Why use Latin?

I am coming to believe that a lot of the things that the Catholic church practices and believes are good, historical, and true. There are other things, however, that I have questions about. One of those things is the use of Latin. I know that the local vernacular is now used in most churches, but that some churches still have Mass in Latin and that others may have some parts of the Mass or songs in Latin. I just don’t understand why. If you don’t speak Latin, how could you learn anything or get anything (other than Communion) out of Mass? Why also, did it take so long for the Church to change on this issue? Most people have not spoken in Latin for a very long time. I am not trying to be antagonistic. I really want to know the answer. :blush:

It is our heritage.

What makes you think people don’t know what the prayers mean when they say them in Latin?

Actually, the Church never intended the entire Mass to be in the vernacular.

Latin is the language of the Church. It is important to keep the heritage of our faith-family alive, just as it is important for our biological families to to keep theirs.

It’s not just heritage (although that would be enough).

Latin is a dead, yet extremely precise and expressive language. That’s just what you want for a theological/liturgical language. Good for expressing what you mean, and the words won’t change in meaning over time as happens with “living” languages.

Also, vernacular sounds nice, but has some serious drawbacks. For example, I went to Mass a couple of weeks ago at a parish where the balance was fairly equal between English, Spanish, and Philippino speakers. What exactly does “vernacular” mean in a mixed group like this? They did the core parts of the Mass in Latin, which was common for everyone. Similarly, if I go to Mass in another country, I probably wouldn’t understand anything they said. If it’s in Latin, I’ll understand a lot of it. That is, Latin is universal, since it’s no one’s basic language.

From the Baltimore Catechism:

Q. 566. Why does the Church use the Latin language instead of the national language of its children?

A. The Church uses the Latin language instead of the national language of its children:

  1. To avoid the danger of changing any part of its teaching in using different languages;
  1. That all its rulers may be perfectly united and understood in their communications;
  1. To show that the Church is not an institute of any particular nation, but the guide of all nations.

From Veterum Sapientia:

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 think “Latin vulgate” means the common language of the people- the vernacular.

Hi friend! Let’s start from the end. On matters of doctrine and discipline, the Church is often very slow to change and develop because She seeks to make sure the decisions being made really are the best. Of course there are other, more banal reasons that are common to all people, namely that the status quo is just easier. Particularly for this issue, it takes a lot of work for a translation to be done right. In a few months, we’re getting a new translation for the liturgy in English, and it’s 10 years in the making.

Now, it may be true that if you don’t speak Latin, you might not get much out of the Mass. Firstly, the solution used by millions through the years is to learn Latin! It’s not necessary to be fluent to understand the Mass, and many people, especially in more recent times have had missals that give the text and a translation. The other part of this is that before Vatican II, many parts of the Mass were said quietly, so the people couldn’t hear it anyways. Second point, I would disagree with the idea that you don’t get much out of it unless you understand what is being said. There is uncountable spiritual benefit to attending Mass, whether you understand it or not.


When I first started going to the Latin mass, I had a post asking people if they really understand what is happening.

Less than two months later, I am much more comfortable and appreciate it even more than I did (and I appreciated it from the beginning).

I did however take the time to ask questions and to read a book on the Latin mass.

However, even if I had no idea, I still found the service to be very reverent and beautiful.

Plus the homily was in English anyway.

Of course it does.

I was referring to the OP’s comment that the Church had “changed” in moving away from Latin. It has not. The prayers of the Mass should still be in Latin. In today’s world, Latin is not the vernacular.

Please understand that I have to look at this all through “Protestant eyes” because that is all I know.

1ke, I don’t understand what the words mean because I do not understand Latin. It took me a long time to piece the English and Spanish that I do know together enough to understand the song “Agnus Dei.” The parish I attend does nothing in Latin, except an occasional song. I feel very at home there.

Jerry S and ProVobis, Thank you for posting; I can understand wanting to keep the language universal.

Spirithound, Thank you for posting about the church and the changing process; some of that I can understand. However, learning Latin can take a person years. How will a person who knows nothing about Jesus who comes to the Catholic church out of curiosity learn anything about Jesus if he does not know what the church is saying? Forgive me, but I think this is why some Protestants think that Catholics do not care about sharing the Bible with their parishoners. . .because of the Latin. I also think this is why many un-catechized people have left the Catholic church. (I know it was the case for my father-in-law.) I believe this was one of the reasons for the Reformation/Revolt. I do not believe that Catholics do not want their parishoners to learn or know the Bible, but I am trying to still wrap my brain around the importance of Latin.

