, Salmerón says, to have knowledge of the things signified by the words than the words themselves. Even the unlearned know that the priest publicly entreats God for things on behalf of the people: “like the remission of sin, peace, health of mind and body, grace, and life eternal, and all these things through Christ the mediator.” Thus he does not take a dismissive attitude toward the simple faithful, but rather stresses the different roles of clergy and laity in public prayer.
Latin is closely connected in Salmerón’s mind to the unity of the Church, which is expressed in faith, worship, charity, and customs, “and what is greater, in the very sacrament of charity, which is the Eucharist.” He believes that all these manifestations of unity would be lost with a move from Latin to the vernacular. The different languages in the Mass and Divine Office among various regions would lead to ignorance between them about their faith, so that “he who moved from one province to another, would be going to a people of another faith and worship, and they would be like barbarians to each other.” This in turn, Salmerón predicts, would soon lead to the change of the rites and ceremonies themselves, as has already happened among Protestants, and would open the window to errors and heresies. Salmerón claims that where vernacular translations have appeared, ignorance, heresy, and schism have soon followed. Experience shows also that a common language promotes love and mutual benevolence among people; changing the language of worship would take away its unity, and thereby dissolve the community itself. Take away Latin, he asks, and who will be able to read the Fathers, councils, and canons of the Church? When the urgent necessity of something is removed, its usefulness goes away with it.
The move toward the vernacular, according to Salmerón, would not only dissolve the unity between various provinces and kingdoms, but also create problems within them. He observes that in his native land, there exist mutually unintelligible languages like Spanish and Basque, as well as differences between the speech of town and countryside. According to (unnamed) learned persons, languages changes about every three hundred years, although this process may be accelerated by other factors. Salmerón cites as an example the fact that the Spanish of three hundred years earlier can barely be understood in his own time. If the Church moved to the vernacular, these realities would have to be accommodated and translations updated accordingly, resulting in “Babylonian confusion.”
The Tower of Babel, by the Flemish painter Hans Bol (1534-93); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Salmerón’s habitual concern for the defense of the faith against heresy is also evident in his discussion of Latin, for he opposes the arguments of John Calvin and his accomplice Augustin Marlorat: the Church in Europe has erred in using Latin ever since it ceased to be the common tongue, and the faithful fruitlessly attend church to hear Scripture and prayers that they do not understand. Rejecting this way of thinking, Salmerón claims that the root of demands for vernacular worship is heresy and the desire to cause division in the Church, meaning that any concessions would only serve to confirm Protestants in their errors. He says that the Fathers, general councils, and the Church as a whole have never conceded anything that smacked of heresy, but instead issued constitutions and decrees to heal heretics of their disease. The Jesuit theologian fears that allowing the vernacular in worship would lead to even worse things, “like the marriage of priests and monks, Communion under both species, and religious liberty, which they call neutrality.”
It is evident from the Commentaries that Alfonso Salmerón saw the use of the Latin language in worship as a matter of principle that could not be compromised. Although he recognized the importance of tradition and ecclesiastical authority in supporting it, he did not stop there, but sought to explain Latin’s place in the unfolding of Church history and its intrinsic value and fittingness. The abandonment of Latin, Salmerón believed, would mean the destruction of unity and faith, which is why he regarded this language as truly “a gift of tongues” that God had bestowed on his Church.

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