There’s Language ….And Then There’s Sacred Language

11-21-2021From the desk of Fr. VillaJohn Byron Kuhner

There was a recent article in Inside the Vatican September-October 2021 wherein the author John Byron Kuhner raises the question how does language operate in the liturgy? He then asks the provocative question: why wouldn’t we want our prayers and Mass in the mother tongue instead of Latin? In answering this question he raises the notion not simply of language but what’s called hieratic or sacred language. A couple of bullet points from his essay:

Hebrew in the time of Jesus was a dead language yet was used in the synagogue and the Temple in worship. Jesus spoke Aramaic and the Bible was translated into Greek to reach Greek-speaking Jews.

India’s religious culture is sustained to this day by songs, chants, prayers written in Sanskrit, a language just as dead as Latin. Tibetan Buddhists like the Dalai Lama pray in classical Tibetan from the 12th century and not modern Tibetan. Muslims pray in 7th century Arabic even though Arabic has changed a great deal from then. Part of the reason for this is that sacred language is meant to differ from ordinary language because sacred means set apart for God and different from the profane.

The language of the Mass in the earliest centuries was Greek not Latin. A remnant of this is the word “Kyrie” at Mass was means Lord in Greek. On Good Friday Greek again appears in the Reproaches: Hagios Ho Theos (Holy is God); Hagios Ho Ischyros (Holy and Strong); Hagios Athanatos Eleison Hemas (Holy Immortal One have mercy on us.) Eventually the Mass was celebrated in Latin. However, it was not street-Greek or street-Latin. It was language developed for worship. Some important papal comments about Latin and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council:

Pope Pius XI, Officiorum Omnium, 1922 "For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure until the end of time... of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular."

Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei "The use of the Latin language prevailing in a great part of the Church affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of true doctrine."

Pope John XXIII, Veterum Sapientia, 1962 "The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic and non-vernacular."

Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963 #36 "The use of Latin, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin Rites." #54 "Nevertheless care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them."

Pope Paul VI, Sacrificium Laudis, 1966 "The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended with great care instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the most abundant source of Christian civilization and the richest treasury of piety... we must not hold in low esteem these traditions of your fathers which were your glory for centuries."