June 8, 2011

Latin, Language, and Revelation

Over the last six years the presence of Latin in my life has been accelerating. Before the summer of 2005, there was almost none. Now there's a lot. Knowing that I needed to pass the dreaded Latin exam of the famously cantankerous Iraqi Jesuit Fr. Stanley Marrow in order to complete the STL degree I started working on in the fall of 2005, I spent a good amount of that preceding summer trying to learn. I still remember the examination: two hours to translate Gaudium et spes 29-30. I didn't finish, and was sure that I had failed. I was genuinely surprised to find out that I had passed.

That same fall I saved up some of my "day off money" and ordered the typical edition Liturgia Horarum, thinking that it would be a good way to get some regular practice. In our communities we usually only pray Morning and Evening Prayer in common, so as I approached my diaconate ordination in the fall of 2006 I was working on making sure I was praying the rest of the hours each day on my own.

Then, in 2007, just two months before I was ordained priest, Summorum pontificum appeared. When I read it, I understood that the faithful were given the right to ask for the Extraodinary Form, so I thought I had better familiarize myself with it. So I started to attend a Latin Mass, when I could, on Sunday afternoons.

Now, having been transferred out of full-time ministry back into studies, I'm spending the best hours of my days reading theology in Latin. When I can on Sundays I sing with a local chant schola.

In these ways Latin has become a big part of my life, stemming mostly from the community's decision to bless my idea of pushing myself to get the STL, and ordering those breviaries.

This phenomenon of Latin in my life leads me into some theological reflection sometimes. I make no apology for praying in Latin; Vatican II is clear that Latin is the ordinary language for divine worship in the Roman rite. Nevertheless, there are some deeper theological questions that arise for me.

First of all, I think that one has to say that all human language as we know it is relative. Language as we have it now, especially in its diversity and perhaps also in its ambiguity, is only as old as the confusion at Babel. I imagine that we all still know the original language that was spoken before this, but we don't know that we know, or we have forgotten it. A language, like Latin for example, might be venerable or sacral or whatever, but it's still relative and exists only because of the fall of humanity from original blessing.

Nevertheless, there seems to me to be another theological question that moderates this first point. It has to do with the relationship of revelation to culture. We Catholics like to talk about the 'inculturation' of the liturgy or even the teaching of the faith, but sometimes I feel like there are assumptions made here regarding the relative arbitrariness of the cultures from which we have received divine revelation. God called Abraham, but is it accidental or constitutive for revelation that he lived in the frameworks and assumptions of the culture from which he came? Did the Holy Spirit lead Peter and Paul to Rome on purpose because it was in God's plan that western Christianity should be assisted by some the culture, polity, and liturgical culture of the Roman Empire? Is the conversion of Constantine a historical accident or a purposeful work of divine Providence? I have come to think that some of our conversations about inculturation presume the thinner theological opinion about these matters, namely that such things are accidents of history rather than constitutive of revelation in some way. But I wonder if such an idea that human culture is an entirely fungible medium into which the faith can be superimposed really takes the incarnation seriously. To get back to the original point, all these years after the passion and death of the Lord, is it an accident of history that the Mass as we have today in the 2002 Missale Romanum is in Latin, or is it how God meant it to be? I think we usually presume the former answer, but anyone who says that should go back and read Benedict XVI's infamous speech in Regensburg, in which he makes the deep claim that the translation of the Old Testament in Greek in the inter-testamental period was continuous with the work of divine revelation. Again, as I say, I also wonder if the thin claims about the relationship between culture and revelation take the incarnation seriously. That the Son was incarnate at a particular time and place, within a particular culture, speaking a particular language or languages, cannot be an accident, and nor are these things easily separable from the revelation of God which He is.


Unknown said...

This seems to beg the same question about the East and West schism. Is it an accident that Roman liturgy is in Latin instead of Greek? As you said, it may be revelatory that the Hebrew Bible was translated to the Greek LXX. Given the socio-political environment of the first three-hundred years of the church, it seems just as easy that the whole of the church would be praying and celebrating liturgy in Greek rather than Latin. Indeed, our Eastern brothers do just that. Why? And how do we reconcile God's preference for Greek, Hebrew and Latin in revelatory history with the picture of the heavenly temple in which people from every tongue and tribe, people and nation are gathered?

Brother Charles said...

Yes, the schism of the Churches (and I mean "churches" in the strict sense) and how one understands it theologically, complicates, or perhaps enriches the problem.

The question of the Church Triumphant is the other side of humanity before Babel.

Alex Joseph said...

Some really good considerations here, Father. I think that if we really do take the Incarnation seriously, then we have to trust that the Son became incarnate in the "fullness of time", and that it was God's will that he be born into first-century Palestine. (Where it seems very likely that he would have known Aramaic, Hebrew, and yes—Latin and Greek.)

Have you read Pope John XXIII's Apostolic Constitution Veterum sapientia? It is, of course, only available on the Vatican website in Latin.

Brother Charles said...


Yes. Some of it.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest this site:


You'll find the entire Patrologia Latina online.

Franciscan Archive - as I'm sure you know - is excellent.

I agree that Christ our God chose the time and place for His Incarnation. Greek, Hebrew, and Latin were the three languages on the cross! The Spirit willed Peter go to Rome. These things are not just accidentals. Surely, other languages are good, but these three are special.

Since you are a priest and student theologian, let me suggest, as one similar, that you learn to offer according to the 1962 Missal. (You Franciscans invented the Roman Missal in its structure including both readings and prayers, after all!) Little by little you will find amazing connections between the Latin of the traditional (I say this because the 1969 Missal and Lectionary do not use the traditional Latin) Mass and hallowed theological phrases. The intimate connection of liturgy and theology through Latin is something we have lost on a practical level. (Just for an example, a few weeks ago was the epistle was from St. Peter (in the TLM one week and the NO the next week). In the English St. Peter seems to call Christ "shepherd" and "guardian" of our souls. In the Latin, he says was "pastor" et "episcopus." Food for meditation and material for a sermon on apostolic succession!)

Praying the Mass in Latin regulary has helped me immensely when working with theological texts.

Brother Charles said...


Greg said...

Very insightful anonymous comment. Hope more are to follow. This level of study and understanding can be so helpful to the many seeking a deeper study of the catechism.