2000 August September/Why Latin

The subject of Latin as the language of liturgy and, the language of the Church often comes up as soon as you try to bring a person the true Mass. In the West, it is very hard to understand why Latin is So GOOD for the Liturgy and the Church. The reason for this is that the West is provincial – that is, it has a hard time seeing things in a truly universal light. It also means that people in the West find it hard to re-think their basic assumptions, and try to understand the way other people, raised in truly alien cultures, think. Americans are the most provincial, because throughout the 50 states, the culture is so homogenized: drive for thousands of miles, and people dress the same, talk the same, watch the same shows, see the same news, and even use the same textbooks in schools. Europeans are less provincial, in my mind, because there are greater variations in the different nations of Europe, and those nations are within a few hours’ drive. But the difference between England and France, representing two poles of Europe, are nothing compared with the differences between them and India, or them and China. Or perhaps even Saudi Arabia, or the other Muslim nations.

The Church is Catholic, which means that it is the one house where all nations and tribes and people can gather, and be united in Faith, Sacraments, and Governance. The Church in her right mind is truly the most cosmopolitan of all societies, for she considers only what is in men, not what is “on” men. She approves what is good, and frowns out of existence what is bad in the customs and habits of people. However, Vatican II was not a truly cosmopolitan Council, because it emphasized more the externals of church functioning, than her divine origin, constitution, and mission. It is clear to me that the resolutions of the Second Vatican Council were written for post-Protestant, liberal society. And in this society, Latin is an anachronism; it doesn’t fit, its necessity is not so readily perceived.

When we defend the necessity of Latin, we usually start by saying that Latin is:

  • a SACRED language
  • a UNIVERSAL language
  • a DEAD language
  • a PRECISE language:

All these elements, taken together give Latin a power of attracting, elevating, binding, and instructing Catholics throughout the world, whether they be Japanese, Indian, Arabian, or European. I think, though, that most Catholics are so stuck in the atmosphere of liberal, post-Protestant society, that the importance of Latin is hard to see. (There is another example of our conditioned blindness, which I promise to mention later.)

Look first at SACRED, and consider the following reflections. Devout men have always held that God is so great that human words cannot adequately express what, who, or how He is, or how He acts. But when God does reveal Himself to us, as WORDS are themselves something sacred – the words of prophets and sages, as coming from God, are collected, and presented in a language set aside, that is, sacred. The Muslims have a sacred language, and words of their holy books are carefully written and preserved in that language. The Jews have a sacred language, Hebrew. The Hindus have a sacred language, Sanskrit: and any Brahmin who wants to examine the Vedas must first master that ancient and DEAD–language. And now, the only ones who cannot have a sacred language are the Catholics? Yes, we have a sacred language, Latin. And we have no more to be ashamed of it than an Arab his Arabic, or the Copt his Coptic, or a Jacobite his Syriac, or the Slavs their Old Slavonic. All are dead languages, all are considered sacred. None of the aforementioned people clamor for the vernacular.

It is interesting to note that in Hinduism, the place of Sanskrit as a sacred language is secure, and the prayers and sacrificial formulas used in the temples are always recited in Sanskrit, which the people do not understand. Even the priests do not understand! No one wants to address their god in the language of the market.

In the Philippines, the people instinctively understand the power of the sacred language: they are disappointed if the blessing is in the vernacular. Often, after blessing houses, or cars, the people would remark to one another, “and he did it in Latin!” In the old days, says Bishop Lazo, false prophets, who concentrate on their profits, would try to deceive the Filipinos by making their prayers sound like Latin. “Mumble-orum,fumble-orum, rec-tus, practum simblorum.” Several times, I was presented with letters, booklets, and prayers given by a certain seer. ‘The seer trained all the people to say those prayers, which were a mix of – Spanish and Latin – but utter nonsense. The conclusion here is that a sacred language is an integral part of the natural religious sense of human beings. And Vatican II couldn’t see it, blinded by modem egalitarianism.

The binding power of Latin as a universal language is perfectly evident in India. Why? There are about 700 languages in India. Almost every state has its own unique language, which is so different from that of its neighbors that the two are often mutually incomprehensible. When a Maharashtran travels in Tamil Nadu, it is as a foreign country to him: the signboards mean nothing, and he cannot communicate at all with his fellow-Indians, unless they both agree to use English. A few years bank, in Karnataka, there was a riot on Good Friday, a riot started by the clergy. In the border city of Bangalore, many of the Catholics had migrated from Tamil Nadu, and hence, spoke Tamil. These had their own Tamil priests officiating for them. The bishop of the place favored the language of the state, namely, Kannada. The majority Tamilians agitated for having the liturgy in their language. The others argued that in Karnataka, speak as the Karnatakians do. Some people sought a compromise, and suggested that the bishop revert to Latin. That would have been acceptable to both sides. The bishop refused, and on Good Friday, he was beaten, physically, by his clergy. Ever since the Tower of Babel, the division of languages has been a mark of the effects of sin.

Practically speaking, look at how the universal language helps the Church. Priests from anywhere can go anywhere and administer the Sacraments. Laity from anywhere can assist with piety and awareness at the Mass, no matter where they are travelling. But in India, now, the vernacular introduces lamentable divisions amongst the people. At one parish church, there may be five Masses on Sunday: two in English, one in Hindi, one in Tamil, and one in Malayalam. All the liturgical books-Gospel, Epistle, Lectionary, Breviary, Ritual, Holy Bible-must be translated into each of the dozens of languages, printed and  reprinted, without errors being allowed to creep in. And suppose the language into which the holy words are being translated is a deficient language, like the Pidgin English of Papua? Won’t the Gospel suffer in the translation? Not all languages are created equal!

To have a universal language unifies the clergy, as well. Here in Tricky, there is a seminary of St. Paul’s (outside the church). Most of the students are Tamil speaking. Most do not speak English when they enter. They apply themselves to learn English, which becomes the medium of instruction. It also allows them to communicate with their brethren in Maharashtra. But what about their brethren in Japan? If instead of being forced to learn English, they became fluent in Latin, as of old, there would be a close bond between all the clergy world-wide, past and present. And the works of the great Fathers of the Church and the greatest theologians would lay open to them. As far as I know, the Summa Theologica has never been translated into Tamil. Its riches are locked away from anyone who doesn’t learn Latin or English.

In India, one can even see the advantages of a DEAD language. In Tamil Nadu, there are two versions of the same language-the “classical” Tamil, and the “colloquial” Tamil. The former is constructed according to strict rules, with an enormous range of words, and combinations of words, which make it capable of conveying deep thoughts. The colloquial language is a truncated, abbreviated, contracted, simplified version, which is spoken by the people in everyday discourse. Sermons, formal discourses, public announcements are in formal Tamil. Most printed matter, such as newspapers and schoolbooks, are written in formal Tamil. As a consequence, no matter how wretched and corrupted the language of the commoner becomes, there is always the unchanging standard, which arrests the downward slide of language. We have a three-volume course of theology in pure Tamil, which has crystallized the purest expression of Catholic doctrine into precise, classical Tamil. The same would not be possible in colloquial Tamil. (When funds permit, we will reprint this set, which will be of the greatest help to restore the faith and good doctrinal formation of seminarists.) In the Church, Latin serves the same purpose. As a dead language, it is an unchanging judge of what is being said in the vernacular. But abolish Latin, and the reference is gone, and like a ship in a fog, which has lost its compass, the doctrine of the Church will waver and wander in any direction.

Already I have gone on longer than I intended for this very simple letter. Nevertheless, for sake of completeness, let us just point out that the ancient languages, like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Tamil (they are all from the same period-sister languages), there is a purity of expression which greatly facilitates clarty of thought. My little knowledge of Tamil has caused me to admire the flexibility of the language. Almost any word can be used as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb merely by changing the ending. In English we can say “firstly,” or “manly,” but we can’t say “rich-fellowly,” or “pigly,” or “chairly.” Sometimes I have to laugh at the literal translations of simple Tamil expressions. Latin is our language of theology, and it allows a degree of precision of expression which does not exist in the corrupted modern languages. So remove Latin, and you will be obliged to write paragraphs in English to try to explain what in Latin was simple.