Latin in the Vernaculars: Polemics of Pope Francis?

Image Source: America Megazine

Martin Heidegger taught us that language is the house of being. The way we orient ourselves to the world is largely conditioned by language. It houses our traditions, values, faith orientations, cultures and ways of being human-in-the-world. It opens us pathways at multiple levels. Any language that we speak embeds several significant systems. It folds within it our entire world. As we have our life and being in the Divine, we also have our life and being in the language. It carries our destinies, hopes, anxieties and aspirations. It mediates our life. The word stands in between us and reality. We know the world, God and other humans through language. Our mother tongue is best doing this job for us. But we are not limited to our mother tongue. We can cultivate other languages and our access to the world can multiply. This means language is the means of communication in the most radical sense. It is not just a means of communicating with God, humans and creation, it does the all-important work of handing our traditions, faith and culture to the next generation. We are born in a language. It becomes our oxygen to relate to the world, humans, God and creation. This is why it becomes a dwelling place for us to be-in-the-world. We need this truth about our linguistic life to understand the recent intervention of our holy father, Pope Francis concerning the use of Latin in the Holy Eucharist.

July 16 2021, our Holy father took steps to curtail what is called the traditional Latin mass. The Latin language has played a significant role in the life of the Church for a long time. Some might even say that it had become elitist and imperial and was rightly put on the back burner by the great council that we call Vatican II. Pope Francis seems to have echoed what Marshall McLuhan, the famous catholic media critique taught us. McLuhan taught us that the medium is the message. Pope Francis seems to point towards this McLuhan’s view when he argued that the Eucharist is a message and cannot be celebrated in some inaccessible tongue just because it was used for centuries. This act of returning back to the spirit of Vatican II has to be commended although the pro-Latin movement seems to have received a death blow with this decision of the Holy father. Pope has brought back the age-old catholic principle that said, ‘Lex orandi , Lex credendi ‘ which can be loosely translated as what we pray is what we believe. The clear preference of the vernacular is to enable us to live our faith in our highest prayer, the Holy Eucharist in the alphabets of our time. It seems that the traditionalists are simply holding on to the straws based on aesthetic reasons and long-standing use of Latin in the life of the Church. Their stand does not coincide with Pope Francis’ vision of the Catholic Church which is aligned with open societies and is on the side of the poor. The traditionalists also oppose this vision of Church that becomes the sacrament of God’s welcome and are resisting it by insulating themselves in their echo-chambers that holds on to the tradition of Latin mass. They seem to stand on far right of the political matrix.

In the context of this short reflection, we have tried to journey with the Heideggerian position that proclaims that language is the house of being. It can illumine us how Latin as a language has served its purpose and has almost reached a state of being a spent force as humanity has shifted from it and embraced the vernaculars in our modern world. Humanity’s house of being has become the vernacular language and we cannot hold on to the vestiges of the middle ages when Latin played the roles as the house of our being in its full glory. Today, other languages/ vernaculars are housing our life, traditions, cultures, values and ways of being-human-in-the-world. Other languages shape our orientations to the world, God, humans and creation. Latin has ceased playing this role and at best is used as a decorative adornment of a residual past which still lives and haunts our present.

We can deepen this understanding with the help of the thinking of Jacques Derrida who takes us away from oppositional either/ or thinking and draws us to embrace thinking that hyphenate the oppositional poles of our thinking. Hence, we can think that the vernacular masses are not in opposition to the traditional Latin mass. They are not on the other side and are not siding against the side of the Latin tradition. Language as a house of being carries within it the entire Latin tradition along with our catholic traditions. Just like the Last Supper and the memorial of the Good Friday stays enfolded into the rite of the Holy Eucharist, so to the Latin tradition as well as Catholic faith traditions remain enfolded in the new languages that have come to become the house of our being in the world today. This is why we cannot say that the decision of Pope Francis is against the Latin language and its presence in the life of the Church. It stays as a precious medium of communication of the yesteryears as the Church comes to embrace the signs of the times in order to share the treasures of the Holy Eucharist with humanity that has less to do with Latin and everything to do with the vernaculars that have become their dwelling places in the Heideggerian sense. This means our Holy father is not siding against the Latin tradition of the Holy Eucharist. His Holiness is on the side of the Lord and the side of Humanity and also on the side of Latin as well as on the side of the vernaculars. Hence, His decision to discontinue the use of Latin in the Holy Eucharist is on the side of Latin tradition. It is challenging for us to think together Latin and vernaculars. They do not oppose each other. Latin tradition will live embedded in the translations of the vernacular traditions that embed our life and being as Christ’s faithful. The Latin tradition is not erased but is kept under erasure. Being under erasure, the Latin tradition is not dying but is challenged to enter the Paschal mystery of our Lord again and lend its treasures and spirit to the challenges of the New Evangelization that the Church is facing today. Therefore, the Latin tradition of the holy Eucharist lives in the mission of New Evangelization in the Church. We need faith to see the new life of our Latin tradition animating the evangelizing mission of the Church today. Latin is living by dying on the altar of the New Evangelization.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao