Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Long Shadow of the Vernacular

Numerous articles have appeared touching upon the commemoration of the introduction of the vernacular into the Roman liturgy. Specifically, fifty years has passed since the Patriarch of Rome celebrated the Roman Mass with portions of Italian.

The usage of the vernacular has cast a long shadow in the Roman Church. It is debatable if it succeeded in deepening the mystery of the Christian kerygma. In some language blocks, the Roman Church is vexed over translation wars, the most recent being the adoption of an English translation that is in places so stilted that it reads more as the product of a first year Latin student than a proper translation. Tragically, the corpus of Latin hymns and chant has become an obscurity and the distinctive spirituality that defines the Latin tradition has been forgotten, lost in either flat translations or substituted for vernacular ditties.

This being said, it was recipe of Rome's own creation. Not so much for introducing the vernacular, but for having resisted the use of the vernacular for five centuries, perhaps eight centuries after Latin was still genuinely useful as the formal language of worship.

The Orthodox Churches had long established the rationale for using the vernacular. The vernacular situates the Church among the people it encounters. This does not do away with the need for the ancient languages and the occasional liturgical use of said languages, however, it does keep the use of such languages in a well defined context.

Truth be told, when time has given us some appreciable perspective on the progress of the liturgical movement throughout the 20th century, it will likely be noted that everyone sort of knew the vernacular was coming to the Roman liturgy. The indications were there that it was expected, if not for the influence of Orthodoxy on the 20th century liturgical movement, than due to the sense of the mounting sociological pressures waiting to be felt.

The vernacular is a done deal. One shouldn't go so far as to say it is a given. There are certainly those parties would push for a total re-imposition of Latin, more often than not by persons with little knowledge of the language. But by and large, it is the norm.

It remains for the Roman Church to sort out its use of the vernacular in its liturgy. Whatever its faults and however poorly it has been appreciated by even those who seemingly have the charge to preserve it, the Latin tradition has its own dignity and is worth being transmitted through the centuries. Now it must do so in the language of the peoples in which it finds itself. Failure is not an option, although I suspect the grade average has been hovering around a D for the past forty or so years.


  1. I was going to address this issue in a later posting of my weblog, but it seems that the press of my duties prevents me from doing so in the detail I would wish, and so, this brief squib:

    The Orthodox, the Anglicans, and the Lutherans each have shown that it is possible to produce a vernacular which is capable of sacral language. All that it requires is a clergy, or a clerisy, who are intimately familiar with both Scripture and Tradition, on the one hand, and both classical and vernacular rhetoric on the other. It also requires a willingness on the part of the clerisy/clergy to allow gifted individuals in that clerisy to do the bulk of the translations, rather than translation by committee.

    The defects of the present Roman Church, which currently prevent either apt or sacral translations, include the poor education of the clergy, and also a tendency on the part of the hierarchs to be the ‘too many clerks that spoil the broth’, together with their repeatedly yielding to the temptation of making water into the soup, just to give the participant’s own personal flavor to it.

    Of course, there is also the fact that the current translators, at least in English, (i.e., the ICEL) have a proprietary attitude to their texts which falls not very short of simony. But that is meat for a whole other comment.

  2. You have also begun an examination of the differences between Orthodox and Roman Catholic liturgical praxis. May I suggest this essay, which came from an address which I gave before a RC liturgical conference in October of 2013:

  3. How "vernacular" are the liturgical languages used in most Orthodox churches? Romanian, yes; maybe Arabic (or do they use classical Arabic?); Georgian perhaps - but Greek and Church Slavonic? And there appear to be as lively differences among Orthodox "diaspora churches" about the most appropriate form of English to use; cf.:

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      Yes, the churches in the US are all over the place with regards to the "type" English.

      This said, in the old country, we may well ask about the level of intelligibility between the type of language used in the liturgy and that among the populace.

      I suppose my test would the be the Italo-Latin example. There was once a remark on a more conservative Catholic site that Latin was the hieratic form of Italian. I and another reader poked and probed until it was made clear that the person making the remarks hadn't the slightest background in either language. Latin and Italian are very clearly two distinct languages. This is becomes more apparent when one becomes well versed in them. So I would ask, for example, is the intelligibility between the Greek used in the liturgy and spoken Greek greater or lesser than that between Italian and Latin.

