Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What about the use of vernacular in the Mass?

Where Angels
Fear to Tread

This is obviously a hot button topic and I invite you respond under the comments.

One person has quoted the following section of the Vatican II Constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium, in support of the idea that only very, very limited vernacular (English in our case) was ever intended by the council Fathers.

"The use of the Latin tongue is to be maintained
in the Latin rites, except where some special law obtains" (SC 36 §1).

If this was the entire comment the constitution made on the subject of Latin and if we assumed the intended 'style' of the Constitution matched that of Trent, then it might be a straight forward case. This is not the case. The Second Vatican council does not adopt the forceful juridical style of Trent which demands universal conformity on pain of excommunication. Instead the council adopts a 'pastoral' style and seeks to persuade through the force of its argument.

The move to the vernacular is one of the most striking results of the council, was it a mistake? At the council the use of the use of the vernacular was a very contentious issue with 81/328 interventions from the floor on this issue. The Bishops appear to have had three options;

1. Retain Latin only universally (following Trent),
2. Continue Latin with some limited vernacular,
3. Allow a complete move to the use vernacular.

On the surface the Bishops appear to have voted for the second option. Isn't that what SC 36.1 seems to imply?

In fact there is more to the story than a surface reading might suggest and a closer reading of the Constitution leads to other conclusions. First there is one interesting intervention that took place on this issue. During the debate the Melikite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh addressed the Council. Patriarch Maximos rose and spoke to the council in eloquent French. He was apparently a good speaker. He suggested the absolute value assigned to Latin in the liturgy was strange [assez anormal] to the Eastern Church. He recommended changing the wording of the schema so that it would read that Latin was "the original and official language of the Roman rite" and that instead of Episcopal conferences should "propose" to the Holy See the use of vernacular, instead they should "decide, subject to approval of the Holy See." This speech was greeted very favorably. When the final text was approved they passed over the first request with very little change to the schema but included the second request. Again on a surface reading the council Fathers appear to have voted for the second choice above to continue the Latin tradition with only limited vernacular, but the second change made the it possible for local bishops and Episcopal conferences to choose to implement much wider use of the vernacular at their discretion. In order to understand the intension of the restriction; "The use of the Latin tongue is to be maintained in the Latin rites, except where some special law obtains" (SC 36 §1), one must also consider what is written next in the text. If we keep reading in the text after 36.1, there are three places which affirm the authority of bishops and bishop's conferences to make decisions in adapting the use of Latin. Unlike Trent which required uniformity Sacrosanctum Concilium allows for regional diversity and the possibility for legitimate inculturation into the vernacular.

Having said this all of this, it is quite clear that the Bishops could not have predicted the sweeping changes that would occur as a result. The idea that the whole church would move to the vernacular rapidly and so completely was not imagined. For example in SC 54 the council Fathers noted, "Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them."


  1. You examined and responded to this issue wonderfully, Scott! It is certainly a blessing to be alive during this momentous time in the Catholic Church, witnessing the continued promulgation of Vatican II and the workings of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Who is the Mass for? Is man created for the Sabbath or the Sabbath for man?
    Women have such limited input in and are so restricted in the liturgical practices that even on a good day it is easy to feel like an outside observer at Mass,so the arguement about what langauage to use where sounds to my female ears like an exclusionary one debated among the elite few.
    One must be able to think in a language for that language to become an integral part of the person.And while the language learned to communicate with one's Mother is retained thru old age or in the midst of brain injury or loss, the second language learned is the first to be lost by the brain. Is there a modern man living outside a monestary who wakes up today thinking in liturgical Latin? Is there anyone who writes their grocery list in liturgical Latin?
    So again I ask who is the Mass for? If it is for a small elite who feel better having a religious experience in a language only they barely know than fine. Save the Latin. But if the Mass goes far beyond an empirical sense of holiness and momentary experience, if the Mass indeed is meant to become the fiber and being "the source and summitt" of the "work of the people" the main venue by which "the people" volunteer their services to bring about the reality of the kingdom of God to earth for the sake of the healing and upbuilding of all mankind---well thats another issue altogether and I would think that it would only make sense for this important work to take place in a language known understood and thought in by the people who are 'volunteering' their services. If not the whole affair becomes an incomprehensible 'holy show' from which the volunteers immerge enhanced or deflated depending on how they 'experienced' the 'event'.
    From from the quote in SC54 it sounds as if the Fathers are talking about 'their' Mass rather than 'our' Mass. When the question of "whose Mass is it anyway?" is answered than what language to say it in will be self evident.

  3. The obvious answer is the Sabbath was made for us and the Mass is a gift to us from Jesus Christ through his Church. He also gave the authority over the Church (including the Mass) to the Apostles and their successors. In other words it is Christ’s Mass not “our” or “theirs.” The experience you get out of Mass is the Sacramental Grace from the Eucharist, which is not dependant on the language, but on what you bring to the Mass: bitterness or love, a proper state of grace or a state of sin, arrogance as a “volunteer” that demands things, or humility as a servant of Christ ready to do His will because it is His due such as the Fathers were during the Vatican II Council. Do you really think the Bishops are a bunch of “elites” only worried about they “feel?” If you do, then you should offer more proof than how you think a statement sounds otherwise it is nothing more than a red herring. And by the way, women have as much “input” in the Church as the rest of the laity: which is as much as Christ gave us.

  4. Actually it was the great reception of the vernacular by the laity that needs to be taken into concideration here. The Council declared that Christ is present in the laity as He is in the Sacrament of the altar and in the word.a Little history-- until WW2 no one had "missals" no one had a way to transport the liturgy or any other traditional prayers to a battlefield. Ir you remembered your altar boy days great if not then you were out of luck by way of participation. a parish Priest with a great deal of forethought and pastoral zeal started the "Missal" movement for the soldiers.
    Hypolytus(sp?) said he would rather die than see changes to his liturgy. I think his words were largely ignored down thru the ages especially the part where he said that WE should loose our lives if we changed his liturgy.
    pop quiz--can you tell what parts he wrote and what we added? Me neither off hand but I do know that we did change it and I do know where to get the info.
    You are most correct in saying that the grace of the Mass is not dependent on the language. And the place of the laity is struggling to get back to what Christ gave us which is nicely laid out in the document about the laity.
    Hasn't anyone read Aquinas and his tristease on the person and what it takes to fully engage in an act ect ect ect ? What has Latin to do with anything? So the Council Fathers disagreed and we laity broke the tie.
    My Founder Fr.James Alberione was an early mover and shaker of the "Liturgical Movement" seeing in the Liturgy a threeold entity the law of belief praying and acting.Alberione was the first to see liturgy as a means of evangelization as well as true worship. He was spurred on by none other than Paul VI who told him never to stop on any account.