Saturday 2 August 2014

"A" in Latin, "D-" in Maths

A post in the Boston Catholic Journal requests the use of Latin in the Mass, and quotes the following remarkable fact:
 The language that has been synonymous with the Catholic Church for over 2000 years has become forgotten (yes, and verboten) in less than 50.
" The language that has been synonymous with the Catholic Church for over 2000 years has become forgotten (yes, and verboten) in less than 50."

I mean, seriously? The Catholic Church has been using Latin for over 2,000 years? Since Jesus was - what? About 20? Were the words "hic haec hoc" floating across the Sea of Galilee as Peter, Andrew, James and John got their act together before they even met Our Lord?

I'm going to give them some credit for having just got a bit carried away. But I guess that's not really my beef with the piece. Neither is the use of a German word for "forbidden". I'm sure Pope Benedict will forgive them for that unfortunate slip.

Let's consider.
Every Jew knows how to pray in Hebrew, just as every Muslim knows how to pray in Arabic.
Fair enough. But Moses, presumably, spoke Hebrew (he would have been decent at Egyptian as well, I guess). David spoke Hebrew. Solomon did. Mohammed spoke Arabic.

But Jesus almost certainly didn't speak Latin. He spoke Aramaic, he'd have prayed in the Synagogue in Hebrew. He may have had a smattering of Greek. But he'd have known little or no Latin.

So there's a prima facie good reason for the people of the Syriac churches (many of them currently being expelled from parts of Iraq) to continue worshipping in Syriac, which is as near to Aramaic as you get these days. These people worship in Jesus's language.

And when Jesus's words were written down. They were written in Greek. So you could argue, if you wanted, that Greek is a good language to pray in. It's the nearest to the direct words of Our Lord that we've got.

But the history of the Church, and the fact of the Incarnation, says to me that you don't worry about the language that much. The Gospel has always been written at one step removed from what Jesus actually said, and the Church has never stopped shaping the Gospel - or being shaped by the Gospel - in whatever culture it falls into. In the Western Empire, Latin made sense - the Good News had to be shared in the language of the Empire, lived out in the Latin way. But in 21st Century England or much of the US, Latin puts the Gospel at one step removed. It's not Jesus's language, it's not the language of the people in their daytime lives. It's just another language. It's as odd as a 21st Century Englishwoman expressing her faith in 16th Century English.

I'm teasing, of course. If you are so immersed in the Latin Mass, it's a perfectly sensible language to express your worship in. If you've grown up with King James and Cranmer, 16th Century English is a perfectly good way to worship God. (I know the King James Version was 17th Century, but the language was archaic when it was written. There's nothing wrong in expressing your worship in the way you're comfortable with. But, there's nothing wrong with your own language, either.

Anyway, I must be off. It's our traditional Taize service. I do love a nice bit of Taize.


  1. The Roman Church (i.e the church of the city) finally admitted the use of Latin, as opposed to Greek, in the Liturgy in the 400's.

    1. And I bet someone was complaining that it wasn't like that in the old days.

  2. OK you asked for this (on behalf of a Catholic who remembers Old Slavonic Masses pre-Vatican 2)

  3. Er.. I mean this

    written hundreds of years ago (1917)

  4. The reality was that Latin was used in the Western Church until Vatican 2. After which English became the norm (or the Vernacular as they so lovingly termed the change).

    As a boy, altar server, I learned the Latin Mass by heart due to needing to do all the responses. Something that I promptly forgot when I didn't need it any more.

    Now I struggle to understand latin when heard, but at heart I know that it's a language which can help with the mystical aspect of worship, particularly as it sounds so much more liturgical than plain old English.

  5. Two additional thoughts:

    On the Cross, the inscription was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: languages all used in the Liturgy of the Church.

    All serious religions have a hieratic language for worship: Our Lord spoke Aramaic, but worshipped in Hebrew, for example.

  6. Having looked at the article, I was amused to see in the header a picture of a carving with the chi-rho symbol and the letters alpha and omega. Not a lot of Latin there.

  7. I would have thought that, growing up in the region of the Decapolis, in Galilee of the Gentiles, our Lord would have had more than a smattering of Greek. My guess is that there it was spoken somewhat more than (because for longer than—since Alex the Gt) English in Imperial India or Africa.


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