Sunday, 29 April 2012

Is Latin a holy language?

Recently, someone called Phil Smith, whom I hadn’t previously known, asked ‘But one question: why is Latin "holy"? I thought JC and his boys (and his under-rated girls) spoke Aramaic?’  It was all Mark Lambert (@sitsio on twitter)'s fault, as he’d pointed Phil at my Introduction to Liturgical Latin.

Actually, it is a really good question, so I thought I’d blog on it. (I'll pass over the 'under-rated girls' comment at this stage, other than noting that the Church has always held Our Lady and St Mary Magdalene, for example, in high esteem.)

So the question is about Latin’s holiness.

There are a hundred other arguments in favour of Latin in the Liturgy (and I may rehearse them sooner or later), but Phil asks about holiness, specifically.

Is Latin a holy language? And if so, why?  What do we mean by a holy language anyway?

I think there are a few reasons we can call Latin a holy language.

My understanding is that most serious religions have a hieratic language for use in formal worship.

Certainly Judaism, at the time of Our Lord, did so.  The vernacular of the time was Aramaic, but formal worship was conducted in Hebrew.  This responds to a deep human need to express, in some way, the fact that in worshipping God formally, we are stepping aside from the day-to-day mundane world, and attempting to approach the numinous.  In personal, private prayer, of course, we can speak to God in very familiar terms: but formal public prayer needs something different.  One of the other advantages of hieratic language is that its meaning doesn't change over time, unlike vernacular languages; so we do not run the risk of meaning being confused, or face the necessity of updating our texts regularly.

In the Roman Church, until very recently, and for centuries, Latin was the hieratic language: a language set aside for formal worship, different from the vernacular.  Indeed, even when Latin was still widely used as the universal language of scholars in Europe, Liturgical Latin (I understand) was different from Classical and Scholarly Latin; in ways analagous to the differences between the old-fashioned language of the Anglican’s traditional services and modern English.  (It is interesting that many Anglicans still see the value of their hieratic patrimony.)

So Latin could be considered holy precisely because it was the language set aside for formal worship.

Another reason is similar but different.  Because Latin has, in fact, been the language of worship of the Western Church for so many centuries, it has been time-hallowed. Just as we might feel that Harvington Hall, or Tyburn, are in some sense holy because of their history, so Latin is holy because - well because St Thomas More, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, and indeed all the saints of the Western Church for several centuries, prayed in it.

That leads to a third related reason: due to that period of time, great prayers have been written in Latin, that are now part of our heritage: one thinks of the Pange Lingua, by Thomas Aquinas, or the older Pange Lingua by Venantius Fortunatus; of the Veni Creator Spritus by Rabanus Maurus, and the Veni Sancte Spiritus, by Pope Innocent lll (possibly).  And so on...

Moreover, Latin is the language of the Church because of St Peter going to Rome, and establishing Rome as the centre of our Faith.  This, surely, was not outside the Providence of God (any more than was Our Lord’s being born at a time when the Roman Empire enabled the promulgation of His Church rapidly through the western world).  Latin is thus a link with our roots  (as also is Greek, and I would make a similar case for the importance of retaining the little Greek that remains in our Liturgy: the Kyrie eleison and the Good Friday Reproaches).

I am sure I had thought of other things to say, when I started this post, but they have gone... if they come back to me, I will update it.

And I may well blog further about the many other arguments in favour of Liturgical Latin, apart from its holiness.  You have been warned!


Part-time Pilgrim said...

It's space-hallowed as well as time-hallowed. In other words, for a church that spans many nations, there is something unifying about using a common language that transcends boundaries and because it is unifying it is also holy.

Marc said...

Thanks for the good outlines of the case for 'sacred Latin'!

Of course, Greek certainly is properly a lingua sacra in that the sacred inspired books of the New Testament are written in it (and it has been and can be argued that the Septuagint is also inspired). Likewise, Hebrew is the first lingua sacra, that of the sacred inspired books of the Old.

Patricius said...

Interesting thought:
"Latin" mass uses three languages. 1. Hebrew:
2. Greek: "Kyrie eleison" and
3. Latin.

Now where have we heard of those three languages togeter before?

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks, all, for these additive comments!