In old Catholic churches, you can see Latin decorating the ceilings and walls, painted on stained glass windows, and carved into the marble of high altars and side altars. Obviously, Latin was important to the people of these times and places. But any of us who have lived all or most of our lives after the 1960s can certainly be excused for not knowing the reasons why Latin is so important to the Catholic Church, why it is the language of the Sacred Liturgy, and why the Second Vatican Council emphasized and that it should have “pride of place” in liturgical celebrations. For centuries, Catholics have understood the unique properties of the Latin language that make it ideal for the communication and the liturgy of the Church. It unites the Church both symbolically and visibly; it is uniquely holy, as it has been specially consecrated for use for things of God; and being unchanging in meaning it is therefore conducive to the higher thoughts of theology and philosophy. All but having disappeared from Catholic worship since the middle of the 20th century, the Latin language is still as essential, sacred, beautiful, and important as it ever was, and we Catholics of today urgently need to learn to love it and understand some of it.
The Latin language, used as the official language of the Catholic Church, marvelously unites the members of the Universal Church. Symbolically, the Church’s one shared language demonstrates a sign of the union of the tens of thousands churches and dioceses worshiping throughout the world. Sharing this basic means of communication, a single language, the churches are integrally connected both to each other and to their supreme leader, the Pope. And when the Latin is actually used for liturgies, documents, and communication, it provides a visible, material unity as well; this unity is stirring, especially as regards worship. For centuries, the manifold countries and cultures crisscrossing Christendom united their splendid diversity in the use of their shared sacred language. Scholars, clergy, popes, religious, and laymen the world over corresponded, studied, and worshiped together in linguistic, liturgical, and theological unity.
As the language of Catholic worship and thought, this language is specially consecrated to the service of God. Widely acknowledged as peculiarly efficacious in fighting the diabolical, Latin is used to speak of, sing of, and in service of holy things. Called a dead language by many detractors, it is truly the living language of the Church. Through God’s mysterious Providence, the first expansion of Christ’s Church occurred during the Roman Empire, when Latin (with help from Greek) was the language of the civilized world. Subsequent centuries saw the development of separate European vernacular languages based on Latin emerging from the major groups of converted Barbarian tribes. But the Church retained Latin. For nearly 2,000 years Catholic have worshipped, thought, and communicated in this language which is holy and set apart for sacred use.
While it is truly a living language for Catholics, Latin remains unchanging. Occasionally new terms must be created to denote new inventions in the changing secular world, but concepts and meanings in Latin words are immutable. They do not change, shift, or “evolve” in meaning the way words in a vernacular language do. For theologians and philosophers, Latin is an ideal language, featuring precise terminology, a logical structure, and a multiplicity of words that express fine shades of meaning. Because of this, Pope St. John XXIII wrote Veterum Sapientia, a papal document ordering more use of Latin and better teaching of Latin among Catholics. He stated, “It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech” (Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, Feb. 22, 1962). He knew why a regular and structured language that remains constant provides an ideal means of education and communication for a worldwide Church.
In those not too far distant days of the early and middle 20th century, our grandparents and great-grandparents were perfectly accustomed to and comfortable with singing dozens and dozens of songs, chants, and responses at Mass in the Latin language. From childhood they had heard and learned the words, and they knew the meanings of the texts into their own languages. For the Mass itself, they had bilingual missals that they used to follow along with the prayers of the priests. Latin was taught in the Catholic schools, was visible in church buildings, and present in liturgy, sacred music, and popular devotions. Consequently, the presence of Latin in Catholic life was normal, expected, and completely nonthreatening. It can and should be that way again for us today, and a similar attitude to that of our ancestors will be ours, if we take a little time every day to consistently expose ourselves to the great beauty of our linguistic heritage. We will then all know why Latin is the language for Catholics, and we will love it as our own sacred treasure.