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Latin and Vatican II

Gregory DiPippo

Today, the Church marks the 60th anniversary of the official opening of the Second Vatican Council, which was announced by Pope St John XXIII in January of 1959. The Council was held in four sessions, the last of which ended on December 8, 1965; Pope John, however, presided over only the first one, and died on June 3, 1963. None of the Council’s sixteen official documents were written in their final form during the first session, or formally promulgated by him.

Nevertheless, there is a widespread misconception that the general eclipse of the Latin language in the Western church is due to him and the Council. During the many years when I worked as a tour guide in Rome and the Vatican, I was very often in St Peter’s Basilica with clients in time for the beginning of the 5 p.m. Mass, which until recently was sung mostly in Latin. People would very often hear the music, realize what language it was in, and say something like, “I thought John XXIII abolished the Latin.” I am glad to say that almost all of them were pleasantly surprised to learn that nothing could be further from the truth.

In point of fact, Vatican II itself says almost nothing about Latin, precisely because St John had promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia on the preservation and promotion of Latin less than eight months before it began. The Council Fathers very reasonably took it for granted that there was no need to say anything more on the subject. Let us therefore have a look at what little it does have to say on the subject, which is confined to the constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the decree on priestly formation Optatam totius.

(One of the sessions of Vatican II; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The latter simply repeats briefly in paragraph 13 what is stated much more fully in Veterum Sapientia.

“Antequam sacrorum alumni studia proprie ecclesiastica aggrediantur, ea humanistica et scientifica institutione ornentur, qua iuvenes in sua cuiusque natione superiora studia inire valeant; ac praeterea eam linguae latinae cognitionem acquirant, qua tot scientiarum fontes et Ecclesiae documenta intelligere atque adhibere possint. Studium linguae liturgicae unicuique ritui propriae necessarium habeatur, cognitio vero congrua linguarum Sacrae Scripturae et Traditionis valde foveatur. – Before they begin specifically ecclesiastical studies, seminarians should be equipped with that humanistic and scientific training which enable young men in their own countries to undertake higher studies, and furthermore acquire such a knowledge of the Latin language that it will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences, and the documents of the Church. The study of the liturgical language proper to each rite should be considered necessary, and a suitable knowledge of the languages of Sacred Scripture and Tradition should be greatly encouraged.”

In 1983, this provision was incorporated into the new Code of Canon Law (can. 249), and remains the law of the Church.  

Of course, outside the universities and seminaries, the ordinary Catholic most frequently encountered Latin at Mass, and it was in no way the intention of the Council that this should cease to be so. “Linguae latinae usus, salvo particulari iure, in Ritibus latinis servetur. – Particular law remaining in force, let the use of the Latin language be preserved in the Latin rites.” (36)

“Provideatur … ut christifideles etiam lingua latina partes Ordinarii Missae quae ad ipsos spectant possint simul dicere vel cantare. – Provision should be made that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which belong to them.” (54)

“Iuxta saecularem traditionem ritus latini, in Officio divino lingua latina clericis servanda est, facta tamen Ordinario potestate usum versionis vernaculae ad normam art. 36 confectae concedendi, singulis pro casibus, iis clericis, quibus usus linguae latinae grave impedimentum est quominus Officium debite persolvant. – In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be preserved by clerics in the Divine Office. But in individual cases, the ordinary has the power of granting the use of a vernacular translation, drawn up according to the provision of article 36, to those clerics for whom the use of Latin constitutes a grave obstacle to their praying the office properly.” (101)

So if you are studying Latin, attending a Mass celebrated in Latin, or a cleric who says the Mass or Office in Latin, and someone asks you why, you should answer, “Ad Concilii voluntatem implendam. – To fulfill the will of the Council!”

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