Liturgical Languages

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The Catholic Church uses many languages in its official worship of God, though latin is the one most intimately associated with the Roman liturgy. This article will consider primitive practice, the Churches of the East, the Church in the West, and the reforms of Vatican Council II.

Primitive Practice. The earliest liturgical language in the Church was almost certainly aramaic, this being both the native tongue of the Apostles and their first Jewish converts and the one used by the Lord. These first Christians seem never to have adopted a hieratic use of Hebrew, with which they would have been familiar from the reading of the Law and the Prophets in the Temple, nor is there any evidence that the first missionaries attempted to preserve Aramaic as a sacred liturgical language in non-Aramaicspeaking communities. In rural districts people had their own native forms of speech, but in urban areas they used Greek, and this koine, the usual cosmopolitan language of everyday affairs, became the foremost language of the liturgy (see greek language, early christian and byzantine.).

There is ample evidence that the language of the people to whom Christianity was preached from the beginning was also the language used in their liturgy (cf. O. Korolevsky). Only three languages, however, were of importance in the development of the liturgy: Syro-Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Syro-Aramaic was used in Jerusalem, in the Judeo-Christian communities of Palestine, and in those territories to the north and east that had not come under Hellenistic influence. Thus edessa became the center of a national Aramaic or Syrian Christianity. The Syriac liturgy has survived to the present day, though much of it is a translation from the Greek. Until the 4th century Greek was the lingua franca in the whole of the eastern half of the Roman Empire and was therefore the language of the liturgy in those areas. Even in Rome Greek was the common language. It was not until c. 250 a.d. that Latin predominated there and gradually became the official language of the Western Church by the 4th century.

The Churches of the East. In the East the principle of retaining the Byzantine liturgy in Greek as the official liturgical language was not maintained so rigidly as Latin in the West. When the Melkites around Antioch adopted Arabic as their vernacular, their liturgy was accordingly translated into Arabic. The Georgians in the Caucasus used Georgian. The Byzantine liturgy is also celebrated in Hungarian, Finnish, Chinese, and Japanese. Other Oriental liturgies are celebrated in Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian.

"We do not," wrote pius xii, "hold the venerable liturgies of the Eastern Church in less esteem; on the contrary these ancient and traditional rites are equally dear to us" (Mediator Dei 11). In 1929, when conceding that reconciled Orthodox clergy in Estonia might use their native language in the liturgy, pius xi emphasized that as a matter of principle Eastern Catholics must be accorded full liberty to use in the liturgy languages that are suited to the good of souls, once the Holy See approves their use (cf. Korolevsky, 54). On April 1, 1960, john xxiii approved a decision, taken the previous day at a plenary session of the Holy Office, that recognized the right of Byzantine priests to use vernacular, even non-Oriental, languages in celebrating the liturgy anywhere in the world. (For the background to this decision, arising out of an attempt to impose restrictive norms on the use of English in the United States, see Maximos IV Saigh, ed., Eastern Churches and Catholic Unity [New York 1963].)

The Church in the West. After the transfer of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople, and the political dismemberment of the Western empire, a common understanding of Latin was one of the chief means whereby Christian culture was transmitted to the new barbaric peoples. There is strong evidence that Rome abandoned Greek in favor of Latin some time in the second half of the 4th century, more precisely between 360 and 382. Klauser (469473) points to damasus i as probably the most influential person in making the language of Rome the language of the liturgy. Vernacular liturgies were feasible only in the later Middle Ages, as the dialects of the barbaric peoples assimilated the vulgar Latin, admittedly the less thoroughly as they were farther from the Mediterranean, and emerged as modern European languages. For more than 1,000 years Latin remained the language of cultured people and hence was the obvious language for the Church's meetings and quite naturally continued to be the language of the liturgy.

At the Council of trent suggestions that Latin should be canonized by name, or that vernacular languages should be indiscriminately approved, were equally rejected, and the Fathers anathematized in a canon those who said "that the Mass must be celebrated only in the vernacular" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 1759), explaining in the preceding chapter that "although the Mass contains a great deal of instruction for the faithful, it does not seem expedient to the Fathers that it be indiscriminately in the vernacular" (ibid. 1749).

