A priest elevates the Eucharist during a traditional Tridentine-rite Mass in July 2021 at St. Josaphat Church in New York. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

In what language should we hear the Word?

By  Clare Lazzuri, Catholic Register Special
  • October 12, 2022

My daughter started taking Gaelic lessons more than a year ago and it’s opened my eyes to the story language tells about a people. 

When I sat in on some of her online sessions and listened to her practise, I realized the connections between language and cultural behaviour. The intonations unique to Gaelic, which was the language spoken by the Scottish settlers on Cape Breton, are still present in the English speakers of those areas. Suddenly, many of the idiosyncrasies of my homeland made sense. 

My father’s parents spoke Gaelic and my father used a smattering of Gaelic phrases, but the language was sadly not passed on. In recent years, Gaelic classes offered in schools, programs offered at the internationally renowned Gaelic College in Cape Breton and many grassroots community-led initiatives have revived the Gaelic language in this part of the word, giving new generations a chance to better understand their cultural roots.

What about our spiritual-language roots? There’s been a lot of talk lately in Catholic circles about the value of Latin in the liturgy and even in private prayer life. Some Catholics say that all Masses should still be celebrated in Latin, all prayers said in Latin, because it is the official language of the Church and has been used in the Church since her earliest days. Jesus and the Apostles did not speak Latin that we know of (Aramaic more likely, perhaps even Greek), but Latin did take hold as the “language of the Church” at least by the fourth century. 

Personally, I have always felt drawn to the language of Latin. I eagerly took Latin class for two and half years in high school. When I went away to college, I felt like I was home whenever I attended the weekly Novus Ordo Mass in Latin. Looking back, especially with the recent experience of witnessing my daughter learn Gaelic, I realize that I was always connected to Latin, both through my faith and my own English language. Latin fit my story.

There is certainly something about Latin in the Mass that sets the Catholic Church apart from other Christian denominations. Contained within the language are connections to our roots. There is something miraculous about listening in 2022 to the same language in Mass that your spiritual ancestors also heard some 1,600 years prior. Some may say that is simply nostalgia for what we think was a better time for the Church. But one could also argue that the language is the tie that binds, perhaps helps define, our identity as Catholics. 

If the Church still had Latin as its universal language would there be greater unity, Mass attendance and devotion? I don’t think that question has a simple answer. I suspect the majority of Catholics in Canada identify mostly with the Mass in English.

There is, however, a growing number of Catholics who find a deeper connection with the Latin liturgy, especially the Traditional Latin Mass of pre-Vatican II days.

Many will say that the use of Latin encourages reverence, but others will say that when Mass was celebrated exclusively in Latin, many congregants were not really aware of what was happening on the altar, and felt disconnected. Latin Mass scholars say Latin is an integral part of a larger reform needed to the Mass. These would see the reverse of many, if not all, of the changes that happened after Vatican II, which actually encouraged continued use of Latin.

So, should we all get back to our roots and start teaching our kids Latin? Probably nothing wrong with that, and if it’s being done with Gaelic, why not Latin? Have most Catholics gotten so far away from Latin that the whole concept is unrelatable to them? Possibly. When Jesus hung from the Cross, the inscription identifying Him was written in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, so was that a sign that the Church was to embrace many languages? Something to pray about. 

Obviously there are many questions. The surge in the love for Latin, and the old Mass that goes with it, is not something we should ignore. More families are being drawn to it, searching for a deeper connection to their Catholic culture.

Maybe Church leaders should consider opening a discussion on the language ties that bind us as Catholics. 

(Lazzuri writes from her home in Nova Scotia. This column was originally published in The B.C. Catholic.)

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