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Liturgical Languages

by Angelus A. De Marco, O.F.M.


A brief historical study of the role of liturgical languages in worship.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, August 1963

Since the Liturgy in a wider sense embraces that collection of prayers and rituals by which the Church publicly worships God and sanctifies its members, it is significant that the Fathers of the greatest Council in the Church's history should consider the role of liturgical languages in worship during the first session just concluded. No topic sparked a greater universal interest. To see this question in its true perspective we present this brief historical study without championing any cause and without speculating about subsequent courses of action by the Church.

The languages that are used by the Church in her official worship are known as liturgical languages. It can be said with certainty that no evidence can be found to establish the fact that Christ ever commanded the Apostles to use any particular language in the celebration of the Mysteries. On the contrary, scholars agree that the cult-language corresponded with the vernacular of the time.1 When Christianity made its appearance in Palestine, the people were not racially homogeneous. Depending upon locality, either Aramaic (a northwest Semitic dialect), Greek, or Latin were the spoken languages, although Hebrew had been retained for a limited usage.2 For many years the question of the languages used in the ancient Liturgy did not raise any difficulties. The Apostles and their first successors celebrated the Liturgy in the language of the faithful, that is to say, in the language they used to instruct the people. Since their preaching did not extend beyond the limits of the countries where these languages were spoken, we may conclude that the liturgical languages and the vernacular were the same.3

Primitive Christianity

Aramaic was the usual language of the Jewish nation during the time of Christ, and it is certain that the Apostles and community of early Christians celebrated the Liturgy in the national Aramaic tongue.4 However, the Apostles did not impose only Aramaic on the Christian Liturgy. They rather adopted the languages of the various places where they founded churches. There is no doubt that in the first three centuries of the primitive Church, Greek stood in the foreground. Although the Roman Empire embraced the entire civilized world. Greece had made its own conquest through tradition, culture and language.5 "The Mediterranean world did not wait for the Roman legions before making a kind of cultural commonwealth. When in the second century the two worlds met, it was Greece, not Rome, which won the victory in the cultural sphere."6

The "koine" was the common language spoken and written after the conquests of Alexander throughout the Hellenistic world. There was hardly any town of importance in the West in which the Greek tongue was not in everyday use. In Rome, North Africa, and Gaul, the use of Greek was prevalent up to the third century. It was among nations of Greek descent or those who had been Hellenized by the conquest of Alexander that Christianity was promulgated and made its first converts. Since the Christian message was destined to be universal, it was therefore proper that it be expressed in a language understood by the whole of the then civilized world. This explains why all the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, except St. Matthew's gospel; why Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans in Greek, and Mark wrote down the preaching of Peter at Rome in the Greek language. When St. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus (366-384) to revise the old Latin text of the Gospels according to the Greek, he clearly states: "Speaking of the New Testament, there is no doubt that it was written in Greek, except St. Matthew, who first wrote the Gospel of Christ in Judea in Hebrew."7 Forming a part of the early Christian Liturgy (and of private reading), it would necessarily follow that the language of the Liturgy was the language of the Scriptures.

Among the Apostolic Fathers whose writings are in Greek is Pope St. Clement of Rome (92-101). His first authentic letter addressed about the year 96 to the Church of Corinth in the name of the Roman Church gives us evidence that the liturgical language must have been Greek in Corinth, Rome and other places, since it was the custom to read this letter at public worship in all these places. Eusebius records that Dionysius of Corinth wrote to Pope Soter: "We have commemorated the Lord's holy day, in which we have read your letter, in reading which, we shall always have our minds stored with admonition, as we shall, also, from that written to us by Clement."8

The same evidence can be gathered from the Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 150), Justin (ca. 150), Hippolytus (215) 9 Even when Rome began to reach the height of its power (215) and Latin began to make its appearance, Greek still maintained an ecumenical position in the liturgy of Rome. Nor are we to overlook the evidence gathered from the epitaphs in the Roman catacombs belonging to the primitive centuries, and the countless Greek loanwords in our present-day Latin.10 So Greek—which was the cosmopolitan language even before Alexander's conquests—was to last in the Liturgy of the primitive Church until the third century.

