Language in Liturgy
Address of His Eminence Cardinal Francis Arinze
St Louis, Missouri (U.S.A.)
Saturday, November 11, 2006
1. Excelling Dignity of
The Church which was founded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus
Christ strives to bring together men and women from every race,
language, people and nation (cf. Rv 5: 9), so that "every tongue
should acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the
Father" (Phil 2: 11). On Pentecost day there were men and women
"from every nation under heaven" (cf. Acts 2: 5) listening as
the Apostles recounted the wonderful works of God.
This Church, this new People of God, this Mystical Body of
Christ, prays. Her public prayer is the voice of Christ and his
Bride the Church, Head and members. The liturgy is an exercise
of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In it, full public
worship is performed by the whole Church, that is, by Christ who
associates with him his members.
"From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because
it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body the Church,
is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the
Church can match its claim to efficacy, nor equal its degree of
it" (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], n. 7). From the sacred spring
of the liturgy, all of us who thirst for the graces of the
redemption draw living water (cf. Jn 4: 10).
Consciousness that Jesus Christ is the high priest in every
liturgical act should instil in us great reverence. As St
Augustine says: "He prays for us, he prays in us, and he is
prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest; he prays in us
as our head; and he is prayed to by us as our God. Let us
therefore recognize our voices in him and his voices in us" (Enarratio
in Psalmum, 85: CCL 39, 1176).
2. Different Rites in the Church
In the sacred liturgy the Church celebrates the mysteries of
Christ by means of signs, symbols, gestures, movements, material
elements and words. In this reflection we are focusing on words
used in divine worship in the Roman or Latin Rite.
The core elements of the sacred liturgy, the seven sacraments,
come from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. As the Church spread
and grew among various peoples and cultures, various ways of
celebrating the mysteries of Christ also developed. Four parent
rites can be identified as the Antiochene, Alexandrine, Roman
and Gallican. They gave rise to nine major rites in the Catholic
Church today: in the Latin Church the Roman Rite is predominant,
and then among the Eastern Churches we find the Byzantine,
Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Ethiopian, Malabar, Maronite and
Each "Rite" is an historic blending of liturgy, theology,
spirituality and Canon Law. The fundamental characteristics of
each undoubtedly go back to the earliest centuries, the
essentials to the apostolic age if not to Our Lord himself.
The Roman Rite, which is the subject of our reflection, is in
modern times, as we have said, the predominant liturgical
expression of the ecclesial culture we call the Latin Rite. You
will know that in and around the Archdiocese of Milan a "sister
Rite" is in use that takes its name from St Ambrose, the great
Bishop of Milan: the "Ambrosian Rite". In certain locations and
on special occasions the liturgy is celebrated in Spain
according to the ancient Hispanic or Mozarabic Rite. These two
venerable exceptions do not concern us here.
The Church in Rome used Greek from the beginning. Only gradually
was Latin introduced until the fourth century when the Church in
Rome was definitely latinized (cf. A.G. Martimort: The Dialogue
between God and his People, in A.G. Martimort, ed.: The Church
at Prayer, Collegeville, 1992, I, p. 161-165).
The Roman Rite has spread in most of what was known as Western
Europe and the continents evangelized largely by European
missionaries in Asia, Africa, America and Oceania. Today, with
an easier movement of peoples, there are Catholics of the other
rites (roughly identified as the Oriental Churches) in all these
Most rites have an original language which also gives each rite
its historical identity. The Roman Rite has Latin as its
official language. The typical editions of its liturgical books
are to this day issued in Latin.
It is a remarkable phenomenon that many religions of the world,
or major branches of them, hold on to a language as dear to
them. We cannot think of the Jewish religion without Hebrew.
Islam holds Arabic as sacred to the Qur'an. Classical Hinduism
considers Sanskrit its official language. Buddhism has its
sacred texts in Pali.
