Speaking in Tongues: The Language of Worship

Speaking in Tongues: The Language of Worship
When I present workshops on the history of liturgy, I sometimes ask participants what language was first used in liturgy and am surprised when so many people answer ‘Latin’.
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.
Just as Jewish Christians in Israel spoke Aramaic, Christians in Greek-speaking nations used Greek. The first language change then was from the original Aramaic to Greek, the language spoken by most early Christians.
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, Saint Callistus became Pope. He had been born a slave and understood the needs of the many ordinary people 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. It is somewhat ironic, then, that Latin remained in use long after it ceased to be intelligible to ordinary people!
By the end of the first 1000 years of Christianity the common people did not understand Latin, even in Rome. The only ones who understood the Mass were clerics. This blocked people from full participation in the Mass.
One of Luther’s criticisms of the Mass was that it had been removed from the people by this language barrier. As early as 1526 he recommended that the liturgy be prayed and sung in the language of the people. In other words, Luther wanted to return to the principle of Saint Callistus – participation of the assembly means that living languages must be used in liturgy.
The Council of Trent, convened in 1545 in response to the Protestant Reformers, 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.
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. 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