The East

It is a recognized historical fact that the Eastern rites always and everywhere celebrated the Liturgy in the languages understood by the people.11 The liturgical use of various national languages stems from a perfectly logical principle, namely, that the Liturgy is public worship, a social and corporative act both in the etymological and true sense.12 "The history and rubrics of the Oriental Liturgy have impressed on that central act of worship the pronounced character of public worship."13Therefore, in consonance with its very nature it was celebrated in a language familiar to the people.14 Antioch and Jerusalem.15 Here as in most cities of the East, Greek was mainly used in the Liturgy during the fourth century. Where, however, the Greek culture had not completely taken root and the people remained loyal to their "barbaric" tongues, the Church celebrated the Liturgy in their vernacular. Thus in Edessa, parts of Syria and Palestine, especially in the country-districts and in monasteries, there is evidence of a Syriac Liturgy during this period. This fact is verified by the pilgrim Aetheria who describes the practice in the church of Jerusalem of employing a trained cleric (interpreter) to translate the Liturgy into the vernacular (Syriac) for the benefit of the pilgrims who did not understand Greek.16 The need for translations of the Scriptures into languages known to the people gave rise to the adoption of other vernacular tongues in the Liturgy. We can safely presume that Coptic was already in use in the third century; Syriac since the second century; Rumenian since the fourth, Georgian since the fourth-fifth centuries.17 Between the fifth and tenth centuries the Liturgies attained their definitive forms. The subsequent developments and alterations very rarely involved any substantial change. In accord with the Eastern practice, the Liturgy was celebrated in as many tongues as there were people converted to Christianity. In point of fact, such a variety of national languages existed long before the inception of the heretical churches, which placed much emphasis on local idioms. Before the twelfth century the following languages were used: Greek, Syriac, Coptic. Armenian, Georgian, Geez, Old Slavonic and Arabic. As the missionaries spread the kingdom of Christ beyond their countries, they adopted the languages of the people they evangelized. Since the last century the Liturgy has also been celebrated in Japanese, Korean, Ukrainian, Albanian, modern Russian regional dialects, English, French, Italian, German, etc. This remains the continuous and universal discipline in all the Oriental rites.

The basic principle for this recognized discipline was expressed by the famous twelfth-century canonist, Theodore Balsamon. In a series of questions submitted to him by Mark, Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, concerning the problem of Armenian and Syrian priests in Egypt who did not know Greek, whether they should be allowed to celebrate in their own language, Balsamon replied: "Is God the God of the Jews only, and not of the Gentiles also? (Rom. 3:29). Those who do not know any Greek shall celebrate in their own language provided they use correct copies of the official prayers translated from well-written Greek scrolls."18 In modern times the Holy See has been both constant and clear in acknowledging the same principle.

The West

It has already been noted that the Roman world did not escape the influence of Hellenism. The more she conquered, the more she exposed herself to Greek culture and language. We must remember, therefore, that Christianity was brought to Rome as elsewhere, by Hellenized Jews. Quite logically the vernacular—"the koine Greek" was the language of the Liturgy.19

There were, however, also Latin-speaking Christians who only had a slight acquaintance with Greek, or none at all. As their numbers increased, a Latinized-Christian community developed which before the middle of the second century held a conspicuous position in the Roman community. Since the Scriptures played a vital role in public worship and in private devotion, a Latin translation of the Sacred Books became a necessity for their understanding.20 We must therefore turn to the old Latin translations of the Scriptures in order to see the beginnings of this change of language in the Liturgy. "Many archaeological discoveries have shown, in effect, that the first attempts at a translation of the Scriptures into the diverse tongues of the Christian world, had precisely a liturgical aim."21 The appearance of these versions of the Bible was without doubt a decisive factor in the formation of the Christian Latin language. To judge from the extant manuscripts and quotations of the Fathers of the third century, these first translations must have been many and quite varied both in Rome and Africa. St. Augustine knew of many translations.22 With the progressive "Romanization" and conversion of the races of the West, the influence of the Greek culture is gradually dethroned. According to H. Lietzmann, J. Jungmann, T. Klauser, "Greek lasted up until the middle of the third century, when the Roman Christians had made Latin their popular language and readily adopted it into the Roman culture."23 During the ensuing years, the gulf between the language of the Liturgy and the language of the people widened. Nevertheless in due consideration of the many problems involved, Greek in the Liturgy ceded definitely to Latin in the fourth century because Latin was then the common language of the people. (This evolution was accomplished in the course of two centuries—from the beginning of the third to the end of the fourth century.) The transition of the liturgical language took place in Rome, and the initiative for the change is attributed to Pope Damasus. Thus do we see that the language of the people found a place in the Liturgy of the West. Latin is also the liturgical language of the Celtic, Gallican and Mozarabic rites.

Although Latin prevails in the West as a unified liturgical language, in the face of certain circumstances the Roman church has made exceptions to provide a language in the Liturgy more familiar to the people. It is in the ninth century among the Slavic nations that we find a departure from liturgical Latin in divine worship. A privilege was first granted to Sts. Cyril and Methodius, by Pope Hadrian II in 869, and again by Pope John VIII in 880 to use the vernacular in the Liturgy.24 It was in practice in the present-day territories of Czechoslovakia; afterwards it was introduced by way of legitimate custom into the regions of Croatia. In the course of the years the Holy See has been quite positive in declaring her mind not only by the decrees of the Popes, especially Urban VIII, Innocent X, Benedict XIV, Pius VI and Leo XII, but also by compiling and publishing liturgical books in Glagolithic (Old Slavonic) characters. Among the most important pontifical documents for the use of this privilege is the rescript of Pope Innocent IV granted in 1248 to Philip, Bishop of Senj.25 Today members of the Roman Rite celebrate the Liturgy in the paleo-slavic language in the Croatian diocese of Senj, Modrus, and Kirk, and in some parishes of the dioceses of Sibenik and Split (present-day Yugoslavia), and in those places where there are large numbers of the Slavic races.

Another example of the flexibility of which the Roman rite is capable is the privilege granted for the use of Chinese as a liturgical language. History records in the fourteenth century that the first Franciscan missionary to China, John of Monte Corvino, used the vernacular in the Liturgy.26 Pope Paul V, in a brief of June 27, 1615, granted the same privilege to Jesuit missionaries.27 As recently as 1949, the privilege to use the Chinese literary language in the Liturgy was granted by the Holy Office.28 When conditions return to normal in China, and when Rome finally has approved a completed Chinese-Latin missal, this decree will take effect in all parts of that country.

Still further concessions have been granted:

a) During the fourteenth century the Roman Liturgy in its Dominican variant was translated into Greek for use by the Dominican missionaries in Greece.29

b) Permission had been granted to celebrate the Dominican Liturgy in the Armenian classical language in Armenia.30

c) At the end of the sixteenth century missionaries of India of the Latin rite were allowed to celebrate Mass in Syriac.31

d) In the seventeenth century the Discalced Carmelites were granted permission to use Arabic in their mission foundation in Persia.32

e) In the seventeenth century the Theatine Clerics were granted permission to use Georgian or Armenian in their mission foundation in Georgia.33

f) In the nineteenth century the Franciscans in the Holy Land were granted permission to use Arabic.34

g) In 1958, an indult was granted India to use Hindi.35

h) Five Latin priests in the Holy Land were granted permission to use Hebrew.36

i) In 1959, the Holy See renewed Germany's privilege to use the vernacular in the Epistle and Gospel after they are recited in Latin.37

The Council Of Trent38

The work of the Council of Trent was to declare the Catholic faith and practice, with particular reference to Protestant attacks. In liturgical matters the Protestants challenged the use of Latin as a cult-language—which was rooted in theories of a dogmatic nature, which rejected the nature of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Catholic priesthood. In taking action on this linguistic question it was not so much the Protestant innovation of prescribing a vernacular Liturgy, which interested Trent, as the motive, which led them to this line of action. It is only in the light of the errors, which were then being refuted that the deliberations and decrees can be interpreted. The relevant canon and chapter are: "…If anybody says that the Mass ought not be celebrated except in the common language . . . A.S." (Sess. XXII, c. 9); "Though the Mass contains a great instruction for the faithful people, yet it did not seem expedient to the Fathers that it should be celebrated everywhere in the vulgar tongue..." (Sess. XXII, c. 8). There is neither a dogmatic justification of Latin nor a dogmatic rejection of the use of the vernacular. As far as the vernacular is concerned the Council condemns the mentality, which demands the vernacular as if the nature of the Liturgy made it necessary. The simple use of, or defense of the vernacular or any other language than Latin is not condemned. In establishing reasons why the Church has carefully preserved the Latin language as her liturgical language in the West, Trent did not say that the vernacular is intrinsically evil in itself, nor that its use in the Mass and Sacraments is an impossibility. On the contrary, in clarifying the issue, the Council has left to the Church a criterion for future action, should it ever be necessary to change existing rites and language.

Present-Day Situation

To encourage a greater active participation of the faithful in the Liturgy the Holy See has undertaken a number of reforms in recent years—with reference to language—indicating that in abandoning the exclusive use of Latin, "the human components (in the Liturgy) admit of various modifications, as the needs of the age, circumstances, and the good of souls may require, and as the ecclesiastical Hierarchy, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may have authorized."39 The pontificate of Pius XII saw the most extensive orientation in this matter. While Latin will continue to hold its revered place in the Liturgy, at the same time, there has been granted to countries of Europe and America the partial use of the vernacular in the administration of the Sacraments, and in the Restored Ordo of Holy Week.

The one tangible achievement of the first session of Vatican Council II was the unanimous approval of the first chapter on renewal and promotion of worship. In this framework the Council most emphatically acknowledged the didactic nature of the Mass. This leaves little doubt as to its concrete application in regard to the use of language. The Bishops have agreed that while the Latin language shall be preserved in the Latin rites, the use of the vernacular, whether in Mass or in the Sacraments, or in other parts of the Liturgy, can be very helpful to the people, especially in lessons, admonitions, some prayers and chants. In accordance with the norms (Constitution on the Liturgy) it pertains to the competent territorial authority of the Church to decree the use and mode of the vernacular language. Quite clearly the Council recognized the supremacy of Latin in the Roman rite and other non-Oriental rites. Yet, at the same time it confirms all the local and regional exceptions and concessions, and sanctions further use of the vernacular in other parts of the Mass.