The easy identification of the liturgical use of the vernacular with Protestant ideals led to a grave suspicion of heresy, or at least disloyalty, attaching to any tendency among Catholics to champion that use. pius vi, in the apostolic constitution auctorem fidei (1794), spoke of the Synod of pistoia's proposal to use the vernacular in the liturgy as "false, temerarious, disruptive of the prescribed manner of celebrating the mysteries, and easily productive of many evils" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 2666). pius x, in his motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini (1903), reaffirmed that "the language proper to the Roman Church is Latin and hence it is forbidden to sing anything whatsoever in the vernacular in solemn liturgical functionsmuch more to sing in the vernacular the variable or common parts of the Mass and Office" (7;A. Bugnini, Documenta pontificia ad instaurationem liturgicam spectantia [Rome 1953] 18). John XXIII, in the apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia (1962), asked that "no one, moved by an inordinate desire for novelty, should write against the use of Latin either in the teaching of the sacred disciplines or in the sacred rites of the liturgy" (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 54 [1962] 133).

In spite of this rigorous official attachment to Latin, the Church occasionally admitted other languages into the Roman liturgy, usually when missionaries from the West had to collaborate with their Eastern counterparts. The best known was the permission given in the 9th century by adrian ii (d. 872) and john viii (d. 882) for the use of Old Slavonic in Moravia. Despite its withdrawal by stephen vi (d. 891), this ancient custom, secured by SS. cyril and methodius, has survived down to our own times in parts of central Europe. Similarly in 1398 boniface ix allowed the Dominican missionaries in Greece to celebrate Mass in the liturgical Greek. The Armenian Catholics of the Order of St. gregory the illuminator, an Armenian association (13301794) that worked for reunion with the Holy See, celebrated according to the Dominican rite in the classical Armenian tongue, and Carmelite priests also made extensive use of the same language. In the 18th century the Capuchin missionaries in Georgia read the Epistle and Gospel in the vernacular, and the Carmelites in Persia were permitted to celebrate one Mass in Arabic every day. In India councils at Goa (1585) and diamper (1599) authorized private Mass in Syriac.

There is evidence that clement v, when he established a bishopric at Beijing (1307), gave permission for Chinese in the liturgy. The Jesuit missionaries 300 years later persuaded the Holy Office to support the use of this vernacular, and in 1615 paul v granted to Chinese priests a faculty of using their own language for Mass and the Sacraments. Whether the permission had ever been put into effect, it was later withdrawn by the Congregation for the propagation of the faith (founded in 1622). In the Caughnawaga and Saint-Regis Indian reservations, not far from Montreal in Canada, a Mohawk Iroquois tongue is still used by the people in their parts of the Mass, thanks to concessions obtained by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century.

In the West Latin was retained as the liturgical language of the Catholic Church in spite of strong protests at the time of the Reformation. The Council of Trent ruled that "it was not expedient" that Mass should be celebrated in the vernacular language (sess. 22, ch. 8; H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1749). The beginnings of a change are discernible in the encyclical mediator dei (Nov. 20, 1947) which, while reiterating the statement that the use of Latin is a sign of the Church's unity, admitted that the use of the mother tongue was frequently of great advantage to the people. It did not specify what parts of the liturgy could be rendered in the mother tongue, and in fact hardly any permissions were given until after Vatican Council II, with the notable exception of the Deutches Hochamt (high Mass) in Germany.

For several centuries German peoples had a custom of singing in their own language at Mass, so that, in Germany and Austria and parts of Switzerland and Luxembourg, the choir and congregation sang many of their parts in German, and the Epistle and Gospel were read in both Latin and German. A similar order using Hindi was approved for the province of Agra in 1958, and in the same year the use of Hebrew was authorized in Israel for the whole of the Mass before the Offertory. These changes as well as the various approvals given by the Holy See in the first part of the 20th century for the use of bilingual versions of the Rituale Romanum are now largely of historical interest only, since they were superseded by the work of liturgical reform accomplished at Vatican Council II.

