Knowledge of Latin

Author: Father Edward McNamara LC


Knowledge of Latin

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 10 June 2014 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Priests who have adopted the "Latin Mass" for parish celebrations were present at a diocesan deanery meeting. The question was raised: After a course to prepare to manage the Latin, how long does it take to understand what one is praying? This response was given: It is not necessary to understand; it is only necessary to pronounce correctly. Is a valid Mass possible if the celebrant does not understand what he is saying? — W.O., Worcester, Massachusetts

A: There are perhaps several levels to this question: the question of understanding a text so as to achieve an authentic act of worship, and the question of minimal requirements for validity.

While this topic has not been treated in depth in magisterial documents, there are two documents which can help us formulate a reply.

The first, from the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," refers to the ordinary form and to international concelebrations. It offers, however, a general principle regarding knowing a language:

"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."

The second document is from an instruction issued by the Ecclesia Dei Commission that oversees the extraordinary form and develops some of the norms in Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic letter "Summorum Pontificum," With respect to the requirements for the priest the following is declared:

"20. With respect to the question of the necessary requirements for a priest to be held idoneus ('qualified') to celebrate in the forma extraordinaria, the following is hereby stated:

"a. Every Catholic priest who is not impeded by Canon Law is to be considered idoneus ('qualified') for the celebration of the Holy Mass in the forma extraordinaria.

"b. Regarding the use of the Latin language, a basic knowledge is necessary, allowing the priest to pronounce the words correctly and understand their meaning.

"c. Regarding knowledge of the execution of the Rite, priests are presumed to be qualified who present themselves spontaneously to celebrate the forma extraordinaria, and have celebrated it previously."

From these two texts we can see that the ability to at least pronounce and understand the meaning of the text is considered necessary.

This means that the priest has a general understanding of what he is saying, but need not have an in-depth knowledge of all the nuances of grammar.

For the ordinary form, a concelebrant should at least know how to pronounce correctly the parts recited by all. Even if he understands little of the language of the celebration, he knows the same texts in his own language and can usually follow along. As the instruction says, if he lacks even this minimum, he should refrain from concelebrating.

Since there is no concelebration in the extraordinary form, the level of knowledge of Latin is somewhat higher. For example, a priest should be able to grasp the general meanings of the prayers, readings and prefaces. He should also be able to use the correct grammatical form for variable elements such as the names of the pope, bishop and the saint of the day.

If he has enough knowledge to pronounce correctly but is less confident with respect to the other elements, then he could still celebrate by preparing beforehand with the aid of a good translation. Otherwise, it is better to wait until he attains the minimum level of Latin.

Therefore, we can say that in the light of these documents, but also taking into account discussions among theologians, we can say that the minimum requirement for a valid Mass is the correct pronunciation of the words of consecration along with a general understanding of their meaning. This correct understanding should be able to be presumed in a priest.

Even here, the correct pronunciation is not absolute, provided the errors or lack of clarity in saying the words do not create a new meaning. For example, a priest who has developed a speech impediment due to illness could still validly celebrate if he knows what he is trying to say but cannot clearly enunciate it. In his final years, Pope St. John Paul II's pronunciation was often unintelligible for the majority, but nobody doubts the validity of his Mass.

Beyond the minimum requirement for validity, the dignity and quality of the celebration as an act of worship demands an adequate understanding of the language of the celebration. From the external and pastoral point of view the priest should be able to proclaim the text, not just pronouncing correctly, but being able to give the proper emphasis, pause and stress that transmits the meaning of the text as a prayer.

This correct proclamation and understanding also helps priest and faithful to interiorize the prayer and allow it to penetrate and transform their lives.

* * *

Follow-up: Knowledge of Latin [6-24-2014]

There was quite a lively and diverse response to our June 10 column on understanding Latin.

One reader wrote: "My concern with the new emphasis on the use of Latin is that the assembly does not understand what is being said. What was the reason in the first place that the language of the Mass was encouraged to be in the vernacular, from the constitution on sacred liturgy from Vatican Council II? The use of Latin seems to be depriving the assembly of full active participation. Why is the extraordinary form even being emphasized and allowed?"

From a very different stance another reader commented:

"After having read the subject, I got the impression that for you and for many people the celebration of Mass in Latin (ordinary or extraordinary form) is something a bit special and rare, reserved to some privileged people or in some specific circumstances. Wouldn't have it been good to recall the proper place given to Latin in the liturgy as the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium recommended it (Nos. 36 and 54)?

