Why We Pray in Latin

St Benedict Abbey

Back in 1989, our community had the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of going to Rome to attend the ordination of our then Brother (and now Abbot) Xavier, celebrated in Saint Peter’s Basilica by the then Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II.

I can remember standing there during the ceremony, in a crowd of Catholics from every country of the world — France, Spain, Germany, and of course, Italy.  The Vatican choir intoned the Credo — the Creed — in Latin.  It was fortunate for me and the rest of my community that we were familiar with this version of the Creed; we sang it back at the monastery all the time.  But to my great surprise, we were not singing it alone.  Voices all around us, from Frenchmen and Spaniards and Germans and, of course, Italians, were singing it, too.  No one was following it in a missalette or anything like that.

We all knew it, and with one voice we, the universal Church, professed our Faith in a single language.  Had these people spoken to me in their native tongues, I’d have been lost.  But we could still pray together, and in that prayer unite more closely to each other than would be possible by any mere small talk; express in a common language of prayer a bond that transcended all language and cultural barriers.  These were my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Catholics.  I already knew that, but now, as the familiar chant from their lips came to my ears, I felt it in the depth of my soul.

That was almost thirty years ago.  I don’t know if I would have that same experience today, if the new generation of Europeans are as familiar with the Mass in Latin now as the previous generation was then.  And even if they are, that by itself would not justify our own years of daily chanting and reciting our prayers in Latin, just in case any of us happens to be in a situation like that again.

Nevertheless, it was a wonderful situation to have been in, and with the memory of it there wells up in me the question Why?  Why is this Latin language, the language that centuries of Catholics before us heard regularly at all of their liturgies, the liturgical language that we at Saint Benedict Abbey continue to use today?

Praying in a language you know: the advantage of the vernacular

It’s an important question to ask, especially in an age when most Catholics pray the Mass in their native tongue, and for obvious reasons.  Christianity, while a religion of the deepest mystery, is not a ‘mystery religion,’ hiding the meaning of its sacred rites from all but an elite few.  Therefore, to understand what the Church is praying at her liturgy, and pray along with her, is greatly to the Christian’s benefit.  But until the mid 1960’s, when celebrating the Mass and other liturgies in the vernacular became available to the universal Church, understanding the language of the liturgy demanded a thorough grasp of Latin, which was the reality for only a few.  For this reason, the vernacular (provided it is a good translation) is of immense value for the faithful of our time, giving them better access to the sacred rites.

We ourselves, while most of our liturgy is in Latin, do celebrate a share of it in English.  But we also recognize the liturgy in Latin as a precious gift.  Granted, it requires comprehension of Latin, or at least a good translation alongside, or maybe a combination of the two.  That no doubt is why so few take advantage of the blessing of Latin.  We are among them, and I will try here to offer a few reasons why.

A ‘dead’ language is an unchanging language

One reason why Latin is the language that we use in our liturgy is that it is unchanging.  I can think of only two kinds of languages that are unchanging.  The first is a language concocted by a creative mind for purely literary purposes, like one of the languages that J.R.R. Tolkien created for Middle Earth.  Most languages, however, are not concocted.  Since the beginning of time, people have had to communicate, and have developed languages in which to do it.  These languages rise naturally from within the people, and continue developing and changing as the centuries pass.  They develop and change so much, that a language spoken at one moment in history has, a few centuries later, developed into a completely different language.  The old language no longer spoken is what we call a dead language.

A common defense of the Church’s use of Latin is that Latin is a dead language.  It’s a strange compliment to pay, an odd argument to make.  But the famous Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, in defending the Church’s use of Latin, paid the compliment and made the argument.  Here is what he said:

It is the question of a dead language and a dying language.  Every living language is a dying language, even if it does not die.  Parts of it are perpetually perishing or changing their sense; there is only one escape from that flux; and a language must die to be immortal.

In other words, the only language that isn’t going to be constantly changing its meaning is a language that is no longer used as the common language of a society.  The Latin language, once it ceased to be the common language of Rome, died.  And because it died, nobody had to wonder whether a word still meant what it used to mean, or a point of grammar was still observed.  For most dead languages, no-body wonders such things because nobody cares.  Most dead languages are buried and stay buried.  But the Latin language died and rose again, rose to become the unchanging language of the Roman liturgy.

An unchanging language for an unchanging creed

And why do we care that the language of our liturgy is unchanging?  We care because the Faith that it expresses is unchanging.  Our Faith matters too much to be expressed in a language whose meanings are in constant flux, so that we can never be certain from generation to generation if what we are saying still expresses what the Church believes.  When that happens (and it does, in languages like English), then we have to rewrite our liturgy to be sure that we’re still saying what we want to say.

Rewriting liturgy is one thing we should be reluctant to do.  Rewriting liturgy disrupts liturgy, and that is detrimental to liturgy.  For liturgy requires consistency.  We want our worship to follow a familiar routine, so we can pray without having to wonder what’s next.  That’s why some of our most important prayers in English have kept words that we no longer use in common speech, like: Our Father Who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name.  What’s with hallowed and Thy; we don’t use those words any more.  And art — isn’t art something you hang on a wall?  Why do we retain such archaic words in so important a prayer?  Because the prayer is that important – too important to be continually fiddling with.  What happens, then, is that words like thy, thine, thou and thee, words that we no longer use when speaking in English, become words that we use when praying in English.  They are reserved for prayer.  What we do with individual words, the Church has done with an entire language – Latin – its language of prayer.

