This is the twelfth part of a 24-part series of responses to a street evangelist I met from Lighthouse Baptist Church (Newark, DE). Please click here to see the first post, which contains a set of links by topic to all the posts in the series.
12. The Latin Mass.
Thanks for bringing up the Latin Mass. I love both the older Latin form of the Mass and the New, vernacular form as well. The language used at Mass is not a doctrinal issue, and so there is no problem with people using either one.
Also, make sure you think about the use of Latin historically and with all the facts.
For much of Church history, Latin was a language that common church-goers knew, so we shouldn’t imagine that no one understood the Mass until Vatican II began allowing the vernacular languages to be used. Further, even as time went on and fewer and fewer people knew the Latin language, the prayers of the Mass were often learned through repetition of hearing them, and children were educated in Latin as a second language, so many people understood the Latin being used. Even I have almost no training in Latin, but I know the Mass well enough to be able to follow the words in Latin. (It really isn’t that hard!) On top of that, after the invention of the printing press, the Church made available “missals,” a booklet that contained the Latin prayers of the Mass on one side and the translation on the other, just so that everyone could follow along if they needed/wanted to. And finally, the parts of the Mass that were not repeated every week, most especially the sermon on the four to five bible readings, were always given in the vernacular language. In fact, for the last five hundred years or so (the period where the Latin language fell out of general use), the priest at Mass would usually begin by translating at least the Gospel (if not more) into the vernacular language.
Here’s a little story that might help give you a different perspective on the use of Latin.
Imagine your family eating at a dinner table. You all speak the same language, and you use that language to bond with one another, sharing stories, creating unique turns of phrases that only your family understands, and passing on memories of what grandpa said, using that funny word that he loved to say, and that unique inflection that he always gave it. Over the decades, you watch your children grow, until they start bringing their own children with them to the dinner table. You pass on the family stories, raise them to know what it means to be a member of the Hall family, and share with the grandchildren the same laughs about (great-)grandpa that have enlivened family dinners for generations. Eventually your children’s children begin showing up to the dinner table with their children. You are by now an old man, but you relish returning week after week with your family that has, over the years, remained unified as a loving family, sharing stories, laughs, tears, memories, and the joy of family life.
Then one day, something changes.
A great-grandchild shows up to the table and has chosen to begin speaking a new language. That child doesn’t mean badly, but in choosing the new language, he forgets almost all of the older, family language. It doesn’t effect things too much at first: the child still kind of understands the stories about grandpa and most of the inside jokes are not lost on him.
But the trend continues.
Within a few months, almost all of the grandchildren have started speaking a new language, and none of them have chosen the same ones. Out of love, you and your children begin learning these languages so that you can do your best to translate the family tradition into these new tongues.
But you quickly realize that some of the most precious memories, stories, and laughs only make sense in the original language. In fact, the entire family identity would be lost if the original language itself was abandoned. With it, the unity of the family, bound up in the entire history and memory of the family would dissolve.
Now, if you are a family man like I am, the sense of horror at the dissolution of the family makes one want to cry: “Stop! Keep the traditions alive! Don’t give up the family language!”
One hopes and prays that the children are only going through a phase and will one day desire to know their roots enough to at least try to understand the family language enough to learn her history, her story, and the unique forms of expression and address that bind her into a solid unit.
My friend, the Catholic Church has always struck a great balance between preserving the family language while doing everything in her power to make that language accessible (relative to the need for accessibility) to the “great grandchildren” of the family. Like I said, the Church has made the translation available for anyone who wanted to follow along, and the non-repeating parts of the Mass were always spoken in the vernacular. Anyone who really wanted to understand could; they just had to pick up a missal.
I don’t know Latin or Greek, but I know the prayers that are still prayed at Mass in these languages, and you probably do to. “Kyrie Elieson” means “Christ have Mercy.” “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi” means “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” It is a prayer that every Catholic around the world prays at least four times in every Mass, and this prayer shows that any true, faithful Catholic trusts in Jesus as savior. (Long tangent: They might not always articulate this trust in the terms that a fundamentalist Baptist in your neck of the woods would use, but that doesn’t mean that these Catholics do not accept that Christ is their savior. That’s why it is unfathomable to me that Pastor Witmer can group Catholics in general with unbelievers, Satanists, etc., as I have heard him do in multiple sermons. I trust that he is not speaking out of malice, so I can only conclude that he is almost completely ignorant about Catholicism, and I feel quite sorry for the people who believe that the things he says about Catholics are true. He, and these people, will one day have to give an account before God as to why they would believe and share such negative things about other Christians without first checking to see if they were even true. Now, remember, there will always be sinful Catholics, and there will be Catholics who show up and warm a pew each week but who don’t have a relationship with Jesus. But that doesn’t at all mean that all Catholics don’t have a relationship with Jesus. I am almost certain that Baptist have their pew warmers as well, though it would be wrong of me to judge your church by the weakest members in her!)
You might be interested to know that the great-grandchildren have made it through their “phase.” In the Catholic Church, the youth (such as myself) are beginning to tap into their roots and request the availability of the Latin Mass. We appreciate now that some doctrines can’t be communicated with accuracy in every language, we’ve seen too many translators try to “tamper” with Mass translations (often resulting in a watering-down of the faith), and we are learning to understand the Bible and the liturgy in their original languages. Many of us now realize that the great experiment of changing the Mass into the vernacular didn’t really do anything to increase our engagement (at Mass, I still see people who sit there bored and unengaged…perhaps the problem isn’t one of the language but of the human condition!). In contrast, in every Latin Mass I have attended, there is a profound sense of reverence, focus, attention, and worship.
That being said, many others prefer the Mass in the vernacular, and this is perfectly acceptable. There is no reason for Christians to be divided over options when both options are good and acceptable.
Now, returning to our story:
How would you feel (as the head of the family) if a neighbor from outside the family showed up at the door and began chastising you for trying (just as your longstanding family identity is beginning to slip away) to maintain the family language in reasonable ways?
How do you think I feel as a Catholic when people outside the “immediate” family show up at the door and chastise the Catholic Church for trying to maintain the family language in a reasonable way? The only difference is, the Catholic Church is trying to protect memories and traditions and truths that are far more valuable than those of your or my biological families.