Please help me understand this


so I’ve been doing some thinking and I’ve also heard accusations that thhe church kept the word of God from the people.

while I know this to be inaccurate, since most people couldn’t read in the past and bibles had to be hand written, I still don’t know why the readings had to be in latin when most people couldn’t understand it.

for me, I was only baptized when I was 12 and let me tell you, that is an awkward time to come in to the church. I basically could only do a couple years of catechism classes before confirmation, which wans’t really enough. also, my parents don’t really know anything about the faith so couldn’t teach me anything and they couldn’t afford catholic school

so it’s hard for me to understand how people learned scripture or teachings when mass is in a language they didn’t understand. since that was my main way of learning things

of course, I don’t think you needed to be going to school and educated to be faithful, nor do you need to be able to read. and I understand why the church tried to keep a unitative language. but maybe, unintentially, it also created a platform for the reformation?

martin luther did gain a lot of followers, mainly masses of laity and paseants, and one way was to have worship in the vernacular.

I could be misunderstanding something though. I know some priests could translate the gospels for the homily but I don’t think this is required

so how exactly did people learn the faith if they couldn’t read, couldn’t go to school and couldn’t understand the mass?


before the Gutenburg press, the Bible was hand written so only the Church and a few rich people would have them. To make a Bible, it had to copied by hand and to keep the copy faithful, monks were authorized to do so. Most of the population was illiterate as well, any book which again was hand written, were hard to get. The accusation that Bibles were chained in Churches was to protect them from being stolen since they were valuable and often decorated with gold and jewells. Latin was the universal language and to spread the gospel, it was used to translate the Bible as well as used in the Mass to bring all the faithful together. In Islam, the official language is Arabic and one is actually suppose to read the Koran in Arabic. Venacular language Korans are mostly for evangelization. so accusing the Catholic Church on keeping the faithful clueless using latin has no basis, other religions do the same. You need to stop listening to anti-Catholic rhetoric and start researching history out yourself. You seem to be too easily swade by these things first without stepping back and realizing that much of these doubts are baseless.


It would help if you would narrow it down to one question. Thankx.


Hmmm. Good questions. Thoughtful comments. Lemme give it a try?

I was fortunate. Born (well, almost born) Catholic. Baptized at age 17 days. Went to public school. Had to go to weekly CCD classes during grade school. In junior high there were maybe 6 sessions - 2 hours each – of classes to prepare to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. After Confirmation – no more classes.

CCD classes were always free at my parish. If a family could make a donation, fine. If they couldn’t – just as fine. No one was ever stopped at the door unless they did not bring with them a copy of their baptismal certificate that was made for you at the parish where you were baptized. This was necessary because the parish would need it if for no other reason than to keep track of you since people move around a lot.

When I was growing up, Mass was in Latin. EXCEPT for the Scripture readings. And the priest’s homily.

We each had our own “missals.” On the left handed page – all the words were in Latin. On the opposing (right-hand) page were those exact same sentences – translated into English. So, as soon as I was able to read – I was hearing the Latin from the priest – and seeing the Latin on the left-handed page. As I was hearing the sounds – I found where on that page that sound appeared - and quick looked over to the right-handed page in English to figure out what the sound I had heard in Latin – was the word in English.

I learned to read just before I entered Kindergarten when I was five years old. That meant that before I had reached the “age of reason” – which is usually figured to be 7 years old – when you are supposed to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong – I was equipped to at least follow along somewhat with what I was hearing and seeing at Mass.

Okay. Your question about “how did people learn the faith if they couldn’t read, couldn’t go to school, and couldn’t understand the Mass?”

Everybody has a RIGHT to learn these things – to be taught these things. The RESPONSIBILITY to teach these things is the parents’. The Church has always taught that parents are the primary educators of the faith to their children.

If they didn’t know it – as is the case with you – then it is their responsibility to find a way to teach it to you. Even though they don’t know it so well, themselves.

As you get older - into your teen years, for example – you are called to find resources for learning the faith, yourself. Like you would for homework at public school.

The Mass does have two official moments of teaching in it. One of those is when the Scripture is being read to us. We, likewise, are called to read that piece of scripture BEFORE that day’s Mass so that we can hear it as we read it. During Mass, that scripture is “proclaimed” if it’s the Gospel reading. Which we would have already been familiar if we had read it beforehand.

