Sunday, August 24, 2008

Latin Loathers

While listening to the Catholic Answers Live radio program recently (7-31-08, first hour), I heard a caller from Spokane, Washington express dismay that the Church was returning to the Latin Mass and nuns in habits. Apologist Jimmy Akin tried to assure her that she need not worry. He explained that no one is advocating a complete return to the Latin Mass. The norm will continue to be Mass in the vernacular. Pope Benedict has merely recognized the attachment some Catholics have to the Latin Mass and has made it permissible for priests to celebrate the Mass in that form for them.

In the middle of Jimmy’s explanation, the caller asked if she could say something. He said yes and the woman stated she was “appalled” that Catholic Answers was so conservative. Regular listeners to Catholic Answers know that of all the Catholic apologist regulars on the program, Jimmy is probably least capable of masking his ire at certain callers when they become combative. Instead of calling them by name, he will address them as “Sir” or “Ma’am”. I sensed a “Ma’am” coming up and Jimmy did not disappoint.

Jimmy explained to her that Catholic Answers is neither conservative nor liberal. Catholic Answers is orthodox, meaning they seek to teach what the Church teaches. The caller became quite agitated and asked, “Where is God in all of this? God didn’t want this” to which Jimmy replied, “How do YOU know that God didn’t want this?” The caller shot back with “How do YOU know he did?” Jimmy stated that he knew God wanted this because it comes from the Pope. At this point, the caller expressed some disdain for the conservative leanings of the Pope prompting Jimmy to express concern for the state of her soul.

This exchange sadly typifies the polarization among some Catholics today regarding liturgical matters, and more importantly where it comes to fidelity to Church teaching. One can be liberal or conservative as long as he or she is orthodox. Being orthodox means respecting the authority of the Pope and accepting what the Church teaches. This is where we get into difficulty with some folks who think they know better than the old man in Rome.

In this particular case, nothing is being imposed on anyone. The Mass to which this woman is accustomed will continue to be the ordinary form. That is not to say the ordinary form cannot be celebrated in Latin. It can be, but Mass in the vernacular will continue to be the norm. What she may find more upsetting is new language in the ordinary form that will be coming soon. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments recently approved a revised English translation of the Order of Mass, which will be binding on us here in the United States.

Our English language undergoes subtle changes over time, sometimes called semantic drift. This happens in many different ways through every day usage. Words take on new meanings or connotations. One of the commonly used examples is the word gay, which usually means something much different today than it did a few decades ago.

Catholic apologists occasionally have to explain that they are so called because they explain and defend certain positions or doctrines of the Church. This type of apology has nothing to do with expressing regret as we commonly use the word today. That same apologist may also find it necessary to explain that when we pray to saints, we are simply asking for their intercession. The word pray originally meant to ask, and that is the way Catholics use it. Prayer in that sense is not a form of worship as some believe.

Changes in the language may seem insignificant, but variations in the way we communicate happen more rapidly than one might think. Our parents used expressions that would seem dated or even nonsensical today. Our children sometimes communicate in slang we do not understand. Find a hundred year-old newspaper and see how much writing styles have changed in a century. Now imagine the challenge facing a two thousand year-old Church in accurately passing down revelation to all of us living today.

That is one of the beauties of Latin. It is a dead language not subject to this evolution of meaning that all other contemporary languages experience. When our liturgies were celebrated universally in Latin, Catholics all over the world were using the same words, hearing and saying the same things. We may not have always known what we were hearing and saying, but we were always united.

When Vatican II permitted Masses to be celebrated in the vernacular, the Latin Mass had to be translated into all the various languages Catholics use, including of course, English. This may sound like a simple task, but it is not. A word for word translation is impossible. Sentence structures differ from one language to another. The translator must express the meaning intended by the original writer, and in many cases, that meaning may be subject to interpretation. In the case of the English translation of the Mass we use today, some would say it was done hastily and does not always adequately express the meaning of the original Latin. The new translation is a more precise translation.

Why is this so important? The Catholic Church is universal and she is one. When we participate in the Mass, every Catholic in the world is united at the foot of the Cross. If we are to be truly united, we must share the same mind and spirit, as Paul tells us. If every translation carries with it some variation in meaning, our unity can be compromised. The best way to assure this does not happen is to stay as close to the original as possible. When the priest says, “The Lord be with you” and we answer “And also with you”, we are not saying exactly what the original Latin says, and therefore, not necessarily what other Catholics are saying in other languages. The more precise response would be “And with your spirit”, and that is what we will soon be saying when the new translation goes into effect.

I pray that people like the caller from Spokane who was “appalled” by any thought of returning to Latin in the Mass, will see the beauty and historical significance of the Latin language in the Church, as well as the benefits of embracing it today. Thanks to the wisdom of Pope Benedict, we will continue to have the ordinary Mass in our improved English translation, plus the beauty and reverence of the Mass in Latin if we so choose, and that is extraordinary!