It would be superficial to dismiss this tendency as esoteric, or
strange, or outmoded, old or medieval. That would be to ignore a
fine element of human psychology. In religious matters, people
tend to hold on to what they received from the beginning, how
their earliest predecessors articulated their religion and
prayed. Words and formulae used by earlier generations are dear
to those who today inherit from them. While a religion is of
course not identified with a language, how it understands itself
can have an affective link with a particular linguistic
expression in its classical period of growth.
3. Advantages of Latin in the Roman Liturgy
As was mentioned above, by the fourth century, Latin had
replaced Greek as the official language of the Church of Rome.
Prominent among the Latin Fathers of the Church who wrote
extensively and beautifully in Latin were St Ambrose (339-397),
St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), St Leo the Great († 461) and
Pope Gregory the Great (540-604). Pope Gregory, in particular,
brought Latin to a great height in the sacred liturgy, in his
sermons and in general Church use.
The Roman Rite Church showed extraordinary missionary dynamism.
This explains why a greater part of the world has been
evangelized by heralds of the Latin Rite. Many European
languages which we regard as modern today have roots in Latin,
some more than others. Examples are Italian, Spanish, Romanian,
Portuguese and French. But even English and German do borrow
The Popes and the Roman Church have found Latin very suitable
for many reasons. It fits a Church which is universal, a Church
in which all peoples, languages and cultures should feel at home
and no one is regarded as a stranger.
Moreover, the Latin language has a certain stability which daily
spoken languages, where words change often in shades of meaning,
cannot have. An example is the translation of the Latin "propagare".
The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples when it was
founded in 1627 was called "Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda
Fide". But at the time of the Second Vatican Council many modern
languages use the word "propaganda" in the sense in which we say
"political propaganda". Therefore, there is a preference in the
Church today to avoid the expression "de propaganda Fide", in
favour of "the Evangelization of Peoples".
Latin has the characteristic of words and expressions retaining
their meaning generation after generation. This is an advantage
when it comes to the articulation of our Catholic faith and the
preparation of Papal and other Church Documents. Even the modern
universities appreciate this point and have some of their solemn
titles in Latin.
Blessed Pope John XXIII in his Apostolic Constitution, Veterum
Sapientia, issued on 22 February 1962, gives these two reasons
and adds a third. The Latin language has a nobility and dignity
which are not negligible (cf. Veterum Sapientia, nn. 5, 6, 7).
We can add that Latin is concise, precise and poetically
Is it not admirable that people, especially well-trained
clerics, can meet in international gatherings and be able to
communicate at least in Latin? More importantly, is it a small
matter that 1 million young people could meet in the World Youth
Day Convention in Rome in 2000, in Toronto in 2002 and in
Cologne in 2005, and be able to sing parts of the Mass, and
especially the Credo, in Latin? Theologians can study the
original writings of the early Latin Fathers and of the
Scholastics without tears because these were written in Latin.
It is true that there is a tendency, both in the Church and in
the world at large, to give more attention today to modern
languages, like English, French and Spanish, which can help one
secure a job quicker in the modern employment market or in the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs in their country.
But the exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI to the students of the
Faculty of Christian and Classical Letters of the Pontifical
Salesian University of Rome, at the end of the Wednesday General
Audience of 22 February 2006, retains its validity and
relevance. And he pronounced it in Latin! Here is my free
English translation: "Quite rightly our Predecessors have urged
the study of the great Latin language so that one may learn
better the saving doctrine that is found in ecclesiastical and
humanistic disciplines. In the same way we urge you to cultivate
this activity so that as many as possible may have access to
this treasure and appreciate its importance"
4. Gregorian Chant
"Liturgical action is given a more noble form when sacred rites
are solemnized in song" (SC, n. 113). There is an ancient
saying: bis orat qui bene cantat, that is, "the person who sings
well prays twice". This is so because the intensity that prayer
acquires from being sung, increases its ardour and multiplies
its efficacy (cf. Paul VI: Address to Italian Schola Cantorum,
25 September 1977, in Notitiae 136, November 1977, p. 475).
Good music helps to promote prayer, to raise the minds of people
to God and to give people a taste of the goodness of God.
