Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Sacred Language

It’s been a busy few days, including a visit to Holy Ghost, Balham to give a talk to the Forum Christi group; a Mass for the Good Counsel Network and, last night, a meeting of ten priests here at Kingsland. We listened to an excellent talk on sacred and liturgical language by Fr Michael Lang of the Oratory (a friend from University and author of Turning towards the Lord).

Fr Lang spoke of the importance of sacral languages, which are, by their nature, ‘conservative’ and different from everyday spoken languages. The important point was made that, when the liturgical language of the Roman Rite changed from Greek to Latin in the early centuries, this was not an example of vernacularisation (as the likes of Bishop Trautman have claimed) – the aim was not to make the liturgy more understandable. After all, those speaking Gothic or Punic would not have found a Latin liturgy more ‘accessible,’ and the Latin that was used was highly stylised (see the structure of the collects, for example).

Fr Lang suggested that the Sacred Liturgy is not primarily about communication between priest and people. Modern liturgies can be far too wordy, which serves to under-emphasise the actio which is at the heart of the Mass. Moreover, it is lamentable that the idea of sacral language is in decline just as the world is becoming increasingly globalised. In the past, people hardly left their villages and yet were happy to take part in a Latin liturgy that was truly universal; yet now, as we travel more and more, the Roman Rite has become increasingly fragmented into different language groups. A universal, sacred language is surely most appropriate in the twenty-first century – especially in a city like London, with its hundreds of spoken languages.



Blogger Hebdomadary said...

I first came across this point concerning a "liturgical" language in the introduction to an edition of the "Way of the Pilgrim", the russian spiritual classic. It's a fairly modern edition and the writer of the introduction, whom I don't have to hand, makes this very point about a special, elevated language for worship, removed from the language and usage of the street. It's an excellent point. But on a strictly practical level (epecially for a church which describes itself as Universal!), in an age of unprecedented international encounter (travel), what makes more sense in the mass, that we all carry around various translational missals (English/French, Farsi/Tagalog, Swahili/Hungarian etc,) or that we worship in one common language. It's not rocket science...but the current situation is nothing less than Babel.

11:18 am  
Blogger Simon-Peter said...

That's not Father Lang, that's Father Dan Oschwald! Either that or Father O. has a twin :-).

"the Roman Rite has become increasingly fragmented into different language groups."

My own Parish: French,Polish, Igbo,Vietnamese,English; and I believe a request for Clanger & Soup Dragon is pending.

I like the Vietnamese the best. I can actually focus on what I am about, and I do know what is happening, despite the fact I don't "understand" 95% of what is being said...there's no Viet-English missal available. The chanting is simply hypnotic too, quite beautiful, carries me right away. No idea what they are saying, so I just make up my own words.

Roman Catholic Englishman, in North Carolina, goes to Mass in Vietnamese, it's 2007. What on earth????

1:56 pm  
Blogger elena maria vidal said...

Absolutely, we need a sacred language. Otherwise, we have Babel.

3:34 pm  
Anonymous Athanasius said...

I thought Babel was latin for ICEL!!

8:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some time ago, in an earlier post, you quoted from a document you had found in the Westminster archives written by Cardinal Heenan about the abrogation of Latin as a liturgical language during the Second Vatican Council. He also wrote about the reason for this quite fully in his autobiography, 'A Crown of Thorns', (1974) pp368-9. May I quote? 'The chief arguments in the debate on the liturgy concerned the use of Latin in the Mass and the sacraments. This important debate, eminently practical and pastoral as well as theological, yielded a great deal of fresh knowledge. Men who had vehemently opposed the use of the vernacular in early speeches were completely won over by the arguments of learbed liturgists and eventually supported it by their votes. NOBODY LIVING COMFORTABLY IN THE WEST COULD REMAIN UNAFFECTED BY THE PLEAS OF BISHOPS FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN (my capitalisation). Archbishop Seper, Primate of Yugoslavia (who later succeeded Cardianl Ottaviani at the Holy Office) told the fathers how impossible it had become to TEACH THE FAITH EXCEPT THROUGH THE LITURGY. In communist states there are neither Catholic schools nor religious instruction for children. It was not enough to be able to preach homilies because these were liable to be overheard and misrepresented by agents of the secret police. THE BEST WAY TO TEACH THE CATHOLIC RELIGION WAS THROUGH THE MASS AND THE SACRAMENTS. This obviously required the use of the mother tongue. Bishop Kobayashi from Japan explained that the language and rules of the Roman rite were essentially western and alien to Orientals. Even the significance of colours is different. White, for example, is not the colour of joy but of mourning in the East. "Is out unity with the Holy See so tenuous that it has to be maintained by rigid uniformity?" he asked.' I realise that this refers to a historic period long past but it explains how a conservative bishop came to be persuaded of the pastoral necessity of a vernacular liturgy. Yes, the present English translations are dull, but they are no better or worse than the way English is now spoken throughout the world, and, if anything, now slightly better. I hope the forthcoming translations will not only be more accurate but more melodious, but I am not sure that an over-hieratic language, still less the universal resumption of Latin, will make the Mass more acceptable to the simple who make up the greater part of the Church universally. Added to which, I fear, the scant knowledge that the majority of priests now have of Latin would render this impossible, as well as pastorally inoperative. We shall have to wait and see what the new translations are like and hope, when the time comes for them to e promulgated, that they won't cause too much confusion for Tom, Dick and Harry. As for providing a language for multi-cultural congregations, for better or worse, English is now, due to the power of the United States, the lingua franca of the world, it gives people freedom,and therefore I hope the new English translations will be as accessible as possible.

12:45 pm  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

I think what is needed is a double strategy of better vernacular translations (as we have been promised) AND increased use of Latin on the parish level.

Last night, for instance, I used a bit of Latin at stations ('Adoremus te Christe...' before each station and 'miserere nostri, Domine' afterwards). The hundred or so present (many of them with African or West Indian backgrounds) made the responses with great gusto!

3:09 pm  

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