I was at a training workshop for priests in the Extraordinary Form when Fr Calvin Goodwin, professor of theology at the seminary of the Fraternity of St Peter in Nebraska, gave me some food for thought that I have been chewing on for years now. He said that, in the West, the Latin language performed a function similar to how the iconostasis functioned in the East. I had thought of reasons why we should continue to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy in Latin for years. One was to fulfill Church law and the express wish of Vatican II in Sacrosanctum concilium 36, “The Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” Another was to preserve the musical and literary tradition of the Roman rite in its original form. Finally, I thought that having a common language for some of the prayers of the Mass would be useful, to express the unity of the Church across the various linguistic divides brought about by Babel’s aftermath.
All of those reasons are valid ones for the preservation of Latin in the liturgy. But they are all legal, historical or cultural. None of them are theological. At first glance, Fr Goodwin’s thesis, that Latin served to veil the rites as the iconostasis veiled them in the East did not seem to be a particularly winning thesis. On legal grounds, the fact that the vernacular had been admitted by the supreme authority of the Church in circumscribed ways (The Glagolitic Mass comes to mind) indicates that in the West, Latin was not universal and not imposed uniformly by liturgical law. On historical grounds, it must be remembered that the permanent iconostasis is a peculiarly Byzantine tradition whose use is different than the veils used at certain times in the Syrian and Coptic liturgical traditions. On cultural grounds, it also seems that there is nothing in anthropology to suggest that Latin provoked the same phenomenological response in its hearers as the other symbols used to veil in religious ceremonies in the Christian East and beyond.
But is there something else, much deeper, to Fr Goodwin’s thesis? The notion that Latin is a sacred language in and of itself has been widely rejected. Why should Latin be the language of prayer rather than any other language? The notion that Latin has become sacred because of its venerable and historical traditional use raises the question of how something becomes sacred. Does something become sacred merely by antiquity, by historical use, or its association with religious rites? Modern anthropologists may claim that, if something is sacred on those grounds, then Latin could be considered a sacred language. After all, languages associated with religious texts are often held to be sacred because of their use in communicating those texts: Arabic for the Qu’ran, Hebrew for the Torah, Sanskrit for the Rig-Veda. By the same token, Latin should be a sacred language for Catholics.
Yet the Biblical notion of sacred is not the same as that used by sociologists. The Hebrew term qadosh, which is often rendered into English as sacred or holy, in the Old Testament indicates something set apart from other things and associated with God. Here is where Latin does not seem to be a sacred language. Latin was the ordinary day-to-day language of the Romans. Its use in commerce, law, literature and scholarship continued long after it ceased to employed on the streets. So at no time was Latin ever set apart specifically as a sacred language. But it coexisted as a language employed in the service of the sacred alongside secular uses. So it is clear that Latin coexisted as a language both on reference to the sacred and the secular as it coexisted with other languages at the same time.
Yet the association of sacred languages with sacred texts is not univocal in Christianity. Christianity is not a religion “of the Book” or even a religion based on the words of a famous teacher. Christianity is a religion of the Word Made Flesh. The fact that the Word of God became incarnate, that God became man, would forever change the meaning of all words, and of all man’s ability to communicate. The union of God and man was not only with one chosen people to whom were revealed a sacred text read in a sacred language, but with all of humanity by means of a Word which made Flesh sacred.
The fact of the Incarnation means that human nature now has a passageway into the supernatural divine, but in such a way as to not change, but to elevate and perfect, that human nature. And if communication by language is part of human nature, grace also elevates and perfects human language. The fact that man can address prayers to God and that they can be heard, and acted upon by Divine Power, shows that human words, accompanied and transformed by the Word, can bring us into contact with the Word.
Yet, for all of this immanence of the divine in human nature, human nature is not itself divine. The Divinity remains what, or rather Who, it is, without change. “Between the Creator and the creature there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater,” is how Lateran IV expressed it.
The gift of human language, therefore, expresses this abyss between the Divinity of the Word and the humanity of our words. If words are conventional signs of realities, they are always and everywhere going to pale with the reality behind them. This is never more true than with the Word of Divine Revelation, which is far beyond what we can ever grasp. Our human language will never exhaust the mystery which is celebrated in the Mass.
Yet, does faith not come from hearing, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10.17? And did he not also write in 1 Corinthians 14.14, “If I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful”? It is true that faith comes from hearing. But hearing is not merely a passive reception of the words of Sacred Scripture or the liturgy. And faith is not merely the response of acting upon those words. Hearing in the scriptural sense indicates the opening of the will of human nature to cooperate with the action of God. Faith in the scriptural sense is the assent of the intellect to the action of God to which we have opened the depths of our being. That gift of faith impels us to enter into communion with the Giver of the gift through prayer. And that prayer, be it liturgical and communal or private and individual, is more than human words. It is the encounter between the Word and our human nature, with its words, deeds and actions.
A faith reduced to mere emotional response to a sacred text needs to have the words of the text intelligible for it to produce understanding. But a faith which is a supernatural gift that is an encounter with the Word is beyond the ability of our intellect to understand. Our LORD Himself indicates the difference between the two conceptions of faith coming from hearing the Word.
In John 8.34, Jesus says, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.” There were many people around Him who heard his words, which were Divine Revelation, but they were unintelligible to them. Likewise, there are many people in our churches and society today who can physically hear and understand the words of Scripture and the Mass, but they do not grasp their true meaning, and are not led by them to supernatural faith and the life of the virtues. His language is made clear, not by the words themselves, but by the gift of faith, not because of anything lacking in Him, but by what is lacking in us when we lack faith.
The singular phenomenon in which the Apostles then go out to preach this Word in all of the languages of the earth is also instructive. The Apostles may not have had intelligence of the words which were passing through their mouths, but the Word brought about through them faith in their hearers. Here we see the supernatural action of God over and above the limitations of human speech, working through human language, to bring about faith in those whose wills were open to God.
The point of this brief exegesis is to show that the supernatural action of the Word makes intelligible in the soul that which is not necessary intelligible to the mind. It is the supernatural action of the Word in the life of sanctifying grace in the believer which means someone can live a life in accord with the Truth even if he is not ever capable of knowing all there is to know nor all of the Truth.
The use of Latin in the rites of the Church is an important marker in our Catholic identity. It connects us with other believers from other languages, it gives us a common word for prayer, it links us with the history and tradition of our faith. These are important considerations, but they are human, natural ones. The use of Latin in the Mass also has another function. It reminds the worshipper that, although the Mystery of God is that which is the most intelligible thing in and of itself, it is not always intelligible to us. Even for the classicists in the sanctuaries and pews of Catholic churches around the world, Latin in the liturgy points to the abyss between us and God. It veils insofar as it conceals the human words with which Divine Revelation is expressed, emphasizing the distance between the subject and the object of our worship. It conceals the encounter between His Word and our word with words that are not of our own making as surely as the Word is not of our making. But it also reveals: it opens up the teaching of Christ for those who are willing to learn the language of the Latins, and even more so those who are open to learn the language of the spirit. It is unintelligible in that the meaning behind the words is not readily self-evident, just like the presence of God. But it is intelligible in and of itself, just as God is that which can and should be known, and will be, in the beatific vision. For that language to become intelligible to us, not only do we have to prepare nature by learning the Latin, we must open ourselves up the supernatural life of grace given by the Word.