In defense of Latin II: The illusion of understanding

Earlier, I argued against the modern idea, pervasive in liturgical thinking today, that language is primarily about communication, and therefore that liturgical language should be audible, simple, and vernacular. Not all language is strictly communicative; the Creed is spoken, after all, but its language is primarily expressive of our faith rather than strictly communicative. Nor is all communication strictly linguistic. For instance, in the traditional Latin Mass, after the consecration and elevation of the host, the priest is obliged to pinch his fingers together, and to keep them together until after the ablutions, parting them only to distribute communion (you will notice, when he elevates the chalice, that he typically holds it in an awkward fashion). Why does he do this? For fear of dropping pieces of the host on the altar, or the floor, where the true body and blood of the risen Lord would be trampled upon. This little gesture says much about our faith in the Real Presence, and does so without any words at all; apprehending this meaning might take a few moments’ contemplation, and it may be inaccessible to the young or dull, but it is nevertheless there, and those who can’t understand the symbolism or unlikely ever to be able to understand the explanation.

There are twin dangers in emphasizing verbal communication to the neglect of both nonverbal communication and sacred silence. The first is the temptation to view Mass as didactic rather than performative (as one FIUV position paper put it). The Mass is a text, but it isn’t only a text: it actually does something; it is not just an occasion for teaching or dialoguing. Latin prayer (as well as silent prayer) reinforces this: it reminds us that the Mass is about doing the work of God and not merely about talking to each other about the work of God. One could be forgiven for imagining, if everything is required to be spoken aloud in a language one can understand readily, that the point of attendance at Mass is to hear that which is spoken, and that therefore there is no point going to Mass if one cannot hear or understand — but neither of these is true. Were I a faithful English Catholic during the Tudor revolt, huddling in a basement to attend a Mass whispered out of earshot for fear of discovery and gruesome execution, I (and the world!) would be enriched with its graces even if a word of it never registered with my brain.

A second danger is the blind assumption that verbal audibility or intelligibility necessarily leads to attentiveness and then to understanding. As anyone who has tuned out a boring graduate seminar would know, the mere fact that you can technically understand the words being spoken is no guarantee that they will be listened to, much less that they will sink in with the listener, be remembered, or induce meaningful life changes. And as anyone who has attended Mass on a regular basis can affirm, it is surely just as possible to drill mindlessly and mechanically through the words of the Gloria or the Creed in English as it is to do so through those words in Latin. There is a real risk that one can mentally substitute “this is comprehensible” with “this has been comprehended,” two very different things, with real implications for the catechesis of the faithful.

The polemics over the 2011 correction of the erroneous translation of the English Missal were almost ludicrous in the regard. One acquaintance, for instance, complained that the corrected translation’s identification of the Son as “consubstantial with the Father” was far less intelligible than the erroneous one’s “one in being with Father.” Really? So he perfectly understood the revealed dogma of the Trinity? The dogma which, according to pious legend, St. Augustine was told by an angel he was less likely to apprehend than a child was to ladle the sea into a hole in the sand? And there is the second danger: “I understand the words” is mistaken for  “I understand the concept to which the words refer,” because rote repetition of technically understood words becomes a barrier to subsequent inquiry and contemplation.

The absurdity of the argument in favor of simple vernacular language is heightened when you consider that the proportion of American Catholics who are ignorant that the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is a teaching of the Church — a whopping 50% according to the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. They don’t just disagree (though most of them do): they don’t even know the Church teaches it. Imagine that: fully one in two American Catholics don’t know that the Church teaches that the Consecration transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, despite having heard the Institution narrative related in simple, almost childish language for nearly their entire lives!


Saying it, even in one’s own tongue, doesn’t mean understanding it. Graph provided by CARA.

 Vernacularization, whatever its other benefits, certainly hasn’t made the Mass self-explanatory; vigorous catechesis on the liturgy remains as necessary as ever. And if we must catechize to make sure the reformed Mass is understood by the people, there is little reason to suspect we could not also have catechized them in order to make the traditional Mass understood. Or that we cannot do so now.


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