Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sacred Language and the Sacred Liturgy

We have a new (and better) translation of the liturgy coming soon.  The current English translation of the mass became available in 1970.  Vatican II permitted it to be used in whole or in part during the mass.  The de facto transition from its being being an option to its being a mandate occurred with dizzying rapidity.

Christine Mohrmann gave the Dougherty lectures at Catholic U. in 1957 on the development of Liturgical Latin and its relationship to Early Christian Latin.  What she, a renowned expert on the subject, had to say is extremely interesting in light of Rome's current guidelines on translation (Liturgiam Authenticam) and the recent "translation wars."

I transcribed two quotations from hose lectures.  Please note that one popular, but simplistic, misconception about the transition of the Roman liturgy from Greek to Latin is that this was a attempt to put the liturgy into the ordinary language of the people.  Far from it!

Dr. Mohrmann writes, "Latin used in the liturgy displays a sacral style.  The basis and starting point of Liturgical Latin is the Early Christian idiom, which, however, through the use of features of style drawn form the Early Roman sacral tradition mingled with biblical stylistic elements, has taken on a strongly hieratic character, widely removed from the Christian colloquial language."

"The earliest liturgical Latin is a strongly stylized, more or less artificial language, of which many elements–for instance the Orations–were not easily understood even by the average Christian of the fifth century or later."

Apparently, in the late 1950s, there was already a strong movement in liturgical circles to put the liturgy into the vernacular.  Not only is Mohrmann aware of this tendency, but she is quite clear that least common denominator language of the street does not reflect the tradition of the early church.  Indeed, she tells us, "The advocates of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy who maintain that even in Christian Antiquity the current speech of everyday life, 'the Latin of the common man,' was employed, are far off the mark."

The quotations are from Chrstine Morhmann, Liturgical Latin Its Origins and Character: Three Lectures (Catholic University Press: Washington, D.C.: 1957.)