In defense of Latin

How can I attend the traditional Latin Mass? I don’t even know Latin.

Well, that’s okay. Neither did virtually any of the Catholics (as a first language, anyway) who attended Mass for the last 1,200 years or so, by which time Latin had more or less completely fractured into the Romance languages. Neither did the Latin-speaking Romans or their successors in the post-imperial rump states speak the liturgical Latin used by the Church, which, as Christine Mohrmann convincingly demonstrated, was a more-or-less artificial language deliberately manufactured by the early Christians to give expression to theological concepts for which neither vulgar nor classical Latin were sufficient (i.e., liturgical Latin was certainly never the vernacular). Yet no shortage of these people for whom the liturgy was more or less unintelligible became saints, and drew great succor and strength from their participation in the Mass, notwithstanding their incomprehension. What’s different today?

quamoblationem

The ordinary form of the Mass primes people to imagine that participation in the liturgy requires listening to and understanding audibly-spoken words in an intellectual way, as they’re being spoken. There’s value to verbal comprehension, of course (for which the traditional Latin Mass provides by way of translated hand Missals), but to imagine that this is the only way worship occurs represents, to the traditional mind, a terrible impoverishment of participation and of language. It emphasizes the communicative aspect of language to the neglect and disregard of its expressive nature, which, in poetry, prose, and music, gives voice to the noblest human sentiments, even when the words are alien or obscure. Listen to the Agnus Dei from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis; is this nothing more than what Paul Blanshard dismissed as “a gobbledegook of Latin ritual”? Does it truly say nothing you?

Mass is not the theological equivalent of an undergraduate lecture, to be experienced only at the level of intellectual and verbal comprehension. It is the supreme act of worship, because it is the human participation in the worship which the Son renders to the Father. It’s fine to show up and feel lost at it, to be confronted with your own limitations, to feel humbled and emptied and mystified. That’s how it ought to be. Get out of your own head for an hour, and hold fast to Him in prayer.

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