And With Your Spirit: The New Roman Missal

Part 3: Legacy of Latin, the Official Language of the Church

Ken Canedo

Today we enjoy the amazing tool of instant language translators on the Internet, but in the first millennium such conveniences would truly be the stuff of fantasy. The countries of medieval Europe represented a broad mixture of people who spoke in the various tongues and dialects of the Romance, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon traditions. The Catholic Church needed a way to communicate with its multilingual flock.

Latin was the language of the Roman Empire and was spoken during the time of Christ. As the Church grew in numbers and influence, the language of Caesar proved to be an effective way to unify the diverse communities of the known world. Although Latin eventually became a language no longer spoken on an everyday basis, the Catholic Church kept this ancient tongue alive by utilizing it in official documents and in the liturgy.

There is a sense of poetry in the rhythm, syntax, structure and vocabulary of the Latin language that has influenced how the Roman Catholic Church has prayed for two thousand years. This poetic sense perhaps soared its highest in the beautiful Gregorian chants that are a treasure of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, was also a poet who wrote many Latin prayers and hymns, including the eucharistic song Pange Lingua Gloriosi. A version of this is still sung today with an English translation, “Down in Adoration Falling.”

After centuries of celebrating the Mass in Latin, the Second Vatican Council approved the liturgical use of the vernacular – the language of the people – in its 1963 document, Sacrosanctum Concilium: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The first English Mass was celebrated in parishes of the United States on November 29, 1964, and many Catholic Boomers remember the excitement of understanding the liturgy after a lifetime of praying the Latin Mass.

That early English translation was experimental while the US Bishops worked with Rome to refine an official translation that was finally published in the 1974 Sacramentary. It was quite startling for Catholics to jump from praying the Mass silently in Latin to praying it aloud in English, so this translation took great liberties with the style and structure of the original Latin. The texts were comfortable and idiomatic and allowed us to grow accustomed to the concept of praying together in our own language.

Unfortunately, much of the poetry and nuance of the original Latin was lost in the first English translation. The importance of this is difficult to grasp for us modern folks who do not speak Latin. We have become so used to praying in the idiomatic English of our current Mass texts that any change might be reluctantly accepted. Perhaps one way of looking at it is to note the subtle differences in the way we speak with various groups of people. We often speak more formally in the workplace or in the classroom and less formally with our close friends.

Since it is more literal to the Latin, the new translation will seem more formal and more refined than the conversational style of English we currently use in the liturgy. Longer Latin sentences that were broken up in our first translation have been strung together again. The vocabulary will be richer and the prayers will often be expressed more poetically. Yes, this will be challenging and perhaps unsettling to some people. But we need to remember that three generations have grown up with the current translation, missing out on prayers, phrases and modes of expression that were part of the Church’s tradition for generations before us.

The new translation also marks a return to a more scriptural connection with the prayers of the Mass. For example, many are puzzled by the way we will respond to the priest’s greeting. “And with your spirit” is a restoration of the Church’s original liturgical dialogue.

“But what does that mean?” some people are already asking. “I don’t speak like that.” Perhaps not, but Saint Paul did. It is a New Testament form of greeting and blessing. In the next Spirit Spot of this series, we will look at some of the actual revised texts and how they will help us understand and appreciate their foundation in Scripture and tradition.

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