In the Latin Rite what has come to be known as the Gregorian
Chant has been traditional. A distinctive liturgical chant
existed indeed in Rome before St Gregory the Great (+604). But
it was this great Pontiff who gave it the greatest prominence.
After St Gregory this tradition of chant continued to develop
and be enriched until the upheavals that brought an end to the
Middle Ages. The monasteries, especially those of the
Benedictine Order, have done much to preserve this heritage.
Gregorian Chant is marked by a moving meditative cadence. It
touches the depths of the soul. It shows joy, sorrow,
repentance, petition, hope, praise or thanksgiving, as the
particular feast, part of the Mass or other prayer may indicate.
It makes the Psalms come alive. It has a universal appeal which
makes it suitable for all cultures and peoples. It is
appreciated in Rome, Solesmes, Lagos, Toronto and Caracas.
Cathedrals, monasteries, seminaries, sanctuaries, pilgrimage
centres and traditional parishes resound with it.
St Pope Pius X extolled the Gregorian Chant in 1904 (cf. Tra le
Sollecitudini, n. 3). The Second Vatican Council praised it in
1963: "The Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as proper to the
Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be
given pride of place in liturgical services" (SC, n. 116).
The Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, repeated this praise in
2003 (cf. Chirograph for the Centenary of Tra Le Sollecitudini,
nn. 4-7; in Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline
of the Sacraments: Spiritus et Sponsa, 2003, p. 130).
Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the International Association of
Pueri Cantores when they met in Rome at the end of 2005. They
give a privileged place to the Gregorian Chant. In Rome and
throughout the world the Church is blessed with many fine
choirs, both professional and amateur, that render the chant
beautifully, and communicate their enthusiasm for it.
It is not true that the lay faithful do not want to sing the
Gregorian Chant. What they are asking for are priests and monks
and nuns who will share this treasure with them.
The CDs produced by the Benedictine monks of Silos, their
motherhouse at Solesmes, and numerous other communities sell
among young people. Monasteries are visited by people who want
to sing Lauds and especially Vespers.
In an ordination ceremony of 11 priests which I celebrated in
Nigeria last July, about 150 priests sang the First Eucharistic
Prayer in Latin. It was beautiful. The people, although no Latin
scholars, loved it. It should be just normal that parish
churches where there are four or five Masses on Sunday should
have one of these Masses sung in Latin.
5. Did Vatican II discourage Latin?
Some people think, or have the perception, that the Second
Vatican Council discouraged the use of Latin in the liturgy.
This is not the case.
Just before he opened the Council, Bl. Pope John XXIII in 1962
issued an Apostolic Constitution to insist on the use of Latin
in the Church. The Second Vatican Council, although it admitted
some introduction of the vernacular, insisted on the place of
Latin: "Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin
language is to be preserved in the Latin rites" (SC, n. 36).
The Council also required that seminarians "should acquire a
command of Latin which will enable them to understand and use
the source material of so many sciences and the documents of the
Church as well" (Optatam Totius, n. 13). The Code of Canon Law
published in 1983 enacts that "the Eucharistic celebration is to
be carried out either in the Latin language or in another
language, provided the liturgical texts have been lawfully
approved" (can. 928).
Those, therefore, who want to give the impression that the
Church has put Latin away from her liturgy are mistaken. A
manifestation of people's acceptance of Latin liturgy well
celebrated was had at the world level in April 2005, when
millions followed the burial rites of Pope John Paul II and
then, two weeks later, the inauguration Mass of Pope Benedict
XVI over the television.
It is remarkable that young people welcome the Mass celebrated
sometimes in Latin. Problems are not lacking. So, too, there are
misunderstandings and wrong approaches on the part of some
priests on the use of Latin. But to get the matter in better
focus, it is necessary first to examine the use of the
vernacular in the liturgy of the Roman Rite today.