Vatican Council II. In 1947 pius xii had said that "the use of the Latin language prevailing in a great part of the Church affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of true doctrine. Admittedly the adoption of the vernacular in quite a number of functions may prove of great benefit to the faithful. But the Apostolic See alone is empowered to grant this permission" (Mediator Dei 60). The conciliar Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy goes further. Whereas it insists that "the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites" (36.1), Latin is not called, as some Fathers during the debates in the council had desired, the official language of the Roman rite. And although the principle, familiar in Eastern rites, that the living language can be the normal liturgical language, is not conceded, nevertheless all the practical results of such a concession are made possible. "Since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of Sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. It is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Holy See" (36.23). Later it is said that at "Masses celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and the 'common prayer,' and also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people. And wherever a moreextended use of the mother tongue within the Mass appears desirable" (54), the competent territorial authority should submit the matter to the Holy See (40). The vernacular language may be used for the entire rites of Sacraments, sacramentals, and for the Divine Office.

The principle behind this reform was well formulated by Vatican II: "In this restoration [of the liturgy], both texts and rites should be drawn up so they express more clearly the holy things they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community" (21).

Even the council did not envisage an entire vernacular liturgy. It decreed that though existing special exemptions are to remain in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. Nevertheless, in view of the advantage accruing to the people through the use of the mother tongue, in the first place the readings and directives and some of the prayers and chants could be translated at the discretion of the competent local authority (Sacrosanctum Concilium 36). This decree was later clarified by the Instruction of the Congregation of Rites Inter oecumenici (40; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 [1964] 897900). It was left to the episcopal conferences to decide which texts were to be translated. Permission was not given for the translation of the Roman Canon until June 29, 1967, with the Instruction Tres abhinc annos (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 59 [1967] 442448). Thus gradually in the whole of the liturgy the vernacular became permissible as pastoral needs became evident.

All translations have to be authorized, i.e. confirmed, by the Congregation for Divine Worship before use in the liturgy and on June 25, 1969, the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy published important guidelines for liturgical translators in an Instruction on Translation of Liturgical Texts (Comme le prévoit). In 2001 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued new guidelines on the translation of liturgical texts, Liturgicam authenticam. Among other things, Liturgicam authenticam called for a more literal translation of the Latin into vernacular languages.

Bibliography: A classic introductory survey for the general reader is c. korolevsky, Living Languages in Catholic Worship, ed. and tr. d. attwater (Westminster, Md. 1957). c. mohrmann, Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character (Washington 1957). g.t. klauser, "Der Übergang der römischen Kirche von der griechischen zur lateinischen Liturgiesprache," Miscellanea Giovanni Mercati, 6 v. (Studi e Testi 121126; 1946) 1:467482. s. smrzŽik, The Glagolitic or Roman-Slavonic Liturgy (Cleveland 1959). d. attwater, Eastern Catholic Worship (New York 1945). f. e. brightman, Liturgies Western and Eastern (Oxford 1896). j.a. jungmann, The Early Liturgies to the Time of Gregory the Great (Notre Dame, Ind. 1959). a. a. king, Liturgies of the Primatial Sees (Milwaukee 1957). a. raes, Introductio in Liturgiam Orientalem (Rome 1947). h. schmidt, Liturgie et langue vulgaire (Rome 1950). p. d. garrett, "Problem of Liturgical Translation: A Preliminary Study," Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 22:23 (1978) 83113; "The Problem of Liturgical Translation: An Addendum," Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 24:1 (1980) 3750. n. mitchell, "Christine Mohrmann (19031988): The Science of Liturgical Language," Liturgy Digest 1:2 (1994) 443 (with extensive bibliographies). p. f. bradshaw, ed., "Liturgical Language" (symposium, 15th Cong of Soc Liturgica, Dublin, Aug. 1419, 1995), Studia Liturgica 26:1 (1996) 119143. a. a. r. bastiaensen, The Beginnings of Latin Liturgy (Louvain 1997). a. chirovsky, ed., "Papers and Discussions of the International Symposium on English Translations of Byzantine Liturgical Texts, Part I," Logos 39:24 (1998) 155402.

[c. r. a. cunliffe/

h. e. winstone/eds.]