Friday, June 21, 2013
Why Does the Catholic Church Use Latin?
The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Israel - Latin inscription 'The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us'.
The Catholic Church has been accused of using Latin in order to keep the gospel from the common people. In fact, just the opposite is true.
To trace the use of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church we must first discover the languages which were spoken at the beginning of Church History.
The Greek Empire
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) established the Greek empire throughout the area of the Mediterranean and as far as Egypt and the borders of India. Greek culture and language became dominant in these areas.
By 146 BC the Roman Republic had conquered most of mainland Greece and for many this signified the end of the Hellenistic (Greek) period. Others claim that the date of the demise of the Greek Empire is 30 BC when Egypt was conquered by Rome. However, the influence of Greece in culture, art and language continued long into the Roman period.
The Roman Empire
During the time of Jesus and early Christianity, the Roman Empire extended throughout the Mediterranean; as far north as Britain and as far south as Northern Africa. The language of the Romans was Latin although most of the educated people spoke Greek as well. In the 3rd century BC there had been a movement by the cultured classes to introduce Greek elements into Latin and it was in this Latin that the orators, poets and historians wrote. It is now known as Classical Latin and two well-known examples are the works of Caesar and Cicero. The masses, however, continued to speak the ‘old’ Latin known as sermo vulgaris or Vulgar Latin. ‘Vulgar’ did not have the meaning it does today, rather, it meant, ‘common’.
The Language of Jesus and the Apostles
Aramaic was the language spoken in Israel during the second temple period (539 BC-70AD). It is not only the language of the Talmud but parts of the books of Daniel and Ezra are written in Aramaic as well. Jesus and the Apostles spoke Aramaic but the Scriptures they studied (what Christians call the Old Testament) was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Septuagint). Priests in the temple and rabbis in the synagogue spoke Hebrew and most Jews had some understanding of it. In the final two centuries 'Before Christ', there were many Jews in Egypt, most of whom did not speak Hebrew. Some men (the legend is 70, hence Septuagint) undertook a Greek Translation of the Pentateuch, and later the remaining Hebrew Scriptures in the 3rd century BC.
Greek continued to be the language of education, trade and culture throughout the Roman Empire. Two of the Apostles (Andrew and Philip) had Greek names so they probably spoke Greek as well as Aramaic. Philip was approached by some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover feast. These were not necessarily men from Greece but rather Gentile, Greek-speaking converts to Judaism (see John 12:20). This passage is an indication that Philip spoke Greek.
We do not know if any of the Gospels were written in Aramaic but it is usually assumed that they were first written in Greek. Some believe that Matthew wrote his Gospel in either Hebrew or Aramaic and it was later translated into Greek. Luke and Acts (written by St. Luke) were, of course, written in Greek as were the letters of St. Paul. In other words, the New Testament letters were written in Greek because that is what most people spoke and read. No one bought these 'books' and 'letters'. The letters of St. Paul were written to a church (e.g. Romans, Corinthians) and passed around to other churches to read as well. They were not sold but shared among Christian communities.
The Early Church
At first (until about 235 AD) the liturgy and the writings of the Church were in Greek. The Gospel was spread mostly by the spoken word (preaching) and ‘ecclesiastical’ or church Latin was developing. The language that the Church used would have to be understood and appeal, not only to the literary classes, but to the all people. St. Augustine said, “I often employ words that are not Latin and I do so that you may understand me. Better that I should incur the blame of the grammarians than not to be understood by the people.” (from Psal. cxxxviii,90)
When Latin became the more familiar speech for the majority of the faithful, it eventually replaced the use of Greek in the liturgy. Today the only remaining Greek used in the liturgy of the Western (Roman) Church is the Kyrie: Kyrie Elesion, Christe eleison, kyrie elesion (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy).
St. Jerome’s Vulgate
St. Jerome (340-420) was convinced of the need of a new translation directly from Hebrew to Latin, the language most Christians spoke. He was very knowledgeable in both Hebrew and the places and customs of Palestine. From A.D. 390-405 he completed the protocanonical books of the Old Testament from Hebrew and the deuterocanonical books of Tobias and Judith from Aramaic. He then went on to complete the New Testament revising from the Old Latin. St. Jerome’s version is called ‘the Vulgate’ as it was written in Vulgar Latin, that is, the Latin used by the common people, as opposed to Classical Latin.
The Middle Ages
Although Greek was used in the Eastern Church, Latin continued to be used in the Western Church for the liturgy throughout the Middle Ages. At this time Latin was the language of education, law and literature. An Englishman could go to Bologna to study law, without learning another language, because he would already know Latin. In the same way, an Italian going to Mass in London or Cologne would hear the liturgy; the readings and the hymns in the Latin that was familiar to him. The common people, who did not speak Latin, may be thought to have been at a disadvantage. However, the Mass has a standard form and the same words were used in the prayers and the responses of the people. Presumably they would have learned what these meant. However, the ability to read the vernacular languages was uncommon in the early Middle Ages. Thomas More wrote of the situation in England, “...farre more than fowre partes of the whole divided into tenne could never reade englische yet...” (More, Thomas. Apology. 1523). That is, more than 40% of the people could not read English in the year 1523!
In the Middle Ages, monks copied the Scriptures by hand. This meant that Bibles were rare and would be expensive to buy. This is the reason they were chained to the lectern in churches. Rather than to keep the people from reading the Bible it was to ensure that no one stole (or borrowed) it. Like telephone books in telephone booths they were 'chained' so that everyone would have use of it.
Johan Gutenberg (?1400-?1468), a German Catholic, was the inventor of the moveable type printing press which made the printing of books much easier and faster. The first book printed on it was the 'forty-two line Bible'. By 1480 printing presses had been established in the major cities of Europe. By 1500, ninety four Vulgate Bibles and thirty vernacular Bibles had been printed.
Although there had been portions of the Bible in English since the 10th century, the first complete Bible in English was translated by John Wyclif in c. 1381. The Catholic Church did not approve his translation and it is not used by any Christian group today. The first English version of the Bible approved by the Roman Catholic Church was the Douay-Rheims Bible (New Testament in 1582 and Old Testament in 1609). Some feel that the English Bible was produced later than in other countries because of the Church’s fear of Lollardy. The Lollards stood for some of Wyclif’s ideas but their protests against the Roman Church became linked with political unrest in the 15th century. Another possible cause of the lag of a Church- approved Bible translation in English was that the Norman conquest of England in 1066 had greatly modified English and brought about changes to the vocabulary. Since there were Bibles in French this was used by the nobility in England and the need for an English Bible did not seem to be urgent. Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the door at Wittenberg in 1517 and this eventually led to the Reformation. Because of the printing press, the Reformers’ ideas, translations and commentaries spread more rapidly than they could have a century earlier.
Official language of the Church
Latin remained the language of the liturgy (although some readings and the homily were in the vernacular) until the Council of Vatican II (1962 -1965). The Council established changes to encourage greater lay participation in the liturgy and in the 1960’s, permissions were granted to celebrate most of the Mass in the vernacular languages.
Latin is considered by some to be a ‘dead language’. However, Latin is the basis of the vocabularies of medicine, law and the sciences. The Romance (from Roman) Languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian) all trace their origins to Latin. In English we have many borrowed words from these languages and directly from Latin.
Today although you will hear the vernacular languages in the Mass, Latin is the still the official language of the Church. Masses from St. Peter's in Rome will be essentially in Latin with the readings of Scripture done in various languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian, English, Mandarin, Hindi). The homily (or sermon) is in Italian. Since the Church is universal (worldwide) the use of Latin officially does not favour the language of any particular country or people; Latin is a neutral language. Latin can still be used in the celebration of the Mass in any country and there is often one parish in a diocese that offers the Tridentine or traditional Latin Mass.
It may surprise some to know that all documents from the Vatican are first written in Latin and then translated into other languages.