Liturgy Matters — Why Latin?

Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

The language of the Old Testament scriptures was primarily Hebrew. Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Latin. The dominant spoken language in the Hellenistic world and in the New Testament was Greek. Since worship was primarily an oral activity in the early centuries of Christianity, it was normative for the vernacular or mother tongue in each area to serve as the language for liturgy.

So for the first few centuries in the Christian world there was no designated language for the liturgy. With the eventual dominance of the Roman Empire where Latin was the language of government, business transactions and the elite, Latin eventually became the language of public worship as well. This affected participation of the regular folk since most did not speak Latin.

Since this is also true today, why hold on to Latin texts as the starting point, requiring translation into the various languages spoken around the world?

One very basic reason for the value placed on Latin is the respect for tradition, passing the teaching of the church from one generation to the next.

In the Nicene Creed that we profess most Sundays, we characterize the church as “catholic,” not to identify the denomination but in the basic meaning of the word as “universal.”

The rites of the church are not created anew each Sunday. Allowing for some options and cultural adaptations in each country, the basics of the liturgy remain the same. Starting with the one source in Latin ensures that this uniformity and tradition can be maintained.

The work of the conference of bishops in each country is to produce a translation that is “fully and faithfully rendered” yet respectful of the character of each language (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 392).

Translation, however, is a slippery slope. Even an exact word for word translation may not accurately communicate the meaning of a text since various languages and cultures use vocabulary differently. Even within the same country the meaning of words can be quite different.

What does the church say about the use of Latin today?

Although the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL), section 36, states that the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the rites, it also expresses the advantage to the people in the use of the vernacular or language of the people in the liturgy. One of the most foundational principles in CSL, section 14, is the importance of the full, conscious and active participation of all the people by reason of their Baptism. This type of conscious participation requires knowing what we are saying and singing.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal and Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship insist that all congregations should learn some parts of the Mass in Latin, such as, the Gregorian chant setting of the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God ). One advantage to these two parts of the Mass is the fact that even when we sing or recite them in Latin, we don’t have to guess the meaning of the text.

Under certain circumstances the use of some Latin texts in the liturgy may unify a congregation divided by language. In the Taizé community in France which attracts great numbers of young people from around the world for retreats, Latin is the language most commonly selected for communal prayer. Even in the diversity of language and culture that are now commonplace in many of our parishes, there could sometimes be a benefit to some simple Latin texts to unify diverse groups for common prayer.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.


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One reply on “Liturgy Matters — Why Latin?”
  1. says: Beverly McAuliffe

    Those of us who were “on the cusp” of Vatican II enjoy the blessing of experiencing both the Latin and the English texts of the Church liturgy. I loved the Latin chant and can sing it to this day (the Dies Irae even!) and recite prayers in Latin! While I love the liturgy in English as well, I still enjoy hearing hymns sung in Latin. There is a place for both in our beautiful Church liturgy!

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