Saturday, February 20, 2010

Vernacular readings at the TLM

It is often asked, with puzzlement, why the readings are read in Latin in the usus antiquior. That they must be read in Latin has been reiterated by the PCED in a recent ruling, although they can be repeated in the vernacular. But surely, people say, the readings are intended to be understood by the people! What is the point of reading them in Latin?

The greatest obstacle of all to the acceptance of the TLM by ordinary Catholics brought up on the Novus Ordo is this simple point, which is implicit even in the New Mass but is inescapable in the TLM: the ceremonies and prayers may be edifying to the people, if they understand them, but they are directed towards not the congregation but to God. That is why the 1970 Missal continues to make use of ceremonies and language people cannot readily understand. Placing a fragment of the consecrated host into the consecrated chalice: how many people understand what that means? (Indeed, is there a single uncontroversial answer?) The priest continues to pray silently at the Lavabo. And of course the use of Latin, especially Latin chants, is still recommended. The 1970 Missal does plenty of things the people can't see, or hear, or understand, because it is directed towards God.

In the usus antiquior the pretence that the people 'should be able to see and understand everything' is totally impossible. You are forced to see that what the congregation is doing is looking at a sacred action carried out on their behalf by the priest who ascends the altar steps to face God Himself. The kind of participation possible to the congregation is principally that of uniting themselves to the sacrifice offered by the priest to God. This is what makes them more than mere spectators, but this is a prayerful interior participation, not the participation of fellow actors on the stage.

A colleague of mine put the point very eloquently:
The translations of the readings read in vernacular, in fact, do not belong to the Liturgy. Even the homily is not part of the Mass, because of that the priest before preaching often takes off the maniple (and sometimes even the chasuble).... The Liturgical readings in Latin do not have mainly a didactic purpose: they are also and primarily acts or worship. They do not have to be understood in terms of a rational knowledge (the eagerness to understand clearly and distinctly every single part of the Mass and especially the readings is pure Cartesianism). We should look upon the readings of the Mass with the Eastern mentality (as we are reminded by Msgr. Klaus Gamber): as true Epiphanies of God who, as Saint Paul says, "multifariam, multisque modis olim Deus loquens patribus in prophetis : novissime, diebus istis locutus est nobis in Filio". The Epistle is the manifestation of Our Lord through the Prophets and the Apostles, whilst the Gospel is His Epiphany in the Son. It is for this reason that the Gospel is honoured, accompanied by the candle-bearers, incensed by the deacon and kissed by the priest in High Mass. The Gospel in the Mass is the Logos made flesh (Verbum caro factum) and manifested to us. The readings of the Mass, then, are sacred and worthy of our deep veneration and must not be considered as a mere "instruction" (the instruction comes with the homily or in the teaching of the catechism).

There is a lot we have to re-learn about the liturgy, including many things which were being forgotten in the first half of the 20th Century. The desire that everything should be immediately comprehensible has, thankfully, been rejected in the context of the new translation of the 1970 Missal, which is going to use words not readily comprehensible by all members of the congregation, but about which they will need to be catechised. The wider point, however, is that, as Martin Mosebach puts it in his book 'The Heresy of Formlessness', when Mass begins we enter into a sacred time characterised by the sacred space, clothing, and language of the liturgy. He asks us to acknowledge breaking into that sacred time, and interupt what is being done in the sacred space of the sanctuary in the sacred language, as being problematic: he is speaking of the sermon. Perhaps it would be better to have the sermon at the end of Mass, as was formerly done. But even if we think that a vernacular sermon after the gospel, preceeded by a reading of translations of the epistle and gospel, is justified, the point is that we are holding our breaths: the sacred action is suspended. It will recommense when the priest puts his maniple back on, and returns to the altar.

A number of priests all over the world have, in good faith, adopted vernacular readings to the exclusion of the Latin in the EF for 'pastoral reasons', thinking this has been permitted by the Motu Proprio. I have always found this a little puzzling: why not simply repeat them in the vernacular? However, the legal goalposts have now been moved.


  1. Mark M3:09 pm

    The irony is that the simplest solution is often the best:

    many Priests I know say the Epistle and Gospel in Latin, and then at the Sermon (having taken their maniple off, as you rightly point out), they then proclaim them again in English, before commencing the homily....

    I don't like the practice of only saying them in Latin either!

  2. Jack B.4:17 pm

    Would anyone happen to know if having the Epistle and Gospel read in the vernacular while the priest read them quietly at the altar was ever allowed by the Ecclesia Dei Commission?

    I ask because a church I attend does this, and I hate it. I'm looking for documentation to help my case.

    Thank you.

  3. Joseph Shaw10:32 pm

    <span>The Ecclesia Dei Commission has only existed since 1988, but there have been various permissions granted over the years, before and after, but they were all abrogated by the Motu Proprio, which refers simply to the liturgical books of 1962, and sets its own rules about them.</span>

    For example, Cardinal Meyer wrote a letter in 1990 permitting the use of the 1970 Lectionary in the TLM. As the recent clarification makes clear, this is excluded by the Motu Proprio.

    I don't think the practice you refer to was ever permitted by the PCED, but even if it had been this was swept away by the MP, and the clarification makes that clear: the English translation may be read AFTER the Latin.

  4. Jack B.12:41 am

    Good points, Mr. Shaw.  Thank you.

  5. Hi going to do a post re the CES??

  6. I am fairly new to the EF I mainly attend the OF but have been going to some EF so when I ask this I am being sencere. The EF is beautiful and I love the reverence shown to our Lord which is often lacking (not always) in the OF. However what is the point to the readings being in Latin as they are reread in English (vernacular) if they are not for instruction but for worship then they should not even be reread? If they are for both proposes then why can't it be left in the vernacular as GOD can be worshiped in any language. After seeing the abuses in many OF masses I get why the rest of the mass is in the original latin. Its the readings I am questioning. thank you

    1. The answer is in the last part of the post, and in the Position Paper on Latin. It is true that Latin excludes some abuses and avoids problems with translations, but the principle point is that it liturgical Latin is a sacred language and its use marks out the sacred time of worship.