6. The Vernacular: Introduction, Extension, Conditions
The introduction of local languages into the sacred liturgy of
the Latin Rite is a development that did not occur all of a
sudden. After the partial experience gained over the preceding
years in certain countries, already on 5 and 6 December 1962,
after long and sometimes impassioned debates, the Second Vatican
Fathers adopted the principle that the use of the mother tongue,
whether in the Mass or other parts of the liturgy, frequently
may be of advantage to the people. In the following year the
Council voted to apply this principle to the Mass, the ritual
and the Liturgy of the Hours (cf. SC, nn. 36, 54, 63a, 76, 78,
Extensions of the use of the vernacular followed. But, as if the
Council Fathers foresaw the likelihood that Latin might lose
more and more ground, they insisted again and again that Latin
As already quoted, article 36 of the Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy began by enacting that "particular law remaining in
force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the
Latin rite". Article 54 required that steps be taken, "enabling
the faithful to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the
Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them". In the celebration of
the Liturgy of the Hours, "in accordance with the centuries-old
tradition of the Latin rite, clerics are to retain the Latin
language" (SC, n. 101).
But even while establishing limits, the Council Fathers
anticipated the possibility of a wider use of the vernacular.
Article 54 indeed adds: "Wherever a more extended use of the
mother tongue within the Mass appears desirable, the regulation
laid down in Article 40 of this Constitution is to be observed".
Article 40 goes into directives on the role of Bishops'
Conferences and of the Apostolic See in such a delicate matter.
The vernacular had been introduced. The rest is history. The
developments were so fast that many clerics, Religious and lay
faithful today are not aware that the Second Vatican Council did
not simply introduce the vernacular for all parts of the
Requests and widenings of the use of the vernacular were not
long in coming. At the urgent request of some Bishops'
Conferences, Pope Paul VI first allowed the Preface of the Mass
to be said in the vernacular (cf. Letter of the Cardinal
Secretary of State, 27 April 1965), then the entire Canon and
the prayers of ordination in 1967.
Finally, on 14 June 1971, the Congregation for Divine Worship
sent notice that Episcopal Conferences could allow the use of
the vernacular in all the texts of the Mass, and each Ordinary
could give the same permission for the choral or private
celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours (on the whole
development, see A.G. Martimort: The Dialogue between God and
his People, in A.G. Martimort: The Church at Prayer, I, p. 166).
The reasons for the introduction of the mother tongue are not
far to seek. It promotes better understanding of what the Church
is praying, since "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the
faithful be led to that full, conscious and active participation
in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature
of the liturgy... (and which) is their right by reason of their
Baptism" (SC, n. 14).
At the same time, it is not difficult to envisage how demanding
and delicate the work of translation must be. Even more
difficult is the question of adaptation and inculturation
especially when we think of the sacredness of the sacramental
rites, the centuries-old tradition of the Latin Rite, and the
close link between faith and worship encapsuled in the old
formula: lex orandi, lex credendi.
We turn now to the thorny question of translations into the
vernacular in the liturgy.
7. On Translations into the Vernacular
The translation of liturgical texts from the Latin original to
the various vernaculars is a very important consideration in the
prayer life of the Church. It is a question, not of private
prayer, but of the public prayer offered by holy Mother Church,
with Christ as the Head. The Latin texts have been prepared with
great care as to sound doctrine, exact wording "free from all
ideological influence and otherwise endowed with those qualities
by which the sacred mysteries of salvation and the indefectible
faith of the Church are efficaciously transmitted by means of
human language to prayer, and worthy worship is offered to God
the Most High" (Liturgiam Authenticam, n. 3).
The words used in the sacred liturgy manifest the faith of the
Church and are guided by it. The Church, therefore, needs great
care in directing, preparing and approving translations, so that
not even one unsuitable word will be smuggled into the liturgy
by an individual who may have a personal agenda, or who may
simply not be aware of the seriousness of the rites.
