31 October 2006

Latin in the Liturgy

Taken from the National Post
[Note: Author is Jewish, hence the Hebrew & Latin Comparison. Very Unique perspective on the use of a universal language in the Liturgy and the direct connection it has to active participation in terms of the transcendent value it has. ]

It would appear that Pope Benedict XVI intends to reinvigorate the beleaguered (Tridentine) Latin mass, which in the late '60s was almost universally replaced by individual vernacular languages to encourage "active participation" for ordinary parishioners. Although not a stakeholder in the issue, I am all in favour of Latin's second coming.

Last month, my friend Monique, an Opus Dei numerary, honoured me with an invitation to attend a traditional private mass presided over by Bishop Javier Echevarria, the visiting Opus Dei prelate. I'm one of those academic fossils who actually majored in Latin in university, so the sonorous majesty of the recitations provided me with a fillip of cultural nostalgia I could not have experienced anywhere else these days.


For the power of liturgy to lift us out of our narrow practical and material pursuits is not dependent on our understanding of every actual word we are saying, any more than our emotional submission to classical music's soaring magic is dependent on our ability to read the score that produced it. The power of liturgy to stir and inspire us isn't even dependent on our commitment to the beliefs and doctrines from which the liturgy sprang.

I see the worship service as more about belonging than belief. An ancestral, globally employed language like Hebrew or Latin provides a context for predictable and organic communion amongst those present at the service. Through regular engagement, even though rote, with a universally recognized language, worshippers are subliminally imbued with a common motivational narrative from the past, common moral goals in the present and intimations of a common destiny in the future.

But the ancient language and music of the liturgy, which unite the individual with his fellows in the sanctuary's space, also unite the individual with the eternal idea of peoplehood -- those who came before and who will come after -- in time. Under the mesmeric sway of ancestral language, the finite moment is transcended through expressions of aspirational yearning (future), emotional attentiveness (present) and nostalgia (past) to fuse in what the philosopher Henri Bergson called "intentional time," when the worshipper achieves the spiritual peace that is conferred by timelessness.

In the 1960s, the received wisdom amongst ascendant secular humanists taught that all traditional, hierarchical institutions were intrinsically corrupt, and only an induced cultural amnesia would suffice to level the playing field. Even the Vatican was not immune to the force of the zeitgeist. But making the mass egalitarian, and literally more accessible through the use of vernacular, did not bring more people to the Church, in North America at any rate.

Reform Judaism once tried to phase out Hebrew in the interest of "active participation." The services were "accessible" but sterile and deracinating, and now Hebrew is back in the Reform liturgy. Quod erat demonstrandum. Bring back the Latin mass.

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