For years and years, especially throughout the 20th Century, one unwritten qualification for any prospective Bishop of Rome is that he be a polyglot. With Francis, the College of Cardinals obviously broke the rule. Proficient only in Italian and Spanish, and to a far lesser extent in Latin and Portuguese, he simply lacks the ability to speak immediately to ever greater portions of Christ’s flock as had Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Paul VI, and Pius XII. The development of the world over the last 70 years created an ever more pressing need for the Popes to be international men who can speak with clarity to a Church ever more universal.
Languages, as culturally- and historically-conditioned modes of communication expressed through their proper grammatical structures, carry within each of them a unique way not only of speaking but also of thinking. The diversity of languages is thus first and foremost a problem to be affronted. Of course, there is beauty in diversity, but we can appreciate that diversity if and only if the problem of linguistic barriers has been overcome through learning other languages.
This is the basic truth behind the story of Babel, and later, of the story of Pentecost. In the Old Testament, the pride of man compelled the Lord to break man’s conceited project by creating the languages and thus dividing the peoples through unintelligibility. Pentecost, the reversal of Babel’s arrogance, does the opposite. The Lord begins to gather the world to himself by turning his uneducated Aramaic-speaking followers into polyglots. By sharing the tongues of the various peoples, the Apostles can effectively work toward the reditus of the dispersed nations back to God.
Three generations ago, Roman Catholics from every country could travel to another Roman Catholic parish on the other side of the world and had the ability to participate at Mass in the exactly manner as if they never left home. The homily– due to that problem of linguistic diversity– was perhaps the only exception. A priest in Sydney, Australia would intone Gloria in excelsis Deo or Credo in unum Deum just as the Pope in Rome, and the choir or the faithful could follow with the exact same melody and the exact same words in both places. Today, the situation is changed. While the introduction of the vernacular in the liturgy has certainly allowed a more immediate comprehension of the liturgical texts, it has a double effect of insulating particular churches from the Universal Church. In the wake of modern globalization, when travel between (for example) Krakow and Rome has become more or less a trivial exercise, more and more do we find many a Polish pilgirm in the Eternal City standing silently when the Pope gives the invitation: sursum corda.
Let us return to the Pope, who recently returned from an Apostolic Visit to Korea, making several public appearances, including public Masses. Francis, whose speaks neither the local language (Korean) nor the de facto language of modern international culture (English), saw firsthand the problem of linguistic diversity. He was constrained to read his speeches and homilies piecemeal (in Italian), stopping after every paragraph to allow for a Korean translation.
This situation, this linguistic status quo in the Catholic Church, had absolutely no part in St. John XXIII’s vision when he convoked the Second Vatican Council. We need only to recall Papa Roncalli’s great Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia on the study and promotion of the Latin language. Promulgated on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, it was the last major piece of legislation promulgated by Pope John before the Council.
Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all. Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin’s formal structure. Its concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression.
Suae enim sponte naturae lingua Latina ad provehendum apud populos quoslibet omnem humanitatis cultum est peraccommodata: cum invidiam non commoveat, singulis gentibus se aequabilem praestet, nullius partibus faveat, omnibus postremo sit grata et amica. Neque hoc neglegatur oportet, in sermone Latino nobilem inesse conformationem et proprietatem; siquidem loquendi genus pressum, locuples, numerosum, maiestatis plenum et dignitatis habet, quod unice et perspicuitati conducit et gravitati.
The Church’s language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings. But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use…
Neque solum universalis, sed etiam immutabilis lingua ab Ecclesia adhibita sit oportet. Si enim catholicae Ecclesiae veritates traderentur vel nonnullis vel multis ex mutabilibus linguis recentioribus, quarum nulla ceteris auctoritate praestaret, sane ex eo consequeretur, ut hinc earum vis neque satis significanter neque satis dilucide, qua varietate eae sunt, omnibus pateret; ut illinc nulla communis stabilisque norma haberetur, ad quam ceterarum sensus esset expendendus. Re quidem ipsa, lingua Latina, iamdiu adversus varietates tuta, quas cotidiana populi consuetudo in vocabulorum notionem inducere solet, fixa quidem censenda est et immobilis…
Of course, Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium expressly mandated the retention of Latin as a liturgical language. While allowing for limited use of the vernacular in some– not all– parts of the Mass (paragraphs 36 and 54), the Council clearly stipulates at the end of paragraph 54: “Be it provided that the Christian faithful should be able to likewise say or sing in the Latin language those parts of the Ordinary of Mass which pertain to them” (Provideatur tamen ut christifideles etiam lingua latina partes Ordinarii Missae quae ad ipsos spectant possint simul dicere vel cantare).
Back to the Pope’s Masses in Korea: with the exception of the homily, every word said by Francis was, in fact, in Latin! Both the Ordinary (penitential rite, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Orate fratres) and Propers (collect, super oblata, preface, etc.) were either intoned or prayed by the Pope in Latin. It recalls so many World Youth Days under John Paul II and Benedict XVI (and even the recent WYD in Rio) in which the central parts of Mass were always in Latin. In such situations– large Papal Masses and international gatherings– the use of a single universal language which favors no one culture or nation is a most sensible option.
This is all in addition to the fact that the cultural, theological, and liturgical heritage of the Church is almost entirely linked to the Latin language. The de facto loss of Latin in much of the modern Church means a loss of that heritage. When the Supreme Pontiff, celebrating the highest act of worship, uses the same words and language of so many centuries of saints, all the faithful who participate are brought even deeper into the mystery therein expressed. The unity and universality of the Church find a particularly high expression when, una voce dicentes, people of all nations can join together in the liturgy.