Angelus A. De Marco, O.F.M.

Holy Name College

Washington, D.C.


1 A. De Marco, O.F.M., Rome and the Vernacular (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1960), p. 3.

2 J. McKenzie, "The Jewish World in New Testament Times," Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (London: T. Nelson, 1953), 548, 8.

3 J. Hofinger, Worship, the Life of the Missions (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame Press, 1958), p. 5.

4 J. Hanssens, "Lingua Liturgica," EC, VII (1951), 1379.

5 A. De Marco, op. cit., p. 5.

6 P. Poulain, "The Language of the Mediterranean World," in Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Vol. 116 (New York, N.Y.: Hawthorn, 1960), 75.

7 Prefatio Hieronymi in Quatuor Evangelia (MPL, XXIX, 559).

8 Hist. Eccles., IV, 23, 11 (ed. Schwartz, GCS II, 1, 378; cf. ibid., III, 16, 230).

9 A. De Marco, op. cit., pp. 7-10.

10 Ibid., pp. 10-11.

11 H. Schmidt, De liturgische toal der Oosterse Ritus (Belgium, 1948).

12 Pius XII, Mediator Dei, AAS, 39 (1947), 528-529.

13 F. J. McGarrigle, The Eastern Branches of the Tree of Life (New York, N.Y.: Longmans, Green & Co., 1938), p. 14.

14 D. Attwater, The Catholic Eastern Churches (New York, N.Y.: Bruce, 1937), pp. 34 ff.

15 For a history of the growth of the many usages in the Oriental rites (which is outside the scope of this paper) see the general bibliography of J. M. Sauget, Bibliographie des liturgies Orientales (1900-1960), (Rome: Pont. Instit. Orientalium Studiorum, 1962).

16 Peregrinatio Aetheriae (380), 47, 3 (ed. Geyer, CSEL 39, 99).

17 A. Robert & A. Tricot, Guide to the Bible, I (Paris, Tournai, New York: Desclee, 1960), pp. 607, 611, 633, 613, 636, 637.

18 (MPG, CXXXVIII, 957).

19 A. De Marco, op. cit., pp. 3 ff.

20 A. Robert & A. Tricot, op. cit., I, p. 404.

21 J. B. Thibaut, La Liturgie Romaine (Paris, 1924), p. 81.

22 De Doctrina Christiana, 2, 11, 16 (MPL, XXXIV, 43); St. Jerome, Praef. in Quatuor Evangelium (PL XXIX, 558).

23 A. De Marco, op. cit., pp. 15-16.


24 Ibid., pp. 35 ff.

25 Raynaldus, Annales Ecclesiastici ad an. 1248, XXI, 410-411.

26 L. Wadding, Annales Minorum ad an. 1305, VI (Quaracchi, 1931), p. 80.

27 Collectanea S. Congregationis de Propaganda Fide, 1 (Rome, 1907), 70, n. 1.

28 Ultime Foglie, Ricordi e Pensieri Unione Missionaria Del Clero in Italia (Rome, 1953), pp. 376-380.

29 Bullarium Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum, II (1281-1430), (Rome, 1730), p. 370.

30 Bullarium Pontif. S. C. de Prop. Fide III, 388 (1840). There is reference here to a letter of Pope Benedict XIV to the Secretary of the Propaganda, Nicholas Lercari, dated Dec. 29, 1755, in which he forbids the Armenians to say three Masses on Christmas as the Dominicans do, simply because the Dominican missal was translated into the Armenian language.

31 J. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, XXXV (ed. J. Mansi, J. Martin-L. Petit, Paris-Leipzig, 1902), 1051, 14.

32 Acta SC de Prop. Fide (1622-1625), III, 99; Coll. Lacensis II, 501-502.

33 Acta SC de Prop. Fide (1630-1631), VII, 54-55; Coll. Lacensis II, 502.

34 Acta SC de Prop. Fide (1824), CLXXXVII, 145.

35 S. Congreg. Prop. de Fide (Prot. n. 4795 / 57), Periodica XLVIII, 1 (Rome, 1959), 102-103.

36 NCWC News Service Foreign, Washington, D.C., Nov. 17, 1958.

37 SC Sancti Officii, (Feb. 11, 1959), Prot. n. 592 / 58, Periodica, XLVIII, 2 (Rome, 1959), 195-196; cf. also 199-200.

38 For a complete coverage of these interesting discussions at Trent see A. De Marco, op. cit., pp. 93-140.

39 Pius XII, Mediator Dei, AAS, XXXIX (1947), 541 f.

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