Growth and Character of Liturgical Latin

from the Introduction to Legendo : A Simple Approach to the Latin of the Liturgy (1945) by Vilma Gertrude Little. Copies of this “gem” of a book are available at Ecclesiastical Latin.

¶ ONE of the most striking of the facts which emerge from a study of the unfolding of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race is the extraordinary manner in which personalities or institutions that are to play an important part in that plan are prepared and led up to by a long chain of circumstances stretching maybe across thousands of years. Nothing is improvised, nothing is left to chance, but slowly and patiently each instrument is shaped and fashioned for the end to which it is destined.

¶ Nowhere perhaps is this fact more apparent than in the growth of those three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin, which figured in the official title above the Cross of our Saviour. In that three-fold inscription we may witness the drawing together of the three great forces which were to stamp our faith with an unmistakable and indelible seal. Here we have the mysticism of the Hebrew soul, the philosophical clarity of the Greek mind, the sane unemotional balance of the Roman genius for organization and preservation, by means of which that same faith was to spread all over the civilized world. The language of each has left its mark and that language reflects the character and history of the people who evolved it. 

¶ Thus Hebrew is a veritable epitome of the history of God’s dealings with his Chosen People. Against that background of wonder and mystery, of dark cloud and of fiery flame the language developed, a language permeated by the all-pervading, yet unseen presence of God. This atmosphere of awe and mystery is still further emphasized by the fact that the ancient Hebrew script did not provide for any representation of the vowel sounds. These sounds, formed as they are by an emission of breath, are, so to speak, the life and soul of a word. As such they were considered sacred, an emanation of divine life itself, and any attempt to represent them by signs would be a sacrilege. Therefore the full sense of the sacred writings had to be handed down by oral tradition, and it was not until long after the first translations into Greek that a system of vowel points was evolved. This fact alone would account for much that is obscure and hard of understanding in the Scriptures, especially the Psalter, the great book of Hebrew religious poetry which has become the most precious heirloom of the Christian Church, the vade-mecum of generations of her children and the training school of her great contemplatives. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that the role of the Hebrew language in the preparation of the Gospel is to drive home the conception of the inscrutable mystery of God, a conception vitally necessary for a right attitude towards our faith.

¶ While the contribution of the Hebrew was an awareness of mystery, that of the Greek was a sense of light. Whereas the one stands with veiled eyes before the God whom he passionately adores yet cannot look upon and live, the other, serene and detached, seeks to contemplate Him in his essence as eternal truth. Throughout the development of Greek thought one characteristic stands out clear: the will to give a rational account of things as they are, the search for truth that is never sacrificed to mere beauty or emotion. The course of their history, the circumstances of their environment shaped a people whose eager, questioning minds gave to their language a clarity which reflected back upon their philosophical thought. For while it is true that thought must precede speech it is no less true that speech once formed, exercises an influence on all future thought from which it is almost impossible to escape. It has been said: “The success and endurance of any systematic construction of truth, be it secular or sacred, depends as much upon an exact terminology as upon close and deep thinking itself.”

¶ If this be conceded who will deny the importance of such a language as Greek during the early centuries of the Christian era? It was an era of great possibilities and of still greater perils. Men’s minds were being swept along by the irresistible force of the new doctrines and conceptions that Christianity had brought; and the need for clear definitions of the truth, as a safeguard against possible misinterpretations was becoming more and more pressing. Then the contribution of a language capable of being moulded to the clear expression of vital truths was of incalculable assistance to the infant Church. Indeed at the very gateway, so to speak, of our Faith we encounter the untranslatable LOGOS with which St. John opens his Gospel, where stripping the term of the vague metaphysical significance given it by Alexandrian philosophy, he identifies it with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, thus enshrining for all time in a single word the Catholic belief in Christ as the substantial utterance, in time and eternity, of the MIND of God.

¶ Again it is well known how the insidious Nestorian heresy was routed by a single word when the people of Ephesus ran about the streets shouting Theotokos! Theotokos! for in that one word the great truth of the two Natures in one Person was crystallised and made safe for future generations of the faithful. Thus it was that the fundamental doctrines of our holy religion were, so to speak, nailed down and held fast by a phraseology that centuries of Greek philosophical thought had made possible. 

