Is there a place for Latin in liturgy today?


While it is certainly legal to include the language that was so much a part of Mass in days gone by, the questions to ask are, would it be beneficial, and, if so, how much is the right amount?


Q. One fellow member of my parish liturgy committee is pushing hard for using more Latin hymns and even Mass settings in our Sunday Masses, but others on the committee disagree with this. What about the use of Latin in our liturgies?

A. Is there any place for the use of Latin in liturgy shaped by the spirit of Vatican II, which would include liturgy celebrated in parishes like yours?

That Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that there is such a place for Latin: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as distinctive of the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, provided they accord with the spirit of the liturgical service, in the way laid down in art. 30” (no. 116).

This same constitution also states “The people’s own religious songs are to be encouraged with care so that in sacred devotions as well as during services of the liturgy itself, in keeping with rubrical norms and requirements, the faithful may raise their voices in song” (no. 118).

18fathermichaelThese statements, like many in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy are open to a range of interpretation. Some wish to give Latin only a little place in the liturgy or none at all. Others want to remedy what they perceive to be an unfortunate abandonment of Latin in the years following the Second Vatican Council.

Earlier this year, the Holy See sponsored an inquiry into the current state of sacred music and the liturgy 50 years after the council. The survey of 40 questions, sent to the world’s bishops, is meant to foster reflection on developments in liturgical music and contribute to the ministry of musicians.

Most of the 65 responses to the survey came from dioceses and archdioceses, but included seminary and theology faculties, Catholic music publishers and Catholic music organizations. One area addressed in the survey is “musical heritage” — the preservation of musical archives, the use of chant in the liturgy, and the church as a “patron of the arts.”

The United States bishops’ statement “Music in Catholic Worship” (1972; 1983) declared that musicians “must find practical means of preserving and using our rich heritage of Latin chants and motets” (no. 27).

This document’s three “judgments” for selecting liturgical music — musical, liturgical and pastoral — would seem to apply to the use of music in the Latin language.

These three “judgments” can help us decide whether Latin pieces during Eucharistic celebrations are more desirable than the many vernacular pieces available today.

Saving ‘music of the past’
The use of “music of the past” was discussed in nos. 49-53 of the subsequent United States bishops’ statement “Liturgical Music Today” (1982) and in “Sing to the Lord” (2007).

This last-named document encourages the study of correct pronunciation and familiarity with Latin for singers, but observes that “Whenever the Latin language poses an obstacle to singers, even after sufficient training has been provided — for example, in pronunciation, understanding of the text, or confident rendition of a piece — it would be more prudent to employ a vernacular language in the liturgy” (no. 67).

In his latest collection of liturgical music, “God of All Beginnings” (GIA Publications, 2013), just as in his earlier collections, composer Father Michael Joncas has included some English hymn texts that use familiar Latin phrases, for example, “Veni Sancte Spiritus” in “A Time of Jubilee,” and “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Ave Maria” in “Hail Mary, Full of Grace.”

He has very creatively preserved the use of Latin, the church’s liturgical language for centuries, by including it in contemporary vernacular texts.

It reminds me of a Christmas carol that we sing at St. John’s Abbey as the response to the Scripture reading at evening prayer on the solemnity of Mary, the Most Holy Mother of God, on January 1.

The stanzas of “Blessed by That Maid Mary” are in Old English, but they include some Latin phrases, and the refrain is in Latin: “Eja! Jesus hodie Natus est de Virgine” (“See! Today Jesus is born of the Virgin”).

I like how this text jumps between English and Latin and takes me back to the 15th century.

How much do we need?
I believe that there is a place for Latin, and I don’t mean in a liturgical graveyard.

The use of Latin — in the Eucharistic liturgy’s acclamations, in Gregorian chant and in hymnody — reminds us that we are part of a church that is older than the one that opened yesterday in a vacant storefront.

But how much Latin does our community need at this time in its history?

The church where our community worships may not be a pilgrimage church like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where Latin in eucharistic celebrations becomes a common language for worshippers from diverse countries.

The music of Jacques Berthier at Taize provides the same thing, and his Latin texts take worshippers back to a time before the unfortunate schisms of the 16th century. Thus, our use of Latin would seem to be for a different purpose: to savor the beauty of Gregorian melodies, or to draw upon the church’s rich treasury of sacred song in the Latin tongue, or to unite us with our forebears.

There can be various answers as to why a parish or religious community would sing parts of the Mass in Latin or listen to Gregorian chant or Baroque polyphony. I believe that such listening is a form of active participation in the liturgy.

Again, the question for me is: how much Latin do we need?

Who benefits?
I find in St. Paul’s writings a helpful bit of advice for addressing this question. He discusses the eating of food offered to idols in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Paul and some Christian believers might have been comfortable with this because Christ was triumphant over all false gods, but Paul knew that others might not be. So Paul writes: “ ‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:32). His point is that personal restraint even in things that are allowed can benefit others.

It is true that any parish could have many Latin pieces in their Sunday and weekday worship in accordance with the rubrics. But would this lawful provision be beneficial?

Can there be give and take, communication and compromise on this issue, lest it become a wedge to divide the parish?

“Sing to the Lord” states that “In promoting the use of Latin in the Liturgy, pastors should always ‘employ that form of participation which best matches the capabilities of each congregation’ ” (no. 66; the quote is from “Musicam Sacram” of 1967.)

This is good advice for parish musicians and liturgy committees as well.