Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Does the use of the Tridentine Mass presume that the celebrant and/or congregation understands the Latin language? How do they translate rationabilem acceptabilemque? Is it important to know what the original text intended or not? – J.K., Crown Point, Indiana
A: This question left me somewhat nonplussed, not because it is not a good question, but because it can be answered from so many viewpoints that I hardly know where to start.
From the historical point of view we could say that the Latin Mass was, from the beginning, an elevated text and not the common language of the people. The Roman Canon in particular is an example of Roman rhetoric with measured syllables and sets of adjectives. Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) said that it was the work of a “scholasticus,” or an erudite man.
In the centuries that followed the decline of the Roman Empire, the Catholics who attended Mass not only were ignorant of Latin but were mostly illiterate in all languages. Even many priests had barely the Latin required to celebrate the sacraments.
The Council of Trent defended the use of Latin, above all because it gave unity of worship and doctrine in a time of great social divisions and in which Latin was still the language of culture and science.
So, we can say that a knowledge of Latin is unnecessary for the faithful to be able to worship unless we wish to affirm that the majority of Catholics were not engaged in liturgical worship for 1,500 years.
Even if the Church, following the Second Vatican Council, has decided that it is now preferable for the liturgy to be celebrated in modern languages, the Latin text remains the point of reference and should guide translators in seeking an understandable, yet elegant, text for worship.
Although some of the reasons for favoring these changes were ideological in nature at the time, and some of the results were less than perfect, in general this change has proved positive.
However, favoring the local language does not require abolishing Latin and the liturgical forms used in the Church for many centuries. For this reason, these forms may be freely celebrated, and there is a significant number of Catholics who desire to worship in this manner.
I have said that a knowledge of Latin is not an absolute requirement, but it is a fact that most of those who attend the extraordinary form today are well-educated folk. Even those who do not know the language will follow the celebration in bilingual missals and can follow the ceremonies with ease.
The Church’s aim in reforming the liturgy was to facilitate the active participation of the faithful at Mass.
The expression “active participation” was coined by Pope St. Pius X in 1903 and refers above all to a spiritual activity on the part of the faithful in uniting themselves to the holy sacrifice of the altar in a conscious and meaningful way. It is an exercise of the common priesthood of the faithful through communion with the ministerial priesthood.
Active participation may be favored in different ways by the faithful joining in activities such as singing the ordinary of the Mass, or other songs, responding to the invitations and, in the modern liturgy, carrying out certain ministries and services. While all of these activities may express active participation, they are never essential to active participation which will always remain primarily a spiritual activity.
Authentic active participation can be achieved in all legitimate forms of worship of the Church in Latin and in any other language. This means the ordinary form and the extraordinary form, in the Ambrosian, Mozarabic, and Braga rites and in any one of the Eastern Catholic Churches. (See our related column of May 5.)
They are all simply means to worship God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enter into the depths of the divine mysteries, and, to use an expression common in the Church Fathers, be divinized through these mysteries and be transformed into authentic disciples of Christ.
The externals matter, and we should not belittle or relativize them, but we must never forget that the essence of liturgy is transforming worship.