Is it legal to celebrate Mass in Latin?
The Ordinary Form of Mass, the Novus ordo as promulgated in 1969 following the Second Vatican Council, may be said in Latin or in an approved translation. It is celebrated regularly in Latin, as well as in the vernacular, in St Peter’s, Rome, and in many cathedrals, abbeys and churches across the world. For a guide to such Masses in our own country please visit the Directory page on this website.
The official, definitive books of the Sacred Liturgy are always in Latin and all translations must conform strictly to the Latin texts. The Church has been adamant in requiring the use of Latin in the Sacred Liturgy to be preserved, particularly where people of different nations regularly come together, and that all Catholics should be familiar with the parts of the Mass that pertain to them. Please see the SUMMARY OF OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS ON LATIN on this website.
Use of the earlier, Extraordinary Form of Mass, sometimes known as ‘Tridentine’, is also permitted, using the Missal of Blessed Pope John XXIII (1962 edition), and may be said only in Latin, though in its most commonly used low form is often followed by prayers in the vernacular.”
Is the Tridentine Mass another name for the Latin Mass?
No. The Tridentine Mass is so called because it is the form of Mass produced for the Western Church after the Council of Trent, a town in northern Italy, whose name in Latin is *Tridentum*. The Council lasted, on and off, from 1545 to 1563. In its 22nd session (September 1562) the doctrine of the Mass was defined, as were things to be observed or avoided in its celebration. By a decree of the Council, actual reform of the Mass rite was left to the Pope, then Pius IV, though it was actually his successor, Pius V who carried out, or at least supervised the work.
The ‘Tridentine Missal’ (1570) was the result, and it remained in force for exactly 400 years until, under Pope Paul VI, the present Missal came into use.
Latin had been the language in use throughout the Western Church almost since its foundation (in the very early days it was Greek). But other languages are used in the Eastern Catholic Churches, for example in the Coptic rite. So although the Tridentine Mass is always celebrated in Latin, the Latin is not an essential aspect of it, and it could in theory be celebrated in the vernacular (though it has to be said that the Council of Trent itself rejected the idea of Mass in the vernacular).
Nowadays, when we talk about the ‘Latin Mass’, we mean Mass in any approved rite celebrated in Latin. The Association for Latin Liturgy’s priority is the promotion of the Mass of Paul VI (by far the most frequently used rite) in Latin, with the traditional music associated with the Roman Liturgy.
Why retain Latin in the liturgy of today?
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the use of the vernacular has become very widespread in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. Given this, why should it be important to retain a place for Latin in the liturgy of today?
There are many reasons why Latin may still play an important part in the liturgy of today’s Church. Vatican II itself envisaged the continued use of Latin:
“The use of Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 54)
Latin has been used in the rites of the Western Church since at least the fourth century, if not earlier. It is not surprising therefore that the Novus Ordo introduced by Pope Paul VI in 1970 was composed in Latin.
Vernacular translations followed, rather than preceded, the Latin original. The use of the Church’s traditional language of worship has the following important benefits:
- It is a sacral language, associated with the single, exalted purpose of the worship of God. The use of Latin in this way should not surprise us for a sacral language is a feature of all the major world religions: classical Arabic in Islam, Sanskrit in Hinduism and of course Hebrew in Judaism-the language in which Our Lord would have prayed.
- Latin helps us overcome limitations of time and place, and helps us participate in the universal reality of the Catholic Church, linking us with the generations who have worshipped before us.
- The use of Latin in all countries and across the centuries is a powerful symbol of the Church’s unity.
- The use of Latin enables also the use of the great liturgical music of the Church, particularly plainchant and polyphony. Vatican II said:
“The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 114)