Why Latin at Sunday Mass During Lent?

The Second Vatican Council did not intend for Latin to become such an unfamiliar language for Latin Rite Catholics around the world.

José Teófilo de Jesus, ‘Institution of the Eucharist’, 1793
José Teófilo de Jesus, ‘Institution of the Eucharist’, 1793 (photo: Register Files)

It’s a practice for several parishes in my home diocese to chant the Kyrie, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation (“Mortem Tuam”), and Agnus Dei in Greek and Latin at Sunday Mass during the season of Lent. Some add the Our Father (Pater Noster) to the Latin offerings. At our Cathedral, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, we chant the Sanctus, “Mortem Tuam”, and Agnus Dei at daily Mass. I polled the members of our Chesterton reading group and they noted that this is also true in Advent. Latin seems to be used during the penitential seasons in the Church in parishes celebrating the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite for some parts of the Mass.

Does that mean that using Latin at Mass—in contrast to English or another vernacular language—is somehow penitential?  Is chanting parts of the Latin meant to be penance for the congregation?

Since the Second Vatican Council, the vernacular has replaced Latin in the liturgies of many communities, but the Council may not have intended Latin to become such an unfamiliar language for Latin Rite Catholics around the world. In fact, the Council’s document on the liturgy suggests otherwise.


Latin Rites, Latin Language

The Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, stated that “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (36.1) The Council Fathers also advised that even though use of the “Mother Tongue” in the liturgy might be expanded, “nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (54)

The document encourages priests to maintain the tradition of praying the Liturgy of the Hours in Latin (“101.1 In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office. But in individual cases the ordinary has the power of granting the use of a vernacular translation to those clerics for whom the use of Latin constitutes a grave obstacle to their praying the office properly.”) Finally, Sacrosanctum Concilium makes it clear that Gregorian chant is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” although “other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” (116)

So chanting these parts in Latin (and Greek) using the Gregorian chant tunes is restoring something the Council Fathers never thought that we should lose in the reform of the liturgy. What does it add to our celebration of Mass during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent?


Mystery and Solemnity

Latin adds mystery. The tones of the chant are not overtly emotional but they seem mournful. Chanting the Memorial Acclamation:

Mortem tuam annuntiamus Domine, et tuam resurrectionen confitemur, donec venias.

makes the Mystery of Faith more mysterious when the Latin is unfamiliar.

Using Latin, like so many of the devotions we practice during Lent (Stations of the Cross, Adoration and Benediction of the Holy Eucharist, and the Rosary) reminds us of the many timeless traditions in the Church.

The Latin and the chant also add to the solemnity of the season. Since these chants can be sung a capella, they take the General Instruction of the Roman Missal restrictions on the use of instrumental music at Mass even further into the desert (“313. In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday ... Solemnities, and Feasts.”)

Finally, using Latin reminds that we are one universal, Catholic Church; Latin is a sign of unity just as the use of the vernacular around the world is a sign of diversity. My husband and I enjoy our great memories of attending the Novus Ordo Gregorian Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (the 10:00 a.m. Mass on Sunday). The congregation around us was obviously comfortable with the Latin parts of the Mass, and we were too. And it wasn’t even during Lent.