The other “teaching” moment is when the priest says his 10 to 12 minute homily. There and then is when he is taking one or another piece or message in any of the scripture readings spoken at that Mass and applies it – tells us – instructs us – how and when to apply that particular concept or message from that particular piece of scripture into each of our lives.

The Mass is also called the “liturgy” – which means the “work of the people.” At Mass, we do something much more than getting together to sing, to pray, to listen to scripture being read or a homily (“sermon”). We do the “work” – (action) – of literally offering to God the Holy Sacrifice of Jesus who died, was buried, and rose from the dead for our salvation.

The Mass crosses time and space and distance from the very moment of Jesus’ death and resurrection to RIGHT NOW. This is one reason that the Mass is often called “the Mystery of the Mass.” We don’t understand it. Never will. As Catholics, we say that we believe it, anyway. This is because it’s what Jesus told us – commanded – that we “do this in remembrance of Me.” That “remembrance” is a term that is much more than remembering in our human memory an event of the past. At the Mass - the past is made “present.”

As for Mass being in Latin – that was the ordinary language of the time. Ever since, the Church kept things in Latin because the language of Latin, itself, is a “dead” language. The meanings of its words – and the words, themselves – never, ever change. THAT is why the Church kept Latin as her official language. Keeps the meaning from generation to generation the same - no matter the changes in all the other languages that naturally happen over time.


Luther did not develop a form of worship, he was not organized enough for that. Calvin was the one who put a structure to the protestant worship.

Vernacular versions of the Bible were becoming more widely available as movable metal type presses had been invented in 1436. There were many, many German translations of the Bible available before Luther published his version of the New Testament.

Contrary to common belief, the King James Version of the Bible was not the first mechanically printed English language translation of the Bible - the Douay-Rheims came before it (1582- NT, 1609- OT,). The writers of the KJV (1611) actually borrowed from the Catholic DR in their translation as well as from other English versions available at the time.

And the vernacular languages are all well and good, but at the time Latin was far from a dead language. It was the language of theology and science (and – still is) and was the language of educated peoples well into the early 18th century. The reason protestant revolutionists used the vernacular was (a) because educated people didn’t take them seriously and (b) they were using the masses to get power for their movement.

The Bible could be very much be understood by those with the intelligence and ability to understand its theological content. Most common people could not, as they cannot today with out the guidance of the Holy Church, which is one of the reasons why the protestant teaching of sola scriptora is so very dangerous. We should be careful not to project our 21st century sensibilities into the context of medieval history.

Oh, and Bibles were indeed chained to pulpits in the earlier days of the Church. Not in order to keep the Word of God from the people, but to prevent theft and to keep the Word of God available for the people. It’s the same reason phone books are chained to the few remaining phone booths in our society today.


You assume that because it was your main way of learning things that this is true for others. But your assumption is faulty.

They lived it. There was this thing called Christendom. It permeated all aspects of life from the time you were born until the time you died.


um ok, but that’s not really what I was asking.

most people didn’t understand latin, how else did they learn if not through the mass?


I’m not assuming anything, that’s why I’m asking the question. bbecause I want to know how they learned it.

there is obviously no more Christendom these days, or hardly any, so forgive me if I don’t know these things.

but it’s clear to me that the main ways we learn today is not how they learned back then.

so if you have additional information on what people did, it would be appreciated


I’m thinking more of the medieval period/renaissance when a lot of people couldn’t read.

the scriptures don’t have to be said in the common languages, if I understand correctly.

so I guess the only thing would have been the homimly?

what if the priest was preaching something incorrect?


that’s just it, they were getting the masses for their movement.

how did they manage to do that if the masses were well catechized?


then, tell me, how did people learn it? I am trying ot research history, it does not give much information


They didn’t “get” the masses. The “got” greedy princes. Greedy princes who were on a power and land grab. The “masses” of the place were required by law to follow the religion of their princes and kings. The “masses” did as they were told.


They learned it orally from their parents and extended family. In many parts (not all parts) of the Christendom, one son would go to seminary or at least be trained by priests (he might not get ordained, but was taught). It was also not uncommon for families to have at least one priest, religious brother or nun in their extended family.

Also stained glass windows in the Churches and all the paintings, etc. were all created to visually depict the Faith.

You also had missionaries who went to rural and remote locations to spread the Gospel.

As far as Latin is concerned, educated people spoke it. Anyone with what would have been comparable to an 8th grade education could read Latin in the Latin Church. In the East, Latin was not used.

