One of the things that happened with me early on in my journey into the historic Church and prior to my conversion to the Catholic Church was that I began to redefine for my own practice what prayer and worship was. Rather, I should say, I allowed the practice and tradition of the Church to redefine for me what prayer and worship should consist of.
In the Protestant tradition from whence I came, tradition was a dirty word. In fact, I can’t remember hearing anyone say that word until I began to explore the historic Church. It’s not that Protestants don’t have tradition; they just have made up their own tradition. Some of that tradition is dramatically opposed to how the Church has prayed and worshipped for her entire existence.
One of the first things I discovered was a really ancient way to pray. If I’m being honest, my prayer life was not so good. That’s not because I was Protestant. There are lots of Catholics and Orthodox and Anglican etc whose prayer life is not good. But, for me, I had always struggled to pray in a way that was meaningful. I certainly didn’t pray in way that had long standing efficacy or was immersed in Holy Scripture.
Enter the Book of Common Prayer. Through it, I was introduced to an older form of prayer. Eventually, as I found my way into the Catholic Church, I found the Monastic Diurnal. This is an ancient way of prayer, compiled by St. Benedict roughly 1500 years ago, incorporating the Psalter into daily prayer. I have come to deeply enjoy this form of prayer. It has helped me tremendously to deepen my own prayers life and immerse my prayer life in the very Word of God as prayed/sung by the Church for a very long time.
As I was studying and going deeper into the faith and life of the Church, I discovered something that I had never known existed. I had never known what language the liturgy of the Church has originally been written in. Much to my surprise, I found that the only languages the liturgy of the Church used for the first four centuries was in Greek, Aramaic/Hebrew and Latin. This was helpfully pointed out to me by Fr. Nicholas Gihr in his book, “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” And why is that? Fr. Gihr explains, “no liturgy can be shown to be composed in any other language other than the three languages from the inscription on the Cross.” St. Robert Bellarmine agrees,
“The most ancient custom of the Church agrees. For in the whole East no ancient liturgy is found except in Greek or Aramaic, while in the whole West there are no ancient liturgies except in Latin.” (from his “On the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”)
And, in case you didn’t know, all three of those languages are now considered “dead” languages (the Greek being Koine Greek). Fascinating for a history nerd like me. And also kind of the point of prayers and liturgy being in these ancient and dead languages. Because these languages are no longer used in common speech means they don’t change. So, unlike our modern English language, you can’t keep adding words to the dictionary or changing the meaning of the words.
Think about that for a second. Because the language is dead makes it therefore immune to the winds of cultural change and even immune to our preference. It also means that it provides us with a precision of language that we cannot find in modern day English. This is a great gift to the Church! We don’t have to try and figure out what is meant by a particular word. Its meaning is set, entombed, if you will, in its historical and theological use and immune to our fickle feelings.
I don’t know about you but I long for a firm place to stand during this turbulent time we in which we live. Truth is, the world around us has always been turbulent. But there are some things that have stood firm throughout the centuries. God’s Word, the person of Jesus Christ and the tradition of the Church. These things have not changed, and this is greatly comforting. In a world that is lost in relativity, we have these anchors of objective Truth to hold on to.
But what about Vatican II, you may ask? Didn’t Vatican II change all that? Actually, the documents of Vatican II say the precise opposite of that. In fact, Vatican II mandates the continuing use of Latin saying,
“..the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (36)
“Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (54)
Pope John XXIII, the pope who convened Vatican II had this further to say,
“ a primary place must surely be given to that language which had its origins in Latium, and later proved so admirable a means for the spreading of Christianity throughout the West.”
“In addition, the Latin language can be called truly catholic. It has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed a treasure … of incomparable worth. It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.”
“Furthermore, the Church’s language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.
But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. Certain Latin words, it is true, acquired new meanings as Christian teaching developed and needed to be explained and defended, but these new meanings have long since become accepted and firmly established.” (Veterum Sapientia)
Now I ask you, does that sound like the Fathers of Vatican II wanted to get rid of Latin? No. Indeed, it sounds to me like the overarching desire was for the Church to continue to worship as she had always worshipped. So, what happened then? Well, there was an exception clause saying that some vernacular (local language) could be used. Again, what happened? I believe some activist bishops took it upon themselves to take that exception clause and run with it while ignoring the rest of the guidance of the Fathers of the Council.
What are we to do with this? I must be honest. It makes me cringe when I hear Christians, especially Catholic Christians, say about traditional worship practices, “I don’t like that.” I think we need to consider if it matters what our preference is when we come to the Mass. If, when we come to the Mass, our focus is on what we want, what “works” for us, then we have taken our eyes and hearts completely off what the point of worship is. In effect, when our preferences take over, we are not worshipping God, we are worshipping ourselves.
God has spoken. He has told us how we are to worship. He has given us this through His Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who passed this on to the Apostles, who passed it on to their successors and now down to us. Who are we to decide that we don’t want to do what God has said? Who are we to decide for ourselves how we worship the God who gave us life, who gave us the right to be called sons and daughters, who gave us the sacraments, who gave us the Church to nurture and instruct us? As St. Paul reminds us,
“O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it: Why hast thou made me thus? Or hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Romans 9:20-21)
May we turn again to the faith once for all delivered to the saints!
May we turn again to the comfort of the never changing rock of our Mother Church!
May we turn again to give Him the honour and praise He so deserves and let go of our petty selfishness and our preference!
All for the glory of God, the praise of Christ and the good of His holy Church!
Thanks be to God!