Latin is language for Church teaching, worship Print
What's That All About
Thursday, Mar. 03, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

What's That All About column by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

The sixth in a series by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf about the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

By now, if you have followed this series, you are probably forming an answer to “What’s that all about?” when you hear that Bishop Robert Morlino is going to celebrate a Pontifical Mass at the Throne in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

In the past few columns we explored the solemn outward style of these Masses, including the elaborate symbolic vestments and gestures, the number of ministers, and detail, decorum, and reverence.

What’s up with the Latin?

Latin is the Latin Church’s official language for teaching and for worship.

The Second Vatican Council’s document on sacred worship, Sacrosanctum Concilium, commanded that the Latin language be retained for worship (SC 36).

It required that Gregorian chant (which is in Latin) be given the primary place in our liturgical music along with polyphony (SC 116).

It ordered that pastors of souls teach their flocks both to speak and to sing the parts that pertain to them in both Latin and their mother tongue (SC 54).

The Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church says that Mass is to be celebrated in Latin or in another approved language (canon 928). Latin comes first.

The same Code dictates that seminarians be “very well versed” (bene calleant) in Latin before they are ordained (canon 249).

St. John XXIII issued an Apostolic Constitution (the most authoritative level of Church document), Veterum sapientia, that insisted that Latin be retained. Our official liturgical books are in Latin. The books with English, widely in use, are mere translations.

Church prays in Latin

If you want to know what the Church really prays, guess which language we look at.

This is how it has been since the earliest days in the Roman Church.

Holy Mass in the Roman Rite retains some echoes of when we Roman Christians used Greek, such as in the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) and in certain prayers on Good Friday.

But back in the day, when the Church moved from Greek to Latin, the Latin used was not the common Latin spoken by the people in the street. It was highly refined Latin, poetic, with sculpted language redolent of the way Romans prayed for centuries.

The texts were -- and still are if you can read Latin -- filled with allusions to Stoic and Neo-Platonic philosophical terms and ideas which had been taken and “baptized” by the earliest Christian writers.

That Latin was not simply the “vernacular,” that is, the language of the verna, the household slaves, and common people. Nearly all peoples and religions have their sacred languages, such as Hebrew for Jews, Sanskrit for Hindus, Greek for Eastern Christians. Latin remains the sacred language of Christian worship in the West, even though it has fallen -- contrary to the Church’s law and the will of the Council Fathers -- into disuse.

In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite Latin is used even for the readings, which are spoken or sung.

It is customary also to proclaim the readings again in the “vernacular,” the local language.

Latin is also used -- and properly so -- in the Ordinary Form, the way Mass in celebrated in most parishes today. Latin is actually the true language of the Ordinary Form.

Latin not abolished, forbidden

Latin was never abolished or forbidden. It was improperly abandoned, and it cannot be denied that we have suffered from its absence.

Think about how, in the abandoning the Latin language, a door was slammed shut on the vast treasury of beautiful sacred music, written over centuries and prayed through singing . . . in Latin.

Wherever Latin is denied, your patrimony and heritage are being kept from you. It should be carefully and lovingly reclaimed.

To be continued.

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, "Father Z." a Catholic priest ordained by St. John Paul II, has a background in classical language and patristic theology and worked in the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei." He has been a weekly columnist for The Wanderer and the UK's Catholic Herald and runs his award-winning blog ( He lives and works in the Diocese of Madison and travels, giving talks, conferences, and retreats.