Translations should, therefore, be faithful to the original
Latin text. They should not be free compositions. As Liturgiam
Authenticam, the major Holy See Document that gives directives
on translations, insists: "The translation of the liturgical
texts of the Roman Liturgy is not so much a work of creative
innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully
and accurately into the vernacular language" (n. 20).
The genius of the Latin Rite should be respected. The triple
repetition is one of its characteristics. Examples are "mea
culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa"; "Kyrie eleison, Christe
eleison, Kyrie eleison"; "Agnus Dei qui tollis...", three times.
A close study of the "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" also shows
"triplets". Translations should neither kill nor flatten out
such a characteristic.
The Latin liturgy expresses not only facts but also our
feelings, our sentiments, for example, in front of God's
transcendence, majesty, mercy and boundless love (cf. Liturgiam
Authenticam, n. 25). Expressions like "Te igitur, clementissime
Pater", "Supplices te rogamus", "Propitius esto", "veneremur
cernui", "Omnipotens et misericors Dominus", "nos servi tui",
should not be deflated and democratized by some translating
Some of these Latin expressions are difficult to translate. The
best experts in liturgy, classics, patrology, theology,
spirituality, music and literature are needed so that
translations beautiful on the lips of holy Mother Church can be
worked out. Translations should reflect that reverence,
gratitude and adoration before God's transcendent majesty and
man's hunger for God which are very clear in the Latin texts.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his Message to the meeting of the "Vox
Clara" English Committee on 9 November 2005, speaks of
translations which "will succeed in transmitting the treasures
of the faith and the liturgical tradition in the specific
context of a devout and reverent Eucharistic celebration" (in
Notitiae, 471-472, Nov.-Dec. 2005, p. 557).
Many liturgical texts are steeped in biblical expressions, signs
and symbols. They resonate with prayer patterns that date back
to the Psalms. The translator cannot afford to ignore this.
A language spoken by millions of people today will undoubtedly
have many shades and variations. There is a difference between
English used in the Constitution of a country, that spoken by
the President of a Republic, the conversational language of dock
workers or students and the conversation between parents and
children. The manner of expression cannot be expected to be the
same in all these situations, although all are using English.
What form should liturgical translations adopt? No doubt
liturgical vernacular should be intelligible and easy to
proclaim and to understand. At the same time, it should be
dignified, sober, stable and not subject to frequent change. It
should not hesitate to use some words not generally in use in
everyday conversation, or words that are associated with
Catholic faith and worship. Therefore, it should say chalice and
not just cup, paten and not plate, ciborium and not vessel,
priest and not presider, sacred host and not consecrated bread,
vestments and not dress.
Therefore, Liturgiam Authenticam says: "While the translation
must transmit the perennial treasury of orations by means of
language understandable in the cultural context for which it is
intended,... it should cause no surprise that such language
differs somewhat from ordinary speech" (n. 47).
Intelligibility should not be pushed to mean that every word
must be understood by everybody at once. Just look carefully at
the Credo. It is a "symbol", a solemn summary statement, on our
faith. The Church has had to call some General Councils for an
exact articulation of some articles of our faith.
Not every Catholic at Mass will immediately understand in full
such normal Catholic liturgical formulae as Incarnation,
Creation, Passion, Resurrection, Consubstantial with the Father,
Proceeding from the Father and the Son, Transubstantiation, Real
Presence, Transcendent and omnipotent God. This is not a
question of English, or French, or Italian, or Hindi or
Kiswahili. Translators should not become iconoclasts who destroy
and damage as they go along. Everything cannot be explained
during the liturgy.
The liturgy does not exhaust the entire life activity of the
Church (cf. SC, n. 9). There is also need for theology,
catechetics and preaching. And even when a good catechesis has
been delivered, a mystery of our faith remains a mystery.
