Using Latin (Greek and Hebrew) at Holy Mass
Some, especially new Catholics, struggle with the use of Latin in the Sunday Mass, in particular, with the singing of the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. As active participation is encouraged, some find it hard and a bit put off by the loss of understanding that comes with Latin.
Actually, the liturgy uses other languages besides Latin. For example, when the early Church sought to celebrate the Holy Mass in the language of the common people, i.e. Latin, she chose to leave some prayers in New Testament Greek. So even today, the Latin Mass retains the Kyrie in Greek, although it is permitted to use the vernacular, Lord have mercy. We get other prayers from Hebrew, such as the Alleluia, Hosanna and Amen.
So, why doesn’t the Church just translate these words into English, Spanish, Polish, or other vernacular languages when she translates the Mass?
Sense of mystery
The word Alleluia could be translated into other expressions of joy and praise, such as Praise God or Praise the Lord, yet we would lose some of the meaning and sacredness that we find in the Hebrew word. Alleluia conveys a sense of mystery and awe not found in the other expressions. Retaining the Hebrew acknowledges that there is some expressions of the heart and mind that are exclusively associated with love and adoration of God.
Likewise, Amen could be translated as I believe, I do, or I agree, but in doing so we lose the sacred sense of the covenant faith that we reaffirm. These other expressions are too narrow, which is why multiple expressions are needed. Amen does all that (and more!) in one word, as it connects us to all the covenants made between God and his People throughout the centuries. Amen sacredly commits us to all that God has revealed and commanded us.
So, using Hebrew also unites us to the Old and New Testament people of God, as we praise God and enter into a covenant of love with our Lord.
The Greek Kyrie manifests the early Christian awe and fascination with the idea of God’s great mercy, that the almighty and eternal God would chose to love weak and mortal mankind, even with all our selfishness, pride, and perversity. He does this, even before we do anything to merit that love and mercy. That is truly amazing!
The Kyrie is both a statement—the Lord does have mercy on us—and a petition—Lord, please do have mercy on us—acknowledging our ongoing need for God’s great love and mercy, even after receiving forgiveness of our sins.
In this same line, the Church encourages us to sing or recite the Gloria and the Sanctus in Latin. This too manifests our sense of wonder and awe as we praise God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that human words (vernacular expressions) are somehow inadequate to express the full truth of what God has revealed and the sense of awe and mystery we have in our heart and mind; using a language we don’t fully understand allows us to do this.
Liturgical Prayer: Personal and Universal
We must make the Holy Mass our own—a truly personal prayer through which each one of us actively enters into dialogue with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet, as liturgy, the Mass is the public prayer of the whole Church, the one Bride in dialogue with her one Lord and Bridegroom. Using sacred languages manifests this universality. When we attend the Mass in Africa, Japan, Europe, or in South America we are entering into the universal prayer of love of the whole Church throughout the centuries, both past and future.
What better way to express the unified love of the Church for Christ than through these common words of love and praise? May we deepen our appreciation of the mystery of God’s love through our common language.
Fr. John R. Waiss
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