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Liturgical Languages

From Catholic Liturgics* by Richard Stapper, S.T.D.

A historical reprise of the sacred languages used in the Church’s liturgy.

1. First Liturgical Language. In preaching in Palestine, Jesus Christ undoubtedly spoke in Aramaic, the language of the people, a dialect of the ancient Hebrew tongue. In the same language He must have taught His disciples the Our Father, recited the psalms (cf. Matt. 27, 46) and celebrated the Last Supper. The Apostles simply followed His example. Very soon, however, Hellenic Greek also became a liturgical language. Even in the time of Christ it was used quite extensively at the Jewish prayer service on account of the great number of Jews who came from other countries; in Jerusalem itself there were Hellenic synagogues (Acts 6, 9). It is very probable, therefore, that with the admission of heathens and Hellenic Jews into her fold, the Church made use of Greek as well as Aramaic in the liturgy. Particularly in Antioch, the principal city of Syria, Greek was the primitive language of the liturgy.

In their missionary activity the Apostles certainly applied the principle of employing the language of the people, not only in their preaching (cf. Acts 21, 40 and 22, 2), but also at liturgical service (cf. Cor. 14,16). Only a few expressions, which were especially familiar to the converts from Judaism and had been adopted into the primitive liturgy (as Amen, Alleluia, Sabaoth, Hosanna), remained untranslated. Thus in time the liturgy was celebrated both in the East and in the West in several different languages.

2. Liturgical Languages of the East. Among the liturgical languages of the East, Greek was used most widely at first. Until the end of the second century, it was the prevailing tongue in the Roman Empire, and facilitated in no small degree the spread of Christianity. In Rome itself it was still the language of the liturgy about the middle of the third century. In Constantinople Greek as a liturgical language soon underwent a special development. The Byzantine liturgy composed in this type of Greek gradually supplanted almost all other Eastern liturgies. Other languages, still retained in the liturgy in certain places, are Syriac (Western Aramaic), Armenian, Coptic and Abyssinian-Ethiopic.

About the middle of the ninth century, the Holy See expressly approved the new liturgy composed by the Apostles of the Slavs, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, in the Slavonic language. A little later the Greek Byzantine liturgy was translated into Slavonian by the Bulgarians and Russians and thus became the most widely used liturgy in Eastern Europe. The Russians, Ruthenians, Serbians and Bulgarians now make use of the characters introduced by St. Cyril for the ancient Slavonic language of the liturgy; the Croatians and Dalmatians use the Glagolitic characters.

Finally, when various groups of Oriental Christians were reunited with the Roman Church in modern times, the Popes permitted the use of other languages in the celebration of the liturgy, namely Georgic (Caucasian), Ruthenic-Rumanian, Arabic-Greek, Albanian-Greek, Syriac-Arabian and Coptic-Arabian.

In regard to the language used in the liturgy, the aforementioned Oriental rites are divided as follows: For the celebration of the Byzantine rite, Greek is employed in Greece, Turkey, Hungary, southern Italy and North America; Arabic-Greek (by the so-called Melchites) in Syria, Palestine and Egypt; Slavonic in Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and North America; Ruthenic-Rumanian in Rumania; Albanian-Greek in Albania; Georgic in Georgia. The Armenian rite is celebrated in Armenian, the Syrian rite in Syriac-Arabic; the Chaldean rite in Chaldaic, the Maronite rite in Syriac-Arabic, the Coptic rite partly in Coptic-Arabic and partly in Abyssinian.

3. Liturgical Languages of the West. In the West, the rural communities of Italy and the churches of northern Africa and Spain were the first to use Latin as a liturgical language. Greek, however, still continued to be the language of the liturgy for a long time after the year 200 in Rome and the larger cities of Italy, as well as in the commercial towns of Gaul and the region of the Rhine and the Danube; these towns were still frequently visited by merchants from Asia Minor.

After these places had also adopted Latin, Greek was still retained or was introduced at a late period for a few short prayers, as Kyrie eleison, Hagios o theos, etc. It also continued in use for a time for certain parts of the solemn Papal Mass, namely, the Gloria, Epistle and Gospel, which were chanted in both Latin and Greek.

The Latin of the liturgy originated from the simple language of the country districts. Many Hebrew and Greek idioms had already found their way into the Latin of the liturgy through the ancient translations of the Bible. The ecclesiastical writers of Africa, Tertullian, St. Cyprian and especially St. Augustine, then gave Church Latin its particular character. From the sixth to the ninth century, active communication of ecclesiastics with Constantinople brought about a further enrichment of Church Latin by the adoption of such words as hebdomada, synaxis and litania. Soon after this period the Romance languages developed, and Latin ceased to be the language of the people; it was still retained, however, as the liturgical language of the Roman as well as the Ambrosian and Mozarabic rites. Since almost all Catholic missionaries have been of the Roman rite, they have introduced the Latin liturgy in North and South America, Central and South Africa, Asia and Australia.

4. Reasons for the Use of Latin. In the greater part of the world, the Catholic Church now makes use of Latin, a dead language, in her liturgy. As a general principle, she forbids the use of living languages, at least for the celebration of Mass (cf. Council of Trent, sess. XXII, c. 8). The chief reasons for adhering to this principle are as follows:

a. Latin is the symbol and bond of Unity. It is the language which the Head of the Church employs in official communications with every part of the world. It is also the language of the authentic version of the Bible, the Vulgate, and of the most important decrees and dogmatic definitions of the Church. These facts cannot but impress Catholics everywhere with the Unity of the Church.

b. The use of Latin accords with the Holiness of the Church. As a highly cultured language, it gives worthy expression to the sacred mysteries which are celebrated. Furthermore, it renders unnecessary frequent textual changes, which may easily have the appearance of irreverence, and prevents venerable practices from being profaned by the commonplace expressions of the vernacular.

c. It is also in accord with the Catholicity (universality) of the Church. Through the missionary activity of the Western Church, the use of Latin has spread to every part of the world and facilitates the work of new messengers of the Gospel.

d. As a dead language, Latin is best suited to preserve the Apostolic character of the doctrine of the Church and to protect it against heretical misrepresentation. The use of Latin also makes it easier to preserve the purity and correctness of liturgical texts. If the vernacular were used in the liturgy, repeated revisions of the liturgical books would be necessary on account of the changeableness of living languages.

As for the rest, the use of a dead language stresses the objective character of the liturgy. Liturgy does not belong to this or that nation, but is the expression of the worship of the entire Church, a society consisting of peoples of every tongue.

It is true that an ignorance of the language of the liturgy hinders the attainment of one of the purposes of liturgy, namely, the instruction of the faithful. The fact is that this is only a subordinate purpose, which can be attained by other means. In any case there may be some doubt whether it could be attained by the use of the vernacular, for it would still be necessary to explain the liturgy to the faithful. According to the Council of Trent (sess. XXII c. 8 and sess. XXIII c. 7), the essential elements of the liturgy should be made intelligible to the people in sermons and instructions.

At the present time, much is being done to incite greater interest in the liturgy. From the pulpit and in the schools there are instructions on liturgical subjects. The treasures of the Roman Missal are now accessible to all the faithful. They cannot be too strongly urged to pray the Mass with the priest from the Missals which have been published in the vernacular. In many churches several portions of the Mass are publicly recited, as is possible at low Masses. This is certainly a commendable practice, which deserves to be extended far and wide. A large field of really practical work is open to the priest in promoting a knowledge of the liturgy. In his sermons on Sundays and holydays he should keep his people constantly imbued with the spirit of each season and each important festival of the ecclesiastical year. The priest might give special attention to the members of the choir, and explain to them the meaning of the liturgical texts which they are called upon to sing. He might include an explanation of the nuptial blessing in instructing those who are about to be married. A brief exposition of the rite of Baptism or of Extreme Unction might be given in conferring these sacraments.

* Catholic Liturgics, trans. by David Baier, O.F.M., S.T.D., St. Anthony Guild Press, Paterson, New Jersey, 1935.

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