Moving toward the Catholic church is a huge and important step for me; I am just trying to get all my questions answered. Does anyone else have advice about this?

I converted to the Catholic Church at age 25. I also come from a Protestant background. You simply get a book of the prayers and learn them. That’s what I did.

Certainly learning to read, write, and speak Latin fluently can take that long. Learning a few prayers in Latind does not.

Perhaps you are working under the impression that the readings and homily would be in Latin-- they would not.

Perhaps you are also operating under the assumption that the Church did not have bible translations in the language of the people, which is an incorrect assumption.

Also, the *literate *of the era read and wrote Latin and would have been able to read either. Latin was not only the language of the Church but of university, the law, and science.

I think maybe you are operating under some misconceptions about the Church and its past.

Even though someone might not know Latin, the people still were very aware what was going on during Latin Mass.

The reason is that the rules for a priest to say Latin Mass were very precise as to where the priest moves and the gestures that he makes during the liturgy. The worshippers could easily keep track by seeing where the priest was and what he was doing during each segment. Since Catholics generally attended Latin Mass at least once a week, and were thoroughly catechised in the liturgy during their school years- they received the message.

Of course the priest would also deliver a sermon or homily, and that would be in English, Polish, or whatever the language of the people was in the particular parish.

When the Church decided to keep the Latin regardless that it ceased to be the language of the education (in the XVI Century) the Church lost half of the Catholics to the protestantism. Naturaly there were other reasons too, but the exclusiveness on the Latin (for the Scriptures and Liturgy) was part of this loss.

During the Centuries the Church loosened the exclusiveness of the Latin related to the Scriptures, in the 1940’s even allowed to use the the Greek and Hebrew as original instead of the previously required Latin Vulgata. Like any new this resulted in some chaos, and we still donot have stable English traslation for the Scriptures.

The same chaos came when the vernacular was allowed to the LIturgy, and we certainly will have still a long time until that chaos will be relived.

However the vernacular has a big advantage: unless someone learned and used the Latin as language of the learning and expression one does not feel the Latin word and sentences as his own. It is alien, lacks the emotions, lacks the fullness of the humanity. Except for those who immersed into the Latin at age 10 in the junior Seminary, even priests lacks this full, emotional understanding, it is like one would enjoy the music from the notes only without hearing that.

The Latin is necessary as standard, and it is very good as standard independent from emotions and the everyday changes. It is impossible to be tha language of the full understanding and the language of the participation with soul and heart.

What we need is not the Latin, but the reverence toward the sacred. The Masses of the St John Cantius Fathers, and many other reverent priests are the proof that the reverence is not in the Latin, it is fuller warmer in vernacular.

Starting at the end again…cuz I like that… The Bible is absolutely a vital part of being a Catholic! In fact, most of the Catholics around this forum will let you know that the Catholic Church wrote the Bible! But of course the New Testament was written mostly in Greek, not Latin, so a translation had to be done somewhere along the way. Happily and unfortunately, there were other translations later on too. Unfortunate when the translation didn’t come out real great, happy when it did. The Douay-Rheims, for example, was the first good Catholic English translation, and it came out 2 years before the King James Version.

Now before this, Bible-making was literally writing it out by hand. This made having books a super-luxury item, so basically none of the congregation could have had a Bible, or any other book, so they never bothered to learn how to read. Consider even today’s situation; reading is a leisure activity. Well, when you’re tending the farm all day, you have even less leisure, so even if someone had the idea that he might like to learn to read, he really wouldn’t have even had time for it, unless he was a priest. So, if nobody is going to read it, why bother to translate the Bible? The printing press was the thing that really started the ball rolling on this.

As for how a curious person could learn about Jesus going to a Latin Mass? Well, they wouldn’t…not their first time at least. You see, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not primarily designed to be a teaching mechanism. It is where we re-present the One Eternal Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary to God the Father. There is a homily right after the Gospel, but that would not be in Latin, because that is the teaching portion. The time for learning has always been in a class or discussion outside of Mass, like RCIA, or other catechism series.

By comparison, I don’t think you would learn much about what the Church teaches simply by attending an English-language Mass either. Compare it to the Anglican or Lutheran services, and you have many of the same structures and prayers, and yet those same prayers mean very different things in those communities.

