Linkages between Latin and the Mass

Latin was not the first language used by Christians in the Mass. Aramaic and many of the vernacular languages of the patristic church were used. Greek, Hebrew, Arabic etc. were also used and replaced eventually with the Latin Mass.

Now, if the mass existed prior to the use of Latin (in which the use of Latin which greatly strengthened by the Council of Trent partly as a symbol of unity to counter the Protestant revolution) then it is reasonable to say that Latin is not necessary for the Mass, the mass does not need the language. What is the historical development that created Latin as an indispensable part of the mass…as if the language is a sacred element of the sacrifice…why has it become a necessity to the validity of any mass?

Many of the traditional catholic church traditions did not fall out of the sky, they were created through some very human process of adoption and sometimes appropriation of cultural symbols as Christianity progressed.

I know that much of the Latin traditions developed when the Constantine handed over many of the Roman empire buildings to the Church at the end of the empire’s times. And this process borrowed greatly from the Roman Empire…

Now, just because that cultural expression has become tradition, why are we limited to both Latin symbolism and Latin language arising from the Roman empire days?

Where did you get the (false) idea that Latin is necessary for a valid Mass?!?!? Most masses are offered in the local vernacular language. Latin is not required. The nature of the Mass is not effected by the language used. Latin remains the official language of the church, and while mass may be offered in Latin, this is not a requirement. The pre-conciliar Mass was offered in Latin. But even there if it was done in the vernacular that would be illicit rather than invalidate that particular mass.

He’s not saying that Latin is necessary, or at least not trying to imply it. He’s wondering why Latin became the language of the Church, and for so many years, was THE language Mass was offered in. Why Latin, and not Aramaic or Greek?

OP: My best guess is because the Church wound up centered in Rome. Had, say, the Bishop of Byzantium been Peter’s successor, I’m sure that we’d be saying Pater Hemon’s and Theotoke Parthene’s, and that the SSPX (ΚΑΠΙ?) would be lamenting the decline of the Traditional Greek Mass.

Latin was the administrative (and military) language of the Roman Empire, even before Christ. Was actually codified by a Greek (Cicero) et al. When Christianity subsumed Rome, it became the language of Church documents, and it was decided that Latin be also used to preserve the Roman Canon among other liturgical matters, the Bible, etc. The fact that they have survived well over 1600 yrs is a tribute to the genius and wisdom of Cicero, the early church fathers, and the Catholic Church.

St. John XXIII stressed the importance of retaining and teaching Latin and effectively banned the use of vernacular just prior to convening Vatican II in Veterum Sapientia. But Fr is right, it does not affect validity; De Defectibus outlines what’s valid and what isn’t in the liturgy.

I understand Aramaic (Syriac actually) and Greek are still used in the Eastern RItes.

We don’t know that the Roman liturgy started out in Greek and transitioned to Latin. That is one theory.

As to why Latin at all, it was neither an accident of history, nor mere convenience. Latin was chosen for its “concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity,” and “not without divine providence.” See Pope St. John XXIII (Veterum Sapientia, 1962), quoting Pius XI (Officiorum omnium, 1922).

There have been schism over this. One can see it reading some of the lives of the saints.

You know, actually when you think about the question the first Mass WAS and must have been in Latin, because the word Mass comes from “missa” as in “Ite missa est” at the end of the Mass. Now, if the questioon wether the first eucharistic liturgy was a Mass, then the answer would be negative… :cool:

I like the way you put that point; so the first Mass was said by Jesus and so I would assume the first Mass was in Aramaic, and as i developed in the Hellenistic Greek communities at the time of the Gospel According to John (some 90 years after Jesus was crucified and went to heaven), Latin could not have been the original language of the Mass…that, as has been said (Cicero) had adopted as a pragmatic decision.

I am very interested in our brothers and sisters over at CathInfo (SSPX, etc.) to pull out their knowledge on this, because it seems to me that the idea that Latin is so weaved in what I perceive their position that there must be something more to the integration of Latin on a world wide basis…and if so, maybe that is a point that can be agreed upon and we can go to the next question. We have a choice of Latin Mass and/or a venacular mass these days, and that choice would be Latin if this was the only issue requiring Latin Mass in the SSPX and other Traditional Catholic groups …

But my understanding of my post is very similar to what others have posted.

