Lifting Up the Torch of Ecclesiastical Latin

“We exhort you all to lift up high the torch of Latin which is even today a bond of unity among peoples of all nations.” —Pope St. John Paul II

Ancient Christian funerary plaque in Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome, Italy, for a man named Apollinaris, who lived 29 years, 7 of which with his wife Virginia.
Ancient Christian funerary plaque in Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome, Italy, for a man named Apollinaris, who lived 29 years, 7 of which with his wife Virginia. (photo: Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto. ICUR [Inscriptiones christianae urbis Romae, Nova series], I, 464. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

If you have ever been present at a Solemn High Latin Mass and heard the Panis Angelicus sung out with an authentic swing of fervor and devotion, you have felt the gorgeous melody of the “universal tongue” of Holy Mother the Church resonating in your very bones. If you have ever heard a children’s choir sing Gregorian Chant, or watched a procession of altar boys come out of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass while singing the Salve, Regina, you have come into touch with the numinous vivacity of the mother language of all Catholics.

Ecclesiastical Latin is a jewel-ridden storehouse of truth, a spiritual fortress, an unfailing source of unity, and a refuge of solace for the troubled soul. Countless canonized saints, popes and other Catholics in all walks of life have hailed the ethereal power of the Latin language, and raved about its importance in one's spiritual life, as well as in the life of the universal Church. This sacred language is the language of a loving mother, protecting souls from distraction and confusion, giving birth to contemplation and preserving sound dogmatic teaching. As Pope Pius XII wrote in 1947 in his encyclical, Mediator Dei, “The use of the Latin language prevailing in a great part of the Church affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruptions of true doctrine.”

Truly, those who labor to pray and worship in Latin embrace the motto that has long resonated throughout Christendom: “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi,” which means, “As we worship, so we believe, so we live.” In Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski writes:

Latin is the language proper to the Roman Rite, the fertile human soil in which a luxuriant garden of liturgical prayers, readings and hymns grew up; it is the “catholic” language of Christendom, rising above all nations, peoples, cultures and ages. For a variety of historical reasons, Latin became, and was always retained as, the vehicle of formal, public worship in all the particular churches gathered around the Throne of Peter in the Western part of the quondam Roman Empire. Its antiquity and breadth of use, clarity and stability of meaning, and subtle beauty of expression imbue Latin with all the qualities requisite for a public cultus that is ever ancient, ever new, noble and solemn, utterly free from the vagaries of worldly fashion. All these qualities render Latin a precious treasure of which all Latin Rite Catholics should be justly proud—a familiar, one might even say maternal, presence for the faithful everywhere in the world, yet accompanied withal by a sacred aura and majesty that demand reverence.

This being said, it is critical to refute the entirely unfounded and misguided popular opinion that the use of ecclesiastical Latin in the liturgy “went out the window” once the Novus Ordo Mass was approved. In fact, the very documents written during the Second Vatican Council proclaim just the opposite. In fact, just eight months before the opening of the Council of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII wrote in Veterum Sapientia, “We also, impelled by the weightiest of reasons … are fully determined to restore this language to its position of honor and to do all we can to promote its study and use. The employment of Latin has recently been contested in some quarters, and many are asking what the mind of the Apostolic See is in this matter. We have therefore decided to issue the timely directives contained in this document, so as to ensure that the ancient and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where necessary, restored.”

He also wrote,The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.” The crux of the matter is that the Second Vatican Council did not abolish, discourage or even downplay the use of Latin in the life of the Church and Her liturgies, but rather, the contrary. As clearly stated in Sacrosanctum Concilium (para. 36), a document of the Second Vatican Council, The use of the Latin language … is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” and, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” (para. 116).

The same document also mandates that, “In accordance with the age-old tradition of the Latin Rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the Divine Office,” (para. 101.1). In 1966, Pope Paul VI warned against the dangers of neglecting the use of Latin in worship in his document, Sacrificium Laudis:

The Latin language is assuredly worthy of being defended with great care instead of being scorned; for the Latin Church it is the most abundant source of Christian civilization and the richest treasury of piety... We must not hold in low esteem these traditions of your fathers, which were your glory for centuries. We cannot permit something that could be the cause of your own downfall, that could be the source of serious loss to you, and that surely would afflict the Church of God with sickness and sadness... The same Church gives you the mandate to safeguard the traditional dignity, beauty, and gravity of the choral office in both its language [Latin] and its chant... Obey the commands that a great love for your own ancient observances itself suggests…

Some may be surprised to find that even more recent popes have lauded the importance of learning ecclesiastical Latin and using it during worship in the life of the Church. In 1978, Pope St. John Paul II made this poignant statement:

We address especially the young people: In an epoch when in some areas, as you know, the Latin language and the human values are less appreciated, you must joyfully accept the patrimony of the language which the Church holds in high esteem and must, with energy, make it fruitful. The well-known words of Cicero, “It is not so much excellent to know Latin, as it is a shame not to know it,” in a certain sense are directed to you. We exhort you all to lift up high the torch of Latin which is even today a bond of unity among peoples of all nations.

Further, on Dec. 6, 2017, in a message to the Pontifical Academies, addressing academics and Latin teachers, Pope Francis said that they should “know how to speak to the hearts of the young, know how to treasure the very rich heritage of the Latin tradition to educate them in the path of life, and accompany them along paths rich in hope and confidence.”

As faithful children of Mother Church, let us listen to the call to embrace our “mother tongue,” savoring her heavenly beauty and relishing in her wonders. By “lifting high the torch of Latin,” we will set the world on fire with the love of Christ! Ad maiorem Dei gloriam!