The Church is indeed reeling now from several decades of terrible catechesis, but I wouldn’t blame that on Latin.

Personally I think Latin was hardly ever a true vernacular in the liturgy. My reasoning is that if it were, its meanings would have been corrupted through time as is common with national languages such as those used in Protestant services. In 40 years, the English in the Mass requires changes already. In perhaps a good way, Latin, one of the languages of the cross, is not learned sufficiently enough by the illiterates and semi-illiterates to change or corrupt its meanings. If Latin is learned only by the scholarly (lawyers, anatomists, classicists, Church members, etc.), that’s not a bad thing either, IMO. And if we can follow a few Latin prayers, that alone would unite all us Catholics.

This doesn’t mean, however, one cannot explain Latin or Greek passages to a congregation. In fact, the Council of Trent highly advised that this be done frequently as opposed to a one-size-fits-all translation of the text; it even anathemized anyone who tried to vernacularize the Mass in such a way. (Session 22)

I think the new English translation is not something that has been required because of the changes in English. Rather it has been mandated by Rome (not required by any objective standard) because the competent authority has judged that a completely different method of translation ought to have been used in the first place.

I would also be interested in hearing what you consider a “true” vernacular.

the same way you get something out of any Mass you attend. You already know the prayers, the actions, the responses and what is going on, no matter what language is being used, and you carry along, if you need it, a pocket missal with the readings and other prayers in your own language as an aide to memory. The Mass is the Mass whether or not you are even listening the reality does not depend on your comprehension.

I think the new English translation is not something that has been required because of the changes in English.

Like the meanings of “gay,” “ghost,” “spirit,” and other words haven’t changed meanings? And that’s just in 40 years. And FWIW, check out Old English and Middle English.



And fewer and fewer are understanding Shakespeare.

So English definitely changes and will continue to do so. Panglish is already predicted within 100 years.

Rather it has been mandated by Rome (not required by any objective standard) because the competent authority has judged that a completely different method of translation ought to have been used in the first place.

Yes but the same legitimate authority set it up in the first place. What’s to stop the next legitimate authority, competent or not, from changing it again in 40 years because people don’t like or understand this translation? Other vernacular texts are being changed as well, by the way. Do you or anyone else know the reasons for that?

I don’t quite understand or think I can answer your “true” vernacular question. I merely wanted to state that by the time Latin became the predominant worship language in the West, vulgarized forms of the language had already appeared evidenced partially by national borders. To what extent the many illiterates understood Latin in the 3rd or 4th century, I don’t know, but certainly in 400 years their own first-language vernaculars (beginnings of Spanish, Portugese, Italian, French, etc.) had to have changed somewhat.

Of course English changes. That doesn’t mean it was the impetus behind the new translation. Every time this topic comes up, the reason for the new translation is always given that the Holy See wants a more literal translation, not the dynamic paraphrase that was originally given. FWIW, I don’t recall ever hearing the word “gay” at Mass.

I was not aware of other languages’ texts also being changed, thank you for informing me. I hardly think the reason is that the people did not like or understand the text, or we might be observing quite different Magesteria…

You have indeed answered my question about “true” vernacular. You sell yourself short, friend.

The Latin was introduced in place of the Greek in the 380’s. We know nothing about the first translations, and how many versions changed before the recent Canon crystallized.

In fact the bishop was in charge for the Canon before the Council of Trident and the reform of St Pius V, and there were different canons from diocese to diocese.

For technical reasons teh world was slower than now, but this cannot be constructed as principle.

“Perhaps you are working under the impression that the readings and homily would be in Latin-- they would not.”

Yes, I was working under that impression; good to know–this makes more sense.

“Perhaps you are also operating under the assumption that the Church did not have bible translations in the language of the people, which is an incorrect assumption.”

This is also an assumption I have or had; I am not sure at what point the Bible began to be translated into other languages (after Latin).

“Also, the *literate *of the era read and wrote Latin and would have been able to read either. Latin was not only the language of the Church but of university, the law, and science.”

Yes, I understand this; I just wanted to know how the common people would have heard and learned anything about Christ, but if the homily and readings were in the common vernacular, then that would explain it.

“I think maybe you are operating under some misconceptions about the Church and its past.”

This is very possible; that is why I am asking questions–to have these cleared up.:o

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