Monday, February 06, 2023

Was Liturgical Latin Introduced As (and Because It Was) the “Common Tongue”?

In a lecture published recently at Church Life Journal, “In the Swarm: The Liturgy and Liquid Identity,” Angela Franks offers an intriguing analysis of “solid” and “liquid” aspects of Christianity and the impact this should have on our concept of pastoral care. The article — a keynote address for the Society for Catholic Liturgy — contains much insight: her general line is reminiscent of John Henry Newman’s emphasis on ecclesial development as an enrichment and articulation of what is always already given in Christ and in the deposit of faith.

One must, however, take exception to an illustration Dr. Franks offers from liturgical history, where she unfortunately repeats a misconception that has shown a remarkable resilience against all attempts to correct it. Here is what she writes:
We need solidity… Let us not, however, dismiss too quickly the balancing reality of liquidity. The history of the development of the liturgy and of sacramental theology bears this out as well. I will not attempt to delve into this history, but let us take one simple example: the changes in the liturgical languages of the Church. Very early Christian liturgy privileged Greek (although not exclusively), as the language of Scripture and the universal “common” (koine) tongue, but other rites in the vernacular have ancient roots, such as Coptic and Syrian. The standardization of Latin as the Western liturgical language began to occur when Latin became the “common” tongue. In this and in many other ways, liturgy has developed and changed under the guidance of the Church.
The assertion here is a familiar one: the Christian liturgy was “done in the vernacular,” and whenever the vernacular changed, the language of the liturgy also changed (or, presumably, should have changed). The Latinization of the liturgy in the fourth century is therefore explained simply in terms of wishing to move from an earlier but no longer accessible vernacular (koine Greek) to the vernacular of the day (Latin).

The trouble with this assertion is that it is highly misleading, to say the least, and downright incorrect in some respects. In her classic work Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character, published by CUA Press in 1957 (and happily back in print), Christine Mohrmann (1903–88) explained at length, with an abundance of examples, that the Latin of the early Roman liturgy is anything but the vernacular Latin of its time. It abounded in archaicisms, Hebraisms, legalisms, odd or intricate syntax, and rhetorical tropes. In this respect it was similar to the unusual Greek of the Septuagint and of early Greek Christian liturgies—which should hardly surprise us, given that the Jews themselves continued to use Hebrew in their worship, which, by then, was a language no longer commonly spoken. Indeed, the Son of God would have conducted the Last Supper at least partially in an archaic sacral language. [1]

The discussion of language in Michael Fiedrowicz’s The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite is quite illuminating. The entire section (153–78) is well worth reading; I shall quote here only the most immediately pertinent passages.
…Latin translations of the Bible originated in the middle of the second century. But even these developments were not simply a colloquial element within the divine worship. These texts also possessed a sacred stylizing, insofar as the Latin translations bore a strong biblical complexion through a certain literalism, that is, a close following of the scriptural forms of speech, and in this way they acquired a peculiarly foreign style, soon felt to be holy….
       An appreciation for the sacred formation of the holy texts was the inheritance of old Roman religiosity. In order to conform to the requirements of a hieratic style, Christian Latinity first had to be perfected to a certain degree and be capable of rising above everyday speech. If the development of a Christian sacred language thoroughly drew on particular elements of style of old Roman traditions, then such an impartial use of Rome’s cultural inheritance was conceivable only in the later peacetime of the Church (from 313 on) when the pagan religion no longer presented a serious threat to Christianity; and just as confidently as the Church introduced the spoils of heathen temples into her own basilicas, she made the stylistic forms of ancient prayer texts her own. (156–57)
       The use of Latin as a sacred language that stylistically tied in with old Roman traditions would especially have won over to the Christian Faith the influential elite of the empire, who at this time [fourth century] had just begun to discover anew their texts of classical literature. The Church had at its disposal a language of prayer whose content was renewed by revelation and at the same time formally bound to the Roman tradition. (157–58)
And most to the point:
The introduction of Latin into the Roman liturgy, then, certainly did not indicate the abandonment of the principle of a sacred language. In that sense, Latinization cannot be understood as an argument for the vernacular, as though with the change of the liturgical language, the Church in Rome were simply accounting for the fact that the majority of the faithful by then were no longer Greek-speaking, but Latin-speaking Christians. The Latin of the liturgy was identical with neither the classical Latin of Cicero nor the colloquial language, Vulgar Latin. It was, at least in the texts of prayers, a highly stylized form of language, which was not readily understandable to the average Roman of the fourth and fifth centuries: “No Roman had ever spoken in the language or style of the Canon or the prayers of the Roman Mass.”
       It was rather a language that sought to awaken the experience of the sacred and to raise man above the things of this world to God. This rising up to God was accomplished neither by a complete renunciation of language (holy silence, silentium mysticum) nor in the form of glossolalia, the gift of tongues (cf. 1 Cor 14:2), which no longer possessed its communicative character; rather, it was accomplished by means of a sacred language that drew from biblical sources as well as from the hieratic idiom of pagan Rome and, not least of all, also made use of ancient rhetoric. As a glance at the historical development demonstrates, the Church did not slip Latin on as a garment that could be replaced with another at any time. Rather, the Roman Church artistically forged for herself her own Latin for her liturgy, and in it she uniquely expressed her identity. (158)
In his new book The Liturgy, the Family, and the Crisis of Modernity—which, incidentally, engages with many of the issues raised by Dr. Franks in her lecture—Dr. Joseph Shaw summarizes and comments on Dr. Mohrmann’s research:
The argument from “expedience” may seem particularly weak today, in light of the stress laid by the reformist party on how the liturgy was translated into Latin to aid the comprehension of the faithful, and how it has been translated into a number of other languages by the churches of the East. This argument, familiar as it is, is misleading. We do not have any records of the reasoning behind the composition of the Latin liturgy, but the kind of Latin used suggests that popular comprehension was not the overriding consideration, in contrast to the importance of appropriating the tradition of solemn and sacred Latin for the use of the Church at a moment when Paganism was no longer a threat….
       The Roman Canon would have been at least as incomprehensible to fourth-century prostitutes and bums as Cicero’s convoluted orations would have been to their predecessors. In such cases the style, vocabulary, and in general the register is not designed for immediate and universal comprehension. In the case of the Roman Canon, we find archaisms, neologisms, Hebraisms and other foreign loan words, and echoes of the unnatural syntax of sacred and legal language. In any case, from an early date, and quite possibly from the start, it was said silently, by a celebrant hidden from the congregation in the nave by curtains. If verbal comprehension was the object of the Latin liturgy’s composition, Pope Damasus (if it was he) and his collaborators went about their task in a most surprising way. (60, 72)
With considerations like these in mind, it becomes clear why we need to be extremely cautious about making claims like “Christian liturgy privileged…the universal ‘common’ tongue” and “the standardization of Latin as the Western liturgical language began to occur when Latin became the ‘common’ tongue.” Both of these claims are demonstrably false.

