Concelebrating in an Unfamiliar Language

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Concelebrating in an Unfamiliar Language

ROME, 11 SEPT. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In my ministry as a priest, it happens sometimes that I am invited to concelebrate Masses, by communities of foreigners, but I do not speak their language. In a liturgical text I read that it is not permitted to concelebrate if we cannot speak the language. But I see other priests who say with a low voice the Eucharistic Prayer in their own language. Is it right to do like that? Or is it better in that case just to attend the Mass and to not concelebrate? — J.L., Paris

A: The liturgical text our reader refers to is the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, promulgated in 2004. Regarding the language of the celebration this instruction says:

"112. Mass is celebrated either in Latin or in another language, provided that liturgical texts are used which have been approved according to the norm of law. Except in the case of celebrations of the Mass that are scheduled by the ecclesiastical authorities to take place in the language of the people, Priests are always and everywhere permitted to celebrate Mass in Latin.

"113. When Mass is concelebrated by several Priests, a language known both to all the concelebrating Priests and to the gathered people should be used in the recitation of the Eucharist Prayer. Where it happens that some of the Priests who are present do not know the language of the celebration and therefore are not capable of pronouncing the parts of the Eucharistic Prayer proper to them, they should not concelebrate, but instead should attend the celebration in choral dress in accordance with the norms."

Therefore, the norm is quite clear that if one is incapable of pronouncing the parts that all priests have to pronounce, then a priest should not concelebrate.

It is no longer a legitimate option to recite the words of consecration in one's own language while the other celebrants recite it in another. However, although illicit, this action would not invalidate the Mass for this concelebrant.

This is because this norm is ordered more toward promoting a reverent and correct celebration of the sacred mysteries which require the highest degree of respect and veneration.

It is worth noting that the accent is on pronunciation, not on having a command of the language. For example, a priest who has a rudimentary knowledge of a language that is sufficient to be able to pronounce all the common prayers would be able to concelebrate, even though he would not be able to celebrate Mass in that language on his own or even hazard a solo proclamation of a part of the Eucharistic Prayer.

I would also say that in some cases it might be legitimate for a bishop or priest to read from a phonetic script so that his pronunciation in an unfamiliar language is correct. This presumes that he has the ability to read from such a text and is fully aware of which Eucharistic Prayer he is using and where he is at each specific moment.

A practical solution for occasions when priests gather together in international settings is to use Latin for the Eucharistic Prayer. It is unfortunately true that some priests have little knowledge of Latin; but this is a problem to be solved, not a situation to be accepted. There are encouraging signs that many younger and future priests will be able to at least celebrate in the language of the Church.

The above norms are applicable to the Roman rite. The rules for concelebrating are different for each Eastern Catholic Church. The general rule is that a Latin-rite priest may be admitted as a concelebrant by the local Eastern bishop (Canon 701 of the Eastern Code). In this case it is preferable that he wear the vestments of his own rite.

The rest would depend on what is required of concelebrants in the particular rite. If concelebrating priests are required to recite part of the anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer) and the liturgy is celebrated in a totally unknown language, then it would be better for the Latin-rite priest to apply the abovementioned criteria of Redemptionis Sacramentum and refrain from concelebrating.

* * *

Follow-up: Concelebrating in an Unfamiliar Language [9-25-2012]

In the wake of our Sept. 11 piece on the use of an unfamiliar language, a Michigan reader asked: "You expressed the importance of the use of Latin and that many young priests are making its use more common. I am a seminarian and I share the desire to be able to pray the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours in Latin. However, I have a severe roadblock in that I do not know what the proper pronunciation of ecclesiastical Latin is. Could you give some guidance as to what the Church regards as the proper pronunciation of ecclesiastical Latin?"

The quickest way is to learn Italian, since ecclesiastical Latin is (mostly) Latin pronounced as an Italian would say it.

A brief but very clear explanation of the pronunciation of Church Latin can be found at: and: /expert/answers/ecclesiastical_latin.htm.

Latin, of course, was a widely used language and had different levels of usage and pronunciation. The length of time between Horace and St. Augustine is roughly equivalent to the time between Shakespeare and us — and with no printing presses and television to unify divergent uses.

Although nobody knows exactly how Julius Caesar would have sounded, scholars of classical Latin have more or less agreed upon common pronunciation rules for Cicero, Livy and Ovid. These rules differ from ecclesiastical Latin on many points.

Since Church Latin pronunciation is the reference point for the correct singing of Gregorian chant and compositions in sacred polyphony, most choir directors will follow Church rules.

Some Northern European practitioners, however, opt to pronounce and sing sacred Latin texts in a manner closer to the classical rules or even as if it were their own native tongue. The results can be quite jarring for those accustomed to traditional ecclesiastical Latin.

Some readers inquired if the rules regarding a common language for the Eucharistic Prayer also applied to the common parts to be recited by the whole assembly.

I would say that as a rule of thumb, yes, but not as strictly as for the Eucharistic Prayer.

On at least some special occasions it is possible for only the choir to sing some of these parts, such as the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. They may always be sung in Latin even when the Mass is in another language and occasionally, such as in multiethnic Masses, they may be sung or recited in different languages. However, I would consider that the Our Father is a different category in which it is preferable that the entire assembly be able to unite around a single text, either the principal vernacular language or Latin.

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