¶ Yet, in spite of this it was not Greek that, in God’s providence, was to become the liturgical language of the West and the mouthpiece of Christ’s Vicar on earth. It was essential that neither of the influences which had contributed to the formation of the Christian mentality should oust the other. The deep sense of awe and mystery, the conviction that our God is a hidden God transcending all our efforts to comprehend Him must ever be strong in the Christian mind. Existing alongside this conviction is the consciousness, which is one of the glories of the Catholic mentality, that though the conception of God transcends our understanding, yet it does not contradict the exigencies of our reason which finds its most satisfying activity and its highest dignity in the study of his divine attributes.

¶ So when the great fundamental dogmas had been defined and a terminology evolved to be the criterion of future speculation on the Christian mysteries, we see the advent of another great force which was to preserve and propagate that which divine providence had allowed to be made clear, and from this point the two streams destined to aliment the Church’s spiritual life continue to flow, no longer apart, but mingling their waters in the mighty aqueduct of the Roman tongue.

¶ It would be well to fix that idea in mind: the power of Rome and the language of Rome destined to preserve and propagate the Church’s doctrinal teaching. One cannot, of course, affirm that they were so predestined, but in the light of history it certainly does look as though divine providence had watched in a special way over the forging of an instrument which was to play such an important part in the economy of the world’s salvation.

¶ No doubt you have read some Roman history and you know something of the people who evolved the language which was to become our Christian mother tongue. Two characteristics especially stand out clear. They were great builders and great legislators. They built those straight firm roads along which the Gospel message was carried to the ends of the world, as it was then known; roads that have become both a symbol and a household word. The familiar saying: “All roads lead to Rome” really means what it says, for, as at that time every road that could really claim to be such did indeed lead back to the city whence it had come, so it is always true to say that any way not leading to a centre cannot claim to be a true road but is merely an aimless track. The Roman road therefore appears to us a type of Our Lord who claimed to be the Way, the true road leading to the only true centre of things.

¶ This people too excelled in building bridges, of which they apparently grasped the symbolism since they united the office of bridge-builder and the priestly function under the one title of Pontifex, here again symbolical of Christ, our Pontifex Magnus, the great Bridge-builder who was to bridge the deep gulf that separated man from God. They built also those wonderful aqueducts to carry the clear sparkling water which never fails to remind one of that water of life which Our Lord claimed to have brought. Finally, when we recall that the Romans were the great legislators who laid the foundations of our modem law systems, our thoughts instinctively turn to Christ, our true Law-giver.

¶ All these characteristics and activities have left their impress on the language, fitting it in a remarkable manner for the part it was to be called upon to play. It is a language which has all the solidity of rock. Whether the style be rugged and massive, or chiselled and highly polished it always retains a certain hardness which does not admit of frills or loose ends. Its closely-knit sentences are straightforward and logical, balanced and measured like well planned architecture; their structure is such that judgement must be suspended until all aspects have been viewed so that the final decision as to its meaning is possible only at the end. It thus prevents hasty opinions and helps to form a far-seeing mind. It is both precise and concise, incapable of being translated without losing something either of its force or its meaning.

¶ Developing along these lines, by the time such a language had reached its zenith its native hardness had petrified in a style that was clear and cold as ice; its balanced periods aimed more at perfection of form than at depth of thought; it had lost the human touch and become rhetorical and often artificial. But with the advent of Christianity a new soul was infused into the stony form, new words and expressions were coined to give utterance to new truths. Without losing any of its essential qualities, it began to live again with a higher life than it had ever known.

¶ Here then we have a body prepared as it were to enshrine the soul of the Church’s doctrinal teaching, thereby preserving it from change and corruption. What this fact means and has meant to the purity of Catholic dogma we can scarcely estimate, and we can only lift up our hearts in deep thankfulness that such a safeguard has been given us. Through it we can identify our Mass of to-day with the Sacrifice of primitive Christianity to an extent which would never have been possible had there been no fixed liturgical language or one so loosely constructed as to admit of a variety of conflicting meanings; for twist and tum our translations as we may, to suit the changing fashions of our vernacular speech, the solemn dialogue between Celebrant and People still remains the same, still sends up the same words of praise and petition now as through the ages. Thus the continuity of our faith is vindicated by the continuity of the very words in which that faith’s most solemn mystery is enshrined: Lex orandi, lex credendi.

¶ What Mass in the vernacular would mean we dare not contemplate. Apart from the loss of unity of language, visible sign of the unity of faith, how much of its inner spirit would be lost or wrongly interpreted. What subtle shades of meaning might be overlooked. Take one instance only among many that might be cited. Four times before the Consecration the Priest turns to his flock crying out to them: “Dominus vobiscum: The Lord with you!” There is no verb, yet who does not grasp his message? “May Our Lord be with you; yes, I promise you He will soon be with you.” Once again after the Communion he turns and greets us with the self-same words into which, for those who have followed the Sacrifice to its logical conclusion, a fuller meaning has now been infused. Dominus vobiscum: “The Lord with you! He is with you now; I have fulfilled my ministry and given you Him whom my four-fold greeting promised.”

¶ How could such a delicate touch ever be rendered in any other tongue? A translation must either forgo the time-honoured formula or sacrifice a subtle shade of meaning that is not even expressed but simply understood. And so in many other instances, as soon as an attempt is made to render the liturgical text in any other tongue there is the risk of introducing a thought or an idea which is not in the original, or of taking away a shade of meaning that is there though maybe not always perceived. The same applies to the rare instances of obscurity or uncertainty in the Latin text. Such, wherever it occurs, is almost always traceable to that original Hebrew element of mystery. Here the liturgical text is content to fix and preserve the mystery rather than attempt to elucidate it by a guess at the meaning as any vernacular rendering must do if it is to be acceptable. And the humble, patient soul will often gain far more from a sentence that apparently makes no sense than from a polished gloss from which the mystery has departed. When the time has come for such obscurities to be cleared up, then the voice of Authority, guided by the Holy Spirit, will speak. In the meantime the Latin text stands like a faithful sentinel, guarding the sacred deposit.

¶ This brief introduction will have served its purpose if it spurs you on to take a greater interest in our venerable liturgical tongue and helps you to realize its fitness for its high vocation. Further acquaintance will convince you that this is no dead language, but a speech more truly alive than any other. In the daily round of Mass and Office it is used all over the civilized world and there is no reason why we Catholics of the West should not become as familiar with it as our medieval ancestors were, especially as our facilities for learning are greater than were theirs. Indeed it ought to be a cause of profound shame for any Catholic who is able to read to be ignorant of his spiritual mother-tongue. To acquire it is no superhuman task if only people will apply to it the same principles of commonsense which they do not hesitate to make use of in other departments. Those false prophets who gloomily assure us that an understanding of the language of the Church is far beyond the capacity of “Everyman,” and that therefore it is a waste of time trying to teach him, seem to forget altogether that every Catholic has received the Holy Spirit, master of the gift of tongues. Has this Spirit then lost the power He manifested at Pentecost? Or should we not rather believe that He can and will enlighten the understanding and sharpen the faculties of those who, solely from supernatural motives, beg for help in their efforts to acquire a knowledge of their Christian mothertongue? Who knows if the response to such a petition might not be far greater than one could have expected? The Holy Spirit will not be deaf to any request concerning the needs of the Church, and surely the most urgent need to-day is to arouse in the Catholic consciousness a vivid sense of belonging to a Kingdom which transcends the limits of nationalities. The bond of a common language should be one of the most powerful means of achieving this. 

¶ Let us then hold fast to this our birthright, handed down to us English Catholics in an unbroken tradition from St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine of Canterbury; let us cherish this noble privilege of a common Christian tongue, bond of union between all Catholics of the West. In it we shall find a strong defence against the organized forces of evil, as well as a deepening of our spiritual life.


1 Comment

Filed under Church Latin

One response to “Growth and Character of Liturgical Latin

  1. I ordered a copy. Love this!

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