Our Greek and Latin Roots

The subject of the language used in the celebration of liturgy is topical because of discussions about the new draft English translation of the Mass.
It always surprises me how many people think that Latin was the language used in worship from the very beginning of the Church.
At the Last Supper Jesus probably used his mother tongue, Aramaic. To the apostles, the use of one’s own language in worship was taken for granted. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul criticises those who speak in mysterious tongues: “In the church I would rather say five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:18).
In Greek-speaking nations to which Christianity spread, Greek was used in place of Aramaic in liturgy. All the New Testament writings were first composed in Greek and were read aloud in Greek at liturgical gatherings. When prayers used at worship eventually came to be written down, they were written in Greek.
The first apostles in Rome were Greek or people who spoke Greek. However the common people in Rome spoke only Latin. It seemed natural that the language of the liturgy should be that which the people could understand and use. Some, however, resisted the move to change from Greek to Latin, claiming that Greek was the language of culture and scholarship and dismissing Latin as a “vulgar” language.
In 217, Callistus became Pope. He had been born a slave and understood the needs of the majority who did not speak Greek. He decided that Latin should be the language of the liturgy, at least in Rome. In the fourth century, Saint Jerome translated the ancient texts of the Bible into Latin, the language of the people of his time.
It is interesting to note that Latin was introduced, despite some opposition, to make the liturgy intelligible to ordinary people. How ironic that it remained in use long after it ceased to be intelligible to ordinary people!
By the end of the first 1000 years of Christian, most people did not understand Latin, even in Rome. The only ones who understood the Mass were clerics. This prevented worshippers from participating fully in the Mass.
One of Luther’s criticisms of the Mass was that it had been removed from the people by this language barrier. He wanted to return to the principle of Saint Callistus – participation of the assembly means that living languages must be used in liturgy.
The use of the vernacular, however, was denounced by the Council of Trent. The Missal of Pius V in 1570 forbad the use of any language other than Latin.
The second Vatican Council began with a cautious move towards vernacular languages. After the Council the new Missale Romanum in Latin was translated into English and numerous other languages. Pope Paul VI hoped that the new missal would enable “one and the same prayer, expressed in so many different languages, to ascend to the heavenly Father through our High Priest Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit”.
Today the Mass is celebrated in more than 300 languages spoken by Catholics around the world, a wonderful sign of unity in diversity.


Elizabeth Harrington