Thanks, and I look forward to more thoughts.

Bruce Ferguson

Your response is consistent to my understanding, thanks for the elaboration of it. As I posted the original mass said by Jesus (or done by Jesus) must of been in Aramaic…so how did the connection develop historically. My background comes from studies in anthropology (cultural dynamics) and a bit of theology where we touched upon the patristic church.

I did not know your last point about how the need (however it would of arisen) for the venacular to be used in the pre-conciliar church would be understood as illicit, seems to be a very interesting point. I am curious to learn about that…and if you know any papers, documents, etc. that would expand upon it.

I would assume that all priest in the pre-council church would of spoken latin, so where such a venacular need arises, I can’t immediately see how that would arise, but I would assume the sermons and even some of the hymns could of been venacular … also I understand that some missals contained translations…so the average CAtholic would not always been unable to understand…

Look forward to more on that.

Bruce Ferguson

Thank you Razanir, that was the purpose in my original posting. I have posted the same question to the CathInfo forum as I respect the opinions of Traditional Catholics on that forum and I am trying to identify the thinking and the challenges they see in continuing the use of the venacular…I know that in the Catholic Church of today, thanks to Benedict that we now can return to the traditions of the Latin Mass, but equally can enjoy the diversity of expression within the framework of the liturgy.


ProVobis, thank you for that detailed response. It makes total sense to me. I read the document through very quickly; interesting that St. John XXIII wanted to restore Latin in academic circles as the ideas of Latin was loosing favour among younger or liberal players at the time.

It does bring up a new point for me…so what year did we not allow the continuation of Latin masses? Do you know of any dates, papers, or something that I can look at to get a better sense of what the thinking behind the church was in moving towards the venacular so universally? That would be super.


Thanks Ad Orientem. The theory you refer to - is it limited to the transition of the liturgy from Greek to Roman, or are you saying this in references to how all the other languages were replaced by Latin?

I did some courses in the patristic church and for example, if Jesus said the first mass and/or was the sacrifice of the first mass, then is it not likely that Aramaic would of been the original language of the mass? Equally some 90 years later in the Johannian communities, is it not likely that they said mass in Hellenistic Greek…that is kind of how I understand things…

I would be interested to know of any sources that say that the early churches did not use their venacular language…

Now having said that, there is so much in St. John XXII’s document you referred me too, I took quick look at it and Pius says only that the use of Latin is for religious reasons and not so much for cutlural reasons, yet cultural arguements do have some validity as well I would think…I have to do some more reflection and re-read the documents…

The notion of a dead language has its benefits for sure, but it was not dead at the time of the patristic church, it was one of those dynamics of the church gaining power in the 400’s and appropriating or borrowing, adopting Latin-Roman traditions as part of the expression of the church Jesus had founded…something like that… fascinating and enlightening…please continue sharing your thoughts on this.


Interesting. Do you have any book recommendations on this… I have not heard of this before…

Just as second thought, does this have to do with the Eastern and Western churches? That is probably the only place that schism would of been happening and/or what the other poster’s “theory” statements might have been referring to.


Very interesting things in here, good stuff. questions about the significance of latin in the church come up frequently here. One thing to think about as well is the significance of the Latin language in western culture in general. The culture of europe in the middle ages and into early modernity held latin in great esteem. People seem to forget that Latin was the language of the Church, scholarship, literacy of any kind, government, and high culture even. For more than a millenium in european culture to say that one was literate meant one was versed in latin as well. Sure there was pleny of vernacular litterature, but if you had something important to say it should have been in latin. When comparing themselves to neighboring cultures those of western europe referred to themselves or were referred to by others simply as “the latins”. The latin language was in european culture simply the prestige language. You know how plenty of english speakers think french sounds fancy for some reason? multiply that effect by a hundred and you have the level of importance attatched to Latin. given these things it is perfectly understandable as to why people would want to give the best to God even in their choice of language. I am not saying there is anything wrong with the vernacular, but the effect and cultural memory of hundreds of generations of people living and dying not imagining any other language spoken in the mass is bound to have a profound effect.

