USE OF THE LATIN LANGUAGEA subject must now engage our attention for awhile, which is sometimes raised by way of objection against the Church by her opponents, and this is the use of the Latin Language in her Liturgy and Ritual. It is an objection which does not seem to have been felt in ancient times, though in modern days it has been raised, more especially in America.
During the first years of the Church's history, her Liturgy was performed in the vernacular, that is, in the daily language of the peoples to whom the Apostles ministered. But, on the decline of the Roman Empire, in the fifth century, new nations began to spring up in Europe on its ruins, and the Latin tongue, which hitherto had been the universal language of the Empire, ceased to be used; it then became what is termed a dead language, that is, one no longer spoken by any nation. In her wisdom, however, the Church retained but one language, the Latin, for exclusive use in her Liturgy and the administration of the Sacraments. In this she did but imitate the example of the ancient Jewish Synagogue, wherein Hebrew, formerly well understood by the people, continued to be used, though almost quite forgotten by them during the long years of their captivity at Babylon. Had this been fault worthy, Christ Our Lord would certainly have reproved the practice, as He so freely did the abuses of the Scribes and Pharisees. Yet, He never did find fault with it; He even publicly approved of it, by frequenting the Temple, on occasions when it was observed ; and He Himself, when dying on the Cross, prayed in a language which those around Him did not understand. Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Matt xxvii. 46). So little did the multitude understand these words, that they thought He was calling for Elias!
There are wise reasons why the Church preserves the use of Latin in her Liturgy ; we give the following :—
1. According to tradition, Latin was probably the language in which S. Peter first said Mass in Rome and drew up the Liturgy ; and all over the western parts of Christendom, it has invariably been employed at the Altar, from the days of the Apostles themselves.
2. An unchanging doctrine requires an unchanging language. Now, the teaching of the Church can never vary, for truth is one, as God Himself is one, from whom it flows. As, then, the Church and her dogma cannot change, so should the language of the Church ever be one and unchanging.
3. Moreover, the Church is universal and found in all nations. As order is Heaven's first law, so uniformity seems to be the first law of the Church ; hence her endeavour to have the Adorable Sacrifice of the Altar offered with the same ceremonies and in the same language throughout the world. No matter, then, in what part of the globe a Catholic may find himself, he can always feel at home in his own Church, where he hears the same language and sees the same ceremonial as at home, no small advantage to his piety, and no small comfort to his loneliness, in his exile or his wanderings a thousand miles from his native land.
4. The vernacular languages change and vary from age to age, and were they to be used in services of the Church, they would need revising and re-adapting every century, perhaps oftener ; for, living languages are in a constant state of flux, and words easily come to change their meaning, being subject to variation and corruption. Thus, how many of our own countrymen of the present time could read and understand books written in the days of King Alfred, in the ninth century ? How many, or rather how few, could understand the works of Chaucer, the earliest of our poets, in the fourteenth century ? We should need a dictionary or a translation by our side, to be able to follow and appreciate such writings.
An old Bible, published in the fourteenth century, makes S. Paul declare himself the ''villain of Jesus Christ" (Rom. i. i). In those days, " villain" meant a servant, but, at the present time, would hardly be complimentary to anyone even less holy than the great apostle!
" It takes nine tailors to make a man" is a saying, not very flattering to the tailoring fraternity, but it is the result of the corruption of a word. In the days of Catholic Faith, the church bell was tolled, when a member of the congregation had passed away : nine times for a man, six times for a woman, and three times for a child. These tolls of the bell were named "tellers," as they were intended to tell the world whether it was the death of a man, woman, or child. In course of time, however, the word changed and became " tailors " instead of "tellers"; hence, the uncomplimentary saying.
Monkseaton, the name of a thriving village on the Northumberland coast, is a corruption of Monk's Stone, a stone which marked the limit of the jurisdiction of the Abbots of the ancient Priory of Tynemouth, three miles away. So again with Buck's Stone, or Buck's Town, now Buxton, in Derbyshire.