"How is it possible that priests don't know Latin? Is it normal? Do we have to take for granted that basic knowledge of Latin among priests in the Latin Church is just an option for some! This is why I found your response very interesting but not completely satisfying. I wish you could come back on this argument and explain also that efforts have to be realized in the Church so that priests and faithful become more acquainted with Latin. Wouldn't it have been right to quote CIC 928 and CIC 249? And Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 62?

"'62. None of the above observations should cast doubt upon the importance of such large-scale liturgies. I am thinking here particularly of celebrations at international gatherings, which nowadays are held with greater frequency. The most should be made of these occasions. In order to express more clearly the unity and universality of the Church, I wish to endorse the proposal made by the Synod of Bishops, in harmony with the directives of the Second Vatican Council, that, with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful, such liturgies could be celebrated in Latin. Similarly, the better-known prayers of the Church's tradition should be recited in Latin and, if possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung. Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.'

"We can also take note of the document of Congregation for Catholic Education published on Jan. 28, 2011, Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy. In this document (Article 60) it is recorded that Latin is a compulsory subject that has to been taught at least for two years so that the student may understand the philosophical writings (especially of Christian authors) written in this language.

"Then we have the motu proprio by which Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 10, 2012, established the Pontifical Academy Latinitas (with reference to Optatam Totius, No. 13) that underlines the importance of Latin in relation with the liturgy.

"Already in their own time Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI have emphasized the necessary knowledge of Latin: Pope St. John XXIII in the apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientiae (Feb. 22, 1962), Pope Paul VI in the apostolic letter Summi Dei Verbum (Nov. 4, 1963) and apostolic letter Studia Latinitatis (Feb. 22, 1964). The decree Optatam Totius of the Second Vatican Council says: 'Before beginning specifically ecclesiastical subjects, seminarians should be equipped with that humanistic and scientific training which young men in their own countries are wont to have as a foundation for higher studies. Moreover they are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church. The study of the liturgical language proper to each rite should be considered necessary; a suitable knowledge of the languages of the Bible and of Tradition should be greatly encouraged' (No. 13)."

I believe that our first reader is not correct in seeing a danger in an increased use of Latin. As our second correspondent correctly points out, the total abolition of Latin was never desired by Vatican II. The Church has repeatedly encouraged its continued use and has expressly desired that all the faithful should know the basic Latin responses and the simpler Gregorian chants for use at Mass.

I personally hold that Mass celebrated in Latin in the ordinary form should be widely available. I also hold that even when Mass is celebrated in the vernacular, common Latin chants such as the Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei should be used regularly as well as vernacular chants of the same texts.

It is true that for many and complex reasons, and in spite of canon law, several generations of priests have been formed with a minimal knowledge of Latin. As our second reader noted, this situation has begun to be reversed in theory and practice in recent years.

The question of the people's understanding as a requirement for worship is a valid question to which there is no easy answer. If we claim that understanding is essential to worship, then we call into question the authenticity of the worship of countless Catholics for most of the Church's history — including that of many canonized saints. Even today it is probable that not every member of the faithful who attends a Mass in Latin has an understanding of the language, but it is difficult to deny that they achieve authentic worship at such celebrations.

Although understanding the language is of great benefit to many, the use of the vernacular is just one level, helpful, but insufficient in itself. The liturgy is a complex tapestry interwoven with biblical references, signs and symbols. It will always need some mediation and explanation. Even if a member of the faithful understands all the words, but fails to grasp them in all their scriptural and theological richness, is he or she somehow deprived of authentic worship? I very much doubt it. God does not require a degree in theology to give him glory.

That the Church now permits several possibilities in the liturgy should be seen as an enrichment rather than something to be rejected. It is a sign that the Church is fully alive, open to new possibilities without leaving behind the good things that made her what she is today.

Finally, a priest asked: "Would you say that there is any objection to correcting the grammar in the new translation as a priest prays, for example, the opening prayer? Often, the first sentence will read, for example, 'Lord, who has ... etc.' That is obviously poor grammar. So, if a priest instead says, 'Lord, you have ... etc.,' would you say that it is permitted to correct the grammar? I certainly don't believe it affects the validity of the Mass."

I have not personally encountered this particular error in these prayers. I would say that a priest should correct an obvious error, especially if clearly due to a typo. There were a few such cases in the first printing of the new Latin Missal.
If it is a question of different usage or possible grammatical variations, then I suggest sticking to the printed text.
It would be highly unlikely to find such errors in the essential part of a sacramental rite. If a hypothetical grammatical or typing error were blatant, however, correcting it would not affect validity and in some cases might even be necessary for validity if the error changed the essential meaning of the rite.

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