Personally I would put that date about 400-500 years before Vatican II. The Reformation period seemed to move towards the vernacular “so universally.”

But more to the present, there was every indication in the 50’s that more vernacular would be added to the Mass. One can simply pick up a St. Joseph Missal (1958?) and see that the Latin was removed from the Propers, saving a lot of paper but also making the Mass very difficult to follow. And there were questionable translations at that, without much authenticity. But apparently this become the allowed vernacular in 1965. Going forward the ICEL did their own translations. The rest is history.

Good post and good points. You might enjoy this TED video on the topic.

Bruce, please do not be misled by Pope John XXIII’s document, for it is pre-VII and is the opinion of one person, who happened to be Pope. However, as you may know,** no** pope may bind his successors to his theological position, which is always able to be changed.

And change it did! Please review the overwhelming support from the Councilors for vernacular change in this document.

Among other things, it means that the Fathers have approved the introduction of vernacular languages in various parts of the Mass, adoption of certain local customs in liturgical rites and many other changes which all aim at bringing about the closer participation and identification of the people with the ceremonies and sacraments of the Church.
In casting their ballots, the Fathers were instructed to vote “placet” (in favor), “non placet” (against) or “placet juxta modum.”

Results of the voting were 1,922 in favor, 11 against, and 180 “placet juxta modum.” There were five void ballots.

Had Pope John not died before the Council concluded, he would most likely be in unison and agreement with these 1922 bishops, as was Pope Paul VI…

The Maronites still use Syriac, a certain dialect of Aramaic, for the lack of a better word, as their consecration. But FWIW, the exact words are unknown, though having it in an ancient language does bring us that much closer to that time.

I would be interested to know of any sources that say that the early churches did not use their venacular language…

No major religion prior to the Reformation used vernacular in their worship, though many can cite limited localized use of it. One could make a case that the early church used vernacular but it seems most of the worship during that period was pagan and Christianized gradually. Religion was an important part of the Greco-Roman world.

Now having said that, there is so much in St. John XXII’s document you referred me too, I took quick look at it and Pius says only that the use of Latin is for religious reasons and not so much for cutlural reasons, yet cultural arguements do have some validity as well I would think…I have to do some more reflection and re-read the documents…

Are you referring to this part, which actually reinforces an earlier Pope?

Thus the “knowledge and use of this language,” so intimately bound up with the Church’s life, "is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons."6 These are the words of Our Predecessor Pius XI, who conducted a scientific inquiry into this whole subject, and indicated three qualities of the Latin language which harmonize to a remarkable degree with the Church’s nature. "For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time … of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular."7 -

I can understand what you’re saying about culture. But there had been Polish-oriented or Spanish-oriented congregations prior to this Apostolic Constitution. I know this because I was part of a Polish congregation and it was given every freedom to express its culture.

But also consider SC 36.1, Voluntati Obsequens, and Canon 249, indicating the Church has every intention of retaining AND PRESERVING Latin in the liturgy, its documents, and the Bible. Modern languages are much too mutable. Veterum Sapientia was indeed the wisdom of the ancient Church.

AWESOME youtube posting ProVobis! I loved it! The legacy, importance of Latin in the past is great, but I never thought about its role in sustaining western civilization and the languages that branched out. The fact that the real history is increased over the centuries on a compound basis is fascinating…I really like this train of thought which I have never had before.

What an innovative approach for high school students to be making movies (videos) in Latin, using the Latin language to look at contemporary life from perhaps a different lens. I appreciated the teachers reference to the relationship with Latin and indigenous peoples.

And within that approach, my mind is re-thinking the use of Latin, not in terms necessarily of the liturgy, but perhaps in terms of reflection upon the liturgy, and so forth. … Latin is perhaps not dead…

Bruce Ferguson

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