HAT IS THE role of Latin in the contemporary Church? On the one hand, Latin remains the official language of the Church and of her liturgy, while, on the other hand, Latin is left largely unstudied and unused in most areas.
What should the role of the Latin language be in the 21st-century Church?
It would profit us to revisit some words composed by Pope St. John Paul II in his Holy Thursday letter of 1980 (available here). In the third section of the letter, the Holy Father addresses the topic of the “two tables of the Lord” (Word and Eucharist). He acknowledges the positive dimensions of the vernacular readings introduced after the Second Vatican Council: “The fact that these texts are read and sung in the vernacular enables everyone to participate with fuller understanding” (Dominicae cenae, 10).
In the very next breath, however, JPII notes that the introduction of the vernacular has also brought about certain negative effects. He writes:
Nevertheless, there are also those people who, having been educated on the basis of the old liturgy in Latin, experience the lack of this “one language,” which in all the world was an expression of the unity of the Church and through its dignified character elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery. It is therefore necessary to show not only understanding but also full respect towards these sentiments and desires. As far as possible, these sentiments and desires are to be accommodated, as is moreover provided for in the new dispositions (Dominicae cenae, 10).
Then, in understated fashion, the Holy Father makes a mammoth declaration: “The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself” (Dominicae cenae, 10).
This is an absolutely extraordinary pronouncement. It does not say merely that the Church has a fond relationship with Latin; it does not say only that there is a historical connection between the Church and the Latin language; it does not say just that Latin has been useful to the Church. The tenor of this claim is raised to the level of an “ought.” The Church, according to St. John Paul II, holds obligations toward the Latin language.
This vision of the Church’s relationship with Latin is quite different from the perspective held by many post-conciliar liturgists. Consider the following reflection from Martimort’s classic work, L’Église en prière:
There will always be a place, however limited, for the traditional repertory that bears witness to the prayer of many different generations of Christians. There will be a place in particular for Gregorian chant in Latin, for this alone makes it possible for an international assembly to participate comfortably. (Aimé Georges Martimort, The Church at Prayer: An Introduction to the Liturgy, vol. I, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987], 171).
This perspective treats Latin as a curious but affectionate part of the Church’s historical past. Such an approach seems, to me, ironically short-sighted. Martimort begins by asserting that the place of traditional Latin repertory is “limited” and ends by praising the value of Latin repertory at international gatherings. This is essentially a self-defeating prophecy. If the use of Gregorian chant is generally curtailed so as to be “limited,” after a fairly short span, it will cease to be an effective source of unity among the faithful at international gatherings.
This seems like an obvious thing to observe. After all, is this not the way the situation has actually played out in the years since the council? The widespread abandonment of the Church’s musical heritage in the aftermath of the council has left whole generations of Catholics with no practical knowledge or lived experience of Gregorian chant, such that the use of Latin at international gatherings seldom succeeds in helping the faithful “to participate comfortably.”
The natural effect of “limiting” the traditional repertory seems so obvious that one wonders if widespread ignorance of Latin and chant has not been achieved by design.
Pope St. John Paul II did not spell out the Church’s “obligations towards Latin” when he referenced them in 1980. It might be worth our while to do so now.