Posted by: frroberts | October 29, 2012

What happened at Vatican II, part II, background on Latin in the liturgy

Last week I promised a follow-up on what happened at Vatican II.  This series of posts will look at the context out of which Vatican II came and focus on the updating it proposed in the Liturgy.

The Context 

In the first half of the 20th century, the Western (ostensibly Christian world) saw two world wars.   During World War II, a country with centuries of Christian history elected a government that was so nationalistic that it nearly exterminated European Jews and was well on the way toward doing the same to the Poles and others.  After World War II, the West also saw nearly half of its population live under brutal, state-sponsored, atheistic repression behind the Iron Curtain.  By the opening of Vatican II (1962), even in Christian countries not behind the Iron Curtain, anti-religious thinking was beginning to penetrate culture.  Secularism sought to domesticate Christianity in the West  much the way that the wolves were tamed.  Even if one loves dogs, it is beyond dispute that they are definitely not the wolves from which they are descended.  Privatized, secularized Christianity bears little resemblance to the faith that produced martyrs and evangelized the known world.  More ominously, philosoviet socialism was beginning to become a tenable political option in countries like Italy and France.   Experience in Cuba had demonstrated that the Church in Latin America had an increasingly tenuous hold on the hearts and minds of the people.  In short, the Church, for all of its exterior pomp, was in a bad way.

When Blessed John XXIII (1958-1963) spoke about the aggiornimento (literally bringing up to the present day) that the Church needed, he did not envision a reshaping of the faith, but an updating in Church discipline and articulation of the faith in ways that are more understandable to those hearing the message.  This updating is a far cry from the watering down of discipline and teaching that has sometimes come in the name of Vatican II.

Looking at the liturgy in the years before Vatican II will give important context to the updating that the Council wanted.

It might seem strange for someone born in 1979 to write about “the way things were”–but anyone with professional historical training will note that perspective and greater detachment can often lead to a more objective evaluation of the past.  A rule of thumb for a biographer is that a good biography needs at least a generation’s distance from its subject.  Otherwise the biographer risks over generalizing his own opinion and experience.  The same can be said of great events.  Those who observed the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 likely understood its significance far less than scholars looking back at 1215 from the perspective of 1915.  With time the antecedent causes and the consequences of the event become more clear.

In most of the Catholic world the liturgy was celebrated in Latin at the time of Vatican II.  To most of us today this seems laughably obscurantist.

Before passing too harsh a judgment, it is important to understand that for the majority of human history, the bulk of the population could neither read nor write.  A consequence of this fact was that  most of the spoken languages left behind little, if any literature.  For example, in the time of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) the common language of the region in which he was born was Punic.  Augustine’s education, however, was not conducted in Punic, but in Latin.  At least some of the upper class spoke both Punic and Latin, but all who wrote wrote only in Latin.

The original language of the Church was Aramaic, which was the language that Jesus spoke in everyday speech.  For formal religious services, Hebrew was the custom for Jews in Palestine.  Jesus and the Apostles were likely also conversant in Greek, which was the language of business in the Roman Empire (much like English is the international business language today). Interestingly, Aramaic has never totally died out as a language for Christian worship.  A derivative of Aramaic, Syriac, continues to be used by some Christians despite the fact that is an otherwise dead language.

Most of the Church transitioned from Aramaic to Greek quite quickly.  Peter, Paul and John used Greek when they wrote; the entire New Testament and most early Christian writings were in Greek.  In western Europe and North Africa, Latin began to be used widely in the Church in the end of the 2nd century.  By 350, the Church in Rome and in those areas directly under the influence of the Bishop of Rome fully made the transition to worshipping and proclaiming the Word of God in Latin, which was the language of many of the people.  When Latin-speaking Christians did successful missionary work, they brought Latin with them.  Some Slavic countries, the British Isles and Scandinavia are prominent examples.  Those who learned how to read and write in western and central European Christian culture did so in Latin.  Many illiterate people learned their prayers in Latin as well their mother tongue so that they could follow along with the most important parts of the Mass with a modicum of understanding.

The Christian culture that developed in western and central Europe, which later spread to many parts of the Americas, had three divisions: clerics, the landed aristocracy and everybody else.  From the mid-fourth century until the fifteenth century this system functioned more or less well.  Clerics, men in holy orders, were celibate and could read and write Latin. Quite often they aspired to lives of poverty or simplicity and were very highly educated.  The landed aristocracy generally knew how to read and write but the high place they occupied in Christian culture came because of their wealth rather than learning.  Almost none of everybody else knew how to read and write.  The lucky ones who were very intellectually gifted might become clerics.  Great military accomplishments might also facilitate entrance into a low rung of the landed aristocracy.  Most of everybody else learned very early in life that their place was to obey clerics and the landed aristocracy.  Occasionally, when there were disputes between clerics and the landed aristocracy, the support of everybody else could prove decisive in which side gained the upper hand.

The rise of international trade and the emergence of a large merchant class challenged this threefold division.  Merchants had to be literate to run their businesses, were somewhat wealthy, but were often unlanded.  What’s more, their wealth, and by extension, their power, did not depend on inheritance or ritual but rather rested on their own hard work.  Merchants had to know how to read and write, but learning a dead language seemed like a waste of time.  It was much easier to learn to read and write a language that one already spoke.  Thus vernacular languages became literary languages.    The one thousand year-old stability that Christendom knew slowly began to unravel.

The Church, a fundamentally conservative body, was slow to adjust to these changes.  The Reformation filled the vacuum with its vernacular Bibles and priestless worship.  Along with the rejection of much that was changeable came the rejection of some things that were not.  At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Pope and bishops decided to emphasize the importance of continuity in order to protect that which is changeless against illegitimate Protestant innovations.  They did this by clinging more firmly to old forms, even if those forms were in themselves changeable.  This strategy meant that Latin would continue to be used for the Liturgy even while its status as the only literary language of Europe was now a relic of the past.  In the centuries that followed, rising rates of literacy in vernacular languages and the continuing recession of Latin dated this position more and more.

The Christian faithful became increasingly detached from what was actually going on in the liturgy.  Mass grew shorter and less beautiful. Much of the liturgy was whispered so softly by the priest that it was inaudible.  What subjective religious vitality there was among Catholics flowed more from popular piety rather than the liturgical celebrations themselves.  The liturgy had become a museum piece to be preserved rather than a readily intelligible and living reality in which the laity could participate as more than spectators.  It is true that this process was nowhere near complete.  Even when the Mass was in Latin it was possible to pray liturgically.  But the exclusive use of Latin had become a real roadblock for the laity to enter more fully into the sublime reality that is the liturgy.  The movement away from exclusive use of Latin in the Mass at Vatican II was about changing something that was changeable in order to focus more intensely on the unchangeable reality that underlies it, the Sacraments.  The hope was that this updating would facilitate “a new Pentecost.”

It is never that simple.  The past two generations have shown that as good as the idea of a vernacular liturgy sounds, it did not translate into immediate and overwhelming success.


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