It’s also important to remember that Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and all other smaller romance languages which were and are still spoken in Europe are very close to Latin. It’s not uncommon for native speakers of romance languages to speak more than one, especially in Europe.

We have to keep in mind the following:

  1. Until modern times, Christianity has liturgically only used a very few languages. Latin was not exclusive, except in the Latin Rites. Eastern Catholics have always used Greek, Coptic, Aramaic, etc.

  2. Also, in Europe, languages didn’t start to become “nationalized” until the 19th & 20th centuries. For example, look at a list of the:
    *]languages of Italy alone which are CURRENTLY spoken
    *]and the languages of Spain

This is a great pic which shows the development of language in Spain, Portugal, and southern France here

The problem with vernacular before the 19th/20th centuries was that there were too many regional languages. Latin was the only constant and the only root for all of them. By the time of the 19th & 20th centuries, national languages became standard. For example, today in Spain, 85% of the native population speak Spanish, the rest speak on the regional languages. In Italy


While one does not see this in the New World; European cathedrals were enormous “visual aids” for teaching the Faith. Sculptural art on the walls of these structures provided 3-dimensional references to the Scriptural accounts in which the Faith has its roots, visual references without words that did not require reading.

The use of Latin, besides keeping in union with past generations, was also a practical matter. In an era when language or dialect might change from diocese to diocese, having seminaries teaching in all of the vernaculars wasn’t doable. Monks also travelled from country to country. The famous illuminated texts used in Church were also transported around.

Using Latin ensured that the Church had one language.



yes, I do understand that it would be difficult to learn all the dialects

but it seems like most common people didn’t know latin, unless I’m wrong


I guess there should have been more latin education for the common people. though perhaps this wasn’t always feasible either


It wasn’t. Until well into Renaissance times, only the “upper echelons” could afford schooling for their children.



I think most common people understood Latin until more modern times. They might not have been able to read or write it, but most did understand Vulgar Latin, especially in Romance speaking areas.

Look how similar Vulgar Latin is/was to the listed Romance languages:

I would argue that most common people in Southern part of the Latin Church did understand Latin and could easily pick up Latin even today. Also, people in the Germanic North most likely understood it too.

We Americans don’t understand this very well, but being multilingual is very common around the world and especially in Europe. And it always was. My Aunt for example is from Galicia in Spain. She grew up speaking Galician and Spanish and learned French when young. Todays, she fluent in those three languages and can get by in English. She also knows some Latin.

My Grandmother is a native Spanish speaker and is fluent in English. She can also understand Portuguese and Italian.

The use of Latin did not hurt the common people. It didn’t keep them from reading the Bible. The truth is that many couldn’t read even in their own native language. Bibles being translated to the vernacular started to happen once people were starting to be able to read their own language (and after the printing press). Let’s remember, that the first English translation of the Bible isn’t the King James Version. The Catholic Douay-Rheims translation happened before KJV.

The Catholic Church didn’t have issues with the Bible in the vernacular, they had issues with non-accurate translations (which is one reason whey Jews still read their books in Hebrew today and force their children to learn Hebrew in Hebrew school).

Hope this helps.


Expanding on what a previous poster mentioned about stained glass windows and such. One of the reasons all the famous medieval and Gothic cathedrals have so many statues and bas reliefs and carvings and other pictorial representations all over the walls and pillars and such is because that was one of the ways the uneducated were catechized. They couldn’t read the Bible because they couldn’t read because they didn’t need to. But they could see pictures and understand what statues and paintings illustrated, which were important parts of the Bible. Not to mention that during those times there were a lot more traveling priests, monks, nuns, etc. who would evangelize and spread the Gospel to crowds.

This is an example we studied in my architecture history class.

Nowadays, churches don’t usually have carvings on the walls and above the doors, or have paintings all over the ceiling. Partly because now we can read the Bible ourselves and don’t necessarily need to “read” the stories through friezes and windows.


Veronica Ann,

Thank you for your post! I am also from the pre-Vatican 2 era and experienced everything you did. I did not leave Mass without hearing a great homily in the vernacular, and I also used the missal provided which had both languages in it. I went to CCD once a week and learned from the Catechism in my own language, and after the lesson for the week our dear Pastor came out and walked up and down the aisles of our Church (the parish had no Catholic school), and explained and went deeper into the lesson for us.
He wasn’t hesitant to teach us some theological terms as well, even though we were in the lower grades.

I am so thankful for that.

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