As to the first, Christian liturgy, even when first rendered in the language of a certain people or cultural sphere, always exhibited peculiar traits that linguists describe as sacral or hieratic, and which would already have sounded that way even to those at the time it was first used, but much more so to those who come in the generations after, given both the continual development of the vernacular and the tendency toward a strong conservatism of forms on the part of the Church in every one of its historic rites.

As to the second claim, Latin was spoken for centuries before the Roman liturgy was rendered in Latin; the reason for the delay, therefore, was not that Latin was not a “common tongue” prior to this, but rather, that it still had pagan associations and lacked the resources needed for a distinctively Christian register suitable for divine worship. When Roman society (above all, in its aristocracy) had become more Christianized and an abundant Christian literature was available, the time was ripe for the Latinization of the Roman liturgy. As Fr Uwe Michael Lang writes in his recently published The Roman Mass: From Early Christian Origins to Tridentine Reform:
The formation of a Latin liturgical idiom was a major contribution to this project of evangelising Roman culture and thus attracting the influential elites of the city and the empire to the Christian faith. It would not be accurate to describe this process simply as the adoption of the vernacular language in the liturgy, if ‘vernacular’ is taken to mean ‘colloquial’. The Latin of the canon, of the collects and prefaces of the Mass transcended the conversationl idiom of ordinary people. This highly stylised form of speech, shaped to express complex theological ideas, would not have been easy to follow by the average Roman Christian of late antiquity. (109)
Fr Lang also explains why the East saw a profusion of languages (including the Coptic and Syrian of which Dr. Franks makes mention):
The Christian East was in a position to make use of several languages that carried with themselves a certain cultural, social and political weight: in addition to Greek, which retained a strong presence well into the fifth century, Syriac, Coptic Armenian, Georgian and Ethiopic began to be employed in the liturgy. In the Christian West, vernacular languages were not used in divine worship. The case of Roman North Africa is instructive: Augustine held Punic in esteem and made sure that the bishop chosen for a Punic-speaking region knew the language needed for his ministry. However, there are no extant documents of a Punic liturgy, whether Catholic or Donatist. The religious prestige of the Roman church and its bishop helped Latin become the only liturgical language of the West. This would prove an important factor in furthering ecclesiastical, cultural and political unity. Latinitas became one of the defining characteristics of Western Europe. (109–10) [2]
So successful was this endeavor that Latin would remain the mother tongue of the Western Church at prayer for the next 1,600 years. The core of the Roman rite continued intact, while growing organically in its calendar, prayer texts, lectionary, rubrical codification, and artistic externals. Truly one and the same Roman rite, as a person is one and the same, though he was once a child and is now a man; yet also the source of an endless profusion of cultural riches on every continent. Truly, the traditional liturgy demonstrates the most harmonious interplay of the “solid” and the “liquid” in Western history, in support of a transnational and transcultural unity of religion—an interplay and a unity that have been lost in the demotic babelization and ritual fragmentation caused by the postconciliar reforms.


[1] “At the time of Christ, the Jews used the language of Old Hebraic for their services, though it was incomprehensible to the people. In the synagogues, only the readings and a few prayers relating to them were written in the mother tongue of Aramaic; the great, established prayer texts were recited in Hebrew. Although Christ adamantly attacked the formalism of the Pharisees in other respects, He never questioned this practice. Insofar as the Passover Meal was primarily celebrated with Hebrew prayers, the Last Supper was also characterized by elements of a sacred language. It is therefore possible that Christ spoke the words of Eucharistic consecration in the Hebrew lingua sacra” (Fiedrowicz, Traditional Mass, 153).

The same author defines “the characteristics of a sacred language” as: “(1) a conscious distancing from the words of colloquial language, which makes the “complete otherness” of the divine felt; (2) an archaizing or at least conservative tendency to favor antiquated expressions and adhere to certain speech forms from centuries ago, as is well-suited for the worship of an eternal and unchanging God; (3) the use of foreign words that evoke religious associations, as, for example, the Hebrew and Aramaic forms of the words alleluia, Sabaoth, hosanna, amen, maranatha in the Greek books of the New Testament; and finally, (4) syntactic and phonetic stylizations (e.g., parallelisms, alliterations, rhymes, and rhythmic sentence endings) that clearly structure the train of thought, are memorable and allow for easy recollection, and strive for tonal beauty” (154–55).

[2] Regarding Roman prestige: one can well understand why Charlemagne would have adopted for the Franks the Latin liturgy of Rome.

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