Indeed, we can say that the most important thing in divine
worship is not that we understand every word or concept. No. The
most important consideration is that we stand in reverence and
awe before God, that we adore, praise and thank him. The sacred,
the things of God, are best approached with sandals off.
In prayer, language is primarily for contact with God. No doubt,
language is also for intelligible communication between us
humans. But contact with God has priority. In the mystic, such
contact with God approaches and sometimes reaches the ineffable,
the mystical silence where language ceases.
There is therefore no surprise if liturgical language differs
somewhat from our everyday language. Liturgical language strives
to express Christian prayer where the mysteries of Christ are
As if putting together these various elements needed in order to
produce good liturgical translations, let us quote from the
Address of Pope John Paul II to American Bishops from
California, Nevada and Hawaii during their 1993 ad limina visit
to Rome. He was asking them in translations to guard the full
doctrinal integrity and beauty of the original texts:
"One of your responsibilities in this regard is to make
available exact and appropriate translations of the official
liturgical books so that, following the required review and
confirmation by the Holy See, they may be an instrument and
guarantee of a genuine sharing in the mystery of Christ and the
Church: lex orandi, lex credendi. The arduous task of
translation must guard the full doctrinal integrity and,
according to the genius of each language, the beauty of the
original texts. When so many people are thirsting for the Living
God - whose majesty and mercy are at the heart of liturgical
prayer -, the Church must respond with a language of praise and
worship which fosters respect and gratitude for God's greatness,
compassion and power. When the faithful gather to celebrate the
work of our Redemption, the language of their prayer - free from
doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence - should foster
the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while
faithfully expressing the Church's faith and unity" (in
Insegnamenti of John Paul II, XVI, 2, 1993, p. 1399-1400).
From the above considerations, it follows that the Church needs
to exercise careful authority over liturgical translations. The
responsibility for the translation of texts rests on the
Bishops' Conference, which submits them to the Holy See for the
necessary recognitio (cf, SC, n. 36; C.I.C., can. 838; Lit.
Authenticam, n. 80).
It follows that no individual, even a priest or deacon, has
authority to change the approved wording in the sacred liturgy.
This is also common sense. But sometimes we notice that common
sense is not very common.
So, Redemptionis Sacramentum had to say expressly: "The
reprobated practice by which priests, deacons or the faithful
here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred
Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease. For in
doing thus, they render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy
unstable, and not infrequently distort the authentic meaning of
the Liturgy" (n. 59; cf. also General Instruction on Roman
Missal, n. 24).
8. What is expected of us?
As we seek to conclude these reflections, we can ask ourselves
what is expected of us.
We should do our best to appreciate the language which the
Church uses in her liturgy and to join our hearts and voices to
them, according as each liturgical rite may indicate. All of us
cannot be Latin speakers, but the lay faithful can at least
learn the simpler responses in Latin. Priests should give more
attention to Latin so that they celebrate Mass in Latin
In big churches where there are many Masses celebrated on a
Sunday or Feast day, why can one of those Masses not be in
Latin? In rural parishes a Latin Mass should be possible, say
once a month. In international assemblies, Latin becomes even
more urgent. It follows that seminaries should discharge
carefully their role of preparing and forming priests also in
the use of Latin (cf. October 2005 Synod of Bishops, Prop. 36).
All those responsible for vernacular translations should strive
to provide the very best, following the guidance of relevant
Church Documents, especially Liturgiam Authenticam. Experience
shows that it is not superfluous to remark that priests, deacons
and all others who proclaim liturgical texts, should read them
out with clarity and due reverence.
Language is not everything. But it is one of most important
elements that need attention for good and faith-filled
It is an honour for us to be allowed to become part of the voice
of the Church in her public prayer. May the Most Blessed Virgin
Mary, Mother of the Word made flesh whose mysteries we celebrate
in the sacred liturgy, obtain for all of us the grace to do our
part to join in singing the praises of the Lord both in Latin
and in the vernacular.
© Copyright L'Osservatore Romano
February 23, 2006