Numbers of examples of the kind could be given, to show how, in the course of ages, words change their form and even their meaning. If, then, the Church employed the Vernacular in the celebration of Mass, it is easy to see what solicitude and organisation would be needed in every country to watch over these changing phases of the words she employed, so as to guard against the danger of heterodoxy and misunderstanding, arising out of the instability of living languages. No such anxiety is needed with the use of Latin, which is not now a living language, and is not, therefore, liable to these serious changes.
5. It has never been deemed necessary that the Faithful should hear and understand the words used at the Altar. The whole action of the Mass is one between the priest and God ; the priest stands there as mediator for his people, he prays in their name and on their behalf. It is not necessary that they should understand his words ; nay, there are parts of the Mass which they are not allowed even to hear, as, for instance, the whole of the Canon, while in Eastern Churches, they are not permitted so much as to see the priest or the Altar! Be it always remembered, Sacrifice is an action rather than a prayer, and the action is directed to God, therefore words, beyond what is essential, are really unnecessary. The Faithful can readily follow and unite in the Sacrifice of the Mass, without hearing the prayers; just as on Calvary, those present could follow the Sacrifice, and unite with the Divine Priest and Victim, had He never broken the silence of the sacrificial act.
6. Those, however, who assist at the Holy Sacrifice cannot be said to be at a disadvantage in all this, for the Clergy are directed to explain to their flocks the nature of the Mass, its ceremonies and prayers and their meaning, and to show them how to accompany the celebrant with prayer and devotions suited to the various portions of the service, and according to their own fervour and feeling. Moreover, the prayer books in common use, especially The English Missal, give a translation of the prayers said by the priest, and thus the Faithful can follow, almost word for word, what he is saying and doing at any given moment. Further, books of explanation of all that pertains to the Holy Sacrifice abound in every language ; to these the laity can refer for information and instruction. They range from learned treatises, of use chiefly to students, down to popular manuals and simple works, such as the one you are now reading. Thus, the Faithful need not be at a loss to know and understand the meaning and import of the Divine Mysteries of the Altar.
7. The people can take part in the Holy Sacrifice, without understanding the words of its language. Those who sing at High Mass seldom understand the pieces they sing ; so too is it with nuns reciting the Divine Office in Choir, yet they take their part in giving praise to God, and so acquire merit for themselves. The very statues in a church, which can neither see nor hear nor understand, serve to adorn and beautify God's House, and so give glory to His name. How much more the living souls of men, even though they be unable to actively take part in any way in the offering of the Mass. Imagine, reader, that you are present on Mount Calvary, while Our Lord is offering Himself up as the Victim of Atonement for the world, and realise that when you assist at Mass, you are present at the self-same offering as was made on Calvary ; then with feelings of lively faith and thanksgiving, of sorrow for sin and full confidence in God, pour out your prayers at the foot of the Altar, and you will honour Him most effectively, and benefit your own soul also, although you know nothing of the Latin tongue, and understand not what the priest is saying.
If now we reflect calmly on the matter, we must come to the conclusion that the Church acts wisely in adopting the use of the Latin language, as morally necessary for the Liturgy and the Faith, so closely connected therewith. Faith is like a precious jewel, and language is the casket in which it is contained. So jealous is the Church of preserving the jewel intact, that she will not disturb even the casket in which it is set; hence the unchanging Latin she always employs, as one of the external symbols of her unity. A long tradition has endeared it to millions of men, who love to hear its accents, whether in noble cathedral or humble church, accents they have become accustomed to hear from the days of their very childhood.
It is sometimes said the vernacular would draw, that inquirers would be attracted thereby to our services. Such, however, is hardly the experience of the last three hundred years, from the days when the reformers complained of the use of a language " not understanded of the people." The age of the vernacular seems to have been the age of people ceasing to go to church, of religion decaying, and of nations striving against doctrinal unity. In certain countries of the East, where, by permission of the Holy See, the vernacular is permitted in the Sacred Liturgy, we do not hear of more, but rather of fewer conversions.
Yet, we must always remember there are different services in the Church : the Liturgy, or the Mass, has but one form and one language; this is the Latin for Western Christendom. But there are also extra-liturgical services, for instance, our Sunday evening devotions, such as the Rosary, Bona Mors, Stations of the Cross, etc. ; most of them are said in the vernacular, and the people join in the public prayers that are used.