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Confusion Over Language
Latin Mass? Tridentine Mass? What’s It All About?
An acquaintance commented recently that she had attended Mass whilst on holidays in another capital city and was surprised that some parts of the liturgy were sung in Latin. She named the Kyrie as one and Agnes Dei as another. “I thought Rome banned Latin after the Vatican Council”, she commented.
I gently pointed out that Kyrie eléison and Christe eléison are actually Greek, a language that was used in Christian worship before Latin. Agnes Dei, however, is indeed Latin and my friend’s confusion about the use of Latin in Mass is not uncommon.
A bit of historical background might be helpful here.
Despite some opposition, Latin was first introduced into the liturgy in Rome early in the third century to make the liturgy intelligible to ordinary people. By the end of the first millennium, however, the common people no longer understood Latin, even in Rome.
One of Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Mass was that it had been removed from the people by this language barrier and he recommended that the liturgy be prayed and sung in the language of the people.
The Council of Trent, convened in 1545 in response to the Protestant Reformers, carried out considerable changes in the sphere of Catholic worship by removing many appalling abuses. Against the wishes of those seeking reform, the Council called for the continued used of Latin in liturgy, although there was no specific condemnation of the use of vernacular. In fact, the council fathers decreed that vernacular explanations of some of the liturgical texts had to be given in the context of liturgy on every Sunday and holy day.
But for almost 400 years following the Council of Trent, Mass throughout the world was celebrated according to the 1570 Missal of Pius V, which laid down in minute detail what would be done and said at each stage of the Mass and offered a simple and effective template for worship that could be used by congregations everywhere; and the language of this ‘Tridentine’ Mass was Latin.
The second Vatican Council began in 1963 with a cautious move towards vernacular languages. After the Council the new Missale Romanum in Latin was translated into English and numerous other languages. Vatican II did not ban the use of Latin at all, but did encourage the use of the language of the place where the Mass was being celebrated (vernacular language) rather than Latin so that, as Pope John Paul II put it, ‘every individual can understand and proclaim in his or her mother tongue the wonders of God’.
The use of languages other than Latin in liturgy was not a total rejection of history, as some thought; in the earliest days of Christianity, liturgy would have been celebrated in the local languages of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.
The Tridentine Mass was not banned by Vatican II but its use was greatly restricted because the new Order of Mass reflected current theological and biblical understandings. In 1984 bishops received permission to allow groups who requested it to use the Tridentine Rite, that is, the Roman Missal as it was in 1962, as a pastoral concession. For several months now there have been rumours that Pope Benedict XVI will soon release a document allowing freer use of the Tridentine Rite.