      Is this a scientific measure? No, probably not, but I think you can see where I am going. It is not uncommon that the language we use for public pronouncement or formal settings differs by some degree from the language we readily use in conversation. I see no problem with that. The point of contention is using a language that has little to no intelligibility with the spoken language to the exclusion of the vernacular.

      Latin will never be extracted from Western Christianity. It is the Western Church's language of origin for all practical purposes. The degree to which subsequent generations appreciate depends upon the ability to find a suitable role for it. What this role is or should be...I haven't the slightest idea.

  4. I think this article asks important questions. Intelligibility is obviously a crucial criterion. For someone who understands Latin, it clearly has a value in their religious practice; after all, it matters not very much whether one reads the Scriptures in Latin, Greek, English or French etc, so long as one understands what one is looking at. Language is after all the device or medium for communication. As a one-time liturgical cantor, there is clearly a value in learning and retaining a place for many of the beautiful chants and motets composed for the Latin language, but again, comprehension is essential, I believe. And, if beautiful chants and motets composed for the vernacular are available, then I believe for this reason they should be preferred where people need them.

    I believe that though indeed it may have been some hundreds of years since Latin made sense as the most meaningful liturgical language, the substantial part it has in much physical cultural legacy - literature, stained glass - and even in modes of thinking - grammar, vocabulary etc. - may mean that its study should be encouraged, but even here, it is best embraced with love, instinct and enthusiasm, and not made a matter of compulsion: faber nolens facit mala, so to speak!

    My own experience is that having once fallen into love with Latin, I now feel using it seems contrived and that the spiritual life, spiritual activity, needs sincerity and directness more than artifice. Just some thoughts; thank you for a stimulating article.

  5. The liturgical language in Orthodox cultures is often the higher language in a diglossic hierarchy, such that one may consider the liturgical language "within reach" of most people, whether or not that liturgical language and the vernacular are mutually intelligible in the strict sense. It has been said that contemporary, Russian recension Church Slavonic is about as intelligible to the average fluent Russian speaker as Chaucerian English is to the average fluent Late Modern English speaker. It is often not immediately intelligible, especially when spoken, but it is fairly easy to acquire a passive understanding with some exposure, desire, and a bit of effort. It is strange that some English-speaking Orthodox have such a negative attitude toward (an approximation of) Early Modern English, using "thees" and "thous" and slightly archaic verb forms in prayer.

    Even if this has not been the case everywhere in the Catholic West, it is fair to say that Latin was relatively "within reach" until quite recently. My grandfather's grandfather, who was a farmer, not a scholar, and whose mother tongue was Irish, had an understanding of the Latin used in the Mass which I think had largely been lost by my grandfather's generation. This change could probably have been reversed had there been a serious interest in doing so.

    1. "Even if this has not been the case everywhere in the Catholic West, it is fair to say that Latin was relatively "within reach" until quite recently. My grandfather's grandfather, who was a farmer, not a scholar, and whose mother tongue was Irish, had an understanding of the Latin used in the Mass which I think had largely been lost by my grandfather's generation. This change could probably have been reversed had there been a serious interest in doing so."

      This is a loaded statement. Take Italian for instance. It has approximately 85% lexical affinity with Latin, the closest of any romance language. This does not necessarily translate into mutual intelligibility. For as much as it has lexical affinity, intelligibility is hindered by a) the period of Latin which eventually made it into the Italian language versus ecclesiastical Latin b) grammar and syntax that differ from the corpus of Latin we have left and c) the distinct substratum in Italian (and the other Romance languages) of the non-Latin regional languages, and d) the exchange of these same substrata in the interaction between the Romance languages.

      There is, of course, the matter of memorization and the development of connotation through exposure. In the context of Mass, this is strengthened by the use of repetitve phraseolgy and cued actions. Does this qualify as understanding though? That is a debatable question. Were such an individual given, say, a complete Latin Bible, or a patristic text, would they have any comprehension outside of phrases that would parallel the content of the Latin liturgy? If not, can they be said to understand the language?

      Whatever the case may be, the use of the vernacular is now a fact. The only question is how the vernacular ought to be applied. The Romance languages have an easier time with the transition from Latin to the vernacular. Germanic languages? As someone who knows both Latin and Italian, I am prone to feeling a good bit of disorientation when I encounter a Latin prayer or hymn in English. Is this due to objective deficiencies in English compared to Italian? Or is it that over the years my brain has just been wired in a certain way and it all comes down to a matter of preference? Depends who you ask, I suppose.