Was Latin used for Bible readings before Vatican II?

This is just a simple request for historical information.

I thought that in the Mass before the liturgical reform of VII the readings and gospel were in Latin, with the homily being the only part of the Mass in the vernacular.

I was speaking to someone who grew up in the Church before VII, and he remembers the Bible readings being in the vernacular. However, it would be a long, long time ago in his memory, and he would have seen quite a few changes over the years, so perhaps he has become confused about what changed, when.

Information, please, just for my benefit.

Readings were done in Latin, but were sometimes also done in English afterwards.

It’s still the same with Tridentine masses celebrated today.

YTC is correct, with the following two observations:

At a low Mass, the readings in Latin are done silently; only the repetition in English at the beginning of the homily (if the priest chose to do so) would be out loud. This was by far the most common form of celebrating Mass before Vatican II, so it is understandable why people would not even realize that readings were being done in Latin at all. (Needless to say, the overall pointlessness of doing readings silently, and the distortion of the liturgy caused by then having to repeat them subsequently in a place where they don’t belong, were key motivating factors in adopting the current form of the Liturgy of the Word.)

And, second, it is now permitted in the Latin Mass, by the direction of Pope Benedict in keeping with the desires of the Second Vatican Council, to dispense with the Latin readings altogether and simply use the vernacular, thereby obviating the need to repeat them suring the homily. This remains rare, however, because a sizeable proportion of people who go out of their way to get to a Latin Mass want to be sure it’s just like it was before Vatican II.

Thankyou YTC and Mark.

Mark, your explanation of why people might have thought the readings were in English was particularly helpful, and yielded some interesting information.

Question comprehensively answered!

The entire Mass was in Latin, much of it low-toned, but Trent was specific in providing explanations for the congregations. This was accomplished later by just doing the readings in Polish or German or whatever during the sermon. I think it’s still highly suggested to do sermons centering around the readings of the day.

This is not correct. The readings are done in a regular voice; In practice, this means that if you anywhere near the altar (which could be the whole nave in a lot of traditional chapels/parishes these days), you will be able to hear the readings. If you are too far away, however, you might not be able to hear them clearly.

From the Ritus Celebrandi Missam: Dictis orationibus, celebrans positis super librum, vel super altare manibus, ita ut palmae librum tangant, vel (ut placuerit) librum tenens, legit epistolam intelligibili voce…

It was my experience that usually only the Gospel was repeated in the vernacular.

Incidentally, the Epistle was read in Latin on the right hand side [facing the altar]. Then the book was moved to the left side for the Gospel. It was moved back to the right after Communion. I presume that is the way it is still done, but haven’t been to an EF mass.

The altar boy moved the book by carrying it down the steps, genuflecting to the middle of the altar, and carrying it back up on the other side. This was a challenge since one couldn’t see where one was walking because the book filled ones field of view. Especially challenging if ones cassock was long enough to create a danger of tripping. I never tripped but always expected to.

Here’s a nice video showing the first part of the Mass, including Epistle & Gospel, and of course the altar server moving the missal as Joe Kelley described in between. (Scrub to 6:00 for the start of the epistle):


This video is also great if you want to see the action of the priest at the altar, as the Offertory and Canon of the Mass is filmed from above the back of the altar. The only downside: strong French accents. (But some people probably like that ;))

Here is another very interesting (and well known) video. It is a Missa Cantata at the SSPX Church St. Nicholas du Chardonnet in Paris. What makes it very interesting is that the Epistle is read in the vernacular during the Mass at the same time as the priest reads it silently. They don’t wait for the sermon. (Scrub to 7:40 for the Epistle):


It still is. The Gospel is read facing north, (now symbolically) addressing the barbarians (once to the north of the Roman Empire).

You are, right; I should not have said that the readings were “done silently” so as to suggest that they are done in the same secret voice as the Canon. However, and I’m sure it varies by priest and from place to place, in my experience – and, from what I’ve read, the experience of very many before the Council – readings spoken in a lowish tone (no attempt to “proclaim” them) and facing away from the congregation tend to be essentially inaudible. I’ve certainly been to Masses with no homily where the first words I heard spoken were “Corpus Christi custodiat animam tuam.” Maybe if I had sat in the very front row and used an ear trumpet I would have been able to hear the words, I don’t know.

The year before VII we went to Europe. [They had just set up the bleacher seats in St Peters.] My wife is a church musician so we both know Latin fairly well. However, we couldn’t understand a word at the mass we went to in France.

At a church I attended in Maine in the early 40’s the priest used to have a teen age altar boy read the Passion on Palm Sunday while he said the mass. It took the altar boy most of the mass to read it in English. The Latin obviously went much faster.

Having been an altar boy for 8 years pre-Council, I flirted with death many, many times when it came to transferring the Missal (and its heavy gold bookstand) from the Epistle side to the Gospel side, genuflecting and watching the cassock as you said. I sure don’t remember it being moved back after Communion, however. Is that something the priest did? Hard to believe I would have forgotten a second dose of the book/steps/cassock challenge.

After Communion one altar boy moved the book back left to right while the other carried the chalice veil right to left, genuflecting together at the center. This would have been early and mid 40’s.

Still in Latin at my parish. :smiley:

I do find it kind of dumb sometimes when Tridentine masses are celebrated with only the readings in Latin, unless of course the congregation speaks Latin (not unheard of).

However, I don’t like the idea of dispensing the Latin readings entirely: I believe they should be done, with readings in the vulgar language afterwards.

“Dumb”? Hardly a mature comment. However, I agree that the readings are best repeated afterward. In our parish this is done only on Sundays.

Given that our priest is hardly “dumb”, he has good reason to have the readings only in Latin. You prepare for Mass by reading them prior to Mass if you don’t have a missal, or you follow the English translation at Mass using your missal. It’s not “dumb” - it’s just one way of doing it, and it works quite well for our parish.

If you don’t do either, then find the readings and read them when you get home. Spoon feeding the Mass is not necessary, the readings have been in Latin for centuries and it never killed anyone to be prepared.


Shouldn’t Priests read the Gospel in a low voice accoding to the 1962 Missal if it is not a sung Mass?

It’s a Missa Cantata.

Indeed. And not just any variation of the Latin either. Each word and phrase has a specific, error-free purpose, not to be changed. Unlike a translation, which is subjective and whose meaning changes with time. Saying that the readings are in English or any other vernacular means that they’ve undergone an interpretative process which can be mildly controversial at best. Better no error than any risk of misinterpretation, IMO.

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