(This is the first in a series of posts called Why the Latin Mass? I’ve been asked by several people why I like the Latin Mass—why people will drive a hundred miles to get to one, or spend a lot of time and money bringing it to their area. I’ll try to answer that in this series.)
One thing I always tell people is it’s not just about the language. There are many other differences between the TLM and the Novus Ordo (the new Mass said in most churches today). But the Latin is an important part of it, for a variety of reasons. When you hear someone speaking in a foreign language, it gets your attention, whether you can understand it or not. It’s an immediate sign that something unusual is happening here. That helps me focus and want to know what the speaker is saying and why.
Latin is also important because it’s a dead language, so it isn’t changing anymore. The meanings of the words are the same as they were centuries ago. Modern languages are always changing, and the meanings of words can change quite a bit in a short time. The sentence God Is the End of Man is inscribed over the door of a school near here. When that was written, the “final purpose” meaning of the word “end” must have been more commonly used. But now, I picture those kids looking up at that and thinking of God as a sort of Terminator character who will come “end” them someday.
If our prayers are in English, we’re going to have to keep tweaking them over the years to keep the meaning the same. (Anyone know what “vouchsafe” means? It was all over English prayers a century ago.) If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, or just used an online translator to translate something to a foreign language and back again, you know how quickly the meaning can vary with each translation. By sticking with Latin, we don’t have to worry about that. We may use different English words than they used 500 years ago to get the same meaning, but the essential prayers themselves and the meanings of the words won’t have changed.
Different languages lend themselves better to different uses. English is a very blunt, stripped-down language, great for quick dialogue and technical writing. Latin, with its more complex structure, has a formality that works well in the liturgy. Many prayers were originally written in Latin, so they flow better in it than when translated into another language. The Ave Maria (Hail Mary), for example, is awkward in English, but it flows like poetry in Latin, even if you don’t know what it means.
So it’s not about stubbornness, or using something old for oldness’s sake. The Latin language itself adds something to the Mass, especially when combined with the things I’ll talk about in the next articles.