The post below is part of an article I couldn’t fit into the recent newsletter supplements. It’s purpose is to explain why the church used Latin for over 1500 years but also explains that Latin was not the language of Christ or the early church.
Those of us ‘of a certain age’ remember when the Mass was always in Latin and we used missals or prayer books to read the translation during mass. For most people under the age of 50 the Mass has always been in English and those under 40 might even be unaware of the role Latin plays in the Church.
Jesus probably spoke Aramaic as His native tongue and would have been expert in Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was written, as he frequently conversed with members of the Jewish religious elite and visited the Temple to pray. He was also probably competent in Greek as that was the language of business and travel during his lifetime. Many Jews lived outside Palestine in the Greek speaking communities of the Eastern Mediterranean and would come to Jerusalem for the major temple feasts, particularly Passover; thus, in Jerusalem, many languages would be heard on the streets. The Romans ruling Palestine would have probably spoken Greek as well since, although Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, Greek was the language of the ruling and commercial classes.
The early church appears to have used Aramaic as its language in Palestine but Greek throughout the missionary territories including Rome. Paul wrote his Epistles in Greek and all the earliest texts of the Gospels are in Greek. However Greek influence in the Mediterranean did not extend East of Alexandria on the Southern shores of the Mediterranean or modern Italy in the North and so the Christian communities of North Africa, Gaul and Spain used the Latin of the Roman Empire from at least the 2nd Century. As the Roman Empire fell into decline during the 3rd and 4th Century, the Empire was split and its capitol was moved to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The Western Empire ceased to use Greek during this time of change and Vulgar Latin (the language of the common people) became the language of both Church and Government in the West – the East continued to use Greek and this is the root language of the Orthodox Churches.
By the 7th Century few common people spoke Latin but it remained the language of the Church and Mediaeval education in written form. The move from Greek to Latin had taken place so that congregations at Mass could understand the liturgy, but no similar change occurred as Latin ceased to be a living language; the church did, however, instruct that Sermons should be in the language of the congregation.
The use of Latin in the middle-ages was not without it’s own difficulties. Many priests were so poorly educated that they did not actually understand the words they were saying at Mass.
Part of the drive of the Protestant Reformation was that people should read scripture and worship God in their own tongue. The Counter Reformation and Council of Trent did leave the door open for the use of vernacular languages by not forbidding them but emphasising the special role of Latin. However the violence of the Reformation probably hardened hearts to the extent that the matter was not discussed further till the Second Vatican Council.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) both instituted a reform of the Latin liturgy and introduced the possibility of all or parts of the Mass being said in the vernacular. The original council intent was that Latin would be retained in some parts of the mass – to emphasise the universality of the church and retain the traditional link with the past. However a rapid movement to use of local language occurred and mass in Latin became the exception rather than the rule.
Latin Mass Society and the Traditional Latin Mass
Some may be aware of this organisation and term, which is not to be confused with the changes made to the Latin after Vatican II. Some felt that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II produced a Mass which represented a rupture with the past and so they petitioned the Pope to be allowed to continue to say the Mass using the rites in place before the reforms instituted by Paul VI. The history has been painful on both sides, including the excommunications of the Bishops of the SSPX. In 2007 Pope Benedict XV issued an instruction Summorum Pontificum allowing use of the 1962 missal. The rites of this missal are always celebrated in Latin and may be referred to as the Traditional Latin Mass or the Extraordinary Form of the mass.