Latin 101. Yes, it used to be taught with great regularity in so many colleges and high schools as well. But today Latin has gone the way of that other 101 - Hiway 101 which gave way to the streamlined, modern freeway Interstate 5. So also Route 66 which has been abandoned for I-40, and many other roads in the United States. But this is not an essay on the Automobile Club, but on the Mother tongue of the Church - the universal language of the Roman Catholic Church of two millennia: Latin. It is a universal language that was time-tested through the many centuries. Then, in a matter of just a few years, this Romance tongue was suddenly and matter-of-factly tossed to the side, paved over by the sterile, concrete pavement of vernacularism that lacks substance and tradition and is now cracking under the heat of scrutiny which penetrates its pores today.
In talking with older Catholics who are honest about the times before Vatican II, they will tell you there never was any problem with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It set Catholics apart from all others for anywhere you went in the world, one thing you could always count on: You would be at home with the Mass. Go to Japan, you might not undertsand a word, but you would feel like you never left home during a Mass there; the same for South America, or any of the missionary lands, anywhere in Europe; anywhere in the world. Few ever questioned why the Mass was not in the vernacular. But the more it was proposed, the more the furor over 'why not?' grew because the times were muddied by liberal, rebellious thought. It was all part and parcel of the sixties. The era just prior to all the changes was climaxed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. So many referred to it as the "end of Camelot." They were more right than they predicted.
Back then very few could envision the drastic changes that have occurred not only in the liturgy, but in living the Faith. I really doubt had they known what damage would be wrought, they would have ceased any promotion of a Mass "we could better understand." I truly believe they would have seen that changing from the sacred, most reverent Latin prayers and Gregorian Chant to an impromptu, cultural event was a big, big mistake. Unless they purposely wanted to sabotage the Church they would not have championed a liturgy that evolves according to the community and the political correct times as long as it is in the vernacular, never mind reverence and stability.
Forty to fifty years ago the word "Traditional Catholic" really wasn't part of the lexicon for every Catholic was "Traditional." You were either Catholic or you were not. Yes, there were Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics and Polish Catholics, etc. but that referred to ethnicity, not ideologies. Yet today there is a distinction in nomenclature and beliefs which divides Catholics. Why? Because Latin was abandoned and, with it, a wealth of other treasures we used to take for granted. Today we have "Traditional Catholics" who stand for everything passed down up to Vatican II. Their arguments are solid, yet there is fragmentation within Traditional ranks with the one unifying factor being restoring the Latin.
Then there are the "Conservative Catholics" representing those who embrace the Council of Vatican II, but question the liberal reforms that followed the council which they term the "spirit of Vatican II." This group makes up a large number of Catholics today who are very comfortable with the vernacular and have contributed to bad-mouthing Latin as "totally foreign." Yet, their blind acceptance to whatever they are told weakens their arguments with so many contradictions. While they are quick to challenge the progressive Catholics and rail againt the traditional ones, they are presently reeling in trying to explain away the current crisis of sex abuse in the Church because Pope John Paul II appointed the bishops in charge today. Many among this group of Catholics are in denial, much as the United States Bishops are.
Finally there are the "Liberal Catholics" who not only endorse everything from Vatican II but cry that the Church didn't go far enough. These latter are the ones mostly responsible for the auto-demolition of the liturgy and architecture of those beautiful old churches that screamed "Roman Catholic." Today, we are left with ashes and memories. But it is in those memories that we have the blueprint to rebuild despite the skepticism of so many.
One of the arguments against Traditional Catholicism consists of the question, "Does it really matter?" When people ask me this question they point to many of the outward signs and gestures of the Tridentine Mass and its accouterments. This certainly includes the Latin language, the genuflecting, the incense and the way people dress for Mass. I think this is an excellent question because it can actually bring us to the heart of the matter.
When asked if these things really matter, my first impulse is to respond with another question, "Does ANYTHING really matter in this day and age?" Interestingly, there are many things that we consider to be very important, which aren't really so important. There are other things which are extremely important that we tend to ignore. In our modern culture there is an obsession with a multitude of really unimportant things for which we are often willing to devote our lives. Oddly, the turning point when many people learn what's important comes through a time of crisis or devastation.
Does the Latin language really matter? History seems to bear out that Latin has been an excellent choice for the Catholic Church in her liturgy. Now considered a "dead" language, it hasn't been subjected to the changes we see in many other languages from one generation to the next. The Catholic Church has for centuries dealt with peoples of every language and culture, unifying all people in the Mass through ONE language. (A very "pastoral" gesture!)
In time, the Latin language became associated with Catholicism and we have come to trust the language of the Mass. Since Latin was the language of the Church and not our everyday language, it worked well as a preventative to abuse. Not many priests knew Latin well enough to replace "Introibo ad altare Dei" (I will go in unto the altar of God) with the Latin for, "Good morning folks, we're gathered here to break bread together."
While not strictly opposed to the use of my mother tongue in the Sacred Liturgy, I've come to realize that the wholesale use of the vernacular has opened up a Pandora's Box. Theological weaknesses aside, the modern Mass today is subject to just about whatever the priest wants to do with it, as we can plainly see from parish to parish. He can easily manipulate and change the words as the mood strikes him. It isn't even logical to assume the Mass can endure this for the long run. In effect, the Mass has become the property of each individual priest, and people will either like the Mass or not depending on his performance of it.
When a dear friend recently expressed her dismay that she could not understand the words of a Latin hymn at Mass, it moved me to reflect on how much I have come to trust the Church's use of Latin. While I may not have understood every word, it was evident that the hymn was to the glory of God and I could trust that it contained accurate and authentic Catholic theology. My heart soared with every word. Perhaps one can liken this experience to viewing a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. While I would not be able to understand a single word of Mr. da Vinci's language, I can view the Mona Lisa and enjoy an understanding of what he was trying to express. There is a common language which transcends the vernacular.
By comparison, during the modern Mass the faithful are all too often subjected to trendy songs of extremely questionable theology. While I can understand every word, the message is all wrong. The trade-off is too costly.
Ironically, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council apparently thought Latin was so important to the Church that they insisted that the Latin language be "preserved in the Latin rites" (SC 36). I'm not interested here in discussing the documents of Vatican II, but only in attempting to show that the intention to adhere to the ancient wisdom of the Church regarding Latin DID surface at that last ecumenical council. In practice however, even the highest ranked clergy today are free to relegate Latin to the wastebasket.
Ridding the Mass of Latin in order to make the Mass more meaningful to the faithful was just a portent to the unfortunate, lazy mentality that has invaded the modern Church. While our high school students are often required to take a foreign language to gain entrance to the university, we will put forth no such effort to acquaint ourselves with the Latin of the Mass. At the same time our kindergarteners are learning to use the computer, and junior high students are learning HTML to build their own websites, it is simply too much to expect that they can follow the Mass in Latin.
The only things that matter are those things which are important to us. Considering how much has been lost with the trashing of Latin and how much has been retained by way of the Tridentine Rite of the Mass, I'm compelled to tell you that Latin actually does matter.