The Second Vatican Council, while permitting translations into the vernacular, i.e. in our everyday spoken language, said that "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." (SC 36, 54) Not only does the Council plainly insist on keeping some Latin in the mass, it goes on to emphatically approve the use of Gregorian chant.
What the Council had probably envisioned were gradual changes and a mix of English and Latin. Obviously, the readings, homily and many of the prayers should be in English in order to be understandable. But this didn't mean we should forget the Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Pater Noster - all of which the Council says we should still be able to say and sing. Now I'm not going to start celebrating the Latin Mass every day. But we should know at least some Latin hymns and parts of the Mass.
Now I don't regret the fact that the council has permitted us to use English at Mass, I think it has made it much more understandable for all of us. As I used to joke with my Latin teacher, "it's all Greek to me!" Yes, Latin is difficult to understand, but unless you are a brand new Catholic or this is your first time at Mass - in which case I apologize - you know what goes on at each Mass and what those prayers say. You don't have to know that the word agnus means lamb to know that we sing the Lamb of God after the sign of peace.
What is regrettable about the use English at Mass, is that we are in danger of loosing part of the Church's rich heritage of thousands of years of Latin Chant, dating back to the time of Pope Gregory the Great, from whom it derives its name: Gregorian chant. Yes, modern English music can also be beautiful when done well. Yet some of the most theologically accurate and hauntingly beautiful hymns I have heard are the great Latin classics. Perhaps we should ask it this way: how many of our glory and praise songs and folk melodies will still be sung in 1500 years?
This history means having Mass in Latin isn't the same as celebrating in a foreign language. The difference is that when St. Boniface brought Catholicism to Germany in the 8th Century, he celebrated Mass singing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus, not "Heilig, Heilig, Heilig Gott". When St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena assisted at Mass in Medieval Italy, they responded not in Italian, but in Latin: "Et cum spiritu tuo". Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross both wrote beautiful Spanish poetry in the 16th century, but at each Mass they said the Pater Noster, not the Padre Nuestro. Sts. Therese of Liseux and John Vianney lived in 19th century France, but at each Mass they prayed the Agnus Dei, not the Agneau de Dieu. Latin gives us a connection with 2000 years of history, with millions of Catholics from dozens of generations. Saints from the 4th, 12th and 20th centuries have sang these very hymns, hundreds of thousands of priests have said these same words of consecration, millions of Catholics have prayed these same Latin prayers.
Having recalled the history and tradition of Latin, we will see that it can be a reminder of the sacredness of what takes place at Mass. The Mass is supposed to have a sense of mystery. We can never fully comprehend what takes place in the Eucharist.
We've all heard the phrase, 'familiarity breeds contempt.' This problem also affects our relation of man to God, and especially our worship of God. This is why we always need reverence and sacredness, to rise above the profane and familiar; to open our eyes to the sacred which should inspire awe - indeed, fear and trembling. And as I've said before, while changes in the Mass are never easy and can seem to interrupt our prayer, perhaps it will help us to think about what we're doing, and not just go through the motions.
One reason for the change into the vernacular was to encourage us to a full and active participation in the Mass. My apologies if you don't know the Latin words or chant melodies; but this in no way denies you the opportunity to actively participate in this Mass, because you are still able to join your prayers and offerings with that of Christ.
In the preface of the Mass we pray: "Lift up your hearts - We lift them up to the Lord." This sursum corda - the lifting of our hearts - is the first requirement for real participation in the mass. Going to Mass is not like going to the movies or a play, it's not even a pleasant social gathering. The music and prayers of the mass are to create a sacred atmosphere and raise us up. As one author put it: "Do we better meet Christ by soaring up to Him, or by dragging Him down into our world?" What really matters, therefore, is not whether we feel at home at mass, as some would argue. Yes, having Mass and songs in English allows for greater participation, but does it draw us out of our ordinary lives into an encounter with Christ? Does it increase reverence, an appreciation of the sacred? Does it bestir the human spirit, and evoke a sense of eternity?
Today, as we do at every Mass, we are celebrating the Latin liturgy of the Church. There is a unity among Latin Catholics throughout the world: even if we use English and other vernacular languages, it's still the same Mass. Now we know that Latin is still the official language of the Church and its liturgy. We joining in the Latin Mass today knowing we join a long history and tradition. And we recall that our true purpose of the Mass is to call us out of the ordinary, to respond to God with reverence and awe, and to join our prayers to the offering of Christ. To him be all glory and honor forever. Amen.
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