Why this unchanging language?

But why Latin?  There are lots of dead languages in the world; even today there are languages all over the world on the verge of extinction.  Why has the Church chosen Latin for its liturgical language?

One reason is historical.  Latin was the official language of the Roman empire, an empire spanning all Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia.  The language was so influential, that its influence continued in the Roman Church.  But I can see more substance to the Church’s choice of Latin than that.

The beauty of Latin

First, Latin is a beautiful language.  I won’t say it’s the most beautiful language; the burden of proof would be too great.  But think of the beautiful languages that came from Latin, like French, Spanish and Italian, languages we call romance languages, because of their Roman (Latin) origins.  Surely their beauty reflects their roots; you might even say that each inherited a share of her mother’s loveliness.  And what do you get when you have a language as beautiful as Latin, and someone who speaks that language with a beautiful gift for expression?  You get something as beautiful as the Latin of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate.

Saint Jerome was a monk of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, considered one of the first great Scripture scholars.  He was also a great Latinist, trained in classical Latin.  In 390 the pope, Saint Damasus I, commissioned him to write a new Latin translation of the Bible.  The result is the masterpiece known as the Vulgate.  No doubt because he was a monk, and knew their value as prayer, Saint Jerome took special care in translating the psalms.  His Latin psalter is perhaps his most beautiful work of translation.  And it is this translation of the psalms that we monks at Saint Benedict’s sing all day long.

The precision of Latin

Second, Latin is a precise language.  The Romans were known for their legal minds, and their love for legal precision is reflected in their language.  This proved providential when, in the late second century, a lawyer-turned-theologian named Tertullian began forging a Latin terminology to explain the Christian mysteries. He began explaining the Christian Faith by using words like PersonaSubstantia, and Trinitas, words that captured so accurately aspects of our belief in God and Christ, that the Western Church was spared much of the theological turmoil that subsequently plagued the Church in the East.  Over the centuries the Latin tongue continued to prove a most apt vehicle for explaining the mysteries of the Faith, notably in the thirteenth century, when Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologiæ.

The precision of the Latin language especially proved of value to prayers of the liturgy.  There is a Latin saying, Lex orandi est lex credendi — the law of praying is the law of believing — meaning that, if you want to know what someone believes, listen to him pray.  It also means that, if what you pray doesn’t agree with what you believe, your belief will be affected.  Your prayers therefore ought to capture well what you believe.  It’s valuable, then, to pray in a language that tends toward a more precise expression.

The legacy of Latin: the ancient prayers and chants of the Roman Church

The Church has over the centuries gathered up the best of her Latin prayers, and saved them in collections, treasuries of beauty and precision.  Many of these prayers date back to the early Church, linking us to the faith of our ancestors.  We pray them, not for nostalgia’s sake, but because our Faith is unchanging, and these pithy expressions of Faith have rarely been equaled in expressing our belief.  The prayers in our English Masses come from these prayers — but something is invariably lost in translation.

In addition to the ancient prayers that we say each day are the ancient prayers that we sing each day.  For the chant that we sing at Mass is not just song, it is prayer in song.  Many of the chants were written in monasteries by monks, who put to music texts from Scripture that had first been the subject of their meditation.  Their compositions are therefore the fruit of their prayer, and are themselves prayer.

The Church has for centuries been gathering these chants, and gleaning from them the very best.  The result is a single book called the Graduale Romanum.  To gather a collection of English chant as beautiful would likewise take centuries, by which time English will itself probably be a dead language!  In an attempt at a shortcut, efforts are constantly being made to adapt the ancients melodies to English texts, often by experts in chant.  They are valiant efforts, greatly appreciated, but seldom successful.  The original texts were in Latin, so the music composed for them flows naturally with the rhythm of the Latin language.  The melodies usually sound awkward and unnatural when placed over an English text.

Latin: still the universal language

Finally, I want to address the question of universality.  What I said in the beginning of this article is true — the argument for universality is not what it used to be.  Latin is still the official language of the Church, even of her prayer.  But I don’t know that too many Catholics in today’s world still pray in Latin.  At least, not in the parishes.  But I can think of two places where Latin still is often the language of prayer.  The first is the Vatican itself.  Whether the faithful at papal Masses still know the Latin, I don’t know.  But Latin is still the normative language for papal liturgies.  The Mass we say at the Abbey every day is the same Mass that the Pope says in Rome at all principal feasts and solemn occasions of the year.

The second place where Latin is a universal language is in the monastic world.  Many monasteries across the globe (outside of the United States) still celebrate their liturgies in Latin.  Others celebrate a good portion in Latin.  We at Saint Benedict Abbey could visit monasteries in Italy, Austria, Spain, Brazil, France and other countries and, while we might be lost at their recreation, would be at home during their prayer.  And I can think of no better way to experience our unity, both as Catholics and as monks.

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