Latin as Liturgical Language in ANCIENT ROME!

Dear Reader,

When someone tells you we shouldn’t use archaic Latin nonsense at Mass, that praying in a language we all don’t immediately comprehend is stupid, that we’ve moved beyond it, that the only reason people in Rome prayed in Latin in ancient times was because it was the vernacular, just tell them the following: The ancient Romans prayed in a language they didn’t understand.

In fact, they prayed in Latin that they didn’t understand!

Interestingly enough, the Latins had some rituals at various points in the year, the two most prominent that come down to us being the Carmen Arvale and the Carmen Saliare. The former devoted to Dea Dia and the second to Mars, the priests of either faction sang hymns to the god/ess (that is a technically appropriate use of that slash, thankyouverymuch) in what we call Old or Archaic Latin. Some of the ancients, writing about these festivals, note that even they couldn’t decipher what in the heck the hymns were about.

Hymnody and language, much like a lot of other things human beings do, contains both indicative meanings and performative meanings. I’m not arguing that we should all pray in gobbeldy-gook nobody understands, nor am I saying we should revert to Latin. What I am saying is that all human beings have understood the value of having performative language at worship as symbols of higher meaning. A good example of one is the Nicene Creed at Mass. And even as it is in the vernacular, how many Americans in the pews can tell you the real meaning that it conveys? But it isn’t meant to convey “indicative” meaning, as if the congregation needed to be instructed in the Creed each Sunday. Rather, it is intended to be a profession of a common, orthodox faith.

Maybe even a little Latin here and there can’t help but be a performative act that shows our unity with each other, with the Church universal (which transcends language), with other language groups in multi-lingual liturgical celebrations, and with the Church of ages past – and maybe it even points to a higher reality behind the comprehensible words we declare.

Even so, I think we Catholics understand our liturgical Latin better than the pagans did 🙂

Yours in